To say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a divisive film would be to do a disservice to the word itself. Batman v Superman didn’t just divide people, it put them at odds with one another in a manner similar to the titular gladiator bout between its two protagonists.
On the one side were the fervent haters: fans who preferred Marvel’s lighter tone, those who took issue with the depictions of the characters, folks who weren’t onboard with Snyder’s grim-dark sketching of the characters, and those who just didn’t have a clue what was going on.
In the other corner stood the outright defenders: fans of the DC source material (The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman), those who had enjoyed Snyder’s previous effort (Man of Steel), people who had a deep investment in these characters, and folks who were open to seeing them portrayed in a different light then they may have traditionally been.
Now, full disclosure, this writer is firmly in the second camp. As someone who has seen Man of Steel and Batman v Superman multiple times, I feel that both films hold merit in their own way, and that Batman v Superman in particular was unfairly maligned upon its release.
I’m not going to try and tell you what you think. If you dislike or hate this film, presumably you know why and can tell me about it in great detail (see: the internet). Likewise if you enjoyed the film, you can likely explain why. What I’m trying to ascertain here is why Batman v Superman had the sort of visceral reaction that it did.
Let’s Get Ready to Hate!
The first thing I noticed when talk was coming out about Batman v Superman prior to its release was how ready people seemed to be to hate it before they had even seen it. Jokes, memes and articles were showing up by the dozen as one person after another indulged themselves in its inevitable downfall.
The situation was eerily reminiscent of two releases I could recall from the past. One was The Village, an M. Night Shyamalan film that had been trashed after its final package had opted more for a form of social commentary than the horror/creature feature it had been sold as.
After Unbreakable and Signs failed to deliver on what certain fans were hoping for from Shyamalan, even as he stuck religiously to the twist ending structure by which he had made his name, the critical eye seemed to be aimed upon him with The Village. Both fans and critics alike unleashed their ill will upon him in equal measure, and the film was subsequently panned.
The other film that came to mind was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first, and best, of Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy. Press had been mainly positive upon the initial announcement that Jackson would be returning from his Lord of the Rings success to adapt the previous book, The Hobbit. However, as further information was released to the public, popular opinion began to reverse.
For one thing, people took issue with the new frame rate that the film was shot with, 48 fps as opposed to the industry standard of 24 fps. Now, to be fair, this writer stands firmly with anyone who may have been turned off by that, as it essentially takes a $200 million dollar movie and makes it look like Masterpiece Theater on PBS.
The film was also the unfortunate receiver of negative press amid the announcement that The Hobbit would be expanded and changed to include other subsequent material from Tolkien’s mythology. The announcement that the book, which was shorter than any of the three Lord of the Rings novels, would be expanded to accommodate 2 (and later 3) feature films was not taken very well.
Due to these perceived failings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was piled on upon its initial release, scoring a measly 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, despite being the most focused and concise of the three Hobbit films.
Now how does all of this relate to Batman v Superman? Well, one of the main theories for the wild divide in fans on this particular film is that a lot of people went in ready to hate it. Another is that critics were sick of Zack Snyder’s humorless, grim-dark comic book adaptations, and were ready to take him to task for it.
Whether you subscribe to one of these theories or you simply think the film is hot garbage, is totally your prerogative. I’m not here to tell you why you dislike a movie but why I, and many others, like it, which is the next category we’ll get into.
A Mixture of Faithful Adaptations and New Ideas
As mentioned above, Batman v Superman takes its primary inspiration from two of the most beloved stories in each of the titular characters comic book canons. The Dark Knight Returns is one of the all time great Batman stories, as it focuses on an older, meaner and more relentless Batman coming out of retirement to set things right at all costs. It is home to the battle between Batman and Superman, and gives the movie Batman’s robotic suit, his use of sound waves to battle the son of Krypton, and the brutal, calculating nature with which Batman dispatches Superman. It also offers the great sequence where Superman flies a nuclear bomb to outer space, only to be decimated by it. Pretty great stuff, through and through.
Meanwhile, going off of the man of tomorrow, we have some inspiration taken from The Death of Superman. This was a watershed moment in comic book history, as it was the first of the big publicity stunt superhero deaths (unless you count that whole Jason Todd debacle). Superman’s death was a huge pop culture moment, and is still widely remembered and fondly recalled today. This series introduced the character of Doomsday, who Superman fought to his last breath, leading to both of their deaths at the end of the final issue. Anyone who has seen the film will see the obvious parallel here to the finale of BvS, when Superman sacrifices himself to save the planet from Doomsday.
Now with these influences out of the way, let’s take a look at how Zack Snyder, David Goyer and Chris Terrio expanded upon these ideas to make them their own. Going off the above example, one of the key ways is to show how the world mourns Superman following his demise. His small scale funeral in Kansas is juxtaposed with an honorable soldier’s burial in Washington, though that casket is empty. A memorial is also erected at the place of his death, and the spot where an honorary statue had been prior to the final battle. Simple and somber, it reminds humans: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
It’s a very fitting tribute to the character, and what he means to the world. This also serves as the perfect motivation for Batman to go seek out the members of what will one day become the Justice League. Since Batman has been on a very dark, and truly suicidal mission, throughout the film, it’s a great way to send him off on a more hopeful note.
Here Come the Criticisms
Of course, if we’re going to chat about the Dark Knight Returns influence, we can’t do so without addressing the elephant in the room, and that’s the Martha scene. Now I’m not so unabashed and biased that I can’t point out a couple of bad scenes in this film. The silliest moment in the film is undoubtedly when Flash inexplicably appears through a tear in time to yell some goofy nonsense at Batman, and that’s truly a scene that should have been cut from the film. Another bad moment comes during the closing moments of the picture, when Lex Luthor warns about a cosmic bell that has already been rung before devolving into a fit of just saying “Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!” over and over again.
Yes, there are moments in this film that do not work but the Martha scene is not one of them. The common interpretation that people have of this scene (which features Batman on the cusp of killing Superman, before relenting at the name “Martha” from Superman’s lips) is: “Oh wow, our moms have the same name! Let’s be best friends, sorry I tried to kill you!” Meanwhile, what really occurs is that hearing that name brings out the humanity in Batman, and reminds him that Superman is not some evil demigod who must be destroyed at all costs but a man, with a mother and father, like anyone else. It humanizes the Man of Steel in Batman’s eyes, and shows him how close he has come to damning the world in his search for meaning in his life, and perhaps an honorable death.
Moving off of this point, another common criticism of the film is its depiction of Batman as a killer. Again, what people miss here is that we’re supposed to see Batman as something of a villainous presence in this film. He’s at his wits end and doesn’t care if he has to crack a few eggs to accomplish what he sees as the greater good. In one key scene he asks Alfred: “How many good guys were there in Gotham when we started? How many are left?” We also see the spray painted costume of Jason Todd in the Batcave, suggesting that the death of his protege may have been the beginning of this more brutal and cutthroat Batman. Fans who have read The Dark Knight Returns will recall how close Batman came to murder in that book. This is a natural extension of pushing that iteration of the caped crusader just a little bit further.
It’s also worth considering that Batman is ultimately changed by the end of the film, and resumes operating at a more standard level. Even after everything Lex Luthor has done at the end of the film, Batman stops short of giving him the death sentence he gives another deplorable criminal in his introduction. He has come to realize that he can’t continue operating this way without damning himself and the world. He has to go about things in a different manner.
Now, since Lex has been addressed, we might as well take this bull by the horns and run with it. Lex, depicted here as a mentally unstable lunatic with a penchant for sadistic Machiavellian planning was a turn-off for a lot of people, and it isn’t hard to see why. He’s almost the complete opposite of the more standard Lex Luthor, as a suave businessman with criminal leanings, as perfected by the highly under-rated turn by Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville. On the other hand, though, haven’t we seen that iteration of Lex Luthor done to death by now? Though I think it’s perfectly understandable that Jesse Eisenberg’s manic take on the character might have been a bit much for some fans, I was actually impressed with how well such a different take on the character could be executed. It truly opens up a bevy of possible ideas for how other well-established characters in this universe could be altered to still be fresh and exciting.
In the End…
One year later, Batman v Superman‘s legacy remains as divisive as it ever was, perhaps even more so with the passage of time. And like creationists debating atheists, it’s unlikely that either side will ever convince the opposition to come around to their point of view. But hell, a guy has to try.
It’s worth noting that the Director’s Cut goes a long way toward explaining several key plot holes that haven’t been addressed here for that very reason. With that said, if you hated the film at 2.5 hours, it’s a bit of an ask to urge you to sit down for 3 more.
So with that in mind, I hope this little piece of writing has at least offered readers another perspective on the film, even if it hasn’t altered their opinion on in any way, shape or form.
May Wonder Woman bring us all together in June.