“Batman v Superman” is an Abomination, but It Didn’t Have to Be. Just Look to Marvel.

bat v sup
Photo courtesy Naruto / Creative Commons

By Mallory Yu

By now, there have already been dozens and dozens of reviews of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you don’t want to read all of those, spoiler alert: critics hated it.

This movie was supposed to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s domination of the superhero ensemble movie. (In case you’ve been living under a rock, Marvel is the company behind The Avengers.) Sadly, it’s a weak effort to put it mildly, and the comparison to what Marvel has done is anything but flattering.

Because the critics are right.

For starters, the dialogue is horrendous – at one point, Ben Affleck’s Batman growls this horror show of a threat at Superman, “Tell me, do you bleed? YOU WILL,” while Amy Adams’ Lois Lane spouts gems like “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist.”

The plot hinges on flimsy machinations and the stupidity and/or willful blindness of its characters. None of the emotion in the movie is earned, so touching moments veer into cheesy territory at best, laughable at worst (it almost becomes enjoyable to lean into the ridiculousness). The women in this movie are little more than sexy lamps – either submissive assistants or damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued. Even Lois, one of the comic’s main female characters, serves no other purpose in this movie than to simper tearfully in the direction of her caped boyfriend or give him someone else to rescue – often at the same time.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the clear, notable exception, even though she’s forced to lurk on the sidelines for much of the movie. She’s a sexy, glorious femme fatale, and when she (finally) enters the fray, she does so with a gleeful spark in her eyes, enjoying the fight for its own sake and grinning ferally even as she’s knocked to the ground. She’s having fun, a stark difference to Affleck’s dour Batman and Henry Cavill’s myopic Superman. Wonder Woman doesn’t have time to agonize about morality when there’s a battle to be had, a monster to defeat. She just puts up her fists and gets to work, and it’s a pleasure to watch her pleasure.

Unfortunately, even  she can’t save this movie. What little joy manages to sprout in director Zack Snyder’s wasteland of a movie is quickly strangled by heavy-handed symbolism and self-indulgent soliloquizing. Characters sound less like Batman or Superman or Lex Luthor–characters we all know well by now–reacting to each other and more like kids making clumsy arguments in a freshman philosophy class, talking in circles about gods and devils and man (oh my), about the morality of superheroing and vigilantism, about the nature of man.

It’s perhaps telling that in an interview with the Wall Street Journal screenwriter Chris Terrio said he was interested in exploring “philosophical questions in a smart way” in this movie, but those questions stop seeming so smart when they’re constantly reasked  with the subtlety of the Batmobile crashing through a ship docked at a Gotham port (a scene that, ridiculously enough, happens in the movie).

The result is a superhero movie made by people who seem to think superhero movies are inherently dumb and need to be elevated into “art.” And those responsible for BvS take what Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Night to its illogical extreme, laboring under the extremely mistaken conclusion that in order for a superhero movie to be smart, it must eschew all signs of joy and life.

This couldn’t be more different than the Marvel films.

Where Batman v Superman is a plodding slog, Marvel’s Avengers pitted several superheroes against each other, was smartly written and hugely enjoyable.

Much of what makes Marvel movies so fun and generally well-received (though not without very valid criticism, like the predictability of their “third act aerial battlesand the studio’s own issues with female characters), is that they embrace the superhero genre. In other words, they actually like what they’re making.

One gets the sense that the team behind these movies love these characters and their properties and breathe life into them, instead of pretentious equivocating. Iron Man was both well written and full of wit, kicking off a cinematic universe that revived Marvel’s brand as a whole. Captain America: The Winter Soldier tackled issues like drone strikes and government-sanctioned spying and surveillance while still being a deeply satisfying film, proving that a superhero movie could also be a sharp political thriller.

This is partially because Marvel’s creative teams understand their characters, giving them the space to be complex and fully realized, to inhabit both their superhero identities and human selves. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark quips at his robots and everyone around him. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers teases the jogger he encounters on the National Mall. Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff calls Steve a fossil and tries to set him up on blind dates. Marvel characters suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD. They also tease each other and demonstrate real emotions, even in the midst of potentially world-ending events.

They’re  human.

On the other hand, Batman and Superman never get that chance in Snyder’s world. Affleck’s Wayne is so obsessed with his vigilantism that it consumes him. He can’t even do a credible job as suave billionaire Bruce Wayne – in one scene, he grimaces his way through a cocktail party so unconvincingly, it’s no surprise that he’s immediately caught by basically everyone around him (or at least thrown out of the party!). He’s shown doing so little besides his Batwork, it’s as if Bruce Wayne is his made-up alter ego, not the other way around. Superman meanwhile, is so swathed in religious imagery (seriously, he floats from the heavens with lights shining behind him, his arms held out to save the poor helpless humans), he’s little more than a stiff Messiah.

It shows a profound lack of understanding of these characters – they’re lifeless action figures, boiled down to mere tropes: the obsessive vigilante and the benevolent alien. Sure, the movie checks off young Bruce’s tragic past (again) and Clark Kent’s humble farmboy roots, but one only ever gets the vaguest sense of who these characters are at their cores and why the audience should care about them, aside from the mere virtue of being Batman and Superman.

When there are already so many versions of these two superheroes, what makes this iteration stand out? And when they exist in an already crowded field of movies full of more complex – and frankly more fun – characters, why should anyone pay to watch these dull, humorless men bash against each other?

Batman v Superman is so concerned with its pretentious philosophizing that it forgets to even consider these fundamental questions.

Mallory Yu is a radio producer for NPR’s All Things Considered. She’s become the de facto Nerd among nerds on her team, and her obsession with comics is starting to worry her mother. Follow her on Twitter at @mallory_yu.

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