Bless his heart, Zack Snyder really went for it with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film attempts to confront the complexities of morality, justice, revenge, and iconography, all through the lens of a feud between two widely beloved defenders of justice and good. If that sentence was exhausting to read, then imagine the crooked spine Snyder is suffering after carrying the burden of making a $250 million film about it.
Pity aside, in a filmmaking pattern he coined with Man of Steel, Snyder promises a profound film but ultimately fails to deliver it in the end. To give a movie “The Snyder,” now a piece of everyday hollywood vernacular, is to introduce beautiful backstory, a carefully woven plot, direct near perfect acting, and oversee an intelligent script, only to finish with one long hour of loud, meat-headed action, and then cut to credits and laugh hysterically. “Deus Ex Zackina” is actually the term, now that I think about it.
Having said that, the hell of all of this is that for some cockamamy reason, I actually liked BvS. Maybe my imagination is too wild and I can just imagine a better ending, and cry to my better version in the theater. Maybe I’m just a nerd for seeing Superman fly and Batman kick ass. Or maybe the movie is just not that far from being good, from being very good.
Due to all the negative reviews which have snowballed into groupthink, the film has undeservedly become a caricature of itself, and everyone is just hating everything in it because the movie is now commonly viewed as a joke. Whatever your problem with the movie, I believe that if Snyder had only shored up a few character developments, the film would be in Dark Knight trilogy territory.
Learn from Nolan: “Dark and long” only works if you have characters who give you hope
Critics ironically get very pedantic when they talk about BvS’s intellectual “pretentiousness” and philosophical “heavy-handedness.” The common moviegoer, however, would probably merely articulate two very simple problems with the movie: “it’s too dark and too long.” The Dark Knight trilogy proved that a comic book hero film can be epically long and tragically dark, yet still be widely enjoyed. Darkness and length aren’t bad in themselves, but they are big storytelling risks. The only way dark and long works is with compelling characters who are struggling with the darkness. We need to cheer for good in the midst of evil. Characters, characters, characters.
The concepts driving BvS are actually quite strong, and the actors are well cast. It has strong bones. Snyder and team deftly set a ton of interesting plot, concept, and character plates a-spinning early in the film. The problem is that when the final battles arrive, a lot of them are left spinning to fall under their own weight. The following simple scene additions and rewrites would resolve the most important problem: the characters don’t actually develop at all; therefore, we have no hope. Fix that and all else will be forgiven.
How to fix three crucial plates left spinning at the end that will forgive everything
Note: Any fixes that include additional scenes need not lengthen the film at all. There is a total of one hour of fighting at the end of the movie. I firmly believe the extra, minimal time in these recommendations can come at the cost of a little battle time at the end. Twenty punches the audience feels are way better than forty punches that look super cool.
Problem 1: Is he in a fallen state or is this Batman just that dark?
Alfred alludes to how “cruel” Batman has become, and Batman cynically explains how no one stays good in this world, etc. But we viewers are being introduced to this new Batman just a few years after having a love affair with Christopher Nolan’s Batman. And it was made crystal clear that Nolan’s Batman does not kill. About half of The Dark Knight was about the Joker trying to get Batman to break his one rule, to degrade him and bring him down from his moral high horse. Snyder needed to confront the differences head on, if there are any. But unfortunately, Snyder doesn’t do business with any Dark Knight trilogy baggage.
Now, we have Batfleck, who is an old, cynical Batman and is really quite frosted about how reckless Superman is with human life. But in the first Batman action scene, he clearly fights in a way that leads to deaths. Literally everyone was confused by this. Does Batman kill? Why should we root for this guy? No Snyder interviews after the fact can explain this away. Most importantly, not addressing this takes away the audience’s moral compass. The audience cannot look to Batman as a symbol of hope and the film stays just flat “dark.”
The easy fix: Alfred is the key
- Have Alfred ream Batman for all the death he left behind in the Batmobile scene. Have Batman respond stubbornly and angrily to show how fallen this Batman is at this stage in his life. This would also establish Alfred as the single remaining remnant of Batman’s former heroic moral character. We need to come out of this movie seeing Batman as a man who is on the path to reclaiming his belief in defeating evil without becoming it. Alfred is the key.
- When Batman is holding the kryptonite spear over Superman’s head, have Alfred try and talk him out of it in his ear piece (Apparently, he’s been listening the whole time!). We need to feel Batman’s conflict. We need to root for good in his heart. This way, when he decides not to kill Superman and to save Martha, our consciences get giddy with hope, and we cheer.
Problem 2: Martha’s name. Batman can’t switch to being Superman’s friend that quickly after nearly driving a spear through his head. Deus Ex Zackina alert!
The Martha name coincidence is a fine, and actually quite powerful, plot element to stop Batman from killing Superman and going to save Martha Kent, BUT it is not strong enough to flip a switch inside Batman to be instant BFF’s with Superman. Just because there’s an orphan connection with a mother named Martha does not mean that Batman can forgive Superman for his “above the law” beef, and all the death he caused, etc. Snyder worked so hard to set up the feud with one hand, and then tried a “no, wait, look over here!” trick with the other hand to diffuse the feud. Hence: 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ouch.
The easy fix: Batman is still mad at Superman
Play the Martha scene out with the kryptonite spear over Superman’s head. Fine, Lois can come in and help explain. But, once Superman and Lois explain Lex’s plan, have Batman begrudgingly help Superman. Have Batman say something like, “We’re not finished yet. When this is all over, I’m coming for you.” This will establish that Batman will team up with Superman because they have a common enemy, who happens to be a threat to mankind, but he’s not ready to forgive him just yet. He will forgive him only when…
Problem 3: Will the real Superman please stand up?
Unfortunately, Man of Steel didn’t help this problem out very much with its thin character development. Superman is young, and is clearly dealing with the aftermath of his introduction to the world, when he “saved” Earth. In the process, he carelessly allowed thousands to die and murdered his enemy, General Zod. Does Superman kill? More Snyder interview explanations, but the films are strangely mum, which is all that matters. Holly Hunter’s Senator character is leading the charge to convince Superman to answer for his crimes, but it’s not just the people in the movie that need an explanation. We need an explanation, an apology, or something! This could have been a real opportunity to show Superman’s growth into a mature Superman who doesn’t kill, and would do anything to protect innocent people. You’re telling me that after five hours of Snyder Superman movies that we can’t get an explanation, or enough character development to have our real Superman? Snyder’s Superman only saves people when it fits into his schedule. Bored at a LexCorps party? [Yawn] I guess I’ll go save that person in a burning building on the news. Party sucks anyway.
The (sort of) easy fix: Superman has to become a nerd for protecting innocent people
- Use the conversation with Lois on the hotel terrace and the scene on the snowy mountaintop with Jonathan Kent after the wheelchair bombing to convince Superman that he needs to address the media and be transparent. Have Superman tell Lois that he wants to set up an interview with her to address the death he implicitly allowed, and that he wants to apologize and promise the people that it will never happen again. But here’s the catch: he never gets to do the interview because Lois gets captured by Lex, which leads to Lex pushing Lois off the roof to attract Superman, etc. Movie continues.
- Cut to the Doomsday fight with Batman still mad at Superman (established in Problem #2 fix). Superman has just shown some growth by taking Doomsday into space, which is away from the innocent people of earth, and he’s just withstood the nuclear attack. Then he returns to the fight. Have this cause Batman to gain some respect for him, which he shows by saying something about it. During the fight, after Wonder Woman joins, have Superman all of a sudden hear the cries of innocent people in the distance (Remember: the hotel terrace conversation when Superman admits he “wasn’t listening”? This is him learning to tune in!). Have Superman stumble, covering his ears, and maybe even tear up (Snyder likes melodrama) during the fight. He is overwhelmed by all the voices he’s paying attention to. (Sure, the movie went out of its way to show that that the city is mostly abandoned, but there have to be some people, right?) Have Batman come over to him and, for the first time, empathize with Superman. Have him ask Superman what he hears. Have Superman say, “How do I know who to save?” Have Batman say, “You have to try. We can hold him (Doomsday). Go!” Have Superman go and save some people. Now, Batman has full respect for Superman, and his words at the funeral make more sense, and while we don’t have BFF’s, we actually don’t want them to be BFF’s! We want the two to respect each other, but still have differences. This will also contribute to Batman’s renewed optimism at the end hitting harder. And most importantly, we have our full-grown, real Superman, making his death an even bigger tragedy. Le sigh…
- For extra credit: If you really want to get crazy, have Superman hear all the voices in conflict with Lois’ cries underwater. Make him choose a bus of people or Lois… and make him choose the people. Tissues, please!
Conclusion: Learn from Abrams: Get the characters right and little else matters.
In Star Wars: Episode VII, Abrams put all his chips on establishing the new characters correctly. Visually stunning, blistering action was merely a vehicle to drive character development along. Hell, Abrams even rehashed an old plot line from another Star Wars movie, but we don’t care because he got the characters right. We notice it’s strange, but we don’t actually care why R2 wakes up all of a sudden at the end to deliver the missing piece of the map. Sure, we notice it’s another freaking Death Star, but we don’t actually care. Finn, Rey, Han Solo, and Kylo Ren are developed and we all sleep soundly.
In both of Snyder’s recent DC movies, we have a reverse priority order. He is a fanboy who uses characters as vehicles for stunning action for comic book fans to geek out over. You know what’s interesting about the deleted scenes we’re hearing about? None of them are from the final two battles. Snyder protected those with lock and key. Earn your action, Zack, with strong characters. Then everyone else will be having as much fun as you.
Ultimately, we need to see Batman and Superman, and eventually Wonder Woman, developed as pillars of hope and good. Christopher Nolan made us feel the muck of Batman’s dark and gritty world, yet at the same time, made us root like little school boys for Batman. He was our hope. Do you remember how you fist pumped when Batman flew in over the army of policemen during the final battle in The Dark Knight Rises? We need that feeling, Zack. We need it real bad. Frankly, Zacky-boy, Warner Bros. needs it, or you’re going to be out of a job.
Do you bleed? You just might.