Gavin Williams has been reading comics for years, has a long-standing love of Superman, and has written multiple web serials. He asked me if he could add an opinion about Batman v. Superman, and having read it, I thought it was worth sharing. Here it is:
There has been a great deal of critical derision of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and on the Pen and Cape Society’s pages there has been a vote for and a vote against the movie, and an analysis from Jim Zoetewey of some of the history and culture the movie emerges from.
I want to take that starting point to go broader, and use the film to analyze a societal trend. The problem with “BvS:DoJ” is that the film is not telling an original story, it is a mash-up adaptation of multiple sources. They include, but are not limited to, The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman and Batman: A Death in the Family in specific comics, the broader history of the Justice League, World’s Finest, and Batman and Superman in general comics, along with the Batman and Superman films, including Man of Steel. Our culture is a culture of mash-up — look at Youtube, music sampling in pop and hip-hop, and the comedy of parody, whether skits on SNL, or in film with things like the Scary Movie franchise and Fifty Shades of Black making fun of source material.
“BvS:DoJ” is a failure as a story because it doesn’t try to tell a story at all, it tries to fuse as many disparate elements from other sources as possible in order to give the illusion of something new. By looking at the sources, this lack of cohesion becomes evident. Spoiler alert, this article examines multiple sources as well as the plot of BvS: DoJ, in depth.
The Dark Knight Returns
DKR is the first obvious source for BvS:DoJ. In 1986, Frank Miller envisioned a new type of story: he put a retired Batman into a dystopian future, where superheroes have all but vanished, and crime is on the rise. Bruce Wayne’s obsessive nature rears its head, and he once again dons the mantle of the Bat to fight against crime. Batman has initial successes against Two-Face and a gang called the Mutants, but earns the scrutiny of police and the government, because superheroes are considered illegal. When the Joker kills himself in a fight with the Batman, the law pursues the Dark Knight, thinking he has murdered the criminal.
Superman is called in when they are ineffective, as an agent of the government’s authority. DKR sets up a battle between Superman and Batman over time, where Superman’s “Truth and Justice” motif is absorbed by the government so that he can continue saving lives during disasters, so long as he doesn’t allow himself to be seen. To Superman, this is a worthy compromise, because lives are still being saved. Batman is uncompromising — he chooses freedom over submission to authority. They, in effect, become symbols of philosophical ideas.
Batman embodies human agency, as a person who chose to take his mind and body to their highest possible limits and does not accept control from anyone else. Superman’s commitment to an ideal, saving lives, allows him to be controlled by outside forces.
Batman’s choices have ramifications — television clips throughout the comic show how society reacts to his presence, with criminals becoming more violent, society splitting along pro and con sides, and some citizens fighting back against crime. People’s lives are changed and even ended because Batman refuses to compromise. Commissioner Gordon and Superman know he’s not seeing the big picture, and that his single-minded convictions will cost others. This personification of agency, that gets others killed, collides with Superman, who saves lives at any cost. Part of the effectiveness of the story is in seeing Batman’s choices throughout DKR, but also partly because the retired Batman has a history as Batman, who once worked with Superman in the Justice League and as the World’s Finest team.
BvS:DoJ borrows a grizzled Dark Knight from DKR, and his armor in his confrontation with Superman. Visually, this comic is one of the film’s biggest sources. Lex Luthor as the puppetmaster behind their confrontation makes sense, in a way, because he is the force making Superman serve the government in DKR — in its sequel, The Dark Knight Rides Again, Lex is running the government with Brainiac, and Superman obeys their commands because they have taken the bottle city of Kandor hostage.
The problem in the film is that we don’t get that character development, of Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement and gradually, step by step, escalating his agency and violence, to face his historical ally over their philosophical differences. There is no history between Batman and Superman in this film series — Superman is new on the scene, and yet instead of a new, emerging Batman, he’s a grizzled veteran. It doesn’t have the emotional connection of history, ongoing relationship, and character conflict. Instead, the film appropriates the images of that history, in the hopes that it will still resonate with the audience.
In other words, the film-makers steal part of an old story in the hopes that the audience will include its emotional worth in their reactions to the current film. So this film’s story doesn’t have an emotional arc of its own, contained within its narrative, but borrows from the meta-narrative of the history of Batman and Superman. It doesn’t have its own cohesive consistency as a self-contained plot.
The Death of Superman
DoS was a crossover event, where a creature that would come to be called “Doomsday” emerges from a strange capsule and begins a path of destruction that ultimately leads it to Metropolis. Along the way, over the course of several comic books, he kills deer, smashes towns, takes apart the Justice League, and battles Superman. There was months of build-up for the comic audience, as they had time to get to know this new antagonist, and see him as a genuine threat — he defeated the Justice League with one arm literally tied behind his back.
When Superman is forced to kill Doomsday, it’s in the middle of downtown Metropolis, at the steps of the Daily Planet. Innocent bystanders are watching, as a crowd has gathered, and if he can’t stop the monster they will be killed shortly thereafter. He puts all his power into his punch, which opens him up to a similar deathblow from Doomsday. Both combatants fall, as the culmination of months of buildup, and (satisfying or not) Superman’s death reflects his past — he defends Metropolis, the Daily Planet, humanity, and Lois, by sacrificing himself.
Eventually, Superman and Doomsday both return, but again, after months of multiple “Supermen,” with Steel, Superboy, the Eradicator and Cyborg Superman as red herrings until the return of the real Kal-El. Doomsday’s real history is revealed, as a science experiment on Krypton that led to a creature that could self-resurrect, becoming immune to whatever initially killed it.
The “Doomsday” creature in the film BvS: DoJ does not have the same origin. Lex Luthor somehow manages to bypass the Kryptonian ship’s computer programs to take it over, which doesn’t make any sense, and has it use his DNA with General Zod’s to create the monster.
Why human DNA would mix with Kryptonian and result in a hulking behemoth, when neither species looks any different from each other, is an example of a story lacking any sense of coherence or logic, but wanting to rush the emotional payoff of having the image of Doomsday and Superman killing each other. It also has unhealthy ramifications if Superman and Lois Lane ever decide to mingle their DNA in a Kryptonian/human baby — that’s just creepy.
Again, the film tries to borrow the emotional weight of the image, without investing the time in character development that gave the original image its value. Superman doesn’t die protecting a crowd, he dies in the dark of night fighting a random threat alongside Batman and Wonder Woman, two people he barely knows. And the end of the film makes it evident he will return, without any of the ambiguity, uncertainty, or build-up that happened over the months of World Without a Superman and The Return of Superman in the comics.
Batman: A Death in the Family
One of the things that apparently drove Bruce Wayne to retire as Batman in the DKR comic was the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, whose uniform is seen in the Batcave. This inspired the 1988-1989 comic story “A Death in the Family,” where the Joker kills Jason. In the film BvS: DoJ, this image is borrowed, as we see Bruce walk past a glass case with a Robin uniform with taunts that seem Joker-inspired spray-painted on the suit. This film Batman apparently has a grim past, and that’s part of what drives his violence through the film.
The problem with making a film that takes place late in Batman’s career, borrowing from the comic history, is that we haven’t seen that comic history as a film history. Most of the audience probably hasn’t read the source material. The majority have likely never heard of Jason Todd, who was so disliked as a replacement for Dick Grayson that the actual comic fans voted for Jason’s death in a telephone contest. While the voting margin might have been narrow, as the telephone idea was an experiment that never caught on with comic writers, it still demonstrates that the majority of the film audience is likely to not know or care about this piece of history.
Injected into BvS: DoJ, it creates an “easter egg” moment of “What is that about?” and the potential for backstory and history. However, that hint is a lot less satisfying than seeing the actual story and knowing what it actually is all about.
Man of Steel
One of the things that BvS: DoJ is borrowing from is its film predecessor, Man of Steel. It takes a scene from the battle of Metropolis between Superman and Zod, and inserts Bruce Wayne, giving him a personal grudge with Superman to set up the rest of the film’s plot. Critics have suggested that their complaints about MoS, that Superman allows so much destruction, become Batman’s motivation in the new film, which is an interesting way to respond to criticism. The filmmakers seem to be almost fusing the critics and audience’s reaction to MoS with Batman’s point of view, as if we might be more sympathetic with him that way.
While there are critics of MoS, and complaints about Superman killing Zod, I actually enjoyed that film. It has internal coherence as a story. Jor-El of Krypton comes from the house of El, which stands for Hope. He and his wife Lara have their son Kal naturally, the first such birth on Krypton in generations, as the species now propagates using technology to design their offspring. Kal-El thus becomes a symbol, of hope, choice, nature and freedom, in the face of design, control, technology and nihilism. Zod is the opposite, he is nihilism personified, seeking control because of predetermined fate and technological design. If he can’t be in charge, he has to destroy his opposition, by design, which leaves him no hope for change.
These two philosophies collide, with Superman ultimately defeating Zod when he attempts to terraform Earth to make it more like Krypton. Critics complain that Superman killing Zod is not consistent with Superman’s character. However, I would argue that it does have coherence. In the film’s narrative, the Kryptonians (oddly) possess a technology that allows Zod to communicate with Kal-El telepathically when they have him sedated. From this conversation, Superman learns that Zod intends to kill humanity, he knows Zod’s thoughts and feelings on the subject in the most intimate way possible, because they share a mindscape because of this technology. It’s not like there’s ambiguity, Superman sees Zod’s intentions first hand, and they look like a nuclear holocaust with fields of skeletons. That’s a pretty strong motivation for fighting the bad guy, to prevent genocide.
In Superman 2, the second Christopher Reeve film, Superman kills Zod, and he does so in the comics as well. It’s the only viable option when you have a character with the power of Superman but not the same morals. The alternative is genocide, and Superman can’t allow that to happen. The only alternative in the comics has been to place Zod in the Phantom Zone, but that option was eliminated when Zod escaped that fate in the film, when the other Kryptonians were sucked in and he wasn’t present.
Metropolis gets devastated in the course of their battle, because superpowers. This is a realistic depiction of the power of two Kryptonians. People wonder why Superman couldn’t control the damage somehow — and, there is a coherent response. This is his first mission as a “superhero.” He has never fought anyone, let alone someone of equal power. You try to get in a bar fight this weekend, and see if you can simultaneously prevent property damage while winning the fight. I’m sure it won’t go well.
What the film opened up was the possibility of this “rookie” Superman growing into his role, and in the future holding to his “save lives at all cost” philosophy, precisely because his battle with Zod was so costly. It would be the driving emotional motivation for his altruism. That’s an interesting and coherent character arc.
What BvS: DoJ does is completely eliminate that possibility. It takes place eighteen months later than MoS for no apparent reason. It seems highly unlikely Bruce Wayne would spend eighteen months angry at Superman and not do anything about it. And it seems highly surprising that Superman would spend eighteen months doing good, only to have the US government suspicious that he might have killed terrorists on another continent with bullets, to save Lois Lane (which is the insane premise of the Senate investigation, which Lex Luthor provoked with his agents). In what world does an obsessive Batman sit around brooding for eighteen months, and then start to antagonize Superman? Why not right away? And why wouldn’t Superman’s eighteen months of altruism enter into his deliberations? If he’s such a threat, it’s an immediate threat, and that’s clearly not the case.
These questions, and others like them, demonstrate readily that there isn’t a plot cohesion to the film itself. The reason it exists was to borrow imagery from past stories and remix them in a form that would hopefully make money off the audience, instead of taking the creative step of telling an original story.
I would suggest that the problem is of storytelling, as there isn’t one coherent story in BvS: DoJ, but rather a borrowing of other storylines fused into a mash-up. Though there are producers and screenwriters involved, the responsibility of this vision has to be laid at the feet of Zach Snyder, the director, to a large extent. Christopher Nolan had to deal with Warner Brothers as well, and still managed to create Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, which drew on comics as inspiration but told their own self-contained, original stories.
Snyder’s rise as a director came with 300, which was an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book of the same name. His visual style suited the violent action of that story, in a stylized way that works. However, he didn’t have to worry about the story, as he stuck to Miller’s plot and even used the comic to storyboard the film’s scenes. His next film was Watchmen, which did not perform as well, despite being a visually compelling adaptation of the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It left out some of the side-stories, but maintained the core plot. I wasn’t particularly fond of the Ozymandias casting choice, but Rorschach was wonderful.
The interesting thing about Watchmen and DKR above is that the philosophical conflict is almost the same. Rorschach is a human who won’t compromise his agency, and Dr. Manhattan is the only superpowered figure, who decides to let Ozymandias’ plan save humanity at the cost of a small number of lives. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, for Manhattan, whereas Rorschach thinks the truth should be known. I think the main reason the film didn’t do well financially was that Watchmen is not a culturally famous or accessible franchise, it’s an important comic in the culture of comics. But children certainly don’t read it, and children and toys were one of the primary drivers of comics in film prior to the year 2000.
Snyder’s next two films, Guardians of Gahoole, and Suckerpunch, both did poorly in box office and with critics. I can’t speak to Guardians, but Suckerpunch was a visually compelling but narratively incoherent film. It’s also an original story, instead of an adaptation like Snyder’s earlier work. It has scenes of fighting giant samurai, steampunk World War 1, robots and orcs and dragons, linked together with the conceit of the main character hallucinating while in an insane asylum. It’s a mash-up of several culturally significant ideas, borrowing from anime, war movies, science fiction, Lord of the Rings and others. Being Snyder’s first non-adaptation, it reveals his lack of understanding of creativity and originality, and his penchant for mixing old ingredients in the hopes of making something new.
Snyder’s structure for BvS: DoJ is very similar — the mashed up scenes are layered onto the conceit of Batman’s dreams, which seem to be almost prophetic. This sets up the potential for future movies, but also weirdly gives Batman a superpower that drives his paranoia more than reality does. Snyder almost embodies the Youtube culture — mixing music videos with old film tropes and stories to attempt to be relevant, while being starkly unoriginal, and separate from reality. This comes to a bizarre point in the film BvS: DoJ, when Batman and WonderWoman watch clips from Lexcorp, revealing the existence of Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. The company has handily given the heroes their DC logos (how?) as if knowing that they’re advertising for future movies in the franchise (clumsily), and the clips seem to be straight from Youtube itself, rather than organic parts of the film’s plot.
There’s a line in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, where Commissioner Gordon tells his son that Batman is the hero the city deserves, not the hero they need. Harvey Dent will be held up as a hero, so that organized crime will come to a virtual end. But that means Batman is a real hero, taking the fall for Dent’s crimes, so that the ideal can exist and Gotham gets what it needs, safe streets.
Well, Snyder is the director this generation deserves, as he embodies what the mash-up culture stands for. Recycling old stories, other people’s music, commenting on ideas and blending them together into a mess isn’t the same as having something creative or original to say. What everyone needs is real storytellers, that create coherent narratives that illustrate purpose, philosophies and ideas, and inspire debate about their worthiness. Not just borrowing images to steal emotional connections from the past.
The sad thing is, adapting the original stories themselves would accomplish that. The Dark Knight Returns is a compelling story on its own. The Death of Superman is maybe not as artistically creative, but would still be emotionally resonant. A Death in the Family would make a great film, and challenge Batman to handle grief over Robin, and his conflict with the Joker.
Snyder’s film and the plans for DC’s extended film universe reflect problems DC has, as it has gone through Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour and the New 52 — they don’t grasp how to make original, coherent, standalone stories without retreading the emotional value of the past.
Imagine an alternate universe where the destruction of Man of Steel is followed by a sequel where he becomes a proper superhero, and earns his reputation. Then there could have been a young Batman in a Batman: Year One film, followed by Wonder Woman and the Justice League, emerging because of Superman’s appearance, and these characters would have been contemporaries and equals, with team-ups like World’s Finest. Then, in the Batman film series there could have been Dick Grayson graduating to Nightwing, and Jason dying at the hands of the Joker, forcing Batman into retirement. The Dark Knight Returns could have had a big screen adaptation, where the clash between Batman and Superman would have had logical coherence and emotional heft. Instead, we have a derivative mess that doesn’t properly honour the comics or the audience.
The world needs creative, coherent storytelling, from logical, thoughtful storytellers. The alternative is to deserve the mediocrity we’re accepting, precisely because we accept it.