By now everyone’s either read or formulated an opinion on DC’s Batman V Superman: The Dawn of Justice. I was resisting adding to the flurry of internet opinions, especially since any response tends to illicit very strong reactions. I don’t consider myself a DC fanboy, nor do I wish for it to fail just because.
However, this movie keeps kicking around in my head and it feels like I just need to put a few thoughts out there. This won’t be an actual review of the movie, but more an examining of the characterizations.
Just to put it out there from the start. I’m a huge Batman fan. He’s probably my favorite comic book character. I’m not a huge Superman fan. I just don’t find him (or at least most stories written about him) very interesting. I grew up reading Marvel more than DC so have more of an affinity for those characters, but am just happy to see quality comic book adaptations from any source.
Also, I’m just NOT a Zack Snyder fan. He’s got a very visually striking style but it usually seems to come at the expense of the story. I actually enjoyed 300. But Sucker Punch was a disaster. I didn’t like Man of Steel (more on that later), but I was hoping that BVS would be a step up.
As for the DC Cinematic Universe’s adaptation of these characters, I’m open to their take. I think stories and characters are flexible to a creator’s interpretation. We can have a 60’s Adam West Batman and a modern Nolan Batman, and they still have a ring of truth to the core of that character.
But you have to stay true to that core.
Batman, to me, is tricky to pull off in a film because you have such limited time to try to convey all the aspects of him. You have the scary, ass-kicking martial artist. You have the stealthy ninja hiding in the dark. You have the intelligent detective solving crimes. You have the technophile with all his gadgets and vehicles.
Not only that, but you have to then have Bruce Wayne, the tortured son of murdered parents. And the billionaire playboy using his airy charm at parties. And man at the core of a surrogate family to Alfred, Dick, Barbara, Jason, Tim, and Damian.
How do you even begin to cover that within two hours? Most films have to sacrifice some part or another, and usually it’s Bruce Wayne that takes the hit. Nolan’s Batman was probably the most rounded attempt since so much of the focus was on Wayne but even that I found lacking at times.
Affleck’s Wayne in BVS was much more dour and one-note. I know the actor has the charisma to pull it off so I was really wanting to see that more playful (if not fake) shade of Wayne on display. However, I know this is an older Bruce who has gone through his share of tragedy and is much more like the weary and wise version in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. So I can go along with the adaptation in this respect.
What I can’t really look past is a Batman who kills and uses guns so blatantly.
This is the core of a character that I’m talking about. I can get behind a more swash-buckling Batman or a gruff, broody Batman, because they still work on that foundation of no guns and no killing.
So why is it so important and why are these two rules so strict? Because Batman is birthed from the tragedy of his parents being murdered. Not just murdered but gunned down in front of him. This is the moment that drives Batman to do what he does. Bruce Wayne essentially dies in this incident as well.
The death of his parents is also what Fox’s Gotham gets SO critically wrong that I can’t be a fan of the show. In that show, Bruce’s parents are murdered not by some random criminal, but because of some secret conspiracy against the Waynes. (I stopped watching before they revealed why or who the gunner was, by the way.)
The reason this is a huge violation against the character is because what drives Batman on his never-ending crusade is that his parents died in a senseless random act of crime and violence. Batman keeps fighting crime and will never stop because it’s a war he cannot ultimately end. Violence is in our human nature. Society will always have crime.
But if the Waynes are murdered for a specific reason, then Bruce can hunt down that reason and the people behind it. Once he does, he’s essentially attained closure of the death of his parents, which is against the on-going nature of the character. Nolan’s films actually handled this pretty well (outside of needing Katie Holmes to slap Christian Bale around). Bale’s Wayne goes to the courthouse with intent to kill the man who shot his parents. But he realizes that this person didn’t do it because of some agenda against the Waynes, but because society has been corrupted. Batman isn’t out there to punch some goon in the face. He’s trying to turn back the tide of something intangible that can’t be beaten. But his trauma won’t allow him to stop trying.
I have a lot of other issues about Gotham but let’s not get too far off track.
Back to BVS, Affleck’s Batman is shown in several instances to kill people either by his Batmobile or the huge guns on his Batmobile or guns in his hands. It’s so wildly out of character that I was surprised that Affleck (a huge Batman fan) would go along with this.
Now, there are instances in the comics where Batman winds up using a gun and using it with the intent to kill someone. A lot of it seems have been before DC really had a definitive take on the character. But most times that I recall, it was a monumental debate for him to do it. So yes, he’s used guns, but his no guns no kill rule is still in play and is used to draw out drama within the character. His use of guns and taking lives turns him into what he’s been fighting against. When he does that, he fails in his quest, which is why anytime he even contemplates it, it’s a big freaking deal.
And yeah, Tim Burton’s Batman also used guns and killed people but Burton wasn’t really beholden to the comics and it is somewhat apparent that he wasn’t really all that interested in Batman as a character. I think he saw something that could work within his dark, gothic aesthetic and had an interesting villain that he could explore.
To see a successful iteration of Bruce Wayne and Batman, the best bet is probably the Animated Series by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Partly because they had the time to delve into all the aspects of the character, but mostly because they understood what drives and works for the character. A lot of heavy lifting is also done by the voice talent of Kevin Conroy who is able to give almost wholly different voices for Bruce and Batman. His Batman is serious and intimidating without relying on voice modulation for Affleck or the often mocked gravel of Christian Bale. His Bruce comes off someone who is more playful and almost clueless.
Another good example is the Rocksteady Arkham series games, which depict Batman confined in various environments having to deal with his entire rogue’s gallery in one night. The Bruce Wayne side is mostly ignored and under served, but all the sides of Batman are greatly on display.
Again, I’d point to the increased time we’re allowed to spend with the character as a major reason why they succeeded. In the game, the player has periods where they have to lead Batman to solve some kind of mystery, or sneak around enemies, or employ various gadgets to advance, or to simply beat the crap out of thugs (without killing any of them by the way).
Grant Morrison had a spell-binding take on the character that incorporated all the eras and types of Batman that have appeared since his debut. Check it out here:
The characterization of Superman is much more damaged than Batman in Snyder’s interpretation almost simply because of the dark and grim tone of the films.
Superman works very well against Batman because of their differing outlooks and tone, so when the tone of the entire story skews towards Batman, Superman will obviously suffer.
The common complaints about Superman are that he’s boring and that he’s too overpowered. He doesn’t really have a character arc. He’s essentially a god or Jesus. But people have seemed to be interested in stories about Jesus for a while now, right? Why not Superman?
To me, it’s because most stories focus on the wrong aspects of the character. He’s the strongest man on Earth so naturally he’s put in a position to punch something. Sure, he’s a comic book character so some punching is generally expected and welcomed.
But what’s interesting about Superman is that despite the fact that he has all these amazing abilities (super strength, super speed, flight, frost breath, laser eye beams) he can’t actually do everything or be everywhere. Superman is always the most upstanding and selfless person there is so it greatly pains him that he can save every person in the world or stop every crime that happens.
That point is driven home by the death of his father, Jonathan Kent who dies of a heart attack. Even with all that he can do, Superman can’t save his father. There’s nothing to punch or out fly. He’s helpless in this one moment. And that’s what hurts him the most.
This completely goes over Snyder’s head, which is why I have such a huge problem with this version of Superman. Or more specifically his parents. The Kents repeatedly steer Clark towards self-preservation at the expense of others, even ultimately Jonathan Kent himself. The “true” Kents would never advocate this philosophy because it’s what makes Superman who he is. Everyone and their well being comes first and Superman would fight to his dying breath for anyone. You have a man with the power of a god but with the moral compass of humble farmers. He’s the ultimate goal of humanity; to have the purest empathy AND the power to act on it.
So, DC wants to have a more grounded, heavy take on its universe in these films. That’s fine. Issues like power and responsibility can be addressed in a very serious manner. I’m actually okay with a joyless, unsmiling character if the story is trying to explore this dilemma. I’m even okay with the fact that he killed Zod. But they’ve tinkered with his core persona beyond what makes Superman who he is.
Well then how do you make a good, compelling Superman story?
I’m not smart enough to have all the answers. But the introduction of Lex Luthor into BVS injected some hope within me. (What actually happened is already widely panned, and I won’t add too much here.) The reason why Lex is always positioned as Superman’s arch nemesis despite the lack of powers to match him is because it’s actually a better conflict for Superman if it’s not a physical battle. Lex is powerful in resources and influence. He embodies the idea of hatred and bigotry. He’s the dark side of humanity; hateful and paranoid. And he’s a threat to Superman in the arena of intellect. It’s a chess game, not a boxing match.
Grant Morrison again shows his talent for understanding what makes a character work with All-Star Superman, which is widely pointed to as how a modern take on the character can be interesting and successful.
Now, it may have been noticed that I’ve had very little to say about Clark Kent. Like I said before, I’m a bigger fan of Batman so I just find Clark less interesting.
I have, however, always liked the flip in alternate identities in that Clark is the fake persona and Superman is the real guy. Since Clark is the mask, it’s harder to find any genuine depth to explore. His soft spoken and clumsy demeanor are all an act.
But that act can also highlight who Superman really is. To this day, Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of both Superman and Clark are still held up as how they REALLY should be, as in this clip:
Well, I guess I really didn’t like the Snyder movies all that much! To me, it’s hard not to envision a better Superman movie (even without the Donner/Reeves version already out there) when Marvel is handling Captain America so well. He’s got a lot in common with Superman. They both act on what’s right and are selfless in their pursuit of that. And Marvel doesn’t have to commit character assassination to tell serious, morally conflicted stories. (Not trying to come off biased. I always thought Captain America was a boring character until the Winter Soldier movie.)
As for DC, I’m open to seeing where they take the subsequent movies after hearing all of this fan debate. I still think Affleck could attain the mantle of THE definitive Batman.
I want great Batman stories. And great Superman stories. But I want them to stay true to the characters.
PS For a great Superman and Batman movie, check out World’s Finest from the team behind the Animated Series!