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Batman v Superman, Part II: The Culmination of 30 Years in Comic Books

BVS - SupermanWelcome to Part II of my Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review.  Well, that’s not quite true.  The review is here (Go check it out).  This is more of a follow-up touching on the story and themes of the movie that require to go into spoilers.  So let this be your warning: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN! If you don’t wish to be spoiled, turn back now.  OK, Got it?  Let’s Go.

In 1986, two comic book series came out which forever shifted the landscape of the comic book industry.  The first was Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.  The other was Frank Miller & Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns.  Moore’s book deconstructed the superhero landscape; revealing the foibles and flaws of its masked vigilantes and, by extension, those inspired by it.  His “superman” was a god losing touch with humanity.  His night vigilantes were either fat, impotent losers or crazed maniacs with no regard for life. Miller’s book meanwhile showed an aged, grizzled Batman rising out of the darkness to fight the same old criminals and maniacs he’s always faced.  It culminated in a massive showdown between Batman and Superman (with Green Arrow and Robin helping).  This would be the first time that the two biggest comic book characters would square against one another.  But not the last.

The impact that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns would have on the comic industry cannot be understated. For over a decade — during the Bronze Age of Comic Books — the move away from the campy and childish stories of before had been taking place.  Iron Man dealt with Tony Stark’s alcoholism.  Green Lantern/Green Arrow juxtaposed its heroes on opposing sides of social movements and changes to American society.  Topics such as racism, drug abuse, poverty and others were being touched upon by Spider-Man, Batman and other famous superhero faces. The era that those two books gave way to though — the so-called Dark Age of Comics — would continue to tackle those concepts but with a shift in how the superheroes were seen.

Rather than being noble heroes though, they were now psychologically-troubled or scarred.  The newer heroes were those that saw the rule of law as shackles and the only response possible was one of violence – making them not heroes, but anti-heroes.  This is how characters like Wolverine, The Punisher and Lobo skyrocketed in popularity while newer characters like Spawn, Venom and Cable shot past older characters with decades of history.  Books like Fantastic Four, Thor, Superman and Captain America were seen as antiquated and past any point of relevance – with some of them stopping print.  This forced the makers of those books to look for ways to update their books to fit the tastes of the times.  Their response was to occasionally replace their heroes with edgier versions: Thor to Thunderstrike, Batman to Azrael.  When they didn’t, they would have major crossover events that appeared to shift the landscape and showed their heroes in a gritty new light — the “Age of Apocalypse” in the X-Men comic books or the “Death of Superman” storylines.

BVS - BatmanI bring all this up because it is this era of comic books that is influencing the movies adapted and being released onto our screens.  When it came time to make their “Dark Knight Trilogy,” Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer went and mined from Miller’s two big books, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, as well as other major Dark Age Batman stories like The Long Halloween.  And it is from here that they’re mining to build their new DC Cinematic Universe.  The influences are obvious on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

A few years back I wrote that I never wanted to see the “Death of Superman” adapted.  Well, I got that in this movie – truncated as it was.  Lex Luthor uses the corpse of General Zod, his own blood and the crashed Kryptonian vessel where Kal-El found his Superman outfit to form Doomsday.  When Clark tells Lois that she is his world, this is something that’s been said in Kingdom Come and Injustice: Gods Among Us.  The armor Batman wears when he faces off against Superman is ripped straight out of The Dark Knight Rises.  The arguments that Clark Kent levels against Batman are ripped right out of The Dark Knight Rises as well.  We even see a Robin outfit that’s taken from the “A Death in the Family” storyline.

But it’s more than just taking whole cloth from classic books that’s the problem.  It’s all about an ethos, an ideal.  What is the heart of the story.  And Batman v Superman has a heart of darkness.

I don’t just mean that the movie has a dark palate or one full of shadows. (Although that is the case as well.  Lots of dark tones, shadows and colors throughout this movie). This is a movie where the good guys are the murdering type.  Batman v Superman has a Batman that kills people.  The “I only have one rule” clause that was so forcibly stated in the “Dark Knight Trilogy” has apparently been shoved aside for this new DC Universe.  Batman brands bad guys who everyone knows will be slaughtered in jail thanks to his brand.  He drives the Batmobile through trucks full of henchmen and drags their vehicles towards certain death.  When he fights them, there’s no sense that he’s looking to hurt but not kill. (We’ll set aside which one you’d prefer: to have Batman break your neck and turn you into a quadriplegic versus burning from Batman setting your flamethrower loose).

It isn’t surprising, however, given that by aging Batman, they’ve released one filled with regret.  Yes, the murders of his parents still haunt him tremendously.  But it’s not just that.  He throws a comment at Clark Kent about “freaks dressed like clowns” and the Batcave has the Robin suit emblazoned with The Joker’s taunts on display.  He continually has nightmares about the impact that Superman can have on the world – and these nightmares go to the very darkest of alternatives for the Last Son of Krypton from his perspective.  It’s like he cannot trust someone with that level of power flying above his head.  His response to his fears and hates is to confront them in the most violent manner possible.  No chance for a conversation to work out concerns.  No “I’ve tried to help people before and here’s what you can do better” talk.  Nothing.

As for Superman, he flies full force into a bad guBVS - Bruce & Alfredy and puts him through at least a wall.  So there’s one person he killed.  There’s also the countless victims of Luthor’s bombing in the Senate that Superman chooses to just stand and feel morose over as they die!  Not a super muscle is moved by him to help clear out victims.  Not a freeze breath to stop the fires.  And when the time comes to fight either Batman or Doomsday, once again the fighting happens right in the middle of the city – although, this time, the movie hilariously gives us a couple of “that area is mostly empty at this hour.”  Yeah, except that all the electrical discharges and noise has clearly brought in first responders and media members.  But I guess their deaths wouldn’t count.

What we do get are two whole scenes of Superman moping about his purpose to the two important women in his life, Lois and Martha.  Despite the fact that the movie throws us a little montage of Superman doing super deeds – saving astronauts, rescuing flood and fire victims – once again Superman must spend the bulk of this movie questioning being Superman.  Which is hilarious given that A) that was the whole crux of his search in Man of Steel and B) there’s a freaking statue built to him in Metropolis where he saved the world from Zod.  You would think that would be proof enough that he’s doing the right thing.  Except for the fact that Senator Finch is holding hearings and he’s getting blamed for dead people in Africa.

So let’s talk about those dead people in Africa.  Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen (yes, that was Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal) go to interview a warlord being watched by military contractors.  (Aside #2: How can they afford to go halfway around the world but then Perry White balks at the cost of a helicopter for Lois to cross the bay to Gotham?)  When Jimmy’s tracker is found, he’s shot in the face by Callan Mulvey’s Anatoli (AKA the Russian hit man/gang leader). At some point, the sonic boom of Superman approaching warns the contractors to get out of dodge.  So they shoot everyone dead while Lois is being held hostage in a room by the warlord – leaving him for Superman to solve.  Somehow the countless bullet-riddled bodies and the military-grade shell casings left behind don’t tell people that this wasn’t the work of Superman.  Instead all the dead are piled against the Man of Steel’s actions – the very outcome Lex Luthor wanted.  Had Luthor created a situation where Superman publicly failed to save people, it’d be one thing.  But what he does is create an easily-solvable puzzle for Lois Lane to solve.  Because, without it, Lois Lane has nothing to do in this movie besides being the Woman Who Falls from Things — again.

With so many characters acting dark, morose, angry or dumb, it’s not surprising that everyone’s favorite is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.  But let’s take a step back and consider that she’s in a total of 10 minutes of this movie.  She has a few scenes with Bruce Wayne, a gigantic role in the battle and one super-duper set-up scene for the rest of the Justice League where she watches videos on her computer.  It’s more a glorified cameo than a supporting role; which is a descriptor for the bulk of the characters in this movie.  The difference, however, is that Wonder Woman is fun.  She’s active, exciting and a blast to behold.  And that’s rare in this movie.

BVS - DoomsdayHowever, it isn’t when you see it through the prism of the Dark Age books they’re using for their source.  In those days, superheroes were not supposed to be fun or have fun or enjoy their powers.  They were meant to be dark and brooding and troubled.  Now that fits Batman and The Punisher fine – characters forged from tragedy.  But a character like Superman isn’t that character.  He’s the one who’s supposed to be a beacon, to shine brightly.  It was perfectly fine to have him full of doubt in Man of Steel, but by this point, he should be Superman.  However he’s still not the superhero who can achieve the impossible or do the things the others cannot.  It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed to have Superman in their movie, which would be an odd position to have for a Superman movie.

Or is this a Batman movie?  See, given the lack of a solid storyline running through this movie, it plays as both and if it feels like the Batman half is better, it’s because all this somber and lack of humor plays better with this version of the Caped Crusader.  However, in an odd twist, I think he got more jokes than Superman did.  At least with Alfred in tow, there’s someone who can riff and play off Bruce’s somberness.  No character around Clark or Superman plays such a role for him.  He remains a character alone in the world.  In any case, this dichotomy makes it very difficult for this movie to ever come together.  It’s wanting to have it all and, even with 150 minutes of running time, it cannot.  Which brings me to the Doomsday ending.

So let’s go through Lex Luthor’s plan: stoke the mistrust and fear that Bruce Wayne has for Superman and likewise for Clark Kent for Batman.  At the same time, create an atmosphere of mistrust by setting Superman up as a threat to the public – which makes the Senate hearings necessary.  Then he takes advantage of an injured man from Metropolis to bomb this Senate hearing to further frame Superman.  At the same time, he manages to get access to the crashed Kryptonian ship in downtown Metropolis as well as to the remains of General Zod, which seems to have been well preserved for a two-year-old corpse.  Working with both, he uses them to fashion a monster that could potentially kill Superman.  Then get a shipment of kryptonite from the Southeast Indian Ocean into the United States, whether through open or secret channels.  And use the kryptonite to kill Superman.  But after all this was done, kidnap Lois Lane and Martha Wayne to force Superman into fighting Batman who will kill Superman.  Or Superman will kill him and then Doomsday would kill Superman.

So clearly Lex Luthor wants to kill Superman.  But…why?  It’s never fully established.  Luthor goes on several rants about his power, the threat that Superman possessed and, in the third act, he starts labeling him as “god.”  Then, at the end, when Batman confronts him in jail, Luthor starts to throw hints at some serious threat that is coming and that required Superman to be gone.  Did he know that before he began this very convoluted plan to kill him? Is this all a ploy to get Superman off before Darkseid invariably attacks Earth and is Luthor working for him?  None of this is fleshed out. Instead, we’re all left to ponder why the wunderkind with the really bad social graces seems to have a major issue with the alien that flies.  That is, however, in keeping with this movie.  The things that should be stated are hinted at or not fleshed out. BVS - Wonder Woman

This is going to be a problem for DC’s Cinematic Universe going forward unless they’re willing to have different directors and writers flesh out in full their heroes and villains over the next few movies BEFORE Justice League.  They really do need more and diverse creators involved and stop leaving it all in the hands of Snyder, Goyer and Nolan.  Not only because they’ll bring different sensibilities and attitudes to DC’s superhero lineup but also because they’ll be diligent about touching on the vast backgrounds and potential of these characters.  It’d be foolish to continue along this path for all the characters when the Dark Age of Comic Books ended over a decade ago.  It’s quite OK to have a dark and brooding movie here and there. But when all their characters feel the same, it’s going to hurt them in the long run.

So at the end, what to make of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?  When I watched Man of Steel, I considered it an 8 out of 10.  Two years after, I think it’s a come down to a 7 out of 10. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s its own thing, unique and different from Superman or “Lois & Clark” or “Smallville.”   Leaving Batman v Superman, I can say it was at best a 5-6 film for me.  Average.  How will I feel about it in a couple of years? I can’t imagine my estimation of it will increase with time.  Moments may continue to look brightly but the whole just never reaches the aims it sets for.  And that’s a shame.

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