For the first time in cinema history*, viewers were treated to the Trinity heroes of comic books in Zach Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with the two titular heroes joined by Wonder Woman herself, and I will admit front-up that I didn't enjoy this movie. Critical reception has been mixed, at the very best, so I thought I'd have a look at what lessons can be learned moving forwards.
*The first time in live-action, at least. The original honor technically belongs to 2014Ã¢ÂÂs The Lego Movie.
(Spoilers to follow)
The last time I fell asleep in the cinema was sometime in 1997, I think during a showing of Anastasia (I was only five, don't judge me) Maybe I was just tired from work, but Batman v Superman was the closest I came to actually dozing off in a cinema since. Not every film has to be critically perfect; a bad film can be forgiven to a degree if it is at least entertaining, as proven by the era of the summer blockbuster. But Snyder's latest outing into the DC Universe was simply and utterly boring. For such a long run-time, clocking in at around two hours and thirty-three minutes, barely anything happens. Which is bizarre, considering that the film races through scenes at a frantic pace. The structure of this film is an arguable mess, built around the titular fight between the two DC champions and yet somehow failing to suitably justify their conflict and resolution.
What story are you trying to tell and is it narratively consistent?
The film attempts to question the reality of superheroes and how they would be accepted into the real world, which really is a fascinating discussion. Snyder arguably tackled this already in Watchmen (2009), in which the subject matter is far more suited to such a story. For the record, I enjoyed Watchmen and in many ways it plays out the same story of Batman v Superman, but with far more weight. Not only does the previous film do a more interesting job of showing a world jaded by superheroes, but the conflict between the main characters makes sense. By the time things come to a head in the climax, the viewer understands why each character has chosen their position, making the final resolution all that more powerful for its inevitability.
But in Snyder's latest directorial effort, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) fight because the plot orders them to, instead of any organic progression. Their reasons for being opposed aren't solid enough to justify their conflict, too easily settled if they would simply talk. Which is what happens, more or less. But having been built essentially around a single set piece, the plot bends and twists uncomfortable simply to set up this battle, becoming more and more convoluted and untrue to itself. At the same time, the film bounces between various aspects of this story without giving enough focus for any of them to feel fully explored.
For example, we see and explore the consequences of Superman's climactic battle in the previous film. In a montage of Superman's heroics, the overlaying reports by the media continue to talk about the distrust of this god amongst men. A crippled victim of the Battle of the Metropolis goes so far as to kill dozens of people because of his hatred for Superman. But at the end of the film, Superman is treated as a hero following his sacrifice against Doomsday. His sacrifice is heroic, albeit easily avoidable if he had given the clearly more capable Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) the kryptonite spear. But a large part of this story is the idea that Superman's very presence invites this chaos. This is a key part of Batman's vendetta againts Superman, blaming the Man of Steel for bringing the battle with Zod to Earth in the first place. By the same logic, Doomsday is a product of Superman's existence, so what justification do we have for the changed opinion on Superman? And on that note, why does Batman suddenly trust Superman and other Meta-Humans? He completely changes his attitude in the space of minutes and the film simply tells us this. By ignoring its own internal logic, the story deflates under the weight of the inconsistencies and the needed emotional punches become light flails.
Don't just use characters to tell the story. Embrace the story of the characters.
It seems obvious, but it is so often missed that characters are vital to the story. Strong characters can elevate a lack-luster plot and, if we care about them enough, even become the story themselves. How engaging was Breaking Bad, purely for the personal evolution of Walter White's character? Henry Cavill's Superman is a bland cipher whose face seems frozen in a permanent scowl. Considering he is one of the title characters, Superman ends the movie in near to the same emotional place as he started (excusing the lack of a heart beat).
A good test for the quality of your story and characters is to see what happens if you remove the character. Does anything actually change? When you take Lois Lane (Amy Adams) out of the film, do events pan out any differently? Her investigation into the marked bullets goes nowhere truly important, serving only to prove Lex Luthor is a villain, which the audience already knows. Despite the attempts to give her a story beyond simply being Superman's love interest, at the end of the day she adds nothing extra to the narrative. Luthor's own actions are designed only to further the plot, ignoring any continuity with his own character. We know he hates Superman and wants him dead, but his motive is a moving target. Importantly, why get Batman involved? If he has the kryptonite, why not just used it himself or just unleash Doomdsay earlier? In fact, why create Doomsday at all, since the monster seems likely to simply destroy all in its path. When there's no good, consistent reason for Luthor's actions, why should the audience care?
The closest any character in this movie comes to having any kind of character development is Bruce Wayne/Batman, but the audience is left out of crucial steps. Batman's character is a significant departure from Christian Bale's relatively-recent outing as the Caped Crusader, much closer to the character than appeared in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (which the film takes many inspirations from). This Batman is darker, branding his victims and slaughtering goons. At my internal count, Batman outright kills at least fourteen people during this film. While this is jarring compared to most other interpretations of the character, it's not inherently a bad concept. There's an engaging story in there, about how Batman compromised and became willing to kill when he never would before. Our brief tease at the murder of Robin by the Joker is a perfect explanation for this, but it is really barely mentioned. If Batman blames himself for Robin's death, did he do something terrible in retalation, something that made him willing to cross the line? By exploring this in more depth, instead of a few off-hand conversations with Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Batman's actions could bring far more weight and literal punch to his fight with the Man of Steel.
Don't get hung up on the next story and get cocky. Focus on what you're doing now.
The movie suffers from a similar affliction that brought down 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, in that it sacrifices too much of its run-time to set up the next film. It didn't work then and it doesn't work here. I imagine most people don't pay the price of admission to only watch the trailers, they want to watch the movie they paid for. Take the sudden cameo of the Flash (Ezra Miller) for example. As well as being a dream-within-a-dream sequence, which is an utterly terrible storytelling device and should be outright banned from any writing room, it does absolutely nothing. Viewers unfamiliar with comic books will have no idea who that was and the film never references it again, so by the end it sticks out as a simple 'WTF' moment.
Unless it appears towards the story's end, as obvious set-up for the next installment, every part of the narrative should work within a self-contained context. If you weren't to do a follow-up, does it all add-up at the end? It shows a lack of trust in the audience to come back for the next one, as if they needed to be baited and teased. Trust in the current product to be good enough that they will want more. Then, in the next installment, you can go back and add more layers to what came before. As I said before, the real exception to this rule is if the baiting moment comes towards the story's end, either during or after the resolution. Take the appearance Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the first Iron Movie (2008). It opens the door to further stories, but not at the expense of the current narrative.
At the end of the day, do what you think is best. But don't forget to learn from what comes before.
I'm just a guy on the internet. I like to think I know what I'm talking about, but there's every chance I'm simply buying into my own bullshit. At the end of the day, every film maker or writer should experiment, challenge themselves and see what sticks. But just pay attention to what other people are doing and learn from their mistakes and successes. Batman v Superman tries to be different, to try something new and while a unique approach doesn't guarantee anything to be good, by no means should anyone stop trying.