I haven’t seen Batman versus Superman, and honestly I probably won’t until it’s on Netflix or someone literally pays me to see it, but I have seen Man of Steel and read enough reviews to see that it’s essentially the same thing only somehow worse. Still, this is less of a review, and more a critique of Zach Snyder’s storytelling abilities. He simply doesn’t know how to tell a good story.
Zach Snyder says he’s trying to bring superheroes into the 21st century, or “grow up” as he puts it. But having superheroes kill indiscriminately isn’t mature, it’s lazy. Any ten-year-old will look at his action figures and dream up a scenario where all the hero does is kill the bad guys. Audiences can choose from literally thousands of movies where all the heroes do is kill their way to a happy ending. If you’re making a movie about immortal superheroes, you have to have something at stake other than mortal danger to the characters. Batman is fucking Batman, we all know he’s not going to die, and Superman is literally a god. Having them not kill people is the only way to generate any kind of drama.
Now let’s take the finale from The Dark Knight, when the Joker has posed his own henchmen as hostages while strapping guns to the actual hostages, hoping to fool the police into slaughtering innocent people. Now sure, Batman could have gone in with a machine gun strapped to each arm and started mowing down the Joker’s henchmen. But that would have been boring because there’d be absolutely nothing at stake, Batman certainly isn’t going to die and he’s not going to shoot innocents by accident because that would be an entirely different movie. The fact that Batman has to peacefully subdue the Joker’s goons, save the hostages from police snipers, and clue the SWAT teams into the deception all at the same time is what generates the drama in that scene. And it worked perfectly, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
But let’s bring a non-superhero movie into the mix, just to illustrate heroism outside of that genre: Terminator 2. After John Connor meets the Terminator, he orders him not to kill anyone and it’s this limitation that generates most of the emotion in the movie. When they attack Cyberdyne headquarters, the Terminator could have just mowed down every police officer he saw, but again, that would have been meaningless. We’d get absolutely no dramatic value from that. Instead, we get to watch as he pauses to allow police officers to see where he’s aiming and find cover. The Terminator doesn’t win because he killed his enemies, he won because he didn’t.
It’s the lack of this kind of drama that made Man of Steel and Batman V Superman so meaningless and hollow. There’s no sense of drama, no stakes, just a constant barrage of noise and light.
In Man of Steel there was no tension in the final fight between Zod and Superman, because watching two immortal beings punching each other is an inherently boring idea. And yet there could have been so much tension had Zach Snyder actually kept to Superman’s guiding principle of doing good and helping people. There’s one scene in particular, where Zod throws a tanker truck at him and Superman just casually hops over it, allowing it to annihilate the building behind him. It’s completely devoid of emotion or meaning as is, but imagine if Superman had thrown himself into it. Realizing that there were people behind him, he would take the hit for them because he can take the hit.
That’s a hero.
Imagine the battle with Zod, only instead of Superman casually throwing him through buildings and racking up more collateral damage than most modern wars, Superman holds back. Sure, Superman can punch Zod through a building, but what if Superman chose to let Zod hit him instead, rather than risk any innocent people.
Then it’s no longer an even playing field, because Superman is now at a disadvantage. Zod can unleash with all his might but Superman has to defeat Zod while at the same time restraining himself so as not to endanger the people around him. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call drama. That would have been a movie worth watching, and it might have even moved a few to tears when Superman finally has to take Zod’s life, after doing everything he could to save everybody including the very man he was fighting.
But instead all we got was wanton destruction with no meaning.
Batman v Superman, completely missing the point of why people hated Man of Steel, goes even further by removing any and all stakes from the action. Clunky exposition is inserted into the film to tell the audience that the heroes are in sparsely populated or abandoned areas of the city. Just huge swathes of an enormous city are just completely empty. So we’re left with two nigh invincible gods and Batman.
Yes, Batman saves Martha and Superman saves Lois. Big deal, Superman literally flies at the speed of a bullet and Batman just John McClane’s his way to save Martha. There was nothing to challenge the limits of Batman or Superman’s abilities. Challenge that could have been provided by Batman saving while not killing.
Now I can already hear people hurriedly rushing to comment about how Christopher Nolan’s (or any variation) Batman totally killed people because no human could survive situation X or Y, and the only reason they didn’t die is because the writers didn’t want them to.
To which I say: Duh.
That’s literally how storytelling works. The writer setups a world, establishes rules for it, and then works to create a compelling story in that world while working within the rules. Even as close as Nolan’s Batman franchise flirts with reality, it’s still a comic book movie, with giant tanks rolling down streets without the entire national guard being called out to find it. When Batman punches a man in the head and knocks him out, he’s just knocked out, not dead from a brain hemorrhage as would most likely happen in real life.
Just like when Tom Cruise gets knocked down by an explosion in Mission Impossible, he’s just knocked down, not suffocating because his lungs collapsed from the concussion wave. Or how any action hero can take a shot to the shoulder and be fine, rather than bleeding to death from a severed axillary artery or have his arm hang limp at his side because the bullet severed a critical tendon.
Zach Snyder’s DC Comics world doesn’t have any of the rules that a comic book movie about invincible gods needs to have. The characters are immortal (and no Superman isn’t really dead, so don’t even start) and they can do whatever they want. So why should I be emotionally invested in anything happening on the screen? Because of Superman’s love for Lois Lane? Hardly any screen time was dedicated to actually showing their relationship, we’re just left to assume it’s a great love. Because Batman is tired and sad? There was some possibility there, but instead of giving us something cool to justify that weary Batman, they just replayed the same origin story we all know by heart.
Dark, gritty violence isn’t original. It isn’t mature. It’s just boring. People have been killing people since long before we were standing upright. If you want to show me something really unique, show me someone using all their power to not kill someone.
And then maybe I’ll pay attention.