Note: This piece will have minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, be aware.
First, I had a good time at Batman v Superman, a fact which is probably seated in the fact that a) I don’t appear to care much about whether either Batman or Superman occasionally kill the people who are actively trying to kill them, b) I’ve already built into my worldview that Zack Snyder films are pretty but empty, and undernourished in the script department. That BvS is all of these things is, well, unsurprising to me. There’s something about Snyder’s visual aesthetic that I enjoy enough that I’m willing to deal with his films’ generally hypoxic storytelling and other flaws; I mean, Jesus, I enjoy Sucker Punch, and that film’s pretty much a shitshow from top to bottom. But it also gives me images like this:
And my brain goes coooooooooool.
It’s not (just) because Emily Browning is in a creepy babydoll get-up, although that does point directly to the key to Snyder’s aesthetic: He’s tuned into what a 13-year-old, newly-pubescent, white male comic book and video game geek wants to see — or thinks he wants to see, anyway. He wants to see Spartans kick-ass, shot-for-shot recreations of graphic novels and sexy-child killbots in a boss fight. He also wants to see Batman and Superman punch the shit out of each other, and then team up for a boss fight, too. That’s who Zack Snyder is as a filmmaker; that’s the baseline you work with. Everything else is incidental; anything else you get is kind of a bonus.
Apparently I’m okay with that. And yes, we can argue about whether we should be entitled to expect more from Zack Snyder when he’s put in charge of a beloved franchise of cultural icons (or what the fact that I’m apparently perfectly okay with the Zack Snyder aesthetic as described above says about me). But at the end of the day, I think Snyder is who he is as a filmmaker. The dude’s 50 years old and has been massively rewarded for this particular aesthetic and workflow of his. The idea that he would change it at this point is a little much. He would, correctly, ask you why, when it’s all working out so well for him. I get what Zack Snyder is about; he is an utterly known quantity to me. I found BvS to be standard-issue Snyder, and it turns out I like standard-issue Snyder just fine.
Which is not to say much of the criticism of BvS is wrong. The story telling is a mess and the motivations for everyone in this film are thin as the pages of a comic book. The characterizations are all pretty good, I’ll note, which is what happens when you get good actors and you let them act (say what you will about Zack Snyder, he’s hugely better with actors than, say, George Lucas ever was). But you know that thing people say? About how they could watch their favorite actor read a phone book? Well, they come very close to getting their chance here.
For all that, I didn’t find it difficult to follow why people were doing what they were doing; the storytelling is messy but it has a throughline. Bruce Wayne feels protective about his Wayne Industries workers and then they die when Superman fights Zod, triggering Wayne’s PTSD about his parents’ death, so he decides to protect the Earth from Superman. Superman can’t help himself from protecting Lois Lane at any cost and begins to see that this makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Lex Luthor wants to take over the world, realizes Superman is a hindrance and creates a scheme to get rid of him, with plans B and C if things don’t work the way he wants. Wonder Woman is here to set up her film.
Which is the other thing: BvS is clearly Act II of a multi-act epic, of which Man of Steel was the first act. BvS assumes you saw MoS — if you didn’t none of this makes sense (or, if you like, makes even less sense) — and it clearly assumes you know, because you’re a citizen of the real world and read many entertainment web sites and magazines, that several more films in the DC universe are coming. That being the case, the film doesn’t even attempt to tie up several loose ends, or explain things which (probably) Snyder and the rest of the Warner/DC brain trust know will be addressed in other films. This film sets up films for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash (these aren’t really spoilers, these films have already been announced and are on a schedule), as well as an overall Justice League film (two, actually).
Does this work? Maybe a little. Other people have noted that thanks to this film, Man of Steel makes a hell of a lot more sense, which is to say, Superman and Zod wrecking Metropolis in that film has concrete consequences in this one, not the least of which is whether Superman can actually be trusted. So perhaps the things that don’t make a whole lot of sense in this one will be explained later. The question here is whether a person paying their money now should have to wait for another film, years down the road, for things in this film to make sense. There is the idea that films should generally be self-contained.
But then again, Snyder and company are also aware that you’re already in it for the long haul, no matter how much you whine and moan. For all the griping about the film, it made $420 million worldwide in its opening weekend. While people, including me, are having fun playing the backend calculus about whether the film was really all that successful, given its production and marketing costs, and whether it make it into the black in theatrical release (my prediction: Yup, it sure will, or come close enough not to matter in the grand scheme of things), you’re already ensnared. You already want to see the Wonder Woman film (justly, as she was pretty cool in this film, and Gal Gadot does a fine job with her), and you’re already hoping Snyder will just goddamn lighten up, already, for the Justice League film (he won’t. You’ll see it anyway). Warner Bros will make the same amount of money whether you hatewatch or not, so long as you watch, one way or another, and you will. Nerds always watch.
Or if you don’t, that’s fine too, because, again, this is a multi-stage, multi-year project, and theatrical release grosses are just one factor. Just as Disney/Pixar keeps making Cars sequels and spinoffs not because they make a lot of money theatrically (they don’t) but because the merchandising of the Cars universe is ridiculously large, so too does this iteration of the DC universe offer Warner Bros all sorts of other ways to make money. Hollywood accounting doesn’t just run in one direction, you know. It doesn’t just try to amortize the costs of its failures on the backs of its hits. It also spreads the economic benefit of its hits across all its divisions. BvS will make $800 million to $1 billion worldwide — or won’t — but it will help bring billions into WB though merchandising and licensing and ancillary markets for the films (as well as helping to prop up and drive interest to WB/DC’s junior league of properties on television).
But they could have made so much more money if the film was good! I hear you say, and you know what, in theory, I’m with you. If BvS were a better film, which is to say, one where the story was tighter and hung together better, there’s a chance it might make more money in the long haul than the “merely” $800 million to $1 billion I expect it to settle in with when all is said and done. But then again it might not. There’s not a huge correlation between great story and massive grosses. Avatar is a punching bag for its story and it’s the highest grossing film of all time with $2.7 billion worldwide. Other billion-grossing movies include two Transformers films, two of the terrible Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and the grossly underwhelming first Hobbit film. Oh, and The Phantom Menace. BvS might have made more money with a better story, or less — no one knows, and it’s hard to say. And in any event, as noted one paragraph above, the money from the box office is not the only money under consideration here.
Much of the tsuris about BvS comes from the fact that a certain segment of fans just don’t like the Zack Snyder interpretation of the DC universe, which is fine, but the specifics of their complaints I sometimes find a little odd. For example, there’s the complaint about the fact that in Man of Steel Superman kills Zod, who is actively trying to murder some people with his laser eyes, by breaking his neck:
Superman doesn’t kill people! is the refrain here. Well, but he does. In fact, he’s killed Zod before:
And if you ask me, that time Superman didn’t look particularly anguished about it. Sure, Superman didn’t snap his neck, he just shoved him into an icy chasm and let him fall to a splattery death tastefully obscured by fog. But dead is dead. And Zod wasn’t even trying to murder people at that moment!
Likewise, the complaint that Batman doesn’t kill people, especially with guns and bullets —
Oh. Uh, well.
But later on in the same story he breaks a gun and says guns are not the Bat Way! So, what you’re saying that Batman and his writers are kinda inconsistent on their whole stance about guns, and killing people, depending on the situation at hand? Tell me more.
Both Superman and Batman have been around for coming up on 80 years, and in that time have been rebooted so many different times and in so many different incarnations it’s difficult to count them all. The current Snyderverse iterations of these characters aren’t extreme in their portrayal, they’re just desaturated and fairly humorless. Because that’s kind of where Zach Snyder is at, basically. I’m not sure I want to see Zach Snyder attempt comedy or sustained humor. In fact, I’m vaguely terrified at the idea.
All of which is to say that I think it’s perfectly legit to dislike the Snyder take on Batman and Superman and the DC universe in general, but I don’t find the arguments that Snyder is somehow subverting the characters in his underlit-yet-still-somehow-very-teal-and-orange version particularly compelling. The good news for such complaints is that as far as comic book properties are concerned, nothing lasts forever. Hell, next year there’s gonna be a LEGO Batman movie, which, by this trailer at least, looks pretty damn amusing. Not to mention that DC itself is rebooting its entire universe, again, like, this very week or something. Who can keep track?
Personally, and again, I think the Snyderverse iteration is just fine — not amazing, but perfectly serviceable with some great visual moments and an underlying (if not especially well-developed) ethos about the responsibilities that those with great power have to those who look to them for salvation, or fear their wrath. It’s good enough, in other words, to keep me interested in what comes next. I’m not hatewatching these films. I’m just watching them, happily enough.