(Halt ye internet dweller: there be spoilers ahead for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel, Superman: Birthright, The Man of Steel #3, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, The Death of Superman, Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader, Batman Begins, The Long Halloween, and The Dark Knight Returns)
I want to preface this review by stating that I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie originally for a variety of reasons: I absolutely hated Man of Steel, I’m severely burning out on comic book movies as a genre, and above all, I despise Zack Snyder. I haven’t liked a single movie of his that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen most of his filmography, save for Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Sucker Punch is one of the most gross movies I’ve ever seen and I fell out of love with Watchmen ridiculously easily through a process called “growing up”. Suffice to say, he’s not one of my favourite directors working in Hollywood right now.
Despite all these preconceived notions and expectations of what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would be as a film, quality wise, I still ended up seeing it. Why? Because something wonderful happened: it turned out to be worse than I expected. I read too many impressions from people I trust on Twitter that made the movie out to be this cinematic masterpiece of terrible film-making, that I couldn’t ignore it. I had to experience the madness first hand and, on Saturday night, I did. And boy was it worse than I could possibly imagine.
Trying to explain why this movie is so awful is really hard. Not because there isn’t a lot wrong with it, oh no. It has the opposite problem: there are so many terrible things about it that it is hard to talk about all of them equally. But I am going to try, operating under the assumption that anything I don’t talk about here I can talk about in the inevitable Man of Steel review, so bear with me; because this going to be a long one.
The logical place to start this review is where the movie opens: with the murder and funeral of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Why they start with this, despite the fact that we’ve had seven Batman films within the last twenty plus years, becomes more clear later, but I want to specifically focus on Martha Wayne and how the movie favours her over Thomas. You see, Batman writers like to pick a specific Wayne to frame as being the most important to Bruce when he was a kid, which is normally achieved by showing them doing things with Bruce before their death, and how that affects him as Batman. Both are important to his origin story, of course, but many find it easier to “pick a favourite parent” for their Bruce. Thomas was, for instance, the favourite in Batman Begins, with Martha only really existing within the story to die; while Neil Gaiman picks Martha as the favourite in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader; and Jeph Loeb focuses on both of them equally in The Long Halloween.
So what does Snyder do differently? Well he focuses on Martha by having her get shot in the head, her pearl necklace breaking and falling on the ground, and by having Thomas say her name as his final words. Oh, and by having a giant bat burst out of her bleeding sarcophagus at an older Bruce. Both of these things will come up later, but you see the problem here? Snyder’s way of focusing on her isn’t to illustrate how important she was to Bruce through flashbacks or any other way which would have made her more compelling as a character and serve to make her death more tragic, oh no. It’s to fridge her in graphic ways that do nothing more than make her a prop within the story. Her name is more important to Bruce than anything she presumably did before getting shot in the alley with Thomas, and he at least gets a line.
While that’s depressing, sure, nobody is watching the movie to see Martha and Thomas Wayne: they’re watching it to see Batman and Superman duke it out! And that’s where it really falls apart. Ostensibly, the film is about two interconnected plot threads: Batman and Superman don’t get along at first and end up fighting with each other, before putting aside their differences for the common good, and people not trusting Superman after the events of Man of Steel. On paper, they sound like they could make for a compelling story and they have in the past. Neither of these ideas are new and that fact just serves to make the failed execution of them in Batman v Superman that much more jarring.
Batman and Superman have an established history of being friends, dating back to Superman #76 in 1952, but they haven’t always got along at first. One such rocky start, and arguably one of the most famous first meetings between the two, occurs in The Man of Steel #3. In the story, the newly established Superman hears about Batman and, disapproving of his methods, flies to Gotham City to arrest him. But Batman, knowing of Superman’s existence, concocts a cunning plan involving a bomb and the life of an innocent person to avoid capture.
This forces the two into an uneasy partnership that ends with them arresting the dastardly villain Magpie (yes, seriously) and learning that while they may have different methods and ideologies, they’re still heroes trying to protect their homes from criminals. In the end they part ways, but not before Batman reveals that the life he put in danger was his own, demonstrating his selflessness and dedication to the cause. While it ends with Batman wondering if they might have been friends in a different universe, they would eventually become steadfast and loyal friends throughout the rest of the 80’s and 90’s, continuing the proud tradition of the World’s Finest.
Similarly, Superman’s emergence into the world isn’t always met with great fanfare by the masses. In Mark Waid’s Superman Birthright, Lex Luthor makes the people of Metropolis fear and distrust Superman. At first he does this by preying on people’s xenophobia with the dissemination of the knowledge that Superman isn’t human and is in fact an alien, and then by creating situations where it appears that Superman is destroying things rather than saving them. But the culmination of this plan is the creation of a faux Kryptonian army, which he portrays Superman as the vanguard of, that invades Metropolis and is eventually beaten back by Superman, who finally wins back the respect and admiration that he had lost due to Luthor’s machinations. Birthright is an incredible twelve issue mini-series that I encourage you to track down and I will bring it back up when I eventually review Man of Steel, I promise.
So how does Snyder fail to execute on these proven-to-work ideas so badly? By making them overly complicated and nonsensical! Batman doesn’t like Superman because of the events of Man of Steel, specifically the Battle of Metropolis which saw the destruction of the city as a result of The World Engine, a giant terraforming machine, and the subsequent battle between Superman and General Zod. You see, Batman lost friends in that battle, so his grudge against Superman is motivated by the need to get revenge for the death of his friends. …Which isn’t very heroic, but whatever, at least it’s a somewhat credible motivation. But then it’s draped in this xenophobic, Post 9/11esque ideology about how if “…there’s a ONE percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty” that just leaves you wondering if you’re even supposed to be rooting for him at all. Nothing Batman does prior to like, the third act, is heroic at all. He’s just a crazy right-wing idiot running around in a batsuit and beating on criminals. Which would be fine if it was meant as satire, but I don’t believe that Snyder even knows what satire is or if anything he does with Batman, or any of the characters for that matter, is intentional. I get the feeling that he just stumbles into everything he does and everyone around him is just too polite to correct him at all.
But Batman’s only one part of this equation, so surely Superman has a more credible motivation for wanting to kick Batman’s teeth in, right? Well, on the surface he does: he doesn’t approve of Batman’s methods, ala The Man of Steel #3. Which works because Superman does everything he can to work within the law and generally act as an inspiration to people. He wants people to trust him, hence why he doesn’t wear a mask. He’s the complete opposite of Batman in every way except for the fact that they’re both on the side of the angels. But it’s when you dig deeper that his motivation starts to fall apart. You see, in the film’s universe, Batman has been operating in Gotham for about twenty years, a fact that Clark should be aware of given that he’s meant to be a paid journalist (which makes no sense, but that’s a topic for another review). Superman doesn’t start taking an interest in ending Batman’s activities until he starts branding people with a Bat Branding Iron™. So operating as a vigilante for twenty years is A-Okay in Superman’s book, but branding people, Zorro style? That’s a big no-no that warrants such threats as “Next time they shine your light in the sky, don’t go to it. The Bat is dead. Bury it. Consider this mercy”. …Which one of these guys is meant to be the hero again?
But that’s not even the best part! So you know how I mentioned earlier that people don’t trust Superman because of Man of Steel? Which is fair enough, cause Superman is a reckless asshole in that movie (which fanboys of these two movies will defend as him being “green”, but that’s a topic for another review) who makes out with Lois Lane in the ruins of Metropolis while people are no doubt dying under fallen rubble and debris. You could make a great, character driven movie about Superman earning back the trust of the people and atoning for all of his past mistakes by becoming a better hero. Unfortunately, we don’t get that. At all. What we get is a movie about a populace that hates and fears Superman because they’ve been manipulated into it by Lex Luthor (who I’ll touch on in more depth later), with manipulations so overcomplicated that it’s astounding that anyone fell for them. The crux of all of it is a massacre in the desert, which Superman supposedly initiated by killing members of a militia group. Said group then killed a whole bunch of people in retaliation, which then led to such fun things as Senate Hearings. Ignoring the fact that the members were killed by bullets from guns, things Superman doesn’t use at all, there are two witnesses to the murders: Lois Lane and Superman. One is a credible journalist and the other has a statue in Metropolis. And to Snyder’s credit, he has Lois spend most of the movie following up on leads and trying to clear Superman’s name, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t need to invent a reason for people to hate/distrust Superman. He’s already made a whole movie that serves as a testament to why someone in the movie’s universe might hate Superman.
So the movie spends a whole heap of time with these Senate Hearings…until they get blown up. How do they get blown up you ask? By Lex Luthor via the use of a patsy! You see, Luthor finds a guy named Wallace Keefe, who has a legitimate reason for hating Superman because he lost his legs during The Battle of Metropolis, and gives him a new motorised wheelchair, which has explosives built into it, and arranges for him to front the Senate Hearings on the same day as Superman. While arranging all of this, he defaces the checks Bruce Wayne was sending Wallace, because he worked at Wayne Enterprises before getting injured, and sends them back. He also arranges for one of the criminals that Batman brands to get killed and has pictures of his corpse sent to Clark’s desk at The Daily Planet. Bruce doesn’t discover the returned checks until Lex blows up Wallace’s wheelchair during the Senate Hearing, on live television, while Superman is in the room. Somehow, Superman doesn’t pick up on the fact that there’s a bomb in the room and just stands there looking sad, like he’s in a Nickelback music video, while everyone burns to death around him, including Lex’s personal assistant/the only person he presumably cares about, Mercy. Just…wow.
Despite the fact that a couple of reporters literally say that Wallace caused the explosion, Superman gets blamed for it and it is this event, as well as the defaced checks that said such wonderful things as “You Let Your Family Die”, that leads to Batman and Superman fighting for real. Oh, but not before Lex kidnaps Clark’s mother, Martha, so he can further manipulate him into a grudge match with Batman. As shitty and dumb as this set-up is, at least it means Superman can spend the whole fight trying to get Batman on side so they can stop the real enemy, right? Well, the fight starts like that…but then Superman stops holding back and tries to beat Batman for real, which doesn’t work. Batman wins and almost kills Superman, until the later reveals that Lex kidnapped his mother…who shares the same first name as Bruce’s mother: Martha (see, told you it would come back up). The thing that stops Batman from literally impaling Superman on a Kryptonite spike isn’t his conscience or the realisation that Luthor has been manipulating him since the very beginning, it’s the fact that their mothers have the same name. What a hero!
Before moving on, I want to focus on Lex Luthor and how he is portrayed and just what the hell his motivations for anything are. First though, let’s establish what modern Lex Luthor is, at least in the comics since The Man of Steel in 1986. Luthor is a public facing businessman who conspires against Superman in secret, who runs his own corporation, LexCorp, and generally appears to be an upstanding guy to everyone who isn’t in the know, so much in fact that he actually got elected as President of the United States. No seriously, that actually happened in the comics once. As for why he hates Superman, it generally revolves around the fact that he’s an alien with unassailable power that Lex believes is an end to humanity’s evolution, which is quite honestly a perfect motivation for a villain to have as it makes them the hero of their own story.
To put it lightly, he’s nothing like this in the movie. At all. Instead of being a corporate figurehead, he’s a Facebook/Google style company head, complete with a basketball court at LexCorp! Now, I’m all for modernising characters, but Lex Luthor is not a character that needed to be modernised. Ignoring the fact that businessman Lex has never been done in any of the Superman movies before, it’s ridiculous to change his archetype when people like Rupert Murdoch are still alive. It’s still in vogue and it works, as proven by the comics and by Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. But whatever, at least they’ll keep his motivation for hating Superman. Which it appears they do…at first, and that’s where it gets complicated. You see, it turns out his whole, convoluted plan to kill Superman (which resulted in him killing Mercy for no reason) was done at the behest of Darkseid…who he is working with. “The bell has already rang. They heard it. The creatures among the stars. They’ll come… He’ll come. He’s angry… Ding-dong… Ding-dong… Ding-dong…”
Who is Darkseid? Well, he’s the ruler of Apokolips and generally an evil and nigh omnipotent god who wants to either wipe out his enemies, The New Gods, rule Earth, or discover the mythical Anti-Life Equation; or sometimes all three, depending on the story. If he reminds you of Thanos, that’s because Thanos is kind of a clone of Darkseid, created by Jim Starlin in 1973, a good three years after Jack “The King” Kirby had introduced Darkseid within the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134. So he’s a pretty big villain within the DC Comics canon and also regularly comes into conflict with Superman, so setting him up within a Superman movie makes sense. …Except having him use Lex Luthor to kill Superman makes no goddamn sense, nor is it ever explained why Lex would even want to help him in the first place. Hell, the only reason I even picked up on all this, other than the lines of dialogue (which come at the very end of the movie, by the way) I quoted in the last paragraph, is that during Batman’s Knightmare (oh god, how did I not mention that at all?), Parademons randomly show up, who are Darkseid’s foot soldiers. So if you were wondering what in the fifth circle of hell those bugmen things were, they were Parademons. No, Virginia, I didn’t expect you to know that, because the movie sure as fuck doesn’t explain their existence.
So alright, Lex is working for Darkseid. At least that explains wanting to kill Superman…except it doesn’t explain why the fuck his plan is so gosh darn complicated. Like his grand plan to kill Superman involves using private mercenaries to frame Superman for a crime in the desert, badgering a US Senator for a permit so he can transport Kryptonite into America (which he smuggles in anyway), defacing checks and sending them to Bruce Wayne, killing a random criminal and sending photos of his corpse to Clark Kent, manipulating and orchestrating the suicide bombing of the Senate Building by Wallace (which kills Mercy as well, though that doesn’t affect him at all) and pinning it on Superman, arranging for his stash of Kryptonite to be stolen by Batman, kidnapping Martha Kent so that he can force Superman to fight Batman to the death, and gaining access to the remaining Kryptonian ship and using it to resurrect General Zod as Doomsday (we’ll touch on him in a second). That’s a pretty fucking convoluted plan for something that could literally be achieved by just shooting Superman in the head with a Kryptonite bullet or, hell, filling Wallace’s wheelchair bomb with Kryptonite. He knows Superman is going to be there, so why not cut out Batman and just blow the guy to bits? It. Makes. No. Sense.
But wait, there’s more! So while everything else is going on, Lex has been cooking up Doomsday, the giant big grey thing you see in the third trailer. Oh, and he killed Superman in the comics and is generally a gimmick character. Why Lex bothers manipulating Batman and Superman into killing each other when he’s been making Doomsday is never explained. It does, however, give Batman, Superman and later Wonder Woman (who I haven’t mentioned at all cause she was, you know, good), a common enemy to unite against. Hooray, with like a good thirty minutes left, we finally get to see The World’s Finest teaming up together. Except now the movie turns into a super truncated The Death of Superman rehash, complete with Superman dying! Because Snyder hadn’t ripped off enough from the comics yet apparently (more on that later).
Unlike every other story I’ve brought up thus far, The Death of Superman is kind of terrible. It’s basically an action figure storyline that revolves around Doomsday tearing a path through America and various super heroes, most notably the Justice League, before meeting and fighting Superman for the rest of the storyline, which ends with both of them dying. It’s hard to state how important Superman’s death was at the time, especially from the vantage point of a kid who was born two years after it happened, but it was a big deal. Legitimate news organisations covered it, collectors ate it up and people cried over it like they’d lost a real friend or loved one (okay, maybe the last one didn’t happen). And in the actual DC Universe, it had this massive ripple effect that affected pretty much every single hero Superman had ever come in contact with, especially Batman. Hell, if DC hadn’t brought him back the same year that they killed him, we might still be talking about it. But that’s the thing: it’s not the 90’s anymore. Killing Superman, by itself, has no weight, especially in only his second movie in a new movie universe. And any weight that his death could have had is undercut by revealing that he’s alive with the final shot of the entire movie. It just leaves you feeling like the whole thing was pointless nerd pandering, or that Snyder legitimately didn’t understand why the death worked in the first place.
But now I come to the piècederésistance of this whole review, the thing I’ve wanted to talk about since the beginning: the copious amount of references to The Dark Knight Returns. For those not in the know, The Dark Knight Returns is Frank Miller’s 1986 tale about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman again, after a self-imposed ten year retirement, in a world where the Cold War is still red hot, The Joker has been comatose for a decade, and Superman is a pawn of the government in an attempt to prevent metahumans from being rounded up and killed (which is in character for Superman, by the way). The world really doesn’t want Batman around anymore, and while his return leads to the curtailing of The Mutant Gang that had overrun Gotham City in his absence, it also leads to The Joker returning and adding to his body count once again. In the end, Superman is sent by Ronald Regan (yes, really) to take Batman in, which leads to their famous fight where Superman pulls his punches in an attempt to not kill his friend and Batman’s inner-monologue talks about wanting Superman to remember “…The one man who beat him”. Batman then fakes his death and goes underground, a secret Superman keeps because he’s actually, you know, in character, and there was never a single sequel or prequel to the book at all! Nope, The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Start Batman and Robin never happened, nor did that weird second sequel that started coming out last year!
What’s this got to do with Dawn of Justice? Tons. Batman’s armour? Ripped straight from The Dark Knight Returns. The giant bat that bursts out of Martha Wayne? Loosely inspired by a similar scene in The Dark Knight Returns. The talking heads? Ripped straight from The Dark Knight Returns. The “I believe you” scene, where Batman explodes a man to save Martha Kent? Loosely inspired by a similar scene in The Dark Knight Returns. Batman standing a-top a building with a rifle on his back? Loosely inspired by a similar scene in The Dark Knight Returns. Even the fucking nuke that The United States Government launches at Superman and Doomsday while they’re in space is ripped straight from The Dark Knight Returns. Like he would never win a lawsuit, but part of me really wants Frank Miller to take Snyder to court for ripping him off so much, because it’s honestly insane to me how much of that book is in this and how all of it does not work outside of the book.
And therein lies the problem: Zack Snyder is a child. He knows what he likes, but he doesn’t possess the critical faculty necessary to understanding why they work within their original context. He doesn’t understand why the giant bat scene works as a call-back to not only how Bruce Wayne got the idea to “become a bat” in Detective Comics #27 and in Batman Year One, but also as a culmination of the nightmares Bruce keeps having in the first issue of The Dark Knight Returns about a bat wishing to come back out and haunt the night; which is why his version of it is graphic and nonsensical. He doesn’t understand why either the rifle scene or “I believe you” scene works by playing on the audiences expectations of Batman as a character. Batman hates guns, so seeing him use one to apparently shoot at people on another roof top is nuts, and in the end it’s a fake out where it turns out the gun is actually a grapple gun. And the “I believe you” scene is the only time in the whole book where Batman kills someone, and it’s to save the life of an innocent child. To put this in perspective, he only paralyses The Joker, forcing the later to finish the job himself. In Dawn of Justice though? Batman kills a whole lot of people and destroys a whole lot of buildings, so the “I believe you” scene has no weight, not to mention that he has ways of dealing with the threat without killing. The talking heads only worked because it was an alternate future of the 80’s, where Ronald Regan is still President and the Arms Race is still on. Speaking of the Cold War, the biggest thing that doesn’t translate and generally has no reason for being brought over by Snyder at all: the stupid nuke. The nuke, which only appears in the final issue and again only works because of the book’s alternate future angle, is shot at America by The Soviets and is stopped by Superman. Except it’s electromagnetic and knocks out power across the country, and traps Superman within a life sucking vortex that he only escapes by feasting on the natural wilderness and sucking up the sun’s rays. So when Superman gets hit by that nuke and looks zombiefied, it’s a call-back to The Dark Knight Returns. Why the fuck Snyder included such a relatively minor part of the book is anyone’s guess, but it makes me wonder why he didn’t include more scenes from the book that wouldn’t make sense in the movie. Like why not include the “How utterly proper” scene where Alfred dies as the Batcave gets destroyed? Why not include the scene where Batman talks about how he only has an oval around the bat symbol on his chest so that he can put kevlar behind it? They’d make just as much sense within the movie as the fucking nuke.
Nothing Zack Snyder does in this movie is inherently unique. Hell, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman uniting against a common enemy has already happened before in Matt Wagner’s Trinity. And yet, he still executes on all of these ideas poorly. He’s not good at storytelling, he’s not good at action, he’s a petty asshole as evidenced by the throwaway lines in the movie about buildings being empty, and he’s all around a terrible director. But his movies do gangbusters, and this movie and Man of Steel have rabid fanbases that will literally defend them against any and all criticisms and will concoct conspiracy theories about Marvel turning people against the DC Movies somehow. And the sad part is: I’m not even making this up. Go anywhere on the Internet whilst expressing a negative opinion about the movies and you’ll have fifty guys yelling at you about how you’re wrong or a “Marveldrone” or literally anything they can yell at you to silence your dissenting view. I’ve been a part of a rabid defence force before, way back in 2011 when Dark of the Moon came out. But here’s the thing: I grew up. I stopped hating people for not liking the same things that I do and moved on with my life. You don’t need any kind of validation for your tastes or interests, and if you think that way, I hope to god you snap out of it eventually. Transformers movie fans were terrible, but they never created conspiracy theories about other companies tanking or brainwashing people into disliking them. There is no grand conspiracy against Zack Snyder or his movies: they just suck. And if you don’t think like that for whatever reason, great! Just don’t, for the love of god, harass people for not agreeing with you, because you’ll never win them over.
To sum up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an awful movie that, despite everything I’ve said, deserves to be seen. My words do not do justice to this masterpiece of terrible cinema. It is mighty in its failure and will probably end up making a billion dollars, so there’s no point boycotting it. Just embrace the shit and maybe you too shall find something that makes the experience worth it.