Last week, two of Kotaku‘s staffers went to see DC Comics’ biggest superhero icons duke it out on the big screen. World’s Finest, it ain’t.
Mike Fahey and myself are probably the most superhero comics-loving people here at Kotaku. But we both went to Batman v Superman out of a sense of duty rather than excitement. After it all was said and done — in my case, brown liquor was administered to dull the throbbing — we convened in Slack to talk about it. There are many spoilers ahead.
Evan Narcisse: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the first time in a long while that I approached a major superhero movie with active dread. I already had low expectations based on how I felt about Man of Steel. I lowered them as the first reviews started to hit (though I didn’t read any of them) and lowered them even more after texting with a friend who saw it on Tuesday. Somehow, it managed to come in even lower than those twice-reset fears. This movie simply shouldn’t exist.
I stay reading superhero and genre work because, when it’s at its best, I get a certain kind of metaphorical cleverness and emotional resonance that it’s tough to find anywhere else. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are aspirational symbols. Zack Snyder says he understands that but this movie turned them into the worst versions of themselves.
Mike Fahey: I went into Batman v Superman the same way you did, apparently. I was never really excited about the film, my expectations tempered by Man of Steel. There were some early buzz on Twitter over the weekend from insane people (or possibly just trolls) calling it the best Batman movie ever, so my hopes raised slightly, but by the time Thursday night rolled around I was actively dreading stepping into the theatre. An hour in and I was ready to step back out. I wanted to get up and leave, and only stayed for the sake of this conversation.
So you are welcome, readers.
Evan: Like, I already knew that Snyder’s take wasn’t one for me. I went in hoping to see cool fights, a nice debut for Wonder Woman and how he’d fold in callbacks to the source material. Only the Wonder Woman stuff made me feel positive in any way.
Again, spoiler warning: We’re about to get into the plot so avert your eyes if you care. But you really shouldn’t, because it’s dumb.
BvS is set two years after Man of Steel and opens with a dream sequence recap of Batman’s origin. It then cuts to Bruce Wayne desperately scrambling through Metropolis trying to save people during the big Supes/Zod throwdown from the last movie.
Mike: Snyder set the tone early with the worst on-screen version of Batman’s origins I have ever seen. Bruce Wayne and his parents walking down the street, a mugger accosts them with a gun, and Thomas Wayne takes a swing at him.
Evan: Yeah, from the very beginning, I felt like Snyder doesn’t get why certain aspects of these characters’ mythos have become so powerful. Up until this point, Thomas Wayne was always shown in a way where protecting his son was the priority. I mean, taking a swing at a mugger just escalates things to an even more dangerous degree.
Mike: Everything in that first few minutes, dream or not, is just bad. Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace catching the gun, young Bruce falling into the underground cave, only to be lifted up towards the light by swirling bat-symbolism. It established a tone, and the tone was “Here be some deep bullshit.” “This movie is heavy,” the movie says over and over again, pleased with itself.
Evan: Yeah! The word that came to mind for me was “lugubrious”. Even Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, where he’s supposed to be a manically spastic super-genius trust-fund arsehole, felt way too heavy-handed. There’s no zip, nothing nimble anywhere in this movie.
Mike: Except for the one line towards the end, which I’m sure we’ll get to.
Evan: Meanwhile, Kal-El has been living with Lois Lane as Clark Kent and flying around as Superman, winning hearts by saving lives but still the centre of controversy. The tension about whether Superman does more harm than good moves to the foreground when he intervenes to save Lois Lane from terrorists in an African country. A senator holds hearings to call him to accountability, but has also been meeting with Lex Luthor, who wants her to let him bring newly-discovered Kryptonite to the US so he can play with it.
Mike: I don’t care how many lives Superman has saved at this point. By starting the movie off (ignoring the dream sequence now) showing the horror of the street-level destruction from Bruce Wayne’s point of view, I was convinced Superman needed to be taken out. No rational person would call someone who’d caused so much death and destruction a hero. It doesn’t help that Henry Cavill is a plastic doll.
Evan: Yeah, that one montage where he’s saving lives felt like the most cynical middle-finger bullshit. “So, this is what you wanted?! Here, Clark is saving so many lives now! Happy?!”
Mike: He doesn’t even deserve a secret identity, that monster.
Evan: Part of my problem with BvS is that its story logic is so terrible. It’s a collection of plot beats with scant, rotten connective tissue. The thematic underpinnings that are supposed to tie things together are awful. Batman wants to kill Superman — calling it the most important thing he’ll ever do — because he’s too powerful, Superman isn’t sure about his place in the world, Wonder Woman left humanity because underexplained bad reasons. It’s impossible to accept the movie as sincere.
Mike: As much as I loved her, there needed to be a little less Wonder Woman in this. Bringing her in during the fight against the grey, genital-free mutant ninja turtle Lex Luthor created using the genital-free mutant ninja turtle machine he found on the Kryptonian ship would have been enough. Lacing her throughout the story made me expect more from her. But I am getting ahead of the movie here. We’ve got at least two more dream sequences to get through before that confrontation.
Evan: Man, the dream sequences… They were undoubtedly the worst part of the movie, as far as storytelling. Bruce falls asleep and sees into a future ruled by Superman with an extra helping of parademons?! Gets visited by someone who you can’t really tell is the Flash, in a riff on Crisis on Infinite Earths?!
Mike: Hahaha. I was thinking the same thing. “How are these people going to know that’s the Flash?” If those dream sequences were cut completely this would have been a much more… well, no. I at least wouldn’t have been falling asleep towards the end.
Evan: This franchise hasn’t earned any of its invocation of the fantastic. There’s a dissonance at its heart. Snyder’s been setting up a ultra-gritty, grounded take on this universe and then starts sprinkling sci-fi shit in there. It doesn’t hold together. Normal-dude Batman, of all people, has clairvoyant foreshadowing powers. FOH.
Mike: As does Lex Luthor, apparently. He spends the entire movie feeding Jolly Ranchers to CIA agents and hinting at Darkseid. I half expected him to start handing out pamphlets about it.
Mike: There is a lot of groundwork being laid here. Strip it all away and this might have been a much tighter, more enjoyable film. The first few Marvel movies kept the expanded universe stuff to post-credits scenes. Batman v Superman is very impatient about expanding the DC cinematic universe.
Evan: This is Warner Bros. trying to do in one movie what Marvel did in, like, four or five. Teasing the other metahumans in security footage? Weak. One friend said the Cyborg tease was like a bad YouTube fan film.
Mike: Hahahaha. It was! It was like someone superimposed a scientist over a faded Iron Maiden album cover and then went to town in After Effects.
Evan: I think the biggest sin in BvS is that it robs these versions of Clark and Bruce of the chance to stand up for their convictions. Supes wants to take out Bats because he thinks the Bat goes over the line; Bats wants to kill Supes because he’s too powerful to exist. Only then Lex kidnaps Martha Kent. So then the whole reason Clark and Bruce fight changes. It’s not because they’re these diametrically opposed larger-than-life figures. It’s because of weak-arse plot contrivance. And then! They stop fighting because a decades-old bit of trivia. It’s the worst nerd dog-whistle ever.
Mike: And then Lex Luthor activates his Doomsday machine. After five, thankfully. Not a lot of people on the streets of Metropolis after business hours. Screw you, movie.
The thing is, at a basic level the basic plot here could be good. The motivations behind the Batman and Superman conflict. Batman and Wonder Woman both investigating Luthor, Batman trying to hijack Luthor’s Kryptonite shipment — these are beats that would have worked really well in comic book form. But then Snyder had to go all Watchmen on it.
Evan: This movie is what happens when meatheads decide they’re going to wave the nerd flag. We have to talk about the the big event near the end because, again, it shows Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of superhero symbolism. Once Doomsday shows up, you know Superman is going to die. That’s the only thing Doomsday is good for: killing Superman. Superman dies and then Batman and Wonder Woman talk about, essentially, forming the Justice League.
Mike: Superman falling on his spear. SYMBOLISM YOU GUYS! GET IT?
Evan: This is a Justice League that starts with Superman’s death. It feels wrong because it’s centring darkness and loss in this emo, fetish-y way that undermines any messaging about hope or altruism. Worse still, it sets up like at least five years of dread. I’m so nervous about the rest of this universe they’re building.
The movie keeps telling us that Batman and Superman are doing justice but never convinces you of that.
Mike: There are two good things about this movie. One is Wonder Woman’s grin in the middle of the Doomsday fight. That moment alone gave me hope for the next movie in this undertaking.
Mike: The other is the only line in the movie that made me laugh. Batman saves Superman’s Martha. “I’m a friend of your son’s.”
That’s all the good. I could list dozens of bad things. Perry White as the newspaper editor who tells his reporters what to write. The Doomsday contrivance. Being able to see Gotham from Metropolis. The f***ing bagpipe funerals. Superman hanging over the flood victims like glowing alien Jesus. “We get the symbolism. Could you possibly save us now?”
Evan: Hahahaaha, yep. After I saw the movie, I had drinks with friends who hadn’t yet. As I ranted about what I didn’t like, we were all musing about how much money BvS might make and whether it might stifle plans for more DC superhero movies. I still want those movies to happen but I desperately want them to branch out into different tonalities. For a lifelong fan like me, watching these characters get twisted into nigh-unrecognisable form is like torture. There’s no optimism here. Seeing “good” triumph over “evil” here is like watching a snuff film where they kill the Superfriends.
Mike: In closing, let me just say this is the one time I enjoyed the breakfast cereals more than the movie they represented.