‘Batman V Superman’: An In-Depth Analysis Four Years Later
It’s been now four years since Batman V Superman was released, and I’m sure you still have some thoughts.
Major spoilers ahead for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Avengers: Endgame, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Man of Steel. If you haven’t seen any of these movies, you may skip ahead the paragraph in which they are mentioned, as they are not essential viewing for the understanding of this piece (except for the Batman V Superman case).
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was released, believe it or not, March 25, 2016, so it’s now been four years since this movie premiered. Thus, I wanted to write a few words about this movie, because I really feel like most people do not show this movie the right level of appreciation – here’s what I mean by that. I am not here to try to defend this movie, neither am I to try to tear it apart. I think that most people do not give this movie the right level of appreciation because most people say it’s either garbage, or the best thing ever.
This piece is a collaboration between Alexander Newman and Miguel Fernández, and it was being written while Zack Snyder, the director of the film, decided to make a live commentary on his Vero account, and touched upon some of the points that are mentioned in this article. You may check out the basic ideas he made in his commentary here.
What I want to do with this piece is to make a thorough exploration of why I think neither argument is right, and why I think this is probably the best example of why the Internet should stop giving every blockbuster that comes out either a 0 or a 10, because most of the times, the truth lies somewhere in between. However, if you really believe this movie deserves either one of these grades, and you have a counter-argument for each one of my points, that’s awesome! I hope you leave a comment and maybe I can learn something from you, the same way I hope you learn something from me.
I want this piece to be a full discussion on pretty much every single detail that makes this movie work, and also not work, so beware that you are in for a long ride. To warm up, let’s begin by making some general points about what I think of the movie as a whole, and then we’ll start to dive in.
As you can probably tell from what you have just read, my feelings on this film are at the same time very simple, and very complex. I think that there are bits of this particular story that work great, and there are others that do not work just as well, and at the end, we have a not so cohesive story that is actually less than the sum of its parts.
Before getting into the movie itself let’s get into the trailer fiasco. I know it’s petty to complain about a movie trailer and it is a common trope that they always reveal too much. However, for Batman v Superman, the third trailer (after the teaser and Comic-Con released trailer) is peak ‘studio trying to get anyone to come to see the movie by revealing as much as possible’ that we tend to see in final trailers.
Most of the time these trailers air a week or two after release to bring wider audiences in and attract second viewings (e.g. TV spots of Avengers: Endgame featuring a certain someone wielding a famous hammer). The BvS one was released on Jimmy Kimmel three months before the film was released though.
Like the film itself, the first two-thirds cause no problems. We’re treated to Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne discussing the concept of vigilante justice cut with shots of Batman’s ‘justice’ and Superman’s rescues. An interesting preview to the moral issues raised in the movie itself (although even that spoils the entirety of the only conversation in the movie between Kent and Wayne as men and not their alter-egos).
We then get some menacing Lex, insight into Batman’s motivation behind his vendetta and to finish it off quick shots of the caped crusader fighting the man of steel. The first two minutes are exactly what we want: set-up and teases of the epic showdown everyone wants to see.
This brings us to the third and final minute of the trailer……this final minute. I’m struggling to express my frustration at it.
We get a shot of a body bag with Lex’s voiceover ‘If man won’t kill god’, cut to the body bag being open clearly showing General Zod’s body ‘the devil will do it’. This sentence alone heavily implies the spoiler that Batman won’t kill Superman so Lex will do something to kill him; to leave out any doubt we see a bunch of sciency mutating shots and then the screech of the beast. If that wasn’t enough we’re then actually shown the big bad, Doomsday.
We all knew that neither Bats nor Supes was going to kill the other. The 2016 blockbuster wasn’t going to end with Superman bending to Lex’s will and decapitating the bat. However, we didn’t know how the fight was going to be resolved or structured but thanks to the trailer we’re shown that the fight will resolve and Lex will create the big bad from General Zod (keeping in mind that the Doomsday reveal is almost 2 and a half hours into the runtime).
The final nail in this trailer’s coffin comes in the form of the Wonder Woman reveal. We all knew she was in the movie and I understand the need to show her to bring in a wider audience; we didn’t need to see the exact moment she enters the film though (it’s not the exact shot but still a one of her protecting Batman from a blast) and the ensuing exchange. Both of our title characters look at each other and say ‘is she with you?’ ‘I thought she was with you’.
So we now know, how/when Wonder Woman enters, that she’s an independent party and that our other two heroes are on good enough terms to crack jokes.
Most of this would be fine if it was deceptive editing, I love it when the marketing campaign for a movie plays a part in the films reveals (e.g. Finn wielding the lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens posters, The Mandarin being the big bad of Iron Man 3 in all the marketing). Unfortunately, for us, what we get in the trailer is exactly as it is in the film, meaning most of the film’s biggest surprises are robbed from us before we’re even got to the opening credits.
Finally, we’re treated with a shot of the three protagonists standing together, united against one threat. The final shot in a trailer for a film called Batman v Superman ends with them standing together as allies.
Let’s go over to the movie, giving it some context first. In 2013, Man of Steel, the movie that introduced the world to Henry Cavill’s Superman, also from Zack Snyder, was released. To me, that was a movie that worked fine for the first two acts, in which it tried to give us a reason to care about Superman by trying in several ways to humanize him, make him relatable. The struggle he is feeling is repeated over and over again throughout the course of the film – does he belong to this Earth? During the first 70 minutes of the movie, give or take, Clark wanders around asking himself what is the right thing to do and all that stuff.
I think the idea behind this story is pretty cool – Clark Kent is an alien, an outsider, and he is getting the chance to defend the planet in which he was raised from people who want to convert that planet into the one in which he was born. That could raise some interesting character questions about humanity, what makes an action be right, or what makes a man be good. Also, some questions about nationality and what does it mean to be born in a place vs. caring about the people that reside there.
Here’s the trick. The movie tried to set up some of these questions in the first 60-75 minutes, but then mostly forgets to answer them and makes what could have been a pretty interesting summer blockbuster into another CGI mess with two people punching each other in the middle of the air. Sure, that fight ended with Superman having to make a choice (we will explain later why that is important), but even that felt pretty hollow because the set up wasn’t strong enough, and by that point, we had spent around 20 minutes watching two CGI figures do some shit to each other.
At the end of the film, Metropolis was mostly destroyed as a result of the fight between Clark and Zod, which leads us directly into BvS, with Bruce Wayne getting to Metropolis while this fight is going on and watching his own building fall down as a result of those two aliens fighting in the sky with no regard for human life down there. As a consequence, Batman starts to develop some feelings about that alien in the sky and prepares for a day in which he might have to face him, when eventually he turns against the world. Thus, he tries to steal the one weapon that could wound him.
As for Superman, he is out there watching TV where some people accuse him of killing innocents when trying to save lives. Enter Lex Luthor, who has a plan to make these two vigilantes fight and is manipulating all the strings behind, with no one noticing. The plan succeeds to the point in which both of them fight, but the fight did not turn out the way he hoped, and the film ends with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman fighting a monster made in an alien lab just because Lex Luthor was bored.
Now that we all remember most of what happened in the movie, let’s start to dive in. First of all, as I have already mentioned, this movie is great in some aspects, but not that good in others. For example, most of the Batman stuff up until the third act, works pretty well. I can’t say the same about the Superman storyline, and I feel like the main problem behind that was actually Lex Luthor, who is the ultimate villain of the film, and that didn’t work either for me.
There is a phrase that is commonly thrown around, and most of the time I hate to hear, but I think that it applies here very well: that movie tried to do too much. Well, first of all, some of the greatest movies of all time tried to do too much. The Godfather, anyone? That movie had to set up an entire family, not only with each member but also with their spouses. It needed to introduce us to a whole new world of the mafia, in which some people are as important as a President. It also had to set up all the villains of the film, and halfway through it goes on a sidequest with the adventures of Michael Corleone in Sicily. The end result? Well, it changed film history.
What I am trying to say is that a movie trying to do too much is not necessarily bad, as long as it succeeds in what it is trying to accomplish. Now, let’s look at BvS. From the start, this movie had three jobs, at least from the title: it must set up Batman in this world, it must contextualize Superman in a post-Man of Steel world, and it must make them face each other. Seems simple right?
Probably not that much, but the fact of the matter is that from the very first stages of the development process, the movie tried to do much more. The writers and the director, because of studio orders or because they liked the ideas, decided to also introduce Lex Luthor and make him the man behind the curtain, make Lois Lane relevant in terms of screentime (but maybe not so much in terms of story? We’ll see) with an entire subplot in which she is investigating some bullet, introduce Wonder Woman, force Doomsday into the plot as the bigger threat our two title roles will have to face to show they are friends now (which only causes less screentime for the story pre-fight to develop), introduce a whole political subplot with Holly Hunter, and even try to introduce the Justice League through insignificant 3-second cameos, but whose entire subplot added up a lot of time at the end of the day.
However, at this point, I must reiterate that had the movie succeeded in at least most of these subplots, I wouldn’t be complaining that the movie tried to do too much. Because of that, I tend not to be too critical of that, but rather to look more deeply into what exactly went wrong.
Any piece of writing on this film is undoubtedly going to feature a Martha sized amount of issues and criticism so it’s worth noting a lot of things the film gets right. On re-watch for this article (I watched the ultimate edition with the extended scenes) I found myself enjoying a lot more of the film than I’d recalled in the theatres (arguably because of said extended scenes).
The idea of showing Bruce Wayne’s parents getting shot again can feel a bit like flogging an extremely depressing dead horse, and I was a bit against the idea. We’re given this scene during the intro however, so as not to draw from the main narrative, and considering the film itself leans heavily on parental figures, it is only fitting to relate directly to this Batman’s pain.
The pearl necklace visual is also one motif of the Batman origin story I’ve always liked. The instant connection to Bruce’s mother. So seeing it get broken apart by the gun that kills, while dramatic, fits with the film’s very slow visual style.
The first two hours of the film are actually rather well constructed. Spring-boarding off of 2013’s Man of Steel and using the huge collateral damage caused in the film as a point of contention for both Batman’s issue with Superman and the general public’s turning point is a great opener.
Henry Cavill continues to prove himself worthy as Superman, expressing the character’s continued pain and frustration at being rejected by the people, especially considering the character has only 49 lines in the entire movie.
Our introduction to Batman holds a nice bit of Juxtaposition, we see the senate hearing with the woman from Nairomi (a fictional country) criticizing Superman. ‘He’ll never answer to you, He answers to no one, not even, I think, to God’.
Cut to the Gotham police investigating a house and finding a group of girls in a cage saying, ‘He saved us. A Devil’. We then see Batman has branded someone with his symbol and demonically escape across the ceiling. Snyder uses a lot of religious visuals/references in the film and plays with the idea that Superman is a God and that Batman (and later into the film, Doomsday) are the Devil.
Throughout this piece, I will be arguing that BvS has some great ideas on the surface, but just fails to execute most of them, and thus does not achieve the potential that those ideas contain. Let’s give an example of a great idea that panned out pretty good, and one that didn’t.
We’ll start with the positive: let’s say you are planning a movie in which Batman is going to meet Superman, and ultimately because of a difference in points of view, they are going to fight. And also, you are building this story upon the shoulders of what happened in Man of Steel. To have Batman hate Superman because he holds him responsible for what happened to Metropolis, and to show that by starting the movie with that end sequence of Man of Steel from the perspective of the ground, is actually a great idea, and that panned out great for Batman’s motivations, as we’ll see later.
Now, let’s say that you are also planning that down the line, after you have released your new project called Batman V Superman, you want to make a Justice League movie (just the mention of that project imposes some kind of respect and admiration, at least to me). What an awesome idea to introduce the premise of a team of superheroes in the first movie of your universe that is going to have two superheroes meeting each other! I am not talking about having the final battle include the six/seven members of the team, whether you wanted to add Green Lantern or not, but to start to introduce just the idea of forming a team. Here is what you don’t do: you do not spend around 10 minutes of this film setting up a subplot between Bruce and Diana that will climax in her reading a freaking email.
John Truby states in his book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller that every story has a minimum of seven steps in its growth, that will organically appear as the story starts to develop itself (you are able to preview this book following this link). If a story successfully checks all these boxes and also manages to do so in a fluid way, that is, the writer does not force them into the plot, but rather they show up as the story unfolds itself. This will become clear in a minute.
Also, there is a piece out there written by Film Crit Hulk on why Man Of Steel fails to develop any type of dramatization for his main character, and argues that, as a general rule of thumb, for a story to be cohesive and competent, it must answer seven key questions of narrative drama (link here). In this piece we will try to explore how Batman V Superman checks or does not check Truby’s seven steps, and answers or fails to answer Film Crit Hulk’s seven questions. We shall see that these two systems do not differ from each other a lot.
1 – Weakness and desire
Truby describes the hero’s weakness as the thing that is holding him back throughout our story, “something is missing within him that is so profound, it is ruining his life”. He also leaves the door open for a character to have more than one weakness.
With that definition, one could immediately jump to say that Batman’s weakness is his parents’ death as a child, and how that has haunted him since. I would argue instead that that is Bruce’s weakness which led him to becoming The Batman. Batman’s weakness throughout this story is that he has become the thing that he set out to eliminate many years ago. He literally says to Alfred in one of the best scenes of the movie: “20 years in Gotham, Alfred, we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?”
I don’t think he is talking about himself, or at least he doesn’t think he is talking about himself, but combined with the way he fights (brutally, doesn’t care how many wounded/dead bad guys left) gives us this character’s weakness. And both weaknesses meet in the key scene of the movie, the “Martha” scene, which we’ll get to later on. Zack Snyder really put this well when he stated that he has become Joe Chill (his parent killer) because he will have no problem in destroying a family if that is what needs to be done.
We’ll introduce the idea of desire before we move on to Superman, because there’s a lot to unfold there. For this concept, I prefer the equivalent dramatic question that Film Crit Hulk proposes: What does this character need? As Truby states, “The need is what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weakness and changing, or growing, in some way”.
He also goes on to differentiate between psychological need, which involves hurting nobody but the hero, and moral need, which is built upon the psychological need, and involves overcoming a moral flaw and learning how to act properly toward people. Moral needs imply hurting other people. It actually looks like Truby wrote those words thinking about Batman in BvS, or the writers copied and pasted that line into their drafts: Batman needs to come back to be a man, and start to differentiate who is good and who is bad (go back and not be Joe Chill). He needs to realize that Superman is not going to wipe out the entire human race.
It’s easy for us as viewers of other Batman movies and comics to bring our own expectations into this story, and impose that Batman doesn’t kill, but we must remember that that moral code was never stated in the movie as being a part of this iteration of the caped crusader, and so, I think there is a thin line between what the movie is saying and what we Batman experts think it is saying.
Let’s move on now to Superman, because this is where it gets complicated. What is his weakness in this story? And I’m not talking about kryptonite, but rather what is the thing that is holding him back throughout the course of the story?
Superman in this story to me, is a very basic, but also profound, problem. There is a very common phrase used to describe the art of storytelling, and that is that choices reveal character. It’s simple: when a character is faced with a choice, he reveals something when he (or she, but we’ll keep it male as we’re relating it to Superman) makes a decision.
Let’s take Casablanca, containing one of the greatest examples of this, because of its simplicity and its importance. At the end of the film, Rick decides to risk his life and send Ilsa and Victor Laszlo away, and thus accepting the reality that the past is in the past (“We’ll always have Paris”). This reveals character, not only because of what he does, but also because of what he could have done but chose not to.
There are two types of characters in stories (I’m oversimplifying but follow me here): there are characters who act, and characters who react. When he made that choice, Rick decided to act. Superman in BvS, however, just reacts to things that happen around him, or to him, and thus reveals basically no character throughout the movie.
At the beginning of the movie, Lois Lane is in danger, Superman reacts to that by saving her. You may be saying right now: “but hey, that is acting right? He acted by going down there and rescuing her.” I admit there is a bit of a grey area in between the two terms, but when a character acts, or makes a choice (a character choice), he is deciding between two paths. One that follows the same ideals he’s been holding for the entirety of the story, and one that will imply changing him.
It does not necessarily mean to choose the path of change, for example, Rey is offered a new path in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and chose not to take it, revealing character. Superman choosing to save people (especially those he loves) reveals nothing we don’t already know about the character.
Getting to that village is not action but reaction – he saw or heard or noticed that something was going on with Lois and reacted. This happens multiple times throughout the movie. The Senate hearing scene, it could be argued that by showing up, he made a choice. Zack Snyder even stated that by doing that, Superman is being more hopeful in us than even we humans would be, and that he believes that the truth will come out.
That certainly reveals character, but that’s Snyder’s director’s commentary, not the actual film. There was never a scene between Lois and Clark in which the latter said he believed in the truth, and that this one would come out. Instead, Superman showing up is seen as a reaction to the news reports he’s been watching for some time and his being summoned to appear.
So I’m saying that it’s pretty easy to find something holding Superman back, and the most likely candidate would be his unapologetic love for humanity, but does this help define what the character needs? It does: for example, he needs to realize that humanity will disappoint him, and also needs to be ready for that. The issue is that the movie refuses to define or explore it. Also, this is more a psychological need, than a moral one, which according to Truby, will make your story weaker.
However, in typical BvS fashion, the writers actually came up with a great idea for a moral need: he needs to realize that when trying to save some people, others may be hurt (you can’t save everyone). They even gave this moral need a resolution, when he eventually sacrifices himself for humanity.
The problem is that this is never explored from Superman’s perspective because when the world blames Superman for killing innocent people, he didn’t even do it, it was all a big set-up. And when he actually was responsible for innocent lives, while fighting Zod, he never is faced with that problem in the film. That only serves as character motivation for Batman.
2 – Desire
The second key step is the desire, or its equivalent question: What does the hero want? This will set our character’s main goal for the story. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to take The One Ring to Mount Doom. That is his desire, but this is different from his need, which would be to overcome the influence of the Ring. Notice the difference: the need is about overcoming the weakness, but the desire is the goal that motivates his actions and that will ultimately lead to him fulfilling his need.
In most stories, when the character fulfills his goal, he also overcomes his weakness (Frodo’s case is a bit more complex, as he doesn’t overcome the Ring’s influence until he gets on the boat in the Grey Havens).
In BvS, Batman wants to be prepared for what could happen if Superman turns bad, and that ultimately leads to confrontation after Superman stops Batman chasing after the kryptonite. Pretty simple: in a movie called Batman V Superman, Batman wants to fight Superman.
On the other side of the spectrum, what is Superman’s desire? This is when the whole thing we stated before about Superman reacting and not acting becomes relevant, because there is not a particular goal he tries to achieve in the narrative. One could say, well he wants to become someone who people look up to as a source of what is good in this world, as a moral compass. But how does that differentiate him in this particular story from what Superman wants to do any other day of his life?
The ultimate example of Superman being purely reactionary, and not making decisions of his own, is Lex Luthor having to kidnap his mum so that the plot can move on and he can fight Batman. The writers put him in a position in which he has no other choice but to go to where Batman is and try to convince him to cooperate. In a movie called Batman V Superman, Superman doesn’t even want to fight Batman.
Once we’ve tried to answer two of the seven questions, we can move on to the third one before we get to key point #3 (I know it’s a bit confusing but follow me for a second).
Question #3 of narrative drama is the following: How do those wants and needs conflict with each other within the character? In other words, what is the internal conflict of the character? To follow with the Frodo example, if he doesn’t overcome the difficulties presented by the Ring (his need), he won’t be able to destroy it (his want).
In BvS, Batman’s internal conflict does not show up until the end of the fight, with the Martha scene, which again, we’ll talk about later. Rather his want and his need do not conflict within himself, because Alfred is the very representation of the conflict. He is the one trying to convince Batman that maybe Superman is not that bad and that he is crossing the line. He has become his moral compass.
Superman, on the other hand, has pretty much no internal conflict. Sure, at some point in the film, he second-guesses himself and starts to doubt the world is seeing him as a sign of hope, but rather as an alien who ultimately means no good. But here’s the problem with that: that internal conflict appears in that scene with Lois in the balcony, but doesn’t show up again. The next time he appears on screen is to save Lois (reaction) and then to go and fight Batman (another reaction).
But even worse is that his supposed internal conflict is just based on a misunderstanding, a set-up by the villain to make the world look at him a certain way, but it is not caused by something he did wrong. There’s also a line in that scene with Lois after the Capitol explosion in which he says “I’m afraid I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking.” That is one of the very few times in the movie in which Clark shows some kind of struggle, but even that turns out to be a misdirection, as we later find out that he couldn’t have seen it anyway. It is just an excuse to make him sad for a while.
At this point, we can even answer dramatic question #4: How do these wants and needs conflict with the outside world? In Batman’s case, it is pretty easy. He kills a bunch of dudes.
But what about Superman? Here lies another problem for him, because the film doesn’t answer this question, but rather the opposite, what is the conflict that the outside world has with Superman? That is embodied by the whole political subplot with Holly Hunter which tries to show different perspectives, especially in a scene involving several talk-show hosts and politicians speaking about this. “Must there be a Superman?” is a question thrown around.
In that sequence, there are several questions thrown around that would have made for a very interesting story, but that never really comes to fruition, as the film never answers any of them. Also, there’s the perspective seen in Mexico as Superman saves a kid from a burning building, showing that there is also a part of the world who still see him as a savior, but again, nothing much comes of it.
3 – Opponent
Truby defines the opponent as the character who is competing with the hero to achieve the same goal. He states a general rule of thumb to find out who our opponent will be: you should start with the hero’s main goal, and whoever is stopping him from getting it, is your opponent. For example, in Star Wars, Darth Vader is Luke’s opponent, and they fight over who will control the Universe, the Empire or the rebels.
Notice that this definition does not imply that your opponent is necessarily the embodiment of evil (even if they are) in your story. For example, in The Godfather, Sollozzo or Barzini are no more evil than the Corleone family, they just confront each other over who will control New York City.
The clear villain of BvS is Lex Luthor, but not because the premise incites that, but rather because the plot inserts him as a way of making Superman not look evil when he eventually fights Batman. Here is what I mean.
The premise of the movie is very simple: Batman and Superman will face each other because of disagreements with the methods employed by the other guy when trying to do justice. I admit, it’s ambiguous in the Batman part because he just has a fundamental disagreement with Superman’s existence, but let’s roll with it.
My point is that there is no place for Lex Luthor in that premise, but he is forced into the plot because the writers didn’t want Superman to look like the bad guy for fighting Batman. In other words, they couldn’t give Superman a character reason to fight Batman, so they had to give him a plot reason. Yes, Clark Kent did receive some photos and started investigating what The Batman was doing in Gotham, but that only served for him to be aware of Batman’s presence, and they didn’t develop it to be the reason why he would fight Batman.
I have several issues here. First of all, why hasn’t anybody outside Gotham heard of Batman? I am not basing this question on any lore beyond the scope of this movie, because we are talking about a city that is the embodiment of crime (suggested by the film) having a masked vigilante who has been fighting criminals for the past 20 years (stated in the film).
Second of all, when the writers put Lex into the plot, they don’t put him as the opponent for either character, but rather as the man pulling the strings for some weird reason. He is definitely not the opponent of Superman, because they are fighting for opposite things.
Lex wants to prove a point: he wants to show the world that God can either be all-good or all-powerful. He literally says that in the film. In doing that, Luthor aspires to become some kind of God and that’s why he created Doomsday, because he hates God and believes he is doing things wrong.
To prove his point, he takes the physical representation of God in his world and puts him in a challenge: he can either kill a man (so, he wouldn’t be all-good) or be killed by a man (so he wouldn’t be all-powerful). It really becomes distracting how many biblical references there are throughout the entire film, quite honestly, especially when they’re not consistent and make Lex’s motivations confusing to the audience.
Personally, I don’t really mind Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of the character. It does become annoying after a while, but he is pretty interesting. This is one of those other things in this film that I think was a great initial idea, but maybe could have been executed better. I love the idea of Lex Luthor being way more intelligent than any other person around him, and actually showing that, by making him speak very fast and expecting everybody (including the audience) to keep up.
But the idea of making him the guy who sets up the fight does not work, for two main reasons. First of all, it makes the movie plot-centric instead of character-centric. The basic difference is as follows: the driving force of your movie will either be the plot or the characters. Ideally, you would have your characters move your story forward, because that’s what makes the story more relatable and it also flows better and feels more cohesive.
An example would be Star Wars: we start off with the Empire boarding the rebels ship, and we follow two droids who will eventually meet Luke, who will take the baton of the story from there, and move it forward until the end of the movie.
Batman V Superman is an example of a plot-centric movie, because to tell the story it wants to tell, uses a lot of plot-points and less organic characters who interact with each other, and Lex Luthor is the one providing all those plot-points that are thrown at the face of our characters.
To understand this, take a scene in the movie, think of what is happening and why is that happening, that is, what previous scene had as a consequence what is going on in this one, and reiterate this process until you either get to a scene in which you can’t go back any further because the characters are reacting to something that happened off-screen that wasn’t shown previously (plot-centric), or you have gotten to the beginning of your story (story/character-centric), the inciting incident. Of course, this has exceptions (e.g. non-linear storytelling).
Take the Capitol scene in which Superman shows up from the sky. Why did he show up? There was a previous scene in which Holly Hunter called him out to answer for his alleged crimes. Why did she do that? There are two answers: one, is Scoot McNairy saying he would like to testify, but why? He was convinced by Lex Luthor. Why did Lex Luthor want him to testify? The answer: plot. We learn later that he wanted to introduce a bomb and covered it in Lead so that Superman wouldn’t see it.
The other answer is the testimony of the woman from the Africa village, who is there to say that Superman killed innocents in Africa. Why is she there? When we get to the Capitol scene, we already know that Lex plotted it out so that his soldiers would kill the villagers to try to incriminate Superman. The answer is again, plot.
With all of this, I don’t mean that character-centric = greatness and plot-centric = failure. Some of our greatest movies ever are examples of a mixture of both, and probably the best example of that would be The Lord of the Rings, which contains a lot of plot, but its story is mainly driven by the actions of its characters.
BvS not only has too much plot, but I think that the worst thing is that its plot is way too complicated. Lex Luthor spends around 80 minutes setting up a plan in which he tries to incriminate Superman and make him look bad to the entire world. But eventually, that doesn’t even resolve, because the very next thing we see the world react to something Superman-related is at the end of the film when they all respect him. We didn’t even get to see the transition, we just imagine it.
So all that plot becomes mostly useless in the grand scheme of things, and then the writers need to invent another plotline to make Superman fight Batman. The changed reaction from the world to Superman between the bombing and Superman’s funeral could be the President giving the green light to killing both Superman and Doomsday, generating sympathy and respect for him. That’s all conjecture though, and happens off screen, making it meaningless for us as viewers.
Before we move on, we can answer question #5: How do these wants and needs conflict with other characters? In Batman’s case, there are two sides of the spectrum. On the “good” side, we have Alfred, who is constantly reminding him that he should not act this way and that he is throwing his life away. Sometimes in a more subtle way, sometimes directly in his face, like in that great scene in which Batman reveals the truth behind the White Portuguese: “You are gonna go to war”, “He is not our enemy”, Alfred told him.
Alfred is like the good angel showing up on Batman’s shoulder. But that is not the angel he is listening to – he is listening to what Lex is secretly whispering into his other ear, so secretly Batman even thinks it is his own mind. I actually like this idea – don’t get me wrong, I still would have preferred both characters to develop their feelings towards each other on their own, but if you are going to have Lex planning the whole thing, it is much better the way they handled how Lex would tackle Batman than Superman.
In Batman’s case, he starts to develop those feelings when he gets to Metropolis at the beginning of the movie, but it is then revealed that Lex had been manipulating a lot of things around Bruce Wayne/Batman so that those feelings would not go away. However, while this idea was quite good in concept, it was lost underneath a whole lot of very hard to understand plot.
So Batman has one character at each shoulder telling him what to do next, but where does Superman come in? It’s easy. From Batman’s perspective, he is evil until he is not, and that marks the change between who is Batman listening to. Up until the Martha scene, Batman was listening to Lex, who was telling him (again, without Batman knowing it) that Superman must be controlled because he is a God walking among men, and who knows what can come out of that. But the Martha scene, which again, we’ll talk about later, makes him realize that he should be listening to Alfred, and therefore a new version of Batman reemerges, and it will be present for the rest of the film. The point is, Superman is the representation of that shift.
And then we have Superman, and as we have already discussed in length the problems with his inner conflict, there is not much left to say. I’ll just say that I think that the idea of the film was to have Lois and his mother on one shoulder, telling him that he is a symbol of hope and a reminder to people that good things can happen even in your most desperate hour, and on the other, you have the media, telling Clark that he is murdering people while trying to save others, and thus being not fair, not good.
There are two problems here, which are basically one and the same, and that is that the part of the conflict that is represented by the media is not real, it was all a smokescreen created by Lex, and so, the conflict isn’t even there. The problem that appears as a consequence of that, is that Superman doesn’t change as a result of that conflict, because it turns out, it never existed.
4 – Plan
This next two items are pretty straight forward, at least on the surface. Batman’s plan is to fight Superman, Superman doesn’t have a plan up until five minutes before the fight, in which he decides he should convince him to help him rescue Martha, and then Lex has a plan that would take around as many words as we are into this article to explain.
Notice that all of these parts converge towards the climax of the film, the fight between Bats and Supes, except one. Lex’s creation of Doomsday, which appears rather forced just so that Batman is not angry at Superman by the end of the film, and just so Superman can die at the end of the film (plot reason and plot reason). This is the problem with having a third character be the mediator between the two title characters, at the end of the film you must give him some resolution.
This problem can be summed up the following way: with Superman and Batman fighting, the premise is finalized, and thus, the story is over. Character-wise, Batman learns what he was supposed to learn and reveals character by making the choice of throwing the spear away, and Superman is consistent with the rest of the movie and is just Superman. And so, the movie must go on because it still has some plot to unravel, but the story is over.
One could make the argument that actually Superman’s character arc in the film is over when he sacrifices himself for the greater good, and thus finally proving to humanity that he is not here to destroy anybody but those who represent a threat to the planet. But here is the thing – he doesn’t learn that during the movie, he always felt that way.
Or at least we as an audience think that he always felt that way, because we know who Superman is, which is actually even worse. The point is that there is no scene in this movie in which he realizes that he was wrong and he must sacrifice himself. When Superman grabs the spear he doesn’t make a character choice, he reacts to what is going on and decides what he must do.
I think this is a perfectly explanatory scene for the difference between action and reaction: if that situation had happened at the beginning of the film, Superman would have made the same decision (as a character, plot wise the writers need to keep him alive to the end of the movie).
So, to conclude this part, I think that this was the idea, that Superman’s death was some kind of realization of his place in the world, which is perfectly fine, but the execution of that idea is flawed.
5 – Battle
Well, there is not much to say here. It’s in the title of the film.
6 – Self-revelation
Ok, so we’ve been building up to this. The Martha scene. Here is Truby’s definition: “The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. This crucible of battle causes the hero to have a major revelation about who he really is.” Again, it almost looks like Truby wrote this part thinking of BvS, or the writers took his definition in the most literal way possible. But here is the most interesting part, the sentence he writes after:
“Much of the quality of your story is based on the quality of this self-revelation.”
I’ll leave that in the air for a bit…
Ok, we’re ready. Let’s get to the negatives first. Yes, this scene is cheesy as heck. It is even hilarious and maybe even embarrassing, cringe-worthy I would dare to say. I have seen this movie many times at home, and I am not gonna lie, I left the room a couple of them when this scene was coming up.
There’s another big negative for me, one that not a lot of people bring up when talking about this scene. So, the entire movie has been building up to this – building up to the fight, and this moment of self-revelation for Batman is the climax of the fight. And also, the movie went out of his way to show us that Bruce’s mom was named Martha. And we also know that Martha is the name of Clark’s mother. Up until this very scene, the movie did it perfectly in terms of set-up.
But here is where Zack Snyder definitely lost me, and this part to me even made me angry in the theater. Zack Snyder chose to replay all of those scenes, when Bruce goes to the crypt, when his father fell down and called for Martha, etc.
Aaron Sorkin says in his Masterclass (the ad for it anyways): “The worst sin you can commit is telling the audience something they already know.” With this scene, Snyder went out of his way to hit us over the head and tell us: hey dummies, if you didn’t get it the first 15 times I told you Bruce’s mom is called Martha, and he actually cared for her, I am going to tell you again.
I hated it, not only because of this, but also because it is a stopping point for both the plot and even worse the story, in its climax. It also shows some lack of confidence as a filmmaker, as he is saying that maybe he didn’t do it well enough before that we wouldn’t understand it by this point.
But as cringy as it is, I actually understand 100% what they were going for, if we ignore the replaying part. There is a reason why Zack Snyder chose to redo the death of the Waynes at the beginning of the movie and intercut it with the birth of The Batman. In this movie the fact that his parents died in that alley is the very key to understanding who he is in the story, coupled with his trip to Metropolis while it was falling down because of Superman.
There is a difference between Bruce Wayne and The Batman, the latter was created in that opening scene. Bruce Wayne represents the humanity of the character, which was present when Bruce spent time with his parents as a child. When Joe Chill kills his parents, that humanity went away, and The Batman was born.
The fact that Superman told him that his mother was named Martha took Bruce back to that alley, and by communicating that, he appealed to the Bruce Wayne that was left inside The Batman. And when told he had the opportunity to save a mother named Martha, Clark is basically giving Bruce the opportunity to do what he only wished he was capable of doing all those years ago, saving his mom.
Let’s once again ignore the execution of the scene, and just focus on the idea behind it. I am sorry, but there is no other scene in this movie, dare I say in any other Batman movie that defines us the inner conflict of the character any better. This pivotal scene is the perfect characterization for who Bruce Wayne is (or rather, is not) in that precise moment, while at the same time being the perfect characterization for who The Batman is in that precise moment.
This change justifies Batman’s changes after that scene to start listening to the Alfred inside of him instead of the Lex Luthor. It is now perfectly justified as to why he would go save Martha, also. What is not justified is why he calls Superman his friend now, and why the two acted like they had reconciled their differences after he said the name Martha.
Sure, Batman is now a better guy after he recoups some humanity within himself, but what if the final self-realization scene about Superman’s true intentions came when he watched him sacrifice himself to kill Doomsday? That would have kept the story going, and not just the plot.
For hypotheticals sake, what if Bruce learns Superman’s mother’s name was Martha, but only after he has saved her? It could have been a tongue in cheek banter while the two bond and realize their moms have the same name. The reason this scene is mocked is because it puts the weight of the film on a minor detail, that their moms have the same name, and over dramatizes it. On that note, why would Superman say Martha in that moment, he’d say mom, to communicate its importance to him.
That scene encapsulates the movie’s main problem: it has some great ideas, but it lacks execution.
Finally, this scene answers dramatic question #6: How does the character change through those conflicts and how does the resolution affect them? Batman recuperates some humanity.
But what about Superman? What is his moment of self-revelation? If I had to pinpoint a moment of self-revelation for Superman in this movie, I would then have to say it’s the moment in which he decides to kill Doomsday, while running the risk of suicide.
However, as we’ve been discussing, I can’t see the self-revelation part in that scene. I can venture what the writers were thinking (to have him finally realize what his role in this story is), but again, I can’t think of any scene in which Superman struggled with that concept within this movie.
7 – New equilibrium
“At new equilibrium, everything is back to normal, and all desire is gone. Except there is now one major difference. The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible. A fundamental and permanent change has occurred in the hero.”
Again, it’s pretty easy to identify. After Superman is dead, Batman completes his arc and his want is now gone. Or at least that was the idea if they intended to make Superman’s sacrifice his moment of self-revelation, which could have worked great had they pulled it off.
We can finally answer dramatic question #7: What impact does that change have on everyone else? Batman’s change resulted in saving Martha, and then he completes his arc when Superman also makes his change and decides to sacrifice himself, killing Doomsday. At that point, he realizes that new threats will come, and he needs to form a team.
And this also answers the question of why did they include Doomsday in the movie? After Superman went to fight Batman, and after the fight was done, the story was apparently over, but the plot kept moving. Why? Well, they needed a nuclear level threat to make Batman wonder what would happen if similar attacks occured. And so, the Justice League was set up.
I am not opposed to the idea of introducing the Justice League in this movie, as I said earlier, but they really should have done it in a more organic way.
Notice that everything that happens in the movie that I didn’t include in this long analysis was basically plot-related and not story-related. That would include Wonder Woman, Holly Hunter’s character, Laurence Fishburn, and probably even Lois Lane, though she did have some part to play in Superman’s kind of characterization, and the writers probably decided to give her a bigger role with her own subplot just for the sake of making her relevant or having some female voice in the film or something. As I said, she is not even relevant to the plot at the end of the day.
So now that we’re done, what did I want to say with all of this? Well, it’s pretty easy actually. I think that this movie, much like most movies, does not deserve a 140 character-length conversation, but rather a lengthy discussion on what works and what doesn’t work, because I strongly believe there is plenty of both.
We’ve been mostly focused on story, and what worked there and what didn’t work. If I had to put it in a sentence, it would be this: in a movie called Batman V Superman, Batman was the main character, while Superman was there just to serve the plot, and not the story. But the thing is, I don’t have to say that, and instead I can write an entire essay on that sentence, and really dissect it to death.
I believe these points we’ve covered are what make or break your movie. I have avoided for the most part talking about performances (all great, except for the case of Jesse Eisenberg, in which I would say that it was interesting and deserving of another big editorial), the action (everybody talks about the warehouse scene, but the one I actually love is the wide-shot Knightmare sequence – also, the main fight itself was pretty brutal and great), or even the score (masterful).
I would like to leave you with a question, just so we can all discuss it in the intimacy of our own minds. Most of the people that didn’t like this movie say so because of the Martha scene, and most of the people that do like this movie say so acknowledging that the Martha scene was pretty bad. Again, there are exceptions on either side, but at least people who put their hearts and souls into hating/loving this movie, have that reaction to that scene.
My question is actually regarding Truby’s quote: does the climactic scene of the movie make/break it? I mean, let’s go back to Casablanca, and say that Michael Curtiz dropped the ball on that scene in the airport at the end. Would the movie still be considered great, in spite of that scene, or would that ending totally ruin the movie?
Now let’s take the Martha scene in BvS. What if they had pulled that one off? I mean, conserving their intentions behind that scene, but managing to make it less cheesy. Would the movie be regarded as pretty good? Or it still as flawed?
But even more. What if they had fixed most of Superman’s problems in this movie, and made him more relevant to the story? What if the movie was great up until that point, in which they delivered an awful climactic scene? Would that break the movie?
I am talking about movies in general now. I would like to get to the bottom of what can make or break a movie. Consider Avengers: Endgame, for example. What if the first two hours of the film were just awful, but we still got the portals opening at the end, with all that battle? Would it still be regarded as highly as it is? Would that scene be enough to forgive the rest of the movie?
Miguel Fernández is a Spanish student that has movies as his second passion in life. His favorite movie of all time is The Lord of the Rings, but he is also a huge Star Wars fan. However, fantasy movies are not his only cup of tea, as authors like Scorsese, Fincher, Kubrick or Hitchcock have been an obsession for him since he started to understand the language of filmmaking. He is that guy who will watch a black and white movie, just because it is in black and white.