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.
Honestly, my bigger problem is this obession of making these movies “grow up” or whatever (and I would say the same for video games, too). I think people conflate a complex plot with a good story.
I also can’t help but laugh when a guy is talking about making a “mature” movie called Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice (?).
There are tons of great flicks out there that had no aspirations of being “artsy” or “mature” but turned out to be great. Frankly, marvel and DC would be served well if they acknowledged that the draw of their movies was big explosions and fight scenes and just had a simple plot and spent time making the action scenes really tense and sweet.
Yeah, the overly convoluted plots definitely don’t help.
Great post! I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but I think you hit the nail on the head with regards to how Zack Snyder tells stories. I love how stylistic his films are, but there is a lack of substance there because he goes for the big action scenes, the glamorous or revealing or whatever outfits, the explosions, anything that is going to catch your eye. Not to say I don’t enjoy some of it, but in this case, I would agree about him not really “getting” superheroes, and it can come across as cheap.
Yeah I too love the spectacle he creates, unfortunately he just can’t make those spectacles resonate emotionally. I think he needs to watch Daredevil to see how to create a dark gritty comic adaptation while still remaining emotionally involving. Even the Punisher, who kills every bad guy he finds, shows more restraint and humanity than Snyder’s Superman.
Badass post John! I recently saw the movie and was really disappointed. Not only was the action stale as you pointed out, but they ruined Superman’s arc with Eisenburg (I refuse to call him Lex Luthor) and Doomsday. They crammed Batman, Man of Steel 2, Man of Steel 3 and Batman vs Superman into a single movie and it sucked. Imagine if Marvel did the same? What if they crammed Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America, Captain America 2 and Civil War into one two and a half hour film? It would be disastrous. They really rushed this thing and really messed up the character arcs. Sucks because we probably won’t see another Batman v Superman movie until they reboot the universe in 15 years
My heart broke into million pieces when Superman said “No-one stays good in this world.” I didn’t find the movie really good up until that point, but I hated it after that. What a depressing Superman. I’m ready for a new adaptation now.
Greetings. I had read all your serie on Mass Effect recently because I decided to retry it years later (it was still dissapointing). Afterwards I decided to check the rest of your articles. I saw this one. I say that I disagree very much with lot of the points.
I wrote a multiple pages long analysis of the movie when it came out. Unfortunately, it’s in french. Can you read french ? If not, would you be interested in me translating it for you ?
Hi David, I’m always up for a debate about storytelling! So by all means if you want to take the time to translate your article, I’d be happy to read it! Thanks for writing in!
Greetings. Thank you for the reply. I translated it (imperfectly I must say) and here it is:
Thanks David, been a busy week so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’ll do so this weekend and get back to you with my thoughts.
Sorry it took so long to respond, just been really busy and your review was actually remarkably detailed, I was duly impressed. I also agree with the majority of the analysis as well. There’s no denying that Zach Snyder is an accomplished director and cinematographer. I didn’t give the man enough credit, his imagery had more depth than I imagined. I didn’t realize the amount of religious imagery and parallels with the biblical stories.
I may need to just do another article to properly organize my thoughts, but here’s a brief breakdown of my own thoughts.
This may be, as you conclude, a simple difference in perspective. You focus a lot on the cinematography, the imagery of how the scenes are shot, which is no doubt impressive. As I mentioned in the article, he is great creating spectacle. And if that’s how you appreciate a film, then you no doubt enjoyed it. For me I’m much more interested in how a story is told through its dialogue, its plot, and its acting Unfortunately its in these areas that the movie fell short for me. I’ll need to rewatch the film to give you specific examples (I haven’t seen it in 2 years) but the dialogue didn’t feel organic. I never felt like it was real people talking, instead most of the time the dialogue felt expository (it was there to inform the audience about the plot, rather than the characters). I also felt that so much time was devoted to large battles, and grand spectacles, that the characters were never explored to a point where I felt like I cared about them. As I said though, this could all be a matter of perspective, if BvS told a great story to you through its visuals, then you’re not wrong and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
However, I disagree with one of your conclusions: that people don’t like the film because of its parallels with Christian values or symbolism. For instance, the exploration of sin and the road to redemption forms the backbone of many stories, not just ones overtly exploring Christian themes. Oedipal conflicts are another staple of storytelling, regardless of its religious or cultural origin.
I’m not a religious person myself, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of Christian stories, for instance I love CS Lewis’s works., both his Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe series and his lesser known Space Trilogy both had overt Christian themes. I loved all of it.
Using CS Lewis as a comparison though: Aslan I could see as a parallel to Christ. They both love unconditionally, they both sacrifice everything for the greater good, and they both inspire the people around them. Zach Snyder’s Superman did not. Zach Snyder’s Superman struck me as selfish, cynical, and at times even hateful. He was an antihero in my eyes, and as far from a Christlke figure as could be.
Again thanks for sharing your incredibly detailed analysis, it was a pleasure to read something so well researched and it challenged a lot of my own views. I’m going to watch BvS again, with your analysis in mind, and see if I can see what you see. Either way I’ll hopefully right another article on the movie, with more specifics of why I didn’t see Zach Snyder’s Superman as the Christlike figure you did.
Greetings. Thank you for the reply.
1) I agree with you (now, since it’s been two years since I wrote that), that the movie was not received that way because of the cultural message of it. In all cases, it might have played a sub-conscious role, but nothing more.
2) I agree with the fact that the narrative (and it’s subset, like dialogue) were bad is in part because it feels like the movie was created at the symbolic or structural level and felt short in the rest (even action scene are bad to be honest). It feels like he pooled all his energy in one thing only. Some movies (Star Wars) or books (LOTR) can do both. But I guess it depends on the goal or short-sightedness of the creator.
3) We could say that Superman was incomplete for the analogy yes. This is why, in my function part, I invoked the difference between Christ-like and Christian movie. Structurally, Superman served a symbolic function that resembled Christ. That being said, not considering the redemption backbone of the movie, you are right that Christian values were severely lacking in some characters, even heroes.
I don’t think rewatching the movie will make the dialogue and action be better on the narrative level. The movie had its share of failures, which is why I said in my introduction that I would not do a “critic” regarding the “enjoyability” of the movie.