BvS has the surreal quality of systemic, top-down incompetence; virtually every scene, every plot beat, every line of dialogue–there’s something logically “off” about all of it. But in addition to what amounts to an ocean of individual isolated idiocies, there is a much bigger problem with the movie. The big problem was in its structural plot dynamics; somehow, the filmmakers* here botched the whole concept from the very beginning.
*(I’m in favor of distributing blame roughly equally among the producers, writers, and director; everyone loves to hate him, but this wasn’t all Zack Snyder’s fault.)
Indeed, it’s difficult to understate just how poorly this project was handled. The filmmakers had at their fingertips the historic, meaningful, and frankly straightforward conceptual divide between Batman and Superman. Their ideological opposition can be boiled down into a few sentences, and all of it keys into our basic dinner table intuitions about law and order. And furthermore, the filmmakers already had a geek-vetted, time-tested blueprint in the source material that inspired the whole movie: Frank Miller’s definitive classic, The Dark Knight Returns.
And yet somehow, the BvS filmmakers missed the mark entirely. How could this happen?
It’s fiction 101 that storytelling is composed of objects and obstacles. Someone wants something, and someone else is standing in the way. That’s true of great literature and it’s true of big-budget, lowbrow Spandexploitation cinema.
The problem with Dawn of Justice is not that the storytellers don’t understand the importance of conflict. (Just look at the title.) Rather, it’s the opposite problem: there’s too much conflict. The screenwriters have created a world of all-purpose antagonism, a world of pure conflict. But that world of pure conflict lacks an intelligible structure that can be used to tell a meaningful story.
Take a look at the character dynamics in BvS.
Lex Luthor, Batman, and the American government are all opposed to Superman. They’re suspicious and jealous of his god-like power. That’s where we start. Fine.
Ostensibly, the government is also opposed to Batman because he is a violent vigilante. (“We’ve always been criminals,” they plagiarize from Miller.) The government is also opposed to Lex Luthor. (We’re not sure why exactly.)
But the movie never gives us any plausible reason for why certain of these plot-actors should be enemies. For instance, why should Lex and the government be enemies? By offering to weaponize kryptonite, Lex was offering the government an essentially non-violent way to control Superman, which is precisely what the government wanted in this movie. Why did they turn Lex down? Earlier in the timeline, the government handed him the krytponian spacecraft and Zod’s corpse to do whatever he wanted with. And yet now they blow him off, telling him to keep his kryptonite and take a hike?
It’s the same thing with Batman. He and Lex Luthor are in precisely the same spot vis-a-vis Superman. They are intimidated by his power and want to extinguish it to preserve their own. So doesn’t that make Batman and Lex Luthor natural allies? I guess they don’t team up because one is a good guy and one is a bad guy, we assume, but the movie never gives Batman any real reason to dislike Lex Luthor in any way. Lex Luthor doesn’t become a “bad guy” in the film until he starts doing exactly what Batman is doing: going after Superman. And so their parallel motivations are awkwardly separated yet thematically indistinguishable, and tied together using an implausible and lazy mechanism involving the kidnapping of Clark’s mother, Martha (leading to yet another cheap reference to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke).
And actually, come to think of it, shouldn’t both Lex and Batman also be natural allies of the American government, since all three of them are worried about Superman’s power for the exact same reasons?
Who stands for what, and why? I still don’t know what Lex Luthor was trying to accomplish in this movie. The government won’t buy his kryptonite, so he’s bitter, and then Batman steals his kryptonite, so…he tries to trick Batman into killing Superman with the kryptonite? What is that going to do?
Meanwhile, just how committed was Batman to destroying Superman? The fact that Batman so suddenly switched over to Superman’s “side” was ridiculous. In the context of a battle to the death, why should Batman give a shit that Superman’s mother is also named Martha? It’s as if only a gentle reminder of his parents death (which, we know, is literally the one thing in the world that Batman does not need reminding of) could make him realize the total insanity of what he was doing (i.e., preemptively murdering a humble demigod who appears totally focused on helping humanity in every way he can). To hang the entire movie on that one totally superficial coincidence has got to be the stupidest major plot point I have ever seen in a movie of this scale and pedigree. It ignores everything we know about the characters’ motivations and undermines the entire plot.
The lines are never drawn. The motivations are never nailed down. The characters all just go at each other, as if by default. In short, the broad logical structure of the whole thing is completely muddled.
It didn’t have to be that way. Not at all. There could have been a very easy fix that should have happened on the second or third draft. (But this movie really has that distinct “first draft” feeling, doesn’t it?) In order to take all of the elements in this movie and organize them into something intelligible, you’d need to clarify the alliances. Superman could start out a controversial object of governmental suspicion, but he’d soon (like, in the first act) need to patriotically offer himself as a niceguy arm of the American military industrial complex. That’s really the only thing that would position Superman and Batman against each other in a way that makes meaningful sense. And, come to think of it, that’s precisely how Frank Miller wrote it thirty years ago, where Superman’s naiveté formed the very basis of Batman’s hostility. Otherwise, they’re both alienated “masked” outlaws (with no discernible difference of opinion on the aims and bounds of justice) and natural allies.
Moreover, Superman’s military alliance with the American government would also give Lex Luthor a viable motivation to destroy him, since all of Lex’s power and influence in the development of conventional military weaponry would be rendered essentially superfluous by Superman’s friendly willingness to be volunteer World Cop.
One little fix, and suddenly the movie makes sense. But somehow, somewhere along the line a simple yet powerful idea was lost in translation and warped into the logical mess we all saw this month. They screwed up Superman’s role, and the rest of it crumbled.
As a useful comparison, take a look at how smoothly season two of Netflix’s Daredevil lays out its character dynamics. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of the source material that the show bases itself on are also comics by Frank Miller from the 1980s, which had laid most of the groundwork for Miller’s later, more influential work at DC.
In season two of the show, Daredevil and the Punisher are clearly positioned on opposite sides of an ideological divide: one (the guilty Catholic) will not kill bad guys; the other (the unhinged army grunt) is happy to. Matt also explores those same questions in the context of his tumultuous relationship with his femme fatale ex-girlfriend, Elektra. Both sides have their points and both make their points, verbally and symbolically, as clear as day.
The parties go so far as to litigate the matter in open court during the Frank Castle trial, but the real equivocations are going on inside the characters. Matt and Foggy question whether their legal practice can ethically represent someone like Frank Castle, based on the brutal lawlessness that he stands for. Matt waxes philosophical on the issue with Karen over thai food, and she admits to losing touch with the difference between vengeance and justice. Elektra, in a fascinating performance evocative of Isabele Adjani in Anderzej Zulawski’s Possession, courts the darkness inside of Matt through sexuality and bloodthirst. She causes him to question the integrity of his own internal moral compass by teasing out his own appetite for violence. And it’s also the major source of disagreement that Matt has with his former mentor, Stick.
The basic question of whether killing can ever be harmonized with our belief in justice predominates the whole story. Matt represents the Punisher and his cynical philisophy in court, while at the same time Daredevil is fighting it in the streets. Matt claims to abhor what Elektra stands for, but he somehow keeps ending up in bed with her. But unlike in BvS, these reversals aren’t the result of lazy writing, but rather indicative of a clever overlay of irony; one doesn’t have to take sides on issues like due process or capital punishment to recognize that there’s a pleasant sense of ambiguity to the whole thing.
Who is right? Who is wrong? We’re just not sure. But we know exactly what each character stands for and why they are in conflict with each other. The ethical disagreements they have with each other put them into physical conflict. Meanwhile, we get to ponder these lofty questions while watching ninja fights and machine guns go off. It’s not rocket science.
The show’s writing is far from perfect. It’s massively goofy at times and prone to unnecessary digression. There’s all sorts of silliness at work in Daredevil, but at the end of the day all of that is perfectly forgivable because the project as a whole has a baseline unifying consistency.
Was that so much to ask for BvS, at six times the budget and all the resources in the world? Whatever Daredevil‘s minor flaws, it feels like something that was well thought-out and designed to convey something basic and timeless about the human condition. It feels like the ideas were handled with at least the minimum quotient of care. If we’re going to watch presentation after presentation of the same consumable Big Spandex product over and over again for the next few decades, we need to be given at least that much.
Meanwhile, BvS bespeaks colossal incompetence, fraught with an unbearable feeling of unrealized potential. I’m sorry, but I take personal offense to that.
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