Batman v Superman v Heroism

Did Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice end up sabotaging the future of the DC Extended Universe?

This article contains Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice spoilers. Major ones.

The DC Extended Universe is doomed. Well, not exactly. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—the film intended to get audiences invested enough in the DCEU to spend at least a billion of their hard earned dollars toward a future Justice League movie—has charitably been met with mixed reviews. And despite a record breaking opening weekend, it may still fall victim to poor word of mouth over the long haul.

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But Warner Bros. is committed to their part in the superhero arms race with Marvel Studios, and there’s little doubt that Batman v Superman will earn enough money to ensure the future of these films for the next few years. Wonder Woman is due on June 23, 2017, and it’s a more than safe bet that she’ll arrive on time. Justice League Part One films in April for a November 2017 release, and barring any last minute creative changes behind the scenes, the third act of Zack Snyder’s superhero saga is likely to proceed as planned.

However, the problem for the DC Extended Universe isn’t one of economics. The problem is that there is virtually nothing in the way of actual heroics on display in Batman v Superman, a film that displays absolute contempt for not just its two lead characters, but for their fans. It’s difficult to imagine audiences immersing themselves in 12 or 13 more films where it’s easier to believe a man can fly than it is to believe he can display something akin to compassion, and where selfishness and violence are celebrated as aspirational virtues.

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Superman is a fairly malleable character, and he’s gone from two-fisted social justice warrior to avuncular defender of the status quo to regular guy with godlike power over his nearly 80-year history with ease. But in each of these interpretations, there remains one constant: Superman is an alien who willingly chooses to use his almost unimaginable power to make life easier for the inhabitants of his adopted world. There’s plenty of room for interpretation within that sentence, but it’s a constant, fairly unbending rule.

There’s no room for that kind of altruism or optimism in Zack Snyder’s DC Extended Universe, though.

Instead, Superman, the character who is supposedly the selfless ideal that all other heroes in the DC Universe take inspiration from, is brooding and resentful about the “burden” of being a hero. We’ve now spent two movies with this version of Superman, and the number of rescues not related to Lois Lane or his mother can be counted on one hand. As a result, the “death” of this aloof and distant alien is utterly meaningless in the context of Batman v Superman. This world doesn’t appreciate Superman, which is fine since he’s never offered it (or the audience) any reason to believe he particularly gave a shit in the first place. Superman’s ultimate sacrifice comes off not as a selfless act, but a petulant one, showing an ungrateful populace once and for all that they’ll miss him when he’s gone.

The “death” of Superman in the final act is a clear nod to Warner Bros.’ 20-year quest to kill the Man of Steel onscreen; it’s also the culmination of the misguided studio logic that audiences need to believe that this is a hero who can fail in order to relate to him. It’s an empty gesture on the character’s part, but it’s also a poor narrative choice given how early we are in the evolution of the DCEU.

Superman’s inevitable resurrection in Justice League Part One (and I can only hope that when that film’s final title is revealed, it’s something less labored and obvious in its intentions than a phrase like “Dawn of Justice”) is coming, and once we’ve seen that, why should we ever believe he can ever truly fail? Once you’ve beaten death, well, it kind of proves all of those criticisms about the character being too powerful for his own good correct. The best case scenario here is that it’s a short-sighted decision by Snyder and the other filmmakers, one motivated by the box office potential of a high profile “death.” The worst is that it’s a willful act of sabotage intended to make Superman an even more miserable and untenable screen property.

Does that sound absurd? It shouldn’t. Mr. Snyder’s clear hatred of Superman extends to his supporting cast as well. Witness the brutal and unnecessary onscreen murder of Jimmy Olsen in this film where he was introduced and dismissed within three minutes of screentime.

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“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?” Mr. Snyder recently said.

Let’s murder a Superman supporting character who has been around since 1938 without even bothering to name him! Fun!

Clearly, there is no room in Mr. Snyder’s mind for a character traditionally referred to as “Superman’s Pal.” Why? Because concepts like friendship and loyalty are apparently meaningless in the DC Extended Universe. In order for Superman to function in this world he must be isolated and alone. Other than Clark Kent and Lois Lane, it’s not clear that anybody in this world even particularly likes one another.

Even the kindness of Clark’s foster parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, is sharpened to a horrible knife edge with Pa Kent reduced to spouting horrific parables about drowning horses and kindly Martha telling her all-powerful son that “you don’t owe this world a thing.” Of course this poor guy is miserable. These people bring me down and I only spent a few minutes with them… imagine spending 30 years like that!

If I wasn’t so sure that Mr. Snyder and friends have even more horrible things planned for Superman in the Justice League, it would almost be a relief knowing that they don’t have Supes to kick around anymore. Or, at least for half of the next movie, where it’s now Batman’s responsibility to gather and lead the team. That makes sense in the context of this particular story, but while it’s now well established that Mr. Snyder has a fundamental misunderstanding of Superman, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s missed the point with Batman as well.

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Like Superman, Batman is open to many interpretations. There is one constant, though. Bruce Wayne is a human being who, after enduring a terrible personal tragedy, dedicates himself to becoming the best he can possibly be in order to prevent similar tragedies from befalling others. That single sentence implies a heroic empathy that is completely lacking in the current big screen Batman.

Instead, the Batman of the DC Extended Universe displays an almost casual disregard for human life, a disturbing willingness to torture, and a paranoid worldview. Not content for Bruce Wayne to be merely haunted by the murder of his parents, this Batman has nightmarish “visions” that drive him to greater heights of extreme behavior. The DCEU Bruce Wayne is akin to a xenophobic Donald Trump donor, while Batman is in every sense his alter ego, behaving like an Alex Jones devotee who clings desperately to ridiculous fantasies about deeper meanings in horrific real world tragedies, and using that paranoia to justify perpetrating actual violence against the “other.”

“I perceive it as him not killing directly, but if the bad guy’s are associated with a thing that happens to blow up, he would say that that’s not really my problem,” Snyder recently said. “A little more like manslaughter than murder, although I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time.” For the record, Batman is directly responsible for exactly one death in The Dark Knight Returns comic that he’s “referencing” here. There are dozens of corpses left in Batman’s wake in Batman v Superman.

Before you come down on me like a hail of bullets from the Batwing to point out, “But Mike, Batman has killed in the movies before!” I’d like to remind you that I’m aware of that. But it’s difficult to believe the Batman of the DCEU as someone who has a legitimate gripe with Superman and the collateral damage inflicted in the wake of his arrival when he uses these tactics himself. What’s more, how is he supposed to rein in and lead a group of even more powerful heroes when they look at their leader as someone perfectly okay with taking life, not just in the most desperate of situations, but whenever it’s convenient? 

Despite promises that the Justice League movie will be “lighter” than Batman v Superman, there’s little to indicate that’s the case. Warner Bros’ response to the criticisms that Man of Steel was unrelentingly dour and violent was to defiantly amplify that movie’s least appealing qualities. The excuses that Superman had yet to find himself as a hero have all proven hollow, as he comes off as even more distant in the second film.

Worst of all, the historic first live-action meeting between the three most important superheroes in the history of the genre generates not a solitary moment that could be considered selfless or celebratory. Batman and Superman engage in an incomprehensible pissing contest of nonsensical ideologies before committing a seemingly endless parade of meaningless and muddy violence against each other. With Batman and Wonder Woman now responsible for gathering more heroes together, it’s a safe bet that Justice League Part One will spend a considerable amount of its (surely very long) running time on even more protracted hero-on-hero violence.

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By stripping the DC superheroes of their aspirational qualities, and crafting a world in nothing but increasingly bleak shades of gray, the creators not only remove what makes these specific characters so unique, but they fundamentally misunderstand why audiences enjoy superheroes in the first place. Over the top action and all of the DC Comics references in the multiverse don’t mean anything if they aren’t tempered with heroes who display traits like empathy, compassion, and selflessness.

I’m not arguing for the one-size-fits all tonal approach of Marvel Studios. But the great irony here is that Warner Bros., in its desperate attempt to distinguish themselves as more mature than their competition’s roster of charming, witty, daylit superheroes, has come off looking remarkably juvenile.