How do we ultimately judge movies? We generally judge them by their individual merits, from the acting, directing, cinematography, and other element. But in some cases we may find ourselves comparing a movie to other films. Neither is particularly right or wrong, and I would guess that people do some combination of both.
In regards to my method of judging movies, I look at two things:
- What was the filmmakers’ conceptual or artistic intention of the film? What is the premise? What is the reason this film is being made?
- Was the premise taken to its full potential? Was it executed correctly? Was this the best possible film it could have been?
It’s this mindset that leads me to love something like the silly “Fast & Furious” movies with their well-direction action and choreography, simple premise, and relatable theme of family, and despise something like “The Amazing Spider-Man” reboot series, with their lack of any compelling premise (some nonsense mystery about Peter Parker’s parents) and horrific writing and structure.
On the eve of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s” release and the discussion regarding its negative reviews, I thought that it may be a good idea to look back at its predecessor “Man of Steel,” a film I felt had a great premise, but a poor execution.
Some Brief Words on Zack Snyder
The merit of “300,” “Watchmen,” and “Sucker Punch” has created polarized responses and debates, with their admirers and detractors. For all of the internet dislike that director Zack Snyder has received in the past week over “Batman v Superman,” I should mention that he is a filmmaker I quite like. Regardless of your opinion on his films and stories, I think that his films have proven that not only does he have a good eye, but has a very distinct visual style.
But these praises come with criticisms, the most common being that his films are “empty,” “hollow,” and become mindless action schlock pretending to be something much deeper. His films are primarily visual driven, and character and story development are sacrificed for this. I think some of these criticisms are a bit exaggerated, and I do see an attempt from Snyder to create something meaningful – however, I believe that “Man of Steel” in particular is a film that fell short in some respects.
The Creative Spark
Despite his name recognition, Superman isn’t necessarily the most popular superhero in modern times. A product of earlier and simpler comic book storytelling, Superman is a hero who many consider to be too powerful, too over-exposed in media, and perhaps too difficult to relate to. So when the studio decides to reboot Superman, where does one begin? How do you make this iconic and familiar character fresh again?
Screenwriter David S. Goyer of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” pitched his Superman story idea to director Christopher Nolan:
I’ve said this before in other interviews, but I wanted to go back to the notion of exploring Superman’s science-fiction roots. I felt the fact that he was an alien was given short shrift in the films and, to a certain extent, the comic books. I remember saying to Chris this is really a first contact story. If you strip away the superpowers, it would still be the biggest story that happened in human history. I know it’s a cliché to say we wanted to attempt a more realistic take. We wanted to take this film more serious which, for some critics, they didn’t want to see; it seems like the fans did.
Superman is an alien before a superhero – this is the angle that Goyer (who penned the screenplay) and Nolan (who produced the film with his wife) would take. Generally other superhero films, and especially superhero films tackle issues such as morality (“The Dark Knight,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), balancing the superhero identity with their real identity (“Spider-Man” films), existential crises (“Iron Man” films), and others.
By taking the angle of Superman’s revelation being a first contact story, the filmmakers set themselves up for a different Superman film, with a good amount of dramatic potential.
Clark Kent’s Internal Conflict
Goyer’s story idea serves as a good foundation for creating the world of the movie. But for the story to be successful, Goyer and Snyder had to take much care into creating a protagonist who will serve as a vehicle for this world. Superhero fiction is often defined by the psychology of their heroes, how their ideologies form, and how their ideologies clash once they encounter other characters.
I am actually in the camp who very much enjoyed the flashback sequences of “Man of Steel.” The flashback is a tricky narrative device that is often abused, but in this case i think it was necessary for building Clark Kent’s character. By showing flashbacks of the pivotal moments in his life, many developments in his character in the present day are much more powerful. We see the internal struggles that Clark has carried all his life, and his transformation into Superman promises to provide resolution to his lifelong internal conflict.
With the premise and internal conflict set in stone, two dramatic questions are established:
- How will humanity react to the realization that they are not alone in the universe?
- When will Clark Kent be ready to reveal his secret?
Execution of the Premise
Unfortunately, both of these dramatic questions, both brimming with potential, are totally botched.
The way in which the second half of the film approaches the first contact angle is laughable. General Zod (played by a misused Michael Shannon) airs a threat to the entire world, which drops the bombshell of the existence of aliens. Yet, we never see a proper reaction to all of this. Law enforcement officials act on Zod’s threats immediately without question, the Daily Planet just sees this as another story, and when Superman flies into a military base to turn himself in, the soldiers don’t even bat an eye.
Despite some initial questioning and distrust, it’s nearly comical just how quickly everyone trusts Superman (and even the birth of the name “Superman” is short and played for a dumb joke). The film goes to mach speed, with Superman, Lois Lane, Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni), and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) all perfectly in-sync and quickly devising an incomprehensible plan to defeat Zod. The film moves too quickly, and neither the ordinary citizens of Metropolis nor the audience are able to process this major revelation of extraterrestrial life.
The resolution of the second dramatic question ultimately is troubling, as it comes not from an external force that shows that the world needs Superman, but rather from Superman’s very presence on Earth. Zod’s arrival to Earth and subsequent destruction is because of Superman, and annoyingly, he for the very problem that he himself creates. The film never properly justifies Clark Kent’s emergence as Superman – not to mention, it at the very last minutes Superman is given a whole new moral dilemma that was never set up for the rest of the film.
One of the most controversial aspects of “Man of Steel” was his killing of Zod to save a human family. The outcry came from our knowledge of Superman as a non-killer in his superhero work. However, this version of Superman that we are just being introduced to has never had to deal with this moral dilemma of killing before. Obviously from his reaction he feels great pain for the action he had to commit, but where did that pain come from? Not to mention that the next time we see Superman he appears to be quite complacent. What could have been a powerful scene was nullified by the fact that this moment was not earned, and was far disconnected from Clark Kent’s pre-established internal conflict. The only reason that we the audience cares about that scene is because we know from other depictions of this character that he is against taking lives.
Relating to that, the character of Lois Lane suffered from this pitfall the most. While Amy Adams’ rendition of the character is established to be very intelligent and persistent, many of her character actions and developments occur simply because she is Lois Lane, an important character in the Superman mythos. There’s no reason for her to be running around the destruction of Metropolis other than she is an important character, and there is no reason for any romantic attraction to form between her and Superman other than the audience knows that she is his love interest in the mythology. This is a film that cuts corners in character development and character interaction.
The film ultimately is based on the audience’s preconceived ideas and concepts of Superman and Lois Lane, rather than the Superman and Lois Lane that Goyer and Snyder created for their own movie. This becomes a movie that does not do its own characters justice, and because its premise has such little support, the movie as a whole falls apart by the end.
The Premise of “Batman v Superman”
So what is the promise of “Batman v Superman?” Judging from interviews and promotional material, it seems to be directly addressing the consequences of “Man of Steel,” mainly the destruction of Metropolis during the film’s climax. But in addition to this, it also addresses the initial premise of “Man of Steel” of Superman’s status as an alien. He is not of Earth and has displayed an absurd amount of power – what are the direct political and societal consequences of having a figure like Superman around in the world?
Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is the embodiment of the fear and paranoia created from Superman’s presence. In Dick Cheney fashion, Bruce Wayne proposes to preemptively take out Superman as a potential threat to the world’s safety. And the Cheney comparison isn’t even a stretch:
Bruce Wayne: He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a 1% chance that he’s our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty.
Dick Cheney: If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.
It’s this comparison that makes this film more timely and relevant to our current society and political environment. For “Batman v Superman” to be a successful film, it has to not only establish this idea, but have a complete arc where its dramatic questions are answered in a satisfying manner. Who is in the right, Batman or Superman? Is there any grey area for compromise?
Looking at the current reaction, I am doubtful that this will be a successful film. But I am watching this film tomorrow at the time of this writing, and I hope to be proven wrong.