[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]
As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*
Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said. It’s been a few weeks since its release. The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided. At this point the film can be judged on its merits…
And it’s a train wreck. People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe. Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work. If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.
Not intentionally, of course.
There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.
‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.
The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:
It’s an exploding jar of human pee.
If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected. But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing. They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.
Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points. Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations. No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency. Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half. The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics. The editing was disjointed. The dialogue stale. The pacing baffling. Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film. And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.
And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape. Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway? Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine? Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman? Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film? Literally. Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture? Does she not realise how computers work? Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside? He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost. Does this universe have ghosts now? And ‘Save Martha’?! On and on and on and on and on… Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.
Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend. Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait. The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear. Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out. But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition. The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in. Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.
But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold. Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…
IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi. We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman. Thanks. Can you please just save us from drowning now?’
About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties. I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie. And I mean that literally. There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved. Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain. Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.
Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs. Here Batman kills and uses guns. Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:
‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason. My parents taught me a different lesson. Dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’
This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old. What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome? What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?! Geez!
In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag. You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.
At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.
To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:
“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”
He thought it would be fun. You know – like a psychopath.
And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.** Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility. The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories. To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason. His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie. It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism. He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more. (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)
Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most. What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them. On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother. Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot. And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.
His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise. Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character. Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face. Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery. The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool. And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return. They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite. Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’. And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.
IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’
Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off. Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever). Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.
The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline. It’s not that beloved, but it is famous. It’s iconic. More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold. Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas. It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)
And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming. Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases? Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause? He even gives them logos! Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.
Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe. While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level. Narratively. Thematically. It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape. In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.
By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’. Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is. They are his source material, he claims. His bible. He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work. But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.
Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns. But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong. The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again. His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker. That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’. Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest). He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself. In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy. Of cowards. We don’t use these. That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.
IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.
Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster. It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting. The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.
It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic. For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film. His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters). But that’s not adaptation. At the very best it is translation. In another context it would be plagiarism. It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity. What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths. He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.
And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made. It hates its characters. It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.
Most of all it hates you. The audience. The viewer. Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey. It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid. It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***. It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel. It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish. Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics. Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon. Superman is a self-loathing blank slate. Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.
IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?
And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind. Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core. Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:
I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.
That’s right. Michael goddamn Bay.
You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true. Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me. As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too. Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.
I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film? In the history of narrative? Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough? I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.
It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle. I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics. They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.
And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay. I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder. I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.
Because then, at least, you get your spectacle. Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions. But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.
Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope. It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’. It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure. (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )
Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit. In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision. You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.
So thanks for that Warner Bros. You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.
I need a shower.
IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie
But this brought me to my final realisation. It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die …and felt nothing. I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman. I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt. I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read. I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.
And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character. It got me thinking. About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth. I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting? The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia? Martha indeed. Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to. No aspiration. No joy. No subtext.
Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters. He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning. And now that Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance. Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from. And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly. Their films die near immediately at the box office. They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind. Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.
And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful. Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity. And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.
To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile. Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film. Because that smile implies joy. It implies hope. Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.
And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.
And the signals are there that this could already be happening. The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.
But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration. Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.
And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.
IMAGE: So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing
* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.
** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.
*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.
**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.