Three years ago, Superman got his own Christopher Nolan-influenced movie reboot, full of brooding portents and Kryptonian politics. Man of Steel was a pretty good movie, albeit one with serious flaws. Now the sequel is out, and it deals with a lot of the same ideas and themes. And fumbles them completely.
Minor spoilers ahead. Like, if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll be okay.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that critics generally don’t like Batman v Superman. I agree with them. It’s a shitshow, without any redeeming qualities. I’m not sure how much I have to add to what other people have already said about this film—except that I’m in a somewhat unique position as someone who quite liked Man of Steel and loathed Batman v. Superman. So I’m mostly going to talk about why I think one works and the other doesn’t.
First off, Batman v Superman is technically a sequel to Man of Steel, but it’s more properly a do-over. It’s the same movie, more or less, with the same structure and the same themes. Basically, both movies ask, “Can we accept Kal-El as an okay guy, even though he’s an alien?” Everyone chews over this for two hours, then there’s a big-ass fight and we get an answer. Except this time, there’s Batman.
So why do I think Man of Steel manages to be a satisfying movie (just about), but Batman v. Superman is as boring as watching compost break down? I’ve thought about this a lot, the past few days, and I think it comes down to four things: 1) Story. 2) Genre. 3) Characters. 4) Action.
I’m just going to go thru them one by one.
Man of Steel has a lot of shortcomings, but one thing it has going for it is a very solid arc, and a real through-line, that actually pays off.
What few people seem to get about Man of Steel is, it’s actually a very optimistic movie. Here’s what happens: Kal-El is sent to Earth, the survivor of a doomed planet, and is raised by the Kents, who fear what’ll happen to him if other people find out he’s an alien. So they urge him to keep his powers secret, and Pa Kent even sacrifices his life to deter Clark from using his powers publicly. Years later, some more aliens show up, and they’re evil as all fuck. Superman is forced to emerge from hiding to fight them.
So the first time anybody finds out about Superman is not when he saves a plane from crashing, but when he gets caught up in a giant scrape with other members of his own species. This scenario stacks the deck massively against anybody ever accepting, let alone welcoming, Superman. But because Superman shows so much concern for human life, and is clearly fighting to protect Earth from his own kind, he wins people over.
As I said in my review back in the day, Christopher Meloni has the single most important line of dialogue in the whole movie, when he says of Superman: “This man is not our enemy.” It’s lucky that they got an actor of Meloni’s caliber to deliver that line, so it actually registers instead of seeming cheesy or a throwaway. It’s actually a powerful moment, and a turning point in the film.
Man of Steel’s whole point is that xenophobia can be overcome, and that people are actually capable of distinguishing between Superman and General Zod, even in a fraught situation. I will generally forgive a lot if a movie has a solid narrative through-line, and a beginning, middle and end that actually add up to something, and Man of Steel aces that. (Even as it stumbles in other areas.)
Meanwhile, I could narrate the excessively convoluted plot of Batman v. Superman for you (if I wasn’t trying to avoid spoilers)—but there’s no way to describe the story of the film. There’s no there there, and the closest the film comes to having an arc is kind of flimsy and falls apart if you even look at it. This movie’s version of Meloni’s pivotal line is so laughable, your face will hurt.
Basically, everything in Man of Steel clearly comes from the film-makers thinking about Superman, and the fact that he’s an undercover alien, and trying to figure out what story they can tell about that, one that’s never been told before. Everything in Batman v. Superman, meanwhile, comes from the title. You know you’re making a movie where Batman and Superman have to fight, so you have to reverse-engineer a plot that justifies it. It’s the worst kind of inductive reasoning.
Throw in an unexamined ambition to pay tribute to Frank Miller’s famous Bats/Supes slugfest in 1986's The Dark Knight Returns, and you’re left with a movie that has no center of gravity, one that just barely lives up to its title but delivers nothing real.
And I’m just gonna leave this 2005 quote from Batman v. Superman co-writer David S. Goyer here: “Batman vs. Superman is where you go when you admit to yourself that you’ve exhausted all possibilities... It’s somewhat of an admission that the franchise is on its last gasp.” (I already quoted it here, but it bears repeating.)
Director Zack Snyder is really good at a few things, chief among them splashy imagery. He’s basically perfected the “comic book panel in live action” thing that Robert Rodriguez and a few others have toyed with, using CG effects, greenscreen and a ton of slow-mo to create a splash page on a big screen.
Snyder’s films superficially belong to various genres, but by and large, he only does one: pulp action.
In Man of Steel, Snyder’s penchant for the kinetic-but-static image gets a bit grating after a while, but it works with the story in a few ways: The sterility goes well with the alien society of Krypton, and helps us feel Clark Kent’s alienation. The lingering shots of laundry and cornfields convey wistfulness. The alien attack is vaguely awe-inspiring. Etc. But mostly, Man of Steel uses Snyder’s stylized-pulp gimmicks in the service of a pulpy story about aliens who come to Earth looking for a skull full of DNA. Man of Steel is a comic-booky story about aliens, with a Nolanesque sheen.
Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman is a genre mutt, and not in an interesting way. This is not because Batman and Superman belong to different genres—which is what I was thinking at first, when I was trying to puzzle this out. Rather, the genre confusion happens because someone (co-writer Chris Terrio?) has tried to graft a political thriller onto a superhero slugfest.
Batman v. Superman is not actually a political thriller—the plot has almost nothing to do with politics, or conspiracy, or government, or other things that political thrillers are generally about. But the movie spends tons and tons of energy creating the trappings of a political thriller, basically out of nothing. There are endless scenes where people dig for classified secrets, or talk about mysterious codephrases. People say things like, “I’ve denied your import license” with bloody-minded seriousness. None of this stuff amounts to anything, but it’s where the movie’s energy is.
And the fact that the “political thriller” ends up being the world’s shaggiest shaggy dog story is just part of the problem. This movie also wants to have Something to Say about the American zeitgeist—and just as I surmised, there is an elaborate metaphor about fascism and hero-worship. If you thought Bane’s weird “Occupy Wall Street” posturing in The Dark Knight Rises was spot-on and relevant, you’ll probably still find this stuff tiresome and incoherent.
The other problem, though, is that if Batman v. Superman actually had the guts of a political thriller to go with its borrowed skin, the last person you would hire to direct it is Zack Snyder. His lens clambers past an endless succession of government chambers, corporate headquarters and newspaper offices—even this movie’s Batcave looks like a weird industrial loading deck—and he finds nothing to fix onto.
This is where Snyder and Christopher Nolan part ways. Nolan would have had a field day with this material, and you might not even care that it’s pointless and dumb. Snyder can do a reasonable job of adapting Nolan’s “dark, gritty” approach to superheroes to his own style, but he’s at a total loss with this thriller stuff.
In both films, Henry Cavill’s Superman is a constipated cipher. His personality consists of a bored scowl, his charisma is nil. Man of Steel surrounds him with somewhat more memorable characters—with mixed results, admittedly. But Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Amy Adams and to some extent Russell Crowe all work hard to anchor the movie’s emotional arc, and there are some moments of real feeling, here and there.
Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman’s other characters are either given short shrift, or are just as unlikable as Cavill’s Superman.
Batman, for instance, is a psychotic thug. Bruce witnessed the carnage, and decided to blame Superman even though he saw firsthand that the worst destruction was caused by those floating alien death platforms that Superman was trying to destroy. And now, Bruce is convinced that Superman is just too powerful to be allowed to continue being Super—because, as he says, if there’s even a one percent chance that Superman is our enemy, we have to treat it as a 100 percent certainty.
As part of the movie’s belabored fascist metaphor, Bruce has nightmares (visions?) in which Superman becomes a dictator over a post-apocalyptic world, aided by an army of Super-stormtroopers and flying monkeys. This doesn’t feel much like Batman—not because he’s so brutal and demented, but because the real Batman is a lot smarter than this.
Simply put, this movie has an idiot plot, and Batman is the idiot.
And then there’s Lex Luthor. Someone clearly told Jesse Eisenberg that this movie is the Dark Knight to Man of Steel’s Batman Begins, and he’s doing his damndest to give a Heath Ledger-esque performance. There are a lot of cackling and muttering and gesticulation and squawking. Watching the trailers, I had thought Eisenberg’s loopy acting might be this movie’s saving grace—but a concentrated dose of his faux mania actually turns out to be the worst thing, and it fits weirdly with the movie’s desperate craving to be taken seriously.
Jeremy Irons, as Alfred, is mostly there to be a sounding board for Batman’s bizarre rants, and to deliver the important message that fearing what you don’t understand will turn you into a monster. (He practically winks at the camera as he says that.)
There are no likable characters in this overstuffed film. There aren’t even any interesting characters in this film. To some extent, this goes back to the aforementioned problems with story and genre, but also excerbates them.
There are plenty of reasons to watch superhero movies—for the fun and escapism, for the big questions about power and responsibility, for the themes of heroism. But one of the main reasons to watch a superhero film is for the punching. There’s something satisfying and enjoyable about watching people with extraordinary powers or skills wail on each other.
The action in Man of Steel was bloody fantastic. Superman and his fellow Kryptonians throw down with some clever, exciting uses of superspeed, flight, strength and heat vision. I actually did not mind that those fight scenes go on for ages, because they’re beautiful. Not only that, but those fights help tell the story, because you see Superman’s learning curve, and meanwhile the other Kryptonians slowly realize they don’t need their fancy armor.
A movie called Batman v. Superman is going to live or die based on the quality of its fight scenes. And... they’re completely humdrum. There are a few good moves here and there, and Wonder Woman has a couple of killer images. But the super-fighting is almost all just kind of... there. Even leaving aside the fact that everything leading up to the big fight sequence is mind-numbing, the actual fighting is just kind of adequate. The CG takes over. There’s a lot of people being whacked through walls and floors, but not a lot of sense of motion or urgency. People are just flying around and being flung everywhere, like pseudo-wirework. All the best bits are in the trailers.
Maybe Snyder took to heart all the criticisms of the wanton destruction in Man of Steel? (This whole movie, after all, is just an elaborate meta-discussion of that issue.) Whatever the reason, there’s just not the same joyful brawling as the first movie, and the fighting doesn’t pack the same narrative punch, either.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Man of Steel. And that’s why I’m sad that Batman v. Superman, is essentially a rehash of that earlier film, using the same basic structure and engages with all the same ideas—except with the grace and agility of a man with all his fingers duct-taped to each other, and then to a styrofoam beer cooler.