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Consumed With Hate: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

🤼 No Matter How They Tossed the Dice, It Had To Be...

The Crime: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
The Guilty Party: Warner Bros
Overview: Hacked to bits and frankensteined together by a committee of clout-chasing executives desperate to prove they could be just as good at this as Marvel, Batman v Superman is the worst tentpole film I've ever seen.

Why I Hate It...

I love bad movies. I love picking them apart, figuring out why they didn't work, trying to see through to the director's intent and trying to grok how the whole thing went to pieces. Now, not all bad movies are created equal. Last week's entry, Man of Steel, is mostly just boring because it lacks a coherent narrative direction. Manos: The Hands of Fate is terrible, but it was an indie film made by incompetents in the 60s and the only reason anyone has heard of it at all is because it got a send-up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But every now and then the stars align (ahem) and you get something that is truly terrible on a grand scale, something with a tremendous budget, magnificent expectations, strong pedigree, endless talent both behind and in front of the camera, and it nonetheless becomes a colossal turd that's so bad and so wide-spread that it almost changes the landscape of world cinema.

I'm talking about things like Heaven's Gate... which I haven't seen, but which cratered an entire studio. With regard to my personal viewing history, there are three films that stand above the rest for the sheer scope of their badness. An unholy trifecta, you might call it. Two of them have already been discussed in this series: M. Night Shyamalan's franchise-killing The Last Airbender and Tom Hooper's career-killing Cats, two cinematic flatulences that should never have been unleashed upon the public. But today we're looking at a movie that not only derailed the director's career and the entire franchise it was struggling to build, it also set a new record for the sharpest second-week box office drop-off. It's time to finally talk about the mother of all bombs, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Now I'm not going to piece-by-piece try to take this thing apart. I don't have that kind of wordcount to play with. If you're interested in the definitive post-mortem, I would point you towards MovieBob's three-part Really That Bad set of essays on YouTube. If you've got ~4 hours to devote to the subject, that's your first and last stop. Instead, I want to go through the broad strokes of what I think the real problem is: bad decision making at the highest executive levels of Warner Bros. I'm going to lay out why I think this movie was essentially orchestrated over Zack Snyder's head. Now, this is not to say that an uncompromised Snyder cut would have been good--I firmly believe that he was the wrong man for this job, having already given us a nihilistic Superman wedded to Libertarian politics and ultra-violence. But I also think that if he'd been left more alone we would have gotten something that was at least mostly coherent, which the final product is definitely not. So let's break down the evidence.

The Context

Something to keep in mind was that Warner Bros was facing some challenges at the beginning of the twenty-teens. They had a huge stable of comic book heroes that they'd largely failed to bring to the screen, including Superman, the most recognizable comic book character of all time. Superman's movies had mostly died in development hell, and the ones that had been made had been poorly received going all the way bad to 1983 with Superman III. They'd had success with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series, but that was over. Their other big franchise, Harry Potter, was wrapping up its final installment. Also, they'd just lost a lawsuit accusing them of camping on rights to Superman, so they needed to make some movies quick or open themselves up to litigation. Meanwhile, Marvel's The Avengers was cleaning up at the box office and comic book heroes were everywhere. Warner really had no excuse for not making some money out of all of this, so released Man of Steel as a launching platform for a new cinematic universe of their own. And it underperformed. So with the following movie, they really needed to knock one out of the park, and you can imagine there were a lot of people with producer credits giving notes on this one to make sure it was maximally performative. So they tinkered.

Fixing Stupid Things That Don't Matter

You know what happens when people who don't understand story try to "help?" They fix things that don't matter. They get focused on plot holes and esoteria. They contribute ideas that are clever on paper don't really work in the story. Batman v Superman is littered with this shit. This is how you end up with "Save Martha" as a climactic turning point. It's "clever" on paper, but really stupid on screen. This is how you end up with Superman getting hit on the head with a kitchen sink. This is how you end up with a single line of dialog explaining that downtown Metropolis is empty since it's about to get pummeled by Doomsday and audiences were rather upset that the fight with Zod in Man of Steel was a 9/11 analog.

A lot of the time these "fixes" end up raising more questions than they answer. For example, there was a decision to make Gotham and Metropolis neighboring cities, since Batman and Superman are doing a lot of traveling between them. This addresses one minor continuity point that most viewers would not have noticed because in movies all travel is instantaneous and time is squishy. But since they're now twin cities, one has to wonder why Superman doesn't ever do any hero-ing across the river? And also, how has he never heard of Batman?

See, the thing is, plot holes don't matter. If you're engaged with the characters and the themes of a story, you probably won't notice them and you definitely won't be bothered by them, because at the end of the day all we really care about is watching characters we like overcome obstacles and become better people in the process. The rest is all flavor. But if you have a story that isn't working, plot holes are something you can point to that can be "fixed" even if fixing them does nothing to address the underlying problems. This also applies to...

Weird Concessions to "Realism"

There's a whole layer of tinkering that basically amounts to "wanting to make a movie set in a fictional place feel like it's not set in a fictional place." In Batman v Superman, Gotham and Metropolis feel like generic city-scapes instead of specific places. They feel real but they don't feel like they really exist, if that makes sense. One advantage of the Marvel Universe is that the comics largely take place in real locations. Sure, Wakanda is fictional, but Spider-Man is from Queens, Ms. Marvel is from Jersey City, Ant-Man is from San Francisco, and those locations inform their identities and give them a grounding in reality. DC's main heroes are from fictional locations that each have their own unique texture in the comics, but this movie just sucks all of the personality out of them. As a point of contrast, consider the Dark Knight trilogy, which strove for realism, not by stripping Gotham of its identity, but by using it as a transparent stand-in for whatever suits the story. It's inconsistent--Batman Begins takes place in Kind-Of Long Island, The Dark Knight in Basically Chicago, and The Dark Knight Rises in Definitely Manhattan--but it's specific and it works. Gotham always feels like a real place with its own identity in those movies.

But not so here. The fact that they're so samey just calls attention to how devoid of personality they are. As does the fact that these locations are populated with recognizable people who are themselves tied to geography in the real world. Anderson Cooper should be broadcasting from either Atlanta or New York, right? Soledad O'Brien is based in New York. Neil DeGrasse Tyson works at the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan. Is New York a place in this world? Does CNN have a presence in Metropolis? Why is Charlie Rose here, and why is he asking Judith Finch such poorly-scripted questions? It's all stuff that doesn't matter, but it takes you out of the movie because it calls attention to the artificiality of the locations and you start devoting brain space to reconciling it.

This applies to smaller stuff too. There's a scene early on with Lois in a bathtub and it's meant to illustrate her relationship with Clark. What's notable is that she's not taking a bubble bath. In the real world, women don't primarily take bubble baths, but they do in movies in order to cover their chests and it's just one of those film conceits that we're accustomed to, like how no one in a movie ever closes a door or finishes a phone conversation or talks into a microphone without it feeding back. The lack of bubbles is more realistic, yes, but the turbulence of the water doesn't really cover her up. It kind of does, but you can clearly see the blank spaces where Amy Adams' privacy patches have been digitally blended into her skin. So throughout this whole scene--which is charming and character-driven in ways that the movie sorely needs--you keep wondering if it's important that Lois Lane doesn't seem to have nipples.

And it also applies to bigger stuff. Because "realism" here is equated to "grimness," you end up with a movie that's very mean-spirited and self-serious. And that's not something you can just go in and fix in post. So instead you end up...

Polishing a Turd

Part of the tinkering is that the movie got delayed by a year and went through some fairly extensive reshoots. Why? I don't know if it was test screenings or just in-house rough cuts being previewed by executives, but one gets the feeling that it was obvious that the movie wasn't working right from the get-go. The foundations were rotten, and there's only so much you can do to fix that after-the-fact. For instance, the production design is too busy, which turns a lot of the background into visual soup. That's not something you can just drop in and fix with reshoots or CGI--not cheaply anyway.

Or here's a more salient problem: Lex Luther doesn't work at all. He is redundant with Batman in terms of his role in the story as a "rich guy who wants to kill Superman." His plan doesn't make sense. His characterization is a walking tone problem and it's borderline offensive with whatever neurodivergence he's sporting to justify his villainy. He is manic and goofy in a movie that's otherwise grim and joyless. One of the final shots is of him in prison with a freshly bald head ranting that "He's coming" and "The bell cannot be un-rung" under harsh red lights. And then he just keeps saying "Ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding" over and over. It's supposed to be ominous, but instead it's just... bizarre. But when your main villain doesn't work from first principles... what can you even do about that other than cut around it or lean in?

Another big issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material. This movie borrows heavily from the trade paperbacks The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman. And just like Snyder doesn't seem to understand that Superman is a hopeful and optimistic presence in his universe rather than a dour Jesus-analog, he also doesn't seem to understand that The Dark Knight Returns is kind of a sick joke. In it, a fascist Superman is being fought by a Batman who is so old and broken that he's become an evil caricature of himself. The Bat-Armor looks ridiculous on screen because it looked ridiculous on the page--because it was supposed to be ridiculous on the page! Also, just combining those two stories into a single movie is a bad idea. For one, it's pandering. For two...

There's Too Much Story

This feels like a movie that has been cut down to the bone, and I say that having watched the only available version to stream on Max, the three-hour R-rated director's cut which switches to the IMAX aspect ratio for certain sequences. Which makes not a lick of goddamn sense on streaming, but I digress. There's a lot of time to tell a story here, and yet the movie feels rushed. Not just rushed, it is relentlessly paced. No, that's not quite right. It's f**king exhausting is what it is. It never lets up. This movie doesn't so much have "scenes" as it has "extended montages." There aren't transitions, just whip-pans into the next bit of dialogue. So many freaking whip-pans. It never pauses so you can get oriented, so you just find yourself out of breath. I'm convinced that the original rough-cuts were running six hours at least, and a lot of storytelling essentials were trimmed in an effort to get it down to a reasonable run-time.

And when I say "essentials" I'm talking about connective tissue like establishing shots and inserts, scene transitions, shots that communicate changes in time and space--things that are important for guiding the viewer through a sequence but aren't flashy or even noticeable, necessarily. It's a bit like architecture. We ooh and ahh at the spires and minarets and crenelations, but all of that is supported by something: columns, buttresses, walls, and what-not that are structurally important and have been integrated into the design of the building to be either invisible or a feature in their own right. Movies have that too, and a lot of the time you don't notice them if they're working properly. But you definitely feel it when they're not there.

And in Batman v Superman, for the most part they're not there. You know what else isn't there? Moments to reflect on the gravity of the story. The Capital Building gets blown up at the midpoint, resulting in the deaths of congresspeople and their staffers and also Soledad O'Brien, which was just mean if you ask me. The ramifications of this aren't really considered beyond "it made Superman look bad." But when you think about it... that's a big freaking deal. That's a Constitutional crisis in the making. And it just never gets brought up. The destruction of huge swaths of Metropolis at the hands of General Zod is replayed in the prologue and treated like a big deal in the moment, but apart from Batman being angry about it, it never comes up again. These are the stakes. This is the reason your heroes are fighting. And it's just absent.

In fact the only time the movie slows down at all is during the funeral scenes in the finale. We get an insert of several dishes of green bean casserole--which is actually a nice little moment of levity. And then you've got this big weighty ending. The movie absolutely struts in its final moments. It thinks it nailed it. But prior to that it's all-breakneck-pace-all-the-time.

And that's because it has to make room for a story that has four antagonists, three of whom get dedicated set-piece battles in the final act (for those keeping score at home, the villains are Luther, KGBeast, Doomsday, and Batman). There are a handful of mystery plots to wrangle which include subplots for both Lois Lane and Wonder Woman. There's also Batman's fall from grace and quest to get his hands on some kryptonite, which takes up a ton of screentime as it's treated like a protagonist arc in its own right. And finally there's Superman's arc, such as it is, feeling isolated and impotent as a hero, which is exacerbated by Luther's background international intrigue nonsense. That's easily two, if not three, films' worth of narrative. How anyone would look at this pile of story and think it's a single movie is beyond me.

And, to be fair, I don't think Snyder and his screenwriter David S. Goyer chose to pull in all of these pieces and adapt two unrelated graphic novels at the same time. Because that's Bat-Shit™ insane. I have to assume that this was mandated by the studio. Snyder and Goyer were given a title and some references to make sure to work in for the fanboys, and told to cram it all in there because "more is more," apparently. And this is very much in line with what you see in other big tentpole movies, especially those coming from Warner Bros. Aquaman also has too many villains and two movies' worth of plot lines that give it some hefty pacing issues--which weren't enough to make it a "bad" movie per se, but they did not endear it to me at all. This movie is over-stuffed and a competent director would not choose to over-stuff it this way. And it's also telling that so much of the stuffing is...

All the Franchise Building

There are so many sequences in this damned movie that have nothing to do with the story and are just there to tee up other movies. There's the Knightmare sequence where Batman has a dream about Superman becoming a literal fascist dictator and while it is tangentially related to the plot, it's mostly just there to set up Darkseid and Planet Apocalypse and a bunch of other movies that would never get made. It's followed by a cameo from The Flash to tease Flashpoint, I guess, and contributes nothing to the story. The worst offender by far is when Batman sends Wonder Woman a set of videos teasing Justice League. It's painfully artificial and also arrives right at the climax. Seriously, let's stop the movie dead for three minutes so she can watch Quicktime movies. Is there a good reason this couldn't have waited until after the credits instead of the culmination of the Wonder Woman plot thread?

Come to think of it, why is Wonder Woman here at all? She breathes some life into the movie at the ending, so I hate to kick her out, but she's contributing nothing to the story and her plot thread is substantial in terms of screen time. She doesn't turn the tide of the final battle or anything. One gets the impression that her appearance was supposed to be a surprise, but that surprise made its way into the press kit, so that was a wasted opportunity, which we can also blame the studio for. You could have cut her out, taken half an hour out of the movie, and the story would not have suffered one bit. Again, she's one of the good things in this movie, but she's definitely there just to plug her own upcoming film.

Because what Warner had not learned at this point was that franchise building kills movies. This has been the secret sauce to Marvel's success. Almost every single movie in the MCU works as a standalone. The franchise-building stuff is shunted off to the credits where it belongs, and the worst MCU films are the ones that violate this rule: Iron Man 2, Age of Ultron, basically all of Phase 4. Make a good movie first and the franchise will follow, not the other way around. This franchise-first mentality is what killed Universal's Dark Universe project and it's the main reason those Fantastic Beasts movies are largely unwatchable. Ironically, the reason for Marvel's "make a good movie first and a franchise movie second" rule came from Kevin Feige watching the Harry Potter movies. He'd take his kids to see the next one without bothering to catch up and was impressed that they each worked as a stand-alone, even though they were part of a long-running series.

Once more for the kids in the cheap seats, a big contributing factor in why this movie is so bad is that Warner Bros failed to understand a principle that their competition learned by watching movies that were produced by Warner Bros.

The Fallout

The miserable reception of Batman v Superman did not go unnoticed by Warner Bros. Or at least, their shareholders. Justice League got radically re-jiggered and then bombed at the box office anyway, despite being a better movie (then again, how could it be worse?). Snyder left the DCEU after a personal tragedy, although the scuttlebutt is that Warner had basically already decided to sideline him and it was a convenient--if very sad--reason for them to part ways officially. A number of movies on their slate got canceled, but the DCEU was a zombie franchise that plowed ahead regardless. The films that got released were very hit-or-miss, all of them weirdly disconnected from and yet fully committed to the shared continuity. Then COVID happened and things got cannibalized for their streaming service and there were mergers, spin-offs, acquisitions, and just a whole mess of questionable business decisions, while trying unsuccessfully to get some toehold on the comic book movie magic that Marvel had created (and has subsequently beaten into the ground and squandered). C'est la vie.

I genuinely hate this movie, and I love it so much. It's fascinatingly bad, a colossal trainwreck that deserves to be studied, and it stands proudly alongside Cats and The Last Airbender in the pantheon of the most ill-conceived and disastrously executed adaptation failures of all time. Getting to write about this film is one of the reasons I started this blog series back in January. It is a thing of horrific beauty, a freak show attraction that deserves every horrible thing anyone ever said about it. This is a movie that uses a literal jar of piss as a plot reveal, and I didn't even bring it up until now because of all the other shit it was buried under.

Shine on, you spectacular failure. Shine on.

Next week, something (appropriately) shorter. Kurt hates on one of the great comedy party games, Munchkin...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.