Justice League, Batman’s Knightmare & the Future of the DCEU
A spoiler-y look at Batman v Superman, Justice League, and the implications of Batman's "Knightmare."
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This article contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
One of the most surreal and oft-discussed scenes in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice comes around an hour into the film, when Bruce Wayne nods off at his desk in the Batcave. The five minute sequence that follows, dubbed “the Knightmare” is the sum of all Bruce’s fears about Superman, showing a dystopian future that could have foreshadowed the future of the DC cinematic universe.
However, these plans have been significantly changed over the course of the 20 months between the release of Batman v Superman and its follow-up, Justice League, by a combination of the vitriolic reception of the former, a frantic course correction on the latter and the real life tragedy that compelled Snyder to walk away from the film.
In retrospect, this has all served to make the Knightmare even more of an anomaly, so let’s try and glean what its original meaning was, and determine how Justice League does and doesn’t address the possibilities it entails.
According to producer Deborah Snyder, the sequence was conceived by Zack Snyder midway through production on Batman v Superman, when they sat down to outline where the characters would go next. At this point, they were intending to go right into a two-part Justice League movie, and Zack hit upon the idea of inserting a dream sequence that showed the darkest possible timeline.
In this sequence, Superman has taken over the world and a gun-toting Batman leads an insurgency against him. We see that Superman is supported by soldiers wearing his ‘S’ insignia, and by hordes of insectoid Parademons. The world has been Mad Max-ed something rotten, and we also see that the Earth has literally been branded with a giant Ω – the symbol of alien warlord Darkseid.
Bruce wakes up after Superman kills him in the dream to find a swirling portal has opened in front of him, blowing papers and other assorted bits around the Batcave. This marks the first appearance of Ezra Miller as Barry Allen, aka The Flash, who sports facial hair and a different version of his mask, as he delivers the following cryptic warning:
“Bruce! Listen to me now! It’s Lois! Lois Lane! She’s the key! Am I too soon? I’m too soon! You were right about him! You’ve always been right about him! Fear him! Find us, Bruce! You have to find us!”
Then Bruce wakes up again, seemingly from a dream-within-a-dream, but papers are still fluttering around him as a result of Barry’s appearance, a visual cue that tells us the second part may have really happened even if the first part was a dream. In any case, Bruce is still certain in his mistrust of Superman, but the sequence is only one of many stepping stones on his course to actively trying to take him down.
Based on the sequence alone, that’s the most straightforward explanation of what happens. But in context, it’s there to look cool and further motivate the title fight, and it winds up being objectively baffling. Batman has never been famous for his powers of precognition, and the introduction of the Flash with his head sticking out of a hellish Looney Tunes ring of light is only more incoherent in a movie whose structural snafus are manifold.
There are other hints to Darkseid (and Justice League‘s antagonist Steppenwolf in the mildly superior Ultimate Edition), but the Knightmare itself is never brought up again in the film. It’s not the main factor in Batman taking on Superman, so we can only understand it in terms of what it was meant to set up in what was at the time intended to be a two-part Justice League movie.
“I think it’s okay to look at the extended dream sequence as an impressionistic view of a possible future,” Zack Snyder told Empire on their spoiler podcast for the film. “That’s… in the sequence, so I’m not like spoiling anything or making up anything that you didn’t see. So the connection with the Flash… part of that sequence, you can speculate if, whether or not Flash is coming from that reality or another one, but that’s the fun stuff to try and figure out exactly what Flash is saying to Bruce and what he means… we know, so… we’re not making it up.”
By the end of the film, this possible future can be seen to have been averted by the two heroes teaming up over some shaky nominative determinism and Superman’s death in battle against Doomsday. But Snyders’ comments would seem to show that they planned to address three major questions out of this sequence in future films – the corruption of Superman, the coming of Darkseid and the intervention of the Flash. But did any of that transpire in the version of Justice League currently showing in cinemas?
Will Superman become evil?
Fans have speculated that the Knightmare was intended to point the DCEU in the direction of Injustice, the multimedia spin-off in which Superman is tricked by the Joker into murdering a pregnant Lois Lane, and subsequently becomes a tyrant, with Batman and other heroes fighting against his One Earth Regime. It’s essentially a hook on which to hang the fighting video games that make up the centre of the franchise, and represents the darkest and most violent iteration of its characters currently underway.
What’s notable about the reception of Batman v Superman is that the death of Superman wasn’t the pop culture moment that it was when they did it in the comics back in 1992. The movie cherry-picked elements from that event, but its impact didn’t translate to the screen, because we had little reason to be attached to this version of the character. It also picks a lot up from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and the DCEU, right up until this point and last summer’s Suicide Squad, similarly deconstructed its characters.
But it’s also the most reactionary film franchise going, and just as Batman v Superman used the unpopularity of Man Of Steel‘s ending to motivate Batman as a character, and Suicide Squad‘s calamitous eleventh hour editing was spurred by reactions to that film, the lead balloon of Superman’s death was probably where the studio and the filmmakers reconsidered. Upon Superman’s inevitable return, we have to want to see him again.
The theatrical cut of Justice League sets about fixing that from the very first shot. Opening with phone footage dated 2015, we’re treated to some kids interviewing Cavill’s Man of Steel for their podcast after he has just averted some unseen disaster. It may feel like a bit of a shortcut, but in three films, it’s Cavill’s first best chance to act like a version of Superman that we recognize.
You could easily imagine Christopher Reeve doing the same scene, and as preposterous as it is to be told that Cavill’s version was this warm and smiley before he died, and we just didn’t get to see it, the opening skit paves the way for the more sweeping character rehabilitation later on.
The film still plays with the possibility of him coming back “all Pet Sematary” (one of Barry Allen’s funnier lines) when he’s resurrected, and after Cyborg accidentally goes on the attack, there’s a scene where he fights with his potential teammates at the Heroes’ Park site. He comes close to killing Batman too, with a sneering reprise of his “Do you bleed?” from the darker film that came before, but Lois shows up and calms him down. They then fly off to Smallville, until he regains control of himself.
This seems like Justice League‘s way of addressingFlash’s message that Lois is the key, with Bruce bringing her out as a contingency plan to pacify Clark. It’s a stretch, and a waste of Amy Adams to boot, but given how the rest of the film has a smiling Superman enjoying working with the League, the change of course means we’re unlikely to see future films exploring the corruption of his character seen in the Knightmare and in Injustice.
Is Darkseid approaching?
Naturally, the real alien threat is paramount in Justice League. But in changing course, these plans also changed. Snyder clarified in June 2016 that the intended two part story would instead be two films with two different stories, with the sequel as yet untitled and undated. With Steppenwolf waiting in the wings from the end of Batman v Superman, the knock-on effect seems to have put Darkseid on the back-burner – he’s barely mentioned in the sequel.
The finished film does address the scorched omega symbol from the Knightmare – we see it in flashback as Diana tells Bruce about the original war against Steppenwolf and the Parademons. By uniting three Mother Boxes, Steppenwolf aims to turn Earth into the same ‘hellscape’ from which he came, and we later see him monologuing about laying the ground for the New Gods and Darkseid.
The influence of Jack Kirby’s New Gods comics was a factor in the film at its conception, but that seems to have been phased out over the course of extensive rewrites, reshoots and the overall reconfiguration of Justice League. The major post-credits sequence doesn’t tout the coming of Darkseid at all (perhaps because it would have been one Avengers nod too far), but rather pivots to Luthor meeting Joe Mangianello’s Deathstroke and proposing that they form a league of their own as the alternative sequel hook.
Uncanny CGI aside, it’s a poor excuse to diminish the Amazons from the much better received Wonder Woman in order to make Steppenwolf look formidable in the setup, only to have him fall prey to his own Parademons after the League wails on him a bit. The ease with which he loots Atlantis for their Mother Box does the underwater kingdom no favors either.
If the Justice League franchise has any future, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see Darkseid somewhere down the line. But in the present, the lack of further build-up leaves Steppenwolf as one of the poorest, most undercooked villains in any modern comic book movie.
When does The Flash go back to warn Bruce?
Here’s where things get really complicated. There may well be a scene in a future film in which Barry stops shaving and goes back in time to warn a snoozing Bruce Wayne about Superman, but if that future has already been aborted, then why would he go back?
This is hardly priority one for the DCEU, but having announced at this year’s Comic Con that the upcoming Flash movie has the working title of Flashpoint, after the 2011 crossover arc by Geoff Johns, in which Barry finds himself in a universe that is significantly different from the prime timeline, there’s a chance we will see the Flash go back in time after all.
Since this announcement, it’s been speculated that an adaptation of this story could be an opportunity to troubleshoot the cinematic universe going forward. On the other hand, Miller’s Flash is supposedly one of the aspects of Justice League that Warner Bros is banking on going forwards, and if they can get away with moving forward without looking backwards, they probably don’t want to remind audiences of the Knightmare, or Batman v Superman too much. “Too soon” is probably about right for that scene, if the filmmakers behind it have taken their leave of the DCEU.
Time can be rewritten, as any observers of DC’s upcoming movie slate well knows. If WB’s original timeline had unfolded as planned, we’d be watching a Flash movie this coming March, not to mention Justice League 2, Cyborg, and a Ben Affleck-directed Batman movie in the near future. Given the lack of cohesion in their planning thus far, we’d expect the explanation of this one to be less like Back to the Future and more like this…
The Disorienting Future
Batman’s Knightmare was initially intended as visceral foreshadowing for films that may never exist. The Justice League currently playing in cinemas is a studio mandated cut of a movie that was compromised by circumstances beyond anybody’s control. It may not be as “bad” as Batman v Superman, but it’s only the latest in a franchise that has reacted ever more drastically to each and every misstep along the way.
In the case of Justice League, a film with a studio-mandated 120 minute running time (as sanctioned by WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara, no less), it plays it safe. Structurally, it’s quite similar to Avengers (whose director Joss Whedon stepped in to finish the film), which shows how despite all of their attempts not to ape Marvel, they’ve wound up making a facsimile of the film that cemented their success, without the foundations to support it. It’s not Whedon’s fault and it’s certainly not Snyder’s – WB got their long-awaited Justice League movie out on time, as promised, but not without sacrificing a lot to get it here.
The Knightmare sequence feels orphaned and anomalous in hindsight. By Justice League‘s begrudging acknowledgements of the previous films, it’s become just another paradox in an incoherent continuity. And with the latest film “under-performing” at the US box office (to the tune of a still respectable $96 million opening weekend) and DC’s ongoing plans continuously in flux, the prophecy of a disorienting future has come true, but not as Snyder originally intended it.