Batman V Superman Gets Lost in Messy World-Building

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice contains three movies in one: a Batman reboot starring Ben Affleck, a politically thrilling Man of Steel sequel, and a Justice League setup movie that bit off more than it could (or should) chew.

The film opens in the middle of the mayhem that concluded 2013’s Man of Steel. Superman and General Zod are whirling around Metropolis, alien space craft are toppling skyscrapers left and right, and in a welcome shift in perspective, we see it all through the eyes of Bruce Wayne. Though unnecessarily cut with flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood, this introduction perfectly captures Batman’s motivation to face off against Superman with a tragic shot of a Wayne Enterprise building laying in a cloud of dust. A promising start transitions to the political landscape where a U.S. Congressional committee asks the obvious question: does the world want a red-caped savior if he brings death and destruction in his wake?

Had the film contained itself to these premises, it would have likely become director Zack Snyder’s best film to date and positioned the infant DC cinematic universe as a formidable opponent to Disney’s rock solid Marvel film slate. Instead of allowing an excellent beginning to run its course and conclude in a captivating battle between the son of man and the son of a god, the filmmakers confound the narrative with additional main characters that should have remained extras and Easter eggs, if included at all.

Among the unnecessary characters is Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg). Why is it that five out of the last seven Superman films have included Luthor? He has become the irrevocable load-bearing wall in constructing a Superman story. The essence of Superman, the Christ-like figure that is both needed and rejected by Earth, is a gold mine of material for pondering timely questions about America’s growing indifference to religion. That should be the irreplaceable bedrock to a Superman story. Unfortunately, such philosophical questions are glossed over in Batman v Superman, reduced to a mere montage of heroics opposite a skeptical narration by political nay-sayers.

Lex Luthor

Aside from Luthor’s tiresome inclusion, Jessie Eisenberg’s performance as the omnipotent villain is a big swing and a miss. At best, his performance is tolerable, save for one memorable scene where his scheme involving a jar of peach tea shows true malice. His line delivery is flat out annoying. Even if Eisenberg nailed the performance, the character’s purpose in the story is unnecessary and a result of lazy writing. Lex Luthor is there to provide the last minute motivation that Superman needs to square off against Batman.

A secondary offense to the bloated cast is Snyder’s inability to steer the narrative and the audience’s emotions. The sprawling plot often transitions abruptly from one scene to the next. Notably, a number of dream sequences take the audience by surprise and leave the viewer wondering when and where the story is going. In one such scene, Bruce Wayne witnesses a character break a dimensional barrier and communicate to him across space and time. Think Matthew McConaughey reaching out to Anne Hathaway through the black hole in Interstellar, only not as subtle. It just leaves the audience scratching their heads. What’s worse is that this bazaar moment is never explained or given closure. It’s just there. Ask a DC fan about it and they’ll say it’s the “Flashpoint Paradox” and get really excited, but it had no place in this movie.

There were many moments like the “Flashpoint Paradox” that were far more forward thinking and world building than they were relevant to this movie. The biggest problem with those scenes isn’t that they exist. It’s that they displaced the story that was promised in the title. Audiences walked in expecting:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

But the movie I saw was:

  Batman v Superman:   Dawn of Justice.

This desperation to flesh out the Justice League as soon as possible is bothersome, but there are a couple theories that may explain why. The less likely and more troubling theory is that Warner Brothers thinks it needs to hurry up and make these movies fast before a trend fizzles. From the business perspective, there is some legitimate fear there. Take the dystopic young adult novel trend. Upon the overnight success of The Hunger Games, 20th Century Fox fast-tracked The Maze Runner, and Lionsgate began development on the Divergent franchise. In the two years that followed, here is the box office performance of these three YA franchises:

Franchise 2014 2015 % Change
The Hunger Games $337,135,885 $281,723,902 -16.4%
Divergent $150,947,895 $130,179,072 -13.8%
The Maze Runner $102,427,862 $81,697,192 -20.2%
 Total $590,511,642 $493,600,166 -16.4%

Notice that 16% drop in revenue; that is a trend fizzling as audiences move onto the next thing. Perhaps Warner Brothers fears its films may see the same fate with each year that passes. But Warner Brothers is not dealing with a temporary trend. Having lasted for nearly 80 years with little sign of decline, Batman and Superman have earned a permanent seat at the pop culture table, immune to trends.

The second and more likely theory is that Warner Brothers wants to achieve the DC version of  the “Avengers bump.” Marvel’s film slate, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, has a pattern to it: four or five solo movies (films featuring one superhero) followed by a team up film. When this pattern began its second cycle after 2012’s team up flick, The Avengers, each solo film received a significant bump in the box office.

Solo film Pre-Avengers Post-Avengers % Change
Iron Man $318,412,101 $409,013,994 28.5%
Thor $181,030,624 $206,362,140 14.0%
Captain America $176,654,505 $259,766,572 47.0%
Total $676,097,230 $875,142,706 29.4%

The “Avengers bump” phenomenon is not easily explained. Mechanically, little changed in the post-Avengers solo films. Could this 29% revenue increase be due to the possibility that Thor might wander into an Iron Man film since the two characters were officially introduced in the cinematic universe? It’s a soft science, but the money is there to prove something magical happened.

The DC film slate currently looks like this:

  • 2013 | solo | Man of Steel
  • 2016 | team up | BvS: Dawn of Justice
  • 2016 | team up | Suicide Squad
  • 2017 | solo | Wonder Woman
  • 2017 | team up | Justice League: Part 1
  • 2018 | solo | Flash
  • 2018 | solo | Aquaman
  • 2019 | solo | Shazam!
  • 2019 | team up | Justice League: Part 2

By front loading the team up films, DC could theoretically achieve its version of an “Avengers bump” sooner rather than later.

Regardless of which theory is right, my plea to Warner Brothers remains the same: don’t rush it! In 30 years, nobody will remember that Marvel did the cinematic universe thing first, but they will remember which universe was better. And that fight is currently tipped in Marvel’s favor.

 

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