BvS: Overstuffed Plot vs. Underserved Themes
Perhaps the biggest challenge Batman vs. Superman had was the same one plaguing Avengers: Age of Ultron. It had to service so many different agendas that things got muddled, especially for audiences not steeped in the lore. It certainly explains why the Blu-ray release will contain an additional 30 minutes of scenes, including more with Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) and everything Jena Malone shot as Barbara Gordon which got excised when even director Zack Snyder realized it was unwieldy.
Man of Steel introduced us to the DC Cinematic Universe and this film was designed to expand it, setting up the need for the Justice League. By going in the opposite direction of the Marvel films, Snyder, producer Charles Roven, and DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns forced themselves to toss in Easter Eggs, plot threads for the future, and lots of mayhem to keep things spackled together. This is one reason why mainstream critics savaged the film while fans seemed equally divided between loving and hating it.
It’s certainly far better than its predecessor but not without its flaws. I’ll presume I don’t have to recap the basic plot elements so let’s just get to it. Set 18 months after Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains of concern to the government and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) despite building a record of public service around the world – we know this because the film stops to show us that for a few brief moments. However, after Lois Lane (Amy Adams) interviews a terrorist, things go south and the public is led to believe Superman is somehow culpable. This prompts Lois to figure out what happened, a trail leading to Luthor and finally prompts Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) to hold hearings. And kudos to Snyder for making her principled and nuanced not a stereotype.
From a storytelling standpoint, the film should have actually dealt with those 18 months, The world is forced to concede they are not alone in the universe, that aliens walk among them and they tend to be more powerful. While Superman ended a threat from his own homeworld, no doubt fear of the unknown fuels public paranoia. Why this was skipped remains baffling since it is rich for exploration.
Instead, we have Batman (Ben Affleck), who after 20 years of fighting Earth’s own brand of crazy, has now determined that the Kryptonian is a threat that must be put down, not befriended or understood. He sets his goal on that, aided by Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who at first seems against Kal-El and then sees his value. Their scenes are among the best in the film.
Rather than model themselves after Ultron, I wish Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terio, and David S. Goyer learned some lessons from The Winter Soldier which used its continuity to build on a few themes and let them be discussed and explored. This film offers platitudes, threats, and allusions aplenty but actually conversation and debate is eschewed in favor of moving on to the next thread.
We’re also denied how the people of Metropolis or the world see Superman. The very religious South Americans treat him as a Christ figure while we see some protests in America but there’s no middle ground or consensus offered the audience.
Similarly, there’s no real time spent with Clark Kent. His best scene may have been his first, as he comes to the apartment he shares with Lois and winds up climbing into the tub with her, a genuine human moment. The rest of Clark’s moments are limited to his own obsession with Gotham’s Bat, without once admitting the hero been a figure for 20 years which makes Perry White’s (Laurence Fishburn) refusal to admit it’s a story all the more perplexing.
We know far more about Bruce Wayne than we do Clark Kent which is a real shame since the film pays lip service to their differences. Since the 1980s post-Crisis reboot, the two have been portrayed as opposites – Superman sunny and optimistic, like Metropolis, the city of the future versus the grim and gritty Dark Knight, born of Gotham’s dark corruption. With the muted color palette the films use and dim, humorless tonality, those contrasts stop working, weakening the characters.
If Superman is a god, he remains grounded thanks to his love with Lois who remains strong-willed and determined for most of the film but then does something so monumentally stupid you want to yell at the screen. It also sets up an internal logic problem involving Superman and kryptonite, spoiling the climax.
Eisenberg’s Luthor starts the film as a mad genius now running his dad’s company and seems to have a hard-on against Superman but not because he’s an alien but because his powers make him godlike and the promise of a being with such power seems to terrify him. So much so, that he goes out of his way to find data on other metahumans with the nice enhancement of the concept being used to explain how the myths and legends of the past may have been early versions of these enhanced beings.
Which brings us to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She’s mysterious and enigmatic but playful in her own way, using Bruce Wayne’s espionage for her own purposes, nicely setting up her solo film due next year. Critics are right she steals the film because she has some range to play with, first as Diana Prince then as the Amazon Princess, when she finally armors up to help save the world.
Bruce tells her at the film’s end they need to work together to gather the known metahumans because he has a hunch. And this is where the film probably loses some of the audience. Batman has dreams (mostly superfluous to the main story) but one features a time traveling Flash offering up forewarning gibberish (in a scene stolen from Crisis) and another offers up Parademons, the first real hint of Darkseid and the Fourth World which will finally bring the League together in 2018.
We then get Luthor no longer hating the godlike Man of Steel but instead suddenly obliquely spouting off about “him” and the film’s last image is of Lucifer, but really hinting at Darkseid. The switch comes out of left field and feels wrong.
Similarly, once Doomsday is defeated after a far too-long battle that further destroys Metropolis which seems whole after a mere 18 months, the final 20 minutes or so feels drawn out and anticlimactic. Yes, some aftermath has to be explored but this feels tacked on from some other film and should have been shorter and far better integrated.
The DC Universe has, for the most part, been a world of heroes and villains, one that might be fun to live in. The cinematic incarnation, though, is dark, dreary, and joyless with few symbols of hope which demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding of Superman made by the filmmakers. Raised with solid values by Martha (Diane Lane, who has the film’s best line) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner) Kent, their adopted son Clark has these amazing powers and has been taught to use them for the good of mankind. Superman and his uniform were symbols for all that could be good with the world but these two films squander that message amid noise and thunder, sound and fury signifying nothing.
It is not a bad film and its intentions are noble ones, but it needed focus, more character and less rampant destruction. We’re left at the end with a world left to fear these powered beings, unaware of how much they will need their heroism in the films ahead. Whatever lightness there is in that world, paradoxically, seems to be in reserve for August’s Suicide Squad and one hopes this dreary production does not dampen enthusiasm for that one.