Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

DCEU goes Elseworlds before first establishing a world, because “credibility”.

I finally figured out the reason why this is a bad comic book movie specifically (I won’t waste time adding to the ample commentary out there about why it’s just a bad movie in general, most of which I agree with and would just be repeating).

Part of the problem stems from Hollywood’s habit of hiring non-comic lovers to “adapt” comic properties, which makes inevitable a lack of understanding or loving treatment of the material.

But more specifically, the biggest comic book problem with BvS is this: as a comic lover, you want the character traits to remain consistent, and the stories to be new. New issues, new incarnations, need to build on the decades of history that came before them – or, if they’re new stories to retcon or take left turns on canon established in older stories, those new twists should figure into the storytelling.

Something dear to our hearts is in the hands of someone who probably loves it, but who doesn’t really understand it. (Or cinema that isn’t purely about spectacle. Or storytelling in general.)

BvS does the opposite: it twists established character conventions (Batman never using guns or killing; Superman being a cheery boy scout), but recycles beats and imagery from old stories (which, without their story or character context, are now rendered meaningless). For example: when Batman busts out guns and brands his villains, you’ve introduced two new things into potential canon, or at least you’ve taken a left turn with canon. So then the story should address that – in other words: it’s a reason for a new story. You’ve signalled that, in order to tell this new story, these decades-old tropes upon which our love of the character (and, in turn, our interest in any story you have to tell) is based, must be revised. You’re asking us to trust that yr story will take us somewhere surprising and rewarding. When the story doesn’t then address the guns or the branding, we’re left hanging: “Is this even Batman?” But then finally you taunt us with imagery which is dear to our hearts, but which ultimately one need only be a comic store window-shopper to have encountered (specifically, of course: The Dark Knight Returns). Something dear to our hearts is in the hands of someone who probably loves it, but who doesn’t really understand it. (Or cinema that isn’t purely about spectacle. Or storytelling in general.)

Zack Snyder is a thug director (I viewed Watchmen through my head-cradling fingers, and psychologically blanked out Sucker Punch). He’s since gone on record saying he found the picture of two costumed characters having serious dialogue on screen as lacking “credibility” – so what the hell was he doing directing this? But ultimately, as disappointing a movie as this is, Zack Snyder making a bad movie shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who’d seen anything else he’d done. The way his movie turned out didn’t surprise me (although it is the worst possible version of what I’d imagined he would do). But it took me a bit longer to realise just how upside-down his approach to this really was.

Here’s the telling audio excerpt from the longer Empire Podcast episode:

While my personal beef with BvS is focused more on Snyder & co vs comic book movies, MovieBob goes broader: while he believes Snyder is a good director (his reading of Sucker Punch is, I feel extraordinarily generous), he brands BvS (accurately, I feel) “cultural vandalism”, arguing that

taking a concept that was designed to inspire hope and optimism for an audience predominantly of children and reworking it into a grim, mindlessly violent spectacle of hopeless nihilism… is totally of a kind with mocking public figures, caricaturing politicians, submerging religious symbols in urine, burning a national flag…

But, he goes on to argue: cultural vandalism is not inherently bad – that is, if it has something to say beyond “look at me!”:

if you’re gonna break all the toys in the toy box, I feel like you should at least have a coherent reason to do so. Creative demolition is a thing, but it generally requires a purpose.

If you have an hour (or two, or three) to spare, MovieBob’s passionate, remarkably rigorous postmortem of BvS is worth a view (and worth its own entry, and not just as a post-script to my own review). His video essay trilogy articulates many other ideas I either felt myself, or found pretty compelling – and its third instalment even concludes with a solid pitch for a version of this movie that might have worked.