Plenty of people, critics included, had lukewarm reactions to the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU) films. The first entry, Man of Steel, is a bleak movie that did not present an uplifting Superman. A character death meant to inspire Clark mostly failed to resonate emotionally with audiences. The Supes vs Zod fight caused incredible collateral damage, and influenced future action film directors to insert dialogue to the effect that the Final Fight (i.e. where the Hero and the Big Bad attempt to punch each other into submission) does not harm civilians — since 2013, we’ve seen it in Star Trek Beyond, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even a subversion of this new trope in Captain America: Civil War (where a failure to evacuate civilians redounds on our heroes and creates major plot points). MoS shows us the character journey that Chris Reeves’ Superman skips over. It is Clark Kent’s origin story, not Superman’s.
The follow-up to Superman’s return, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is the centerpiece-for-now of the nascent DCCU (at least until Justice League hits theaters in November). The film, whose cumbersome title presages a cumbersome amount of plot, received less-than-positive reactions from audiences and especially from critics (Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings for the two films show a downhill trend in both categories, though audiences liked both films more than the critics did). Much of that criticism is warranted, but the warmer audience reception highlights that BvS is a solid (if misunderstood) work, and the advancement of its characters makes it an important part of the larger universe.
While MoS showed us a disconnected Clark Kent, who showed little emotion (preferring a good passive-aggressive truck smashing over direct confrontation), BvS shows us a Superman who feels fear, anger, sorrow, regret, and confusion. After the events of MoS, he’s caught between having violently broken with his Kryptonian past and having no clear direction for his future. Clark has the love of Lois Lane, sure, and a generalized fondness for humanity (or parts of it), but his interventions are opportunistic, seemingly geared more toward stopping humanity from self-harm rather than guiding us toward a better future.
The extended version of BvS runs just about 3 hours, longer than every entry in the Marvel universe — none of which needed an “extended cut” of anything. The details the extended cut adds fill out two areas of the plot. The first relates to a Lex subplot that explains why he acts a little loony, which is one of many reasons this film should have been better — director Zack Snyder felt he had to cut vital plot points from the theatrical release to instead show us Thomas and Martha Wayne dying in slow motion. Again.
Another main reason this movie didn’t live up to potential is the inclusion of Wonder Woman. My reasons for this are purely plot-based — she shows up for the flimsiest of reasons, basically out of nowhere (cynically, the viewer wonders whether DC/Warner Brothers realized they had a female character they could advance while Marvel was busy cutting Black Widow and Gamora out of everything). She’s basically pointless. If Diana hadn’t shown up at all, the only damage done to the plot is that Superman has to work solo in the final act, though we’d also probably lose Batman’s “oh shit” line, which might be the funniest part of the film.
One major gripe about Snyder’s vision is the characterization of Lex Luthor, though thinking again of this film as the prequel to the JL, it stands to reason that young Lex should be different from the bald-headed supervillain. A character who begins the film as a quirky (ugh) tech guy — Mark Zuckerberg with less of a polished veneer — quickly becomes obsessed with amassing and controlling the power the Kryptonians brought to Earth, and even though it’s only explored (somewhat) in the extended cut, it is very clear that the Lex we see babbling about ringing bells from a jail cell at the end is not the same one that playfully served a Jolly Rancher to a Senator at the beginning. The character is a conniving schemer (though his brilliance is a bit muted throughout), but the question of how much is ploy and how much is induced insanity remains unsettled. There is still plenty of space for Lex to become the supreme unpowered supervillain from the comics; the foil for Batman’s technological superpowers.
Speaking of the Caped Crusader, many diehards were also irked at Batman’s portrayal as a little too murder-y, but like a horror movie victim I say that there’s a perfectly rational explanation for that. Batman’s gone over the edge in more than one way. He brands criminals and kills them, and he lies to Alfred about the boat — actions which, combined with the rest of the plot, point to Bruce gearing up to kill or subdue “the alien” himself. That’s what that first disaster scene (which should have been part of MoS) is all about. Batman’s dealt with disaster, but Bruce can compartmentalize that away while out of costume. Seeing it up close, undeniably as Bruce Wayne and powerless to stop it, on top of everything else… I’m pretty sure that’s comic-book Bane’s cue to start Knightfall. Batman is well over the edge, deep into the black. Like Luthor, Bruce is slowly losing his grip on his world after seeing how powerless he truly is, and he’s going to kill Superman or die trying.
So now, let’s address the elephant in the room: the “Martha” thing.
Yes it’s silly, but consider the possibility that it was just a clunky attempt to clue you into Batman’s mindset (since Bats doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t have an inner monologue). The whole film, our over-the-edge Batman is gearing up for a fight, and at the same time dehumanizing “the alien” as “not a man”, but at the end, what Bruce thought were the alien’s last words weren’t a self-serving plea for mercy or an expression of anger, they were in defense of another person. Batman lost friends and peers (and, um, his parents), he’s seen all manner of messed up things, he’s killed criminals, and he’s realized just how far he’s punching above his weight; but he’s still Bruce Wayne, not the type to kill a man (even an “indestructible” one) in cold blood. He’s struggling with the decision even at the point (har) of making it, and hearing that “the alien” has a mother — and says Zack Snyder, hitting us over the head with the point, she’s got the same name as his mother! — tugs Bruce Wayne’s last remaining heartstring. It’s about the pathos of if being Superman’s mother’s mention, and forget the name coincidence (which again, is just gratuitous point-making).
Oh, and that “meaningless character death” I mentioned before, from the first film? Yeah, that sacrifice was Clark’s inspiration in the final act of BvS, when he literally flies headfirst into that same sacrificial act. Until now, Clark Kent has been living in Batman’s depressing world – with similar feelings of loss to Batman’s own, by the way – and you can see it’s wearing on him. Young Clark learned the wrong lesson for his tragedy (in MoS) about burying his feelings and identity. This is where Clark finally learns how to let go of that programming and actually be Superman, not just some other flying dude who stole Supes’ tights. A real superhero.
This is the true Superman origin story (not Man of Steel), and the foundation for what I’m hoping is a more upbeat Justice League, in terms of both the film and the characters in it. Honestly I’m optimistic, especially since Snyder has been replaced by Geoff Johns (whose run on the New52 Justice League is pretty good). I’m optimistic that history will view these first two DCCU films even more favorably as time goes on and the context of a much larger universe.
Watch BvS with all this in mind. You may not agree that it’s a good film, but even if you’re unable to forgive the Snyderity of it all, it’s better than Thor 2. Though I guess I have to say, this assumes that how it actually plays out is that Kent becomes the Big Blue Boy Scout straight off the comic page by the end credits of Justice League. If we get another “Blue and Red Batman“ portrayal instead, I may have to eat these words with whatever breakfast sludge masquerading as cereal they’ll push when JL comes out.