Note #2: I am about to give my opinion on a variety of topics. It is possible that we, dear reader, won’t agree.
I can count on three fingers the number of movies I have walked out of, and I can now count on one finger the number of movies where I have asked for my money back. At the time I write this, I am 55 minutes removed from leaving Batman V Superman (hereafter BVS) during what I suspect was its third act. Maybe, hopefully that was the third act, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the ride home, I struggled to compose this blogpost. Not because I had no place to start, but that I had so many potential elements to discuss. To that end, I’ve divided this discussion into three parts: characters, plot, and writing.
Let’s detail the major characters, as well as some of the minor ones.
Superman – Ostensibly, this is a Superman movie. I mean, he’s the established property already, and everything new is being added to his material. That said, I can’t say I saw a lot of Superman in a Superman movie. Sure the actor was there, and I saw his CGI version doing stuff, but Superman wasn’t really there. See, Superman (like all the comic book characters), represents an ideal that we the readers can project ourselves towards. We see these characters and we are inspired, firing our youthful imaginations one more time until we tie towels around our necks and fight the badguys.
What Superman represents is the best and idealized version of “doing the right thing.” He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout for a reason, and he is empowered (literally) with all the best traits. Granted, this makes him exponentially over-powered to handle mundane problems, as his superiority does place him in a deific position, and this movie is fat with religious imagery.
Wait no, it’s not just fat. It’s so packed with images of ascension, silhouettes of light, and light over darkness, that I ‘m surprised Jerry Springer didn’t appear to saw off part of the house it lives in and drive it on a flatbed truck during sweeps week. Again though, I’m getting ahead of myself
Because he possesses such an increased power, it’s hard for conventional plots to challenge him. (The old joke about Superman standing still while getting shot, but ducking to avoid the gun? It’s so the actor wouldn’t get hit in the face.) This is why you need to give Superman a global threat as a challenge. This is particularly true in the Snyder universe, where Superman is only the Man of Tomorrow if your tomorrow includes building demolition and eye lasers.
Batman – I have a deep love for Batman. Of late, that love has been wrecked by video games, advocating that Batman be Batman behind the wheel of a tank during timed missions, rather than the predator of criminals from the shadows. Gone are the detective and ninja, replaced with a cowled gladiator and his large weapon inventory.
Affleck as Batman was a risky choice. He completely shit the mattress store as Daredevil, but that was ten years and two huge relationships ago. Here, Affleck’s Batman has seen some shit go down, and I would go see an Affleck-Batman movie. The Batman movie within this movie was actually enjoyable, to a point.
And that point is exactly the thing that soured me on digital Batman – the video game-esque antics, where Batman can press LB + Triangle, or LB+Square and deal a whole lot of damage to one guy, but can’t quite press Triangle twice to get past a damned knife guy.
Side note: If you’re the sort of person who’s about to say, “Well Batman isn’t a very good/interesting character, because he’s a psychopath.”are you suggesting that psychopaths aren’t interesting or that we shouldn’t be showing characters who aren’t psychopathic on-screen? How is that not stigmatizing mental health? That’s not very social justice-y of you. Batman’s premised on the idea of trauma and his extreme coping strategies. Also, it’s fiction. Lighten up, Francis.
For as deific as Superman is built, Batman is our everyman, assuming every man is infinitely wealthy and trained across multiple disciplines to near-perfection. But still, he’s not flying around and shooting eye lasers, so he’s at least slightly more credible. It’s too bad we have no idea what his motivations are, but that will come up later.
Wonder Woman – Oh, goody, we’re at the part of the blogpost where I’m going to ruffle feathers. How you ask:
With this sentence: Wonder Woman is Superman with boobs.
Meaning she’s the immortal daughter of the gods, imbued with powers and equipment that mortal man (even Batman) doesn’t have access to. She’s in this movie because DC has elected to truncate the Universe-building down a movie or two, rather than a patient decade of quality cinema, barring Thor 2 and Iron Man 2.
She’s also here to break up the superpower sausagefest, and girl power. I’m aware that as a man, I’m not supposed to say she looks good in her outfit, but she looks good in her outfit, and she’s got all the moves down: bracelets, sword, shield. She’s hollow.
Great, she can show up in the third act (she’s present in the rest of the movie, but only to do what some reviews called ‘flirting’, and she gets an email in the second act, but we’ll talk about that), and “save the boys.” Yawn. Give her a standalone movie. The internet needs more things to criticize, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.
Lois Lane – I’m pretty sure she was central to the first Superman movie. She suffers from Gandalf Syndrome, meaning she is the instigator and resolver of her own problems. She’s also the female romantic lead, and she’s got lines and everything.
Lex Luthor – Now in the comics, Luthor is an omnipresent force. He becomes President. he builds a powersuit. He’s Gene Hackman. He has a vast intellect and clear badguy motivations. Aside from some tics and a penchant to dress like he’s a Columbia undergrad, I’m not really sure what the Snyderverse Lex Luthor has. At one point in the film, I can’t tell if he’s wearing a bathrobe or a trenchcoat. He suffers from plot o’clock, which I’ll talk about further down in this post.
Okay, I could easily recap the plot for you, but the clearest route takes us right through Spoiler Town. I’d like to avoid doing that, so I’m going to say that if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve got the plot. You don’t have all the vestigial pieces, but you’ve got the bulk of it. Basically, superhero fights superhero for reasons. Stuff happens, for more reasons, then other stuff happens for reasons.
If you want a clearer explanation, so do I. I watched this movie while wide awake, sitting in a center aisle seat, in 3-D. I have no idea why people did what they did. I mean, I know the immediate reason of “the script says so”, but if we’re doing that thing where we assume these characters are real people, I couldn’t find a lot of expressed or explained motivations.
It was incoherent. But it was that sort of pretty incoherence, where the visuals and color palette cover the magician’s act. Snyder waves a CGI wand, and the good story disappears.
Here’s where I can deconstruct the film without giving specifics. Since you know we’re talking about this film, and I’ve already set the table above, I hope you’ll indulge me with a few paragraphs of disjointed commentary.
“Plot O’Clock” is a pacing and momentum problem that means time is malleable, and not in the Doctor Who sense. In Plot O’Clock, things take as long as they need to, even with a literal timer in a scene. The action occurs within 3 chronal planes: The amount of time it takes to watch as an audience; the amount of time relevant to the danger (see literal timer); and the amount of time spent actually doing things. An example of this would be setting a timer to have someone killed, and having it tick down while a hero fights their way through an army of people. As an audience, we’ll watch this for 5 minutes. The timer may tick down 10 minutes, and the hero dispatches the army in one combo, about 17 moves long.
The audience 5 minutes is not the same as 17 moves as 10 minutes of threat timer. I’m not suggesting all movies need to be in realtime, but if you’re going to introduce a time-based threat, keep that threat relevant. Make the potential failure matter. Even if all you need to do is press LB+Circle, LB+Triangle, and L2 a few times.
Cute Dialogue is another area where tension gets saturated. Comedy beats can teach us about character relationships, they can lighten mood, they can even advance plot, but placing them like hinges in the middle of action beats neuters the action beat. Let’s suppose you have that plot o’clock problem from before, where a hero fights to rescue a character. They fight through that army … to do what? Make a joke? Quip? It undermines the tension. It’s a wink and nod to the audience. Why not just break the fourth wall and give a big salesman smile with a lens flare off a bicuspid? Judicious use of comedy can underscore the relationship that is currently being tested or established via the action beat. Think of the buddy cop movie. Two cops crack wise to each other in a show of solidarity and friendship, and having that relationship be greater than the yakuza currently shooting at them.
Essentially an ensemble superhero movie is a series of relationships, where the powers and abilities augment those relationships. (See Civil War). It’s not just a measuring contest of empowered genitals and suits. Your heroes need not look like bad art.They need to be people, even if the audience cannot completely relate to them in all aspects. (And I’d argue that no character is perfect in that regard).
Metaphor and Allusion clog up story pretty quickly. Sure, it can be smart and helpful to draw parallels stylistically and narratively, but do it too often and you’re just diddling yourself. A reader deserves better than a bloat of imagery and reinforced theme in dialogue. Yes, he’s a god. Yes, gods and devils are a really easy binary to establish. Yes, man-god-devil is an age-old convention you can play safe. The reason that triune works is because the reader is often on man’s side. The least powered and the most tempted. But Superman is the christ-figure, and badguys therefore have to be the devils, so who exactly is man in this three-way? Not Batman. He’s touted as just as powerful, and he’s in power armor for about fifteen minutes. Don’t worry though, it vanishes pretty quick once he starts flying the Batplane.
Unclear Motivations will ruin any creative effort. Why are characters doing whatever they’re doing? Worse still, do they have to say out loud what they’re doing so the audience can follow along? This isn’t a team of thieves mapping the heist with miniatures. This is Bob saying to Sally, “I’m going to the kitchen to get a sorbet and then I’m walking to the couch and clipping my raptor claw toenails.”
Motivations are built in strata, through a combination of actions, consequences, and decisions. Characters know why they’re doing things, because they’re doing them. Other characters should be able to deduce why other characters are doing things, and dialogue can be a reaction to that. The thinking behind the decisions should be understandable, even and especially when the actions taken are out of the audience’s abilities (as in, I’m going to fly away either by superpower or weaponized plane). Audiences should be able to see why characters are doing things because they’re SHOWN the process of reaching that point, not just TOLD that X needs to happen.
Telling hurts motivation. It’s the villain monologue that allows the hero to escape. It’s the stomped on cliches of daddy issues, jealousy, uninteresting vague want for power, and because cooties.
Showing builds motivations. Show us disappointment with failure. Show us friendship through partnership. Show us hope through action, and confirm all this via soundtrack. I know, it’s not that easy, but it can be damn sure better than the movie I watched.
Did it have any good parts? Yes. It was pretty. It looked good. The product placement was obvious, but tasteful. The outfits looked comic book. The explosions looked large and not so rubbery or watery. The side characters like Ma Kent, Kevin Costner, Perry White, and that guy from the Blacklist are applied fairly effectively for world-building.
The soundtrack felt a little bit Mad-Max-and yay-we-have-Wonder-Woman power chords to me. It wasn’t screechy, but it didn’t hit all the emotional notes the way Man of Steel made you want to wear the towel and run around, and the Nolan soundtracks invited you to sail over the city while yelling at movie crew to get out of your light.
I know a lot of people have talked about how you don’t have to go see it, you don’t have to support the film, but without viewing the material and developing your own opinion, how can we have any discourse?
I’ll see you guys Wednesday, where InboxWednesday has a GREAT question about dialogue. See you then.