Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a success because it isn't funny. The film contains funny moments: Batman intoning a robotic "shit" before scrambling around like the biggest possible goof definitely caused a roar of laughter in the theatre when I watched the film. However, it's not a movie that depends on being funny, and that's the strength of Zack Snyder's interpretation of the iconic DC Comics characters.
The contemporary superhero film is most closely associated with what we could call, with appropriate reference, "the Marvel Method." This method was developed in the prehistory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to understand it we should look to the wildly successful Spider-Man films that appeared in the earliest part of this cinematic century.
Spider-Man and The X-Men, along with some other Marvel characters like Blade, were licensed to different companies in the 1990s. The logic was very much the business model of that decade: licence out the content, rake in the cash from the licence, and sit back and make more content that can then be licensed. In the age before the massive vertical integrations of multimedia conglomerate companies (with the acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm by Disney reigning as the pinnacle of this model), letting Sony handle a wise-cracking webhead while floating the mothership some cash seemed like a good idea.
Sam Raimi is an excellent, wonderful filmmaker, but he might have ruined the superhero film. 2002's Spider-Man is the perfect balance of comedy beats and action setpieces with just the right amount of emotional sadittude to really make you buy that Toby McGuire could stand up to Willem Dafoe for more than ten seconds. It's clear why Raimi was tapped for the film. Spider-Man is, in the comics canon, a really funny character. It is apparent from the start that any film that stars him would require stepping across genre lines into an action-comedy hybrid, and Raimi's masterful synthesis of comedy and horror in the Evil Dead franchise of films made him seem like an obvious choice.
He also comes in a package deal with Bruce Campbell. Who can turn that down?
The tragic turn here comes from the success of Spider-Man and its sequel Spider-Man 2 (appropriately, society has agreed that Spider-Man 3: Toby's Dance Time never occurred). We're all victims of Raimi's success. When Marvel decided that they wanted to get into the filmmaking game, they looked to Raimi's Spider-Man films in order to create the template for their first wave of films.
It's important to take a moment to gesture toward the wide range of superhero movies that have existed over the past twenty years. Blade gave us self-serious action with Wesley Snipes' badass gun and swordplay. Ghost Rider showed us a weird supernatural world of fire and violence that contained one of the most constrained Nic Cage performances in years. Ang Lee's Hulk, a forgotten classic, was an attempt to meld psychological drama with the bombastic violence that superheroes are known for. Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's first foray into the genre, was a reserved, serious take on what one man might do to become a hero in the face of infinite responsibility. Additionally, there are the films based on the independents: Mystery Men, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ghost World, and many others.
I'm not suggesting that all of these are shining examples that will stand the test of time, but as an aggregate they demonstrate the wide swath that comics cut through film culture at the tail end of the 20th century. With the release of 2008's Iron Man, though, that width became much more narrow.
The first phase of Marvel films all follow the exact same format. Each are replications of the plot points of Spider-Man with the same hybrid of action and comedy. The entire draw of Iron Man was in the comical line delivery of Robert Downey Jr. The Incredible Hulk repeatedly goes to the well of The Hulk's goofiness, wasting no opportunity to talk about purple pants and the embarrassment of Hulk's size. The entire first half of Captain America is a comedy about a guy who is too weak for Tommy Lee Jones that gets supplanted by a comedy about a guy who has to punch Hitler every night. Thor is maybe the most egregious of that first wave. It is scene after scene of fish-out-of-water comedy whose sole action conflict is a giant robot that blurps a laser out of its face.
This all culminates in Joss Whedon's The Avengers. In that film we are introduced to a cast of dramatic actors who are placed into multiple scenes where they are meant to deliver comedy lines. Captain America is old, but he's not! Tony Stark catches a lackey playing Galaga. It's all a great, wonderful world, and everyone is driven toward the same kinds of lines, all written in the same pop culture comedy voice.
It's strange that the memes and memories that are culturally associated with these films are all the comedy lines. The well-directed action sequences and storylines and narratives of the characters aren't talked about. What I see, release after release, is people only talking about the things that are funny in contemporary Marvel superhero films. The pieces ignore the character interactions or the interesting and strange plot conceits in order to focus on how those interactions generate chortles and guffaws. The breadth of the film is reduced to a razor-thin wire of tracking comedy beats.
Batman v Superman (or BvS for short) is a beautiful antidote for our addiction to the comical superhero film. It is a bleak, confident take on DC's roster of superheroes that doesn't fit them into a comfortable framework. Instead, it is a film that gives us characters with motivations and feelings and expects us to come along for a discomforting ride.
BvS, much like Snyder's Man of Steel, takes itself very seriously. It attempts to balance a wide cast of characters with an engaging spring blockbuster story, and there have been many gleeful attacks that assert that Snyder just wasn't able to hit the mark when it comes to constructing a story that people might actually enjoy. I believe that a lot of those bad feelings are coming from a mismeasure of fans expectations of superhero films versus the kind of story that Zack Snyder is interested in telling.
Snyder has never quite recovered from his work on Watchmen (some might claim that Watchmen has never recovered from Snyder). Much like that film, Batman v Superman rests on a basic critique of superheroes: they are people who are obsessed with moulding the world into the shape of their egos. Alan Moore's work in the Watchmen series is a straightforward argument that the very idea of being a superhero requires a person to exist beyond the pale of what a "normal" person would want from their life. In that light, I don't think it's a stretch to understand BvS as a mainline superhero film that fully embodies that point of view.
There's a scene somewhere past the midpoint of the film where Batman states something to the effect that you need to beat the world into making sense. He's a street-level hero, and this kind of aggressive materialism makes sense for him. Our introduction to him in the film literally has him scrambling along ceilings like a rat, and the longest scene of Batman in combat features him beating criminals with packing boxes, stabbing them with knives, and literally kicking the bones out of their arms. In contrast to Christopher Nolan's Batman, a character who constantly wrestled with how far a hero could or should go to accomplish their mission (by never killing and destroying the surveillance technology that solves the plot in The Dark Knight), Snyder's Batman has stepped beyond any line in his pursuit of the world making sense. So we have to take this "beating=sense" equation literally, and so when we see Batman mowing down enemies with a machine gun multiple times in the film, we're supposed to assume that a lot of sense is being made.
BvS' depiction of Superman works in a similar way. Man of Steel saw Superman lasering through buildings with his eye beams, slamming General Zod and a lot of space debris into Metropolis, and generally doing things with an immense number of casualties that weren't typical of Superman's previous incarnations. It's hard to imagine Richard Donner's time-travelling last son of Krypton breaking the neck of his most hated enemy, but that's what Snyder gave us in Man of Steel, and this movie continues in that tradition. Superman moves further toward selfishness with his constant protection of Lois Lane, and he walks directly into a trap that ends in the bombing of the Unites States Capitol. This Superman is not a noble, selfless alien who cannot help but do good in the nick of time. He's a selfish narcissist whose major failings are all caused by his inability to see himself in relation to the world (which, as the future-telling dream sequence shows, might come to a very destructive head).
These representations of these characters might not be the ones that fans want, but they are certainly ones that have been expressed in comics like The Dark Knight Returns, All-Star Batman and Robin, Superman: Peace on Earth, Red Son, and many other works like them. In the vast plurality of DC Comics there are many dimensions to these characters, and the interpretation put forward by Snyder in Batman v Superman is a heavy mix of these flavours with a cynical shot of Watchmen as a chaser. In Snyder's version, negative interpretations of these heroes are not just possible worlds — they are likely ones.
What is important here is that Zack Snyder trusts the viewer to look at their favourite hero and be both in awe and critical of what those characters are doing. When Batman crashes a car full of people, drags it down the street for a mile on a rope tied to the Batmobile, and then slams it into another car full of people, we're supposed to be excited and be cringing in the same moment. This is accompanied by the image of people screaming as the car crushes them — when Christopher Nolan's Batman implicitly did these things, the impact of the violence was never shown. Snyder has Batman exploding trucks and immolating the people standing on them.
The opening of BvS painstakingly shows the impact of superhero violence with very particular 9/11-style image of Bruce Wayne running into the dust produced by a collapsed building, but the film also glorifies the same kinds of fights that it critiqued in its opening. The entire last twenty minutes of the film are the same kind of rampant, horrifying action that comprised the ending of Man of Steel, and a few scenes suggest a similar death toll the hands of the character Doomsday during its first energy-expending salvo. Many people have critiqued these final scenes for seemingly abandoning the opening lessons of the film, but I feel it is pretty clear that Snyder is pulling the old Watchmen critique here: if you want the spectacle, you have to deal with the consequences. You don't get your superheroes without their bad sides.
Snyder's vision of these heroes wouldn't exist in the Marvel paradigm. Sure, it's possible to tell difficult or tragic stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to mould these fan favourite heroes into their most tragic versions requires draining all the fun out of the superhero world. It's no mistake that portions of Batman v Superman appear to be right out of a Lars von Trier film. Drained of colour and proceeding in slow motion, large chunks of BvS want to actively divest us from the aesthetic and comedic stylings of the contemporary superhero film that Marvel established so successfully over the past decade. It's an inoculation process, and no one likes getting a shot.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed Dawn of Justice, but I don't think that it is the payoff in itself. The film's massive success, carried by marketing, character recognition, and fan curiosity, will hopefully cause a sea change in the way that we understand superhero films in the near future. In the same way that Deadpool recently signalled a desire for an R rated superhero film, I hope that BvS will signal to producers and executives that there's a desire for a superhero film that isn't about the fun and fancy of colourful characters quipping and dropping laugh lines every five minutes. Snyder's take on these iconic characters has slowed and shifted what we might accept as a superhero production, opening interesting doors towards more complex superhero films in the future.