Neil Feeney ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The film has been out for a few weeks now, and critics and some audiences are still saying the same thing: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice missed the mark trying to be the next Avengers. Critics also complain that BvS was too dark, too convoluted, too intense, and didn’t have enough elements that were very super. Which was exactly the point. Sure, this film was not The Avengers, or anything from Marvel for that point, instead it tries to do something completely different: be a realistic comic book film that is lead by its characters, not its plot.
There were expectations fueled by the Marvel phases that films are going through now, with everyone from Sony (Spider-man) to Fox (X-men) attempting, and in many cases failing, to recreate the magic that Marvel has achieved since it created a new universe with Iron man in 2008. Ever since then they’ve had domination over the box office, with even their less impressive entries (the Thor movies, or even Ant-Man) still making waves at the box office. Audiences are smart enough to recognize clones of this system, which is why its copycats don’t do as well as Marvel does. So how can DC compete in a Marvel-driven box office? Simply by not playing by the same rules, and that’s exactly what Dawn of Justice does, by being true to its comic book format, being realistic, and having fleshed-out characters that drive the plot.
1. How It’s Structured
To talk about why Dawn of Justice is a perfect comic book movie, one must first discuss how comic books are structured. But for the purposes of translating to film, look to the longer complications of comic book issues, more so referred to as graphic novels. These novels have the complete story, with all of the issues that make up a story arc. When one reads these novels completely, when a new issue starts the beginning can be a bit jarring, as it could start off completely differently than the one before it. Think of television shows: a season of a show is complete but made up of many different parts, some that don’t even pay off until seasons later. Each episode is complete, but also serves as a puzzle piece to the rest of the season. The complete graphic novels, in this regard, are television seasons, and the issues are the episodes. Over the course of a novel, the characters go through a complete arc (either for better or for worse), there are teases for the next installment, and usually end in a huge climatic battle that will test those character arcs. These don’t usually depend on readers having knowledge of past installments (although it will enhance the experience), and reading it will most definitely enhance the experience of future installments. Sound familiar?
2. Too Many Plot Lines
Zack Snyder directed Dawn of Justice, as well as other comic books films such as 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel. He understands this so well that he mirrors his films around it. Snyder made Dawn of Justice to be an original comic book movie, but more complex than one might think. Not just based on the comics, but formatted like the comics as well. Critics slammed Dawn of Justice for being too jumbled with many confusing plot lines that don’t pay off until later. In the film, this would refer to the subplot of Lex Luther funding a private security force to frame Superman for the deaths of terrorists that reporter Lois Lane was investigating. That same private security force is also illegally getting Luther kryptonite, and attempting to deal with the Batman problem as well. This “B plot” was confusing to watch until everything was explained, which was exactly how it would play out in comics. There would be a mention in around every other issue, and then it would come together in the end. Another example is the Wonder Women introduction. She shows up a few times before we see her in costume, and most think it’s just to push the plot along, in a role that any other character could fill. But which other character has the same motivations as Wonder Women does? For those who do not know her character, she is attempting to gain leverage over her situation, something that one would know from the comics, but if not the film clearly displays it. Her situation also impacts the plot because of her motivations, not just her appearance in the film.
3. The Believable Character Arcs
All of the character motivations in the film are fairly clear and are separate enough from one another to cause conflict. Ben Affleck portrays an older, rougher Bruce Wayne/Batman, one who kills (more on that later), pouts, and takes on bigger criminals than other portrayals. In the film we see how his grudge over Superman has grown over the past few years, and how it finally reaches climax once he hears that Luther has a material that could weaken Superman. It’s clear to see how the events that occurred in Man of Steel have affected Superman and the world: he has been closely watched by our government, and just wants to show them how much he cares about his world and wants to protect it, but is honestly getting aggravated by how much he is scrutinized and watched by humans, who are just waiting for him to fail. He has a relationship now with Lois Lane, whose motivations are to keep him happy and at bay, and make sure that he keeps everything in perspective, as well as attempt to take down Luther via the media. Speaking of Lex Luther, he’s a billionaire by his abusive father’s legacy, who is constantly striving towards power because of a clear god complex, and has plans and backup plans to achieve this. He is very over-the-top and slowly loses his grasp on reality as he goes down the rabbit hole of Kryptonian culture. This leads him to attempt to take down Superman, or at least bend Superman to his will (which he eventually does with a hostage situation). Luther sees that Superman has become the god of Metropolis, and he wants that platform more than anything. These motivations are clear and clash nicely, with repercussions that impact each character’s arc.
4. The Religious Undertones
Luther’s god complex fits nicely with the religion theme of the film, which spans over all characters and events. As he sneaks into the bigger part of Zod’s ship to create Doomsday, his motivations are quite clear: he wants to kill Superman so that he could be the god of Metropolis, and so he must create his own demon to achieve it. And once he accomplishes this, he obtains the knowledge (shown in a deleted scene) of a bigger demon that he has gotten the attention of: Darkseid. This gives an interesting narrative, one that shows a reality where Jesus (shown here as Superman) dies at the Calvary (Superman’s death by the hand of Doomsday), but even if he comes back (which the ending suggests), Satan himself is coming to Earth, because he has heard that the god is dead. This is explained rather creepily by Luther at the end of the film, and will be expanded upon in Snyder’s upcoming director’s cut. But all in all, it is very Biblical. Even Batman’s change of mind after fighting Superman after hearing that their mothers have the same name is reflective of such Biblical characters as Saul or Abel. But that action is far more than just a reference or something to move the plot, it humanizes Superman to Batman, and Batman realizes that he can stop Superman from destroying everything, not by killing him, but rather by saving that humanity. Wayne saw how much his parent’s death affected him as a child, and he can see how it could affect Superman now. Instead of wanting to kill Superman to stop a possibly genocide, he now wants to save him, which would have the same effect. It is a mature move, one that is consistent with the motivations and themes thus far.
5. Parallels to Modern Life
The Biblical analogies don’t stop there: this is a dark reality much like our own, where technology has run rampant with crime and heroes are criticized and attacked by people of power, whether that power comes from political or economic means. This film has taken the epic Biblical nature and combined it with present day situations, which is exactly what some comic books aim to achieve, and very clearly what Snyder aimed to achieve. Because it is a super situation in a realistic world, many of those realistic situations have a big impact on the plot. There is a government committee that wants to hold Superman accountable for his actions, which is exactly what would happen if the battle of Metropolis happened today. When characters such as the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are introduced over email from Luther’s stolen files, how else would Wayne share that information with Wonder Women, besides maybe an elaborate PowerPoint presentation? It was not their biggest concern at the moment, so why take so much time over it? Luther’s files also contain “logos” for the Justice League characters, which is exactly what a character like Luther would do. He’s obsessed by these “meta-humans”, and wants to control them as he attempts to control Superman, but he’s also very interested by them. It’s the character motivations like these that explain how the plot gets pulled back and forth throughout the film.
6. Parallels to King Arthur as Well
Although it is a superhero movie, it runs more like a myth than anything, with the last act mirroring the King Arthur story “Le Morte d’Arthur” (as pointed out by Reddit user /u/Condescending_Fool). The similarities are great, including Lois representing the Lady of the Lake, who throws the spear into the water then having to retrieve it, and how Batman and Superman fighting mirrors the fight between Lancelot and King Arthur due to passion. Even Doomsday’s monstrous creation matches how Morgana creates Mordred to fight King Arthur. In the end, Arthur stabs Mordred, only to be stabbed himself. In that story Arthur has to impale himself further to kill Mordred, which is exactly what happens at the end of Dawn of Justice. Even the film based on “Le Morte d’Arthur”, Excalibur, is advertised at the theater behind the Wayne family as they are murdered in the beginning of the film. In this way Snyder is alluding to the mythic nature of the film, drawing parallels not only to the Bible, but also a story that reveals a fantasy aspect. When added to the mix, this gives the events within the film a serious cultural impact on Metropolis and Gotham, one that is clear at the end, when Superman’s grave is very reminiscent of a kings.
7. A New Vision
Even though Dawn of Justice is, by far, one of the greatest attempts at a comic book movie, it is still an individual vision by Zach Snyder and his creative team. All of the controversial choices from this movie, whether it be Batman killing people, Metropolis and Gotham being so close to one another, or Luther having hair (which can easily be refuted by explaining that his transformation into the evil Luther we know can be signified by his haircut at the end), are all choices made by them because it is their film and their vision. As comic book fans can be quick to judge based on differences from the comics, one must remember that although it is based on the comic books, it is based on the comic books. This is a film that is structured like a comic graphic novel, but does not try to be exactly like the comics because it is an individual vision. Sure, some shots like Bruce Wayne holding an innocent child in the rubble of the Wayne building may not be subtle, but it is exactly what one would see in a two-page spread in comics. The film is full of these moments and reinforces the idea that this is a film structured like comics that has characters from comics. If anything, because of this the film is another addition to the storylines of DC comics, but one that is on film rather than paper. This was Zach Snyder’s vision, and like most visions, some will agree and some won’t. His vision was not to make another Avengers, but rather to do something new by copying the style of something old, which was exactly the point, and exactly the result. It’s a comic on film, one full of mythic and Biblical allusions and another great entry to the superhero genre.
Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section below. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still in theaters everywhere.