Why ‘BvS’ is the DCEU’s Best Film to Date
I can hear the scoffing as I type this. I can hear the Wonder Woman fans groaning even now. I can sense the disbelief of many movie critics as they read the subtitle of this post. Someplace, somewhere, the guys who put Batman v Superman (BvS) at #50 of their top fifty superhero movies list are laughing hysterically. Well, let the scoffers scoff. In spite of their protests, they are still mistaken. BvS is the best thing the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) has produced to date, and one of the better superhero movies out there.
“Okay,” some may ask, “why does it matter? To each his own, right?” Of course. But I felt motivated to write for two reasons: 1) I felt the movie deserved a solid, thoughtful defense, and 2) even if I can’t change your mind by the end of this post, I hope I can persuade you to at least give the movie a second look. So here goes.
Why the Poor Reception?
Before I explain my reasoning, let me offer some suggestions (possibilities) as to why many disliked, or at least felt blasé about this film. I believe there were two general reasons:
First, I think BvS had to fight against a number of preconceptions. Understandably, some walked into the theater hoping to see what they understood to be the ‘canonical’ Superman or the ‘classic’ Batman. Whether comic books or one of the Christophers (Reeve or Nolan) influenced those conceptions, the problem is the same. Many viewers had a hard time letting this story stand on its own. Many were apparently unwilling to entertain a different vision, that is, to meet these characters at a different place on their journeys, a decidedly darker place.
Second, I completely accept that BvS had some pacing and coherency issues. The Nairomi, Africa frame-up, the awkwardly placed meta-human videos, the timing of Superman catching Lois as she falls from LexCorp tower, Lois somehow knowing she needed to retrieve the Kryptonite spear, all of these (and several others parts) were problematic. While many of these issues were helped by the extended Blu-ray edition of the film (showing them to be (in general) editing/time constraint issues, rather than writing issues), difficulties remain. And yet, as I will argue, I believe the merits of the film far outweigh these issues.
Why Give It Another Chance?
So why is Batman v Superman worth a second look? Let me give you four main reasons:
Sights and Sounds. In addition to costumes and production design (a beautiful combination of clean and classic, of gritty and slick), Zach Snyder has an eye for the epically beautiful. The way he frames the death of the Wayne parents, Superman rising from the crowd of Day of the Dead celebrants, the rubble-strewn, but light-pierced battleground of a Depression-era building, the Man of Steel hovering, backlit over raging floodwaters, the remains of Wayne Manor in the tall grass or mist off the lake of Bruce’s shoreline home, all of these (and many more) are arresting visuals that enhance the weightiness of the story.
In precisely the same way, the score by Hans Zimmer adds just the right emotional import to each scene and character: a shadow of the ominous for Batman, a heroic and contemplative theme for Superman, Wonder Woman’s drum-heavy, driving rock motif, and the jagged, frenetic strings and choral elements that frame Lex Luthor. Aside from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, few superhero films can compare with this masterful combination of sights and sounds.
Bam! Pow! Kaboom! The promise of the film’s title does not disappoint: Superman and Batman really do ‘throw it down’…and lots of things get smashed. While some scratch their heads about the fairness of this match-up, comic book fans understand that what Superman brings in brawn, Batman brings in brains. Bruce Wayne does not punish himself with grueling workouts or construct mechanized armor because he believes he can overpower Superman. He does so in exchange for that precious moment, those few critical seconds he will need to position ‘Supes’ in his Kryptonite-laden trap. Once weakened, the Batman pummels the Man of Steel both physically and psychologically.
But in addition to this showdown, viewers are given even more in terms of dynamic and well-choreographed action scenes: Bruce Wayne navigating through a crumbling Metropolis as Kryptonians battle above, the Batmobile wreaking havoc in pursuit of Luthor’s men, Batman wreaking havoc to save Martha Kent, and of course, an epic battle pitting the Justice League’s ‘Holy Trinity’ against Lex’s monstrous creation (aka Doomsday).
Powerful, Powerless. While the women in this film are strong and important to the story, the movie is really about three men and their relationships to power.
Superman: Powerful, But Searching. As the collateral damage from some of Superman’s heroic actions inspires questions, and even hostility, Clark begins to ask his own questions, questions like, “Why am I being treated suspiciously when I just saved the day?” For the Kansas farm boy, no one seems to care about the priority of doing what is right (not even Perry White cares about those suffering in Gotham under the shadow of a “bat vigilante”). All this forces Clark to face an even more personal and fundamental question: “Why am I Superman?” As he stands physically unscathed in the firestorm of the Capitol Hill bombing, his heart burns with this question. As he tells Lois, “I’m afraid I didn’t see [the bomb] because I wasn’t looking for it.” As a stranger from a long-dead world, he begins to think he has no place in this world, and that Superman was simply his dad’s desire and design; “a dream of a farmer”. He is so powerful, but at the same time, so unsure. His inner wrestling finally drives him to the wilderness, specifically to the snowy mountains of a distant continent.
Batman: Powerless, But Courageous. BvS makes it abundantly clear this is not your father’s Batman. Twenty years into his fight against Gotham’s goons, Bruce Wayne is growing tired and cynical. Robin’s costume, spray painted by his murderer (the Joker), haunts the Batcave. Bruce quips that criminals are “like weeds…pull one up, another grows in its place”. Allies are gone or have turned away from the light. Like Clark, Bruce feels lost. He is plagued by dreams about the death of his parents, about his powerlessness to save them, and about “the beautiful lie” of the Batman; that it could somehow set things right. Alfred struggles vainly to help as the Dark Knight gropes in a darkness of doubt. And to complicate matters, as Superman and Zod battle over and into the city, the Wayne building in Metropolis comes crashing down, with many of Bruce’s friends inside. His feelings of powerlessness intensify. Eighteen months later, in the midst of growing public concerns about Superman, Bruce finds a focus for his frustrations. Superman must be to blame. He is too powerful to be trusted. He has endangered our world. Gotham will not be Bruce’s “legacy”. It will be killing Superman. And no one (not Alfred, not Gotham’s worst scumbags) will stop him from getting his hands on the Kryptonite needed to make that happen. Alfred sees his descent and warns him: “That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men…cruel.”
Luthor: Powerless and Fearful. Alexander “Lex” Luthor grew up in the shadow of his successful father, founder of the Luthor’s business empire. As he tells Senator Finch, his father (who was raised behind the Iron Curtain) taught him well about the danger of despots. For the younger Lex, the idea that “power can be innocent” is a lie. He later tells Superman that those who possess great power, cannot be all good, a lesson he learned well through his father’s fists. But these beliefs don’t dissuade Luthor from craving control, if only to keep himself safe. His business dealings and scientific endeavors have made him feel powerful. But in flies Superman and everything changes. Lex feels the Kryptonian’s very existence is a threat to his position, and maybe his grip on reality. His discoveries about Kryptonite, combined with his deep-seated fears, begin to forge a plan; an intricately layered plan, with many redundancies*. Like a puppeteer working behind the scenes, Lex pulls the strings to force a confrontation between the two heroes. Having discovered Superman and Batman’s secret identities, he plays on their insecurities and exploits their weaknesses. And when Superman is finally on his knees at Luthor’s feet, the ‘puppeteer’ rejoices, “And now God bends to my will.”
Light in the Darkness. But in the midst of this moral darkness, in the face of the heroes’ uncertainties and doubts, daylight finally breaks. Up in those distant mountains, a door opens in Clark’s mind and he remembers a story his father told him (visualized as a conversation with his dad), a story about saving the day, but also about the painful, unintended consequences that sometimes accompany heroism. But for Jonathan Kent, making peace with those consequences was only possible through the love of his wife. Finally, Kal-El, the man without a world, understands his place. Things suddenly come into focus. Lois has been and is his world. Consequently, her world will be his. And as long as she is in this world**, he will lay down his life for the world, if need be. And that is precisely what he does in order to kill Lex’s ‘doomsday’ monstrosity. In the end, not surprisingly, Superman’s redemptive story arc is resolved with Christ-reminiscent imagery (e.g. lowering his body, his cape wrapped like a shroud; the Pieta-inspired positioning of Lois with Superman in her arms; three ‘crosses’ in the background as Batman and Wonder Woman look on; rising dirt on his coffin, foreshadowing resurrection).
But Superman is not the only hero to find redemption in this film. At the end of their duel, as Batman presses his mechanized boot against the neck of the Kryptonite-weakened Superman, Bruce is stunned to hear his own mother’s name (“Martha”) issue from the lips of his ‘enemy’. He is paralyzed and confused. With fleeting breath, Clark pleads for his mother’s life, knowing that Lex’s men will kill her if something isn’t done. But when Bruce hears “Save Martha”, it cuts deep into his feelings of powerlessness. Confusion turns to anger. Fortunately, Lois Lane arrives and explains that “Martha” is Clark’s mother***. This revelation breaks the back of Bruce’s anger in three ways: 1) like Bruce, this Kryptonian has a human mother, a mother also named “Martha”, 2) with his dying breath, this so-called alien ‘threat’ is pleading, not for his own life, but for his mother’s, and 3) in Clark’s plea, Bruce finally sees an opportunity to save a mother’s life, even if it isn’t his own. As a refocused Bruce exclaims, “I’ll make you a promise. Martha won’t die tonight.”. And Batman keeps that promise. In the end, as the dust settles and Superman’s lifeless body lay in Lois’s arms, Bruce realizes how wrong he was about the fallen hero. He was no threat to our world. In fact, he gave his life to save it. The Batman finds, once again, a flame of hope beginning to burn in the midst of his cynicism and despair.
In the End
Supported by the stirring visuals and an effective musical score, it is this emotional journey, these redemptive arcs, that set Batman v Superman apart from other DCEU films. In fact, most superhero films have not even attempted to capture this kind of psychological complexity, and those that have tried, have done so with mixed results. In the same way, the writers of BvS (Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer) should be commended for their distinct attempt to bring these comic book characters into our world, into the everyday muck and mire of human existence. I’m discouraged that many viewers struggled with these versions of Superman and Batman, since these are the very trials and seasons that forge and renew real heroes. Yes, the movie was painted with a dark and muted palette. But after darkness comes the dawn.
In the end, some may ask if the film’s ambitions and complexity were also its downfall in the eyes of some critics. Having read this post, some may conclude, “Well, no one is going to get all that after watching the film once.” And that may be true, especially considering the aforementioned editing choices and coherence issues. But I’ve written, not because I feel the film’s creators hit the target dead on, but because they were aiming so high and made such an excellent attempt. Depth is not a bad thing. Sometimes having to go back and watch a film again, to find pieces you missed, to see the mosaic more clearly, is a rewarding process. If this post has inspired you to do just that with Batman v Superman, to at least give it one more look, then I’ve accomplished my mission.
* The puppet-mastery of Luthor is made even clearer on the extended Blu-ray “Ultimate Edition” of the film. Sadly, it is the omission of these scenes that accounts for many of the coherence issues in the theatrical cut. But nevertheless, there is enough in the theatrical release to see how the pieces fit together. For those interested, here is how the plan worked: Lex and his goons frame Superman for the incident in Nairomi, he fans the flames of public opinion (still warm in light of the disaster/devastation in Metropolis), he takes advantage of an injured, former Wayne Enterprises employee, and using that employee’s wheelchair to hide a bomb, he blows up part of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (killing many who had previously threatened Lex’s plan and adding to Superman’s train of collateral damage). On top of this, he will attempt to develop a Kryptonite weapon under the guise of ‘a deterrent’. And if he can’t develop that weapon, he will bait Batman to do it for him. But the plan goes even deeper. Having learned the true identities of both Superman and Batman, he begins to ‘stir the pot’. He makes sure both are present at his library benefit (“Boys! Mmm, Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent. Ah, I love it! I love bringing people together!…Ow! Wow! That is a good grip! You should not pick a fight with this person!”). He allows Bruce to steal secret files from his server. He goes on to have bat-branded prisoners killed in Gotham jails, and sends photos to the justice-minded Clark Kent, in attempt to push the reporter over the edge so that Superman will intervene. In the same way, Lex intercepts disability checks from Wayne Enterprises to the injured employee (Wally), then anonymously returns the checks, along with newspaper clippings of the Wayne Tower disaster in Metropolis. On all this material, we see scrawled accusations of how Bruce (his corporate rival) “failed his family”. His design to goad the Batman is successful. And if these layers were not enough, he finally kidnaps Lois and Martha Kent in order to drive Clark/Superman into a duel with the Kryptonite-armed Bruce Wayne/Batman. And should all this fail, he has one last card up his sleeve: a genetic abomination, a human/Kryptonian hybrid, a ‘doomsday’ monster to destroy Superman, should Batman fail.
** Bruce’s third ‘dream’ of a hellish, apocalyptic landscape is most likely a vision of a future world in which Lois Lane is dead. Her death helps produce the angry, cruel Superman that Batman encounters while shackled. This is why the Flash travels back in time to warn Bruce about Superman and that Lois is the “key”.
*** While some found this “Martha” moment to be contrived and anti-climactic, I thought it was a brilliant bit of writing, utilizing a wonderful comic book coincidence. Yes, the exact wording could have been adjusted (and the previous scene with Lex could have laid the groundwork a bit more), but in light of Batman’s character arc (beginning with his dying father’s last word), and Martha Kent’s role in this film and in Man of Steel, it was an ingenious way to bring the heroes together.
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