The Least Essential Superhero Fight

DCEU 2: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I think it's fair to say that the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. got off to a rough start. It's fair to say that Man of Steel was a divisive movie; some fans really hate the film while others love its depiction of Kal-El/Clark/Superman. I know I waver back and forth between really enjoying it and truly hating some of the details about that movie.

Honestly, I have the same thoughts about it's direct sequel, 2016's Batman v Supeprman: Dawn of Justice (and not just because it irritatingly ignores decades of comics putting Superman first in the Superman / Batman pairing). I sat down recently to re-watch the film, this time in it's "Ultimate Edition" (which adds an, at times, excruciating extra half-hour of content to the film), and during the sessions there were times where I really enjoyed the movie and times where I found the whole ordeal to be an absolutely painful endeavor. Honestly, it's a mazing to me that the DCEU was able to survive this one-two punch of films.

The big problem with the film, from the outset, is that there's probably three-plus film's worth of story crammed into this one movie. Even at over three hours for the Ultimate Edition, the film just doesn't have to time to coherently explore all the plot lines going on. The reason for this is because DC / Warner Bros. really wanted to have a Supeprman / Batman battle royale for the next film in the DCEU, and damn the consequences. Instead of growing the franchise organically with a few individual movies for Supes and Bats, the series dived into this crossover film which requires a lot of setup within the movie just to make it work.

The character that suffers the most from this is Batman. Although some fans have decried Ben Affleck's performance as Bruce Wayne / Batman, I think he did a great job with the role he was given. He's affable at times, but always carrying around that dark, inner bat that you can see just behind his eyes. The Batman was see here is setup as a man on the edge. He's witnessed the destruction the Kryptonians wrought and (paired with the fact that his partner, Robin, is dead, as hinted in a brief shot in the Batcave), this Batman has nothing to lose. He goes dark, starts brutally inflicting justice on the streets, and becomes an absolute menace to Gotham. We understand this because people tells us how bad Batman has gotten (Clark spends some time researching the Bat for a story, for example), but that's not the same as slowly witnessing his descent into thee depths.

What Batman really needed was a film (maybe even more than one) preceding this movie. We need a film to establish the DCEU version of the character. Let us see him protecting Gotham, witness through his eyes the brutal death of Robin at the hands of the Joker, and then see his slide into madness. To fit into the time line of the DCEU, this proposed Batman film would have had to be a prequel, set before the events of Man of Steel. That would have been fine, though -- it didn't have to directly tie in immediately -- but there could have been a tag ending to that film that could have been the opening shot of Batman v Superman where Bruce witnesses the destruction and runs to help, only to realize by the end of it the Kryptonians are dangerous. That could have setup this movie better without Batman feeling like an afterthought.

If we shunt most of Batman setup out of the way, that doesn't completely solve this movie, though. The next thing we have to so is fix Superman. I like Superman's story in this movie (when the movie actually settles down and focuses on him) -- I appreciate the fact that the movie acknowledges that, hey, Superman caused a lot of carnage in Man of Steel. To answer for that, Batman v Superman focuses his story on the questions of if she should be held accountable. Should have have to answer to someone, like the US government or the UN, or is he a god, answerable to no one? If the movie could have focused on just that, and given Superman a villain that actually illustrated this point in a proper light. You know, like Lex Luthor.

Let's be clear: the Lex Luthor we have in Batman v Superman is a total joke. He's not Lex, just some version of Jesse Eisenberg's Social Network character. Hell, it's honestly just a version of every character he's ever played, which makes me wonder why he was cast for this role. Lex is supposed to be a stoic, uncaring, calculating, mortal man with fiscal power instead of physical abilities. He's supposed to be a contrast to Superman, an exact opposite of everything Superman can stand for. The two should always play at a duel, one where Lex is able to sometimes best Superman because he thinks eight steps ahead at all times. That's the villain who should have stood opposite Superman as the Kryptonian grappled with issues about who he is and if he can be trusted.

If the movie could have given us that, and then used whatever version of Lex we got in Batman v Superman -- a character I think of as Alexander Luthor, Jr. after the son of Lex from the comics, since at least my head-canon can accept that character in this role -- for a follow up to this proposed Man of Steel 2, that could have really worked. I find Eisenberg's character obnoxious, a collection of nervous ticks and half-formed thoughts. He's not an equal to Superman no matter how much the movie wants us to believe he is. He's an idiot, easily bested when one of his plans goes off the rails. He doesn't think eight steps ahead, with contingencies on top of contingencies -- this guy is luck if he thinks at all. He's not Lex, but maybe in the right context, one where he's motivated at getting revenge against Superman for his father, this character could somehow work. Maybe.

At this point what we then have a proposed streamlining of this one movie into three separate films: The Batman, Man of Steel 2, and then a final film taking what's left over. Let's call this one Dawn of Justice. Maybe this film features the big Batman v Superman cage match, but I honestly think we're better off ditching that entirely. Either we save that for a second Batman movie that comes before Dawn of Justice or we just ditch it because, honestly, after Lex this is the worst part of the final film. The fight between the two heroes is so forced -- if they would have spent even five seconds talking, it all could have been resolved. That says nothing for the resolution of the fight, where Bats is about to kill Supes right up until the Man of Steel says his mother's name:

  • Supes: Martha.
  • Batman: Martha?
  • Supes: Martha!
  • Batman: You mom is named Martha, too? Let's be friends!

This is seriously how it feels when it happens. It's exceedingly stupid, a forced resolution to a forced conflict. Either the production needed to come up with a better way to get the superheroes to fight or, better, just delete it entirely. It serves no purpose in this movie except to add a bunch of unnecessary action sequences.

While we're getting rid of things, let's also ditch the forced inclusion of other heroes and plot-points to set up other films. We don't need the film to stop dead for a few minutes so we can see footage introducing Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg -- that could all have happened in the later Justice League film. We certainly didn't need the entire dream sequence from the middle of the movie supposedly setting up a Flashpoint film, especially since that movie has been canceled so this sequence now won't have any resolution. This is why you have to build these movies organically instead of just shoving random scenes in to set up other movies. They feel tacked on (and tacky).

After ditching all of this, what we have left is essentially the "Death of Superman" storyline. But after three or four movies of build up (give or take a second Batman or a Batman v Superman where the two just wrastle a bunch and then make tender, sweet love to each other while Lois stands off to the side and watches), we've bonded with this characters enough that a potential death of one of the characters would actually mean something. In the movie we actually got, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the fight between the two heavies ends and then the Doomsday plot just sort of happens right at the end. Superman gives his life to end Doomsday (showing that he really learned nothing from the last movie, i.e. killing is bad), ending them both. This is an iconic plot line and, given enough time to feel for these heroes first, his death would have meant something.

As it is, the whole last section of the film feels completely hollow. We don't care about Superman or Batman. We don't care if they kill each other or not, and we certainly don't care if one of them has to die to save the world. The only character that's actually worthwhile from the last act is Wonder Woman, and she's the least "developed" of the characters in the film. She shows up, acts awesome, kicks ass, and is able to do all that without two-and-a-half hours of needless exposition and stupid male-aggression dynamics to do it. She's awesome.

So yes, Batman v Superman is a mess. There are parts of it that work really well (all parts I would split off into other movies, mind you), and there are parts that don't work at all. The big issue is that so many of the good, solid plot lines are competing with each other, causing tonal dissonance within a single movie. If the DCEU could have just slowed down, taken its time, and made this one movie into three (or four, or five) separate movies, it would have been in much better shape moving forward. Instead it was crippled from the get go and only continued to stumble for some time to come...