This article contains spoilers.
“Batman v Superman” has certainly drawn mixed reactions from audiences and critics alike, and deservedly so. Its plot is overly busy and not always clear, and there is awkward world-building for future films shoehorned in without serving the main plot well, but the main issue with film is how badly it mistranslates the characters of Superman and Batman and their shared mythos.
Aesthetically, it portends to be a story of two of the most well-known heroes in American culture meeting on the big screen for the first time, but this image runs only skin-deep: beneath the surface, this film does little to depict the Batman or Superman of the source material and includes some topical political commentary in its subtext that might alarm viewers sharp enough to pick up on it.
How Should People Handle Outsiders?
Let’s start at the beginning, or the movie that literally overlaps this one’s opening sequence, “Man of Steel.” The first entry in what would become and expanded on-screen universe for DC characters presented a decidedly postmodern interpretation of the classic Superman character. The fingerprints of a post-9/11 worldview were all over it, painting a constant tension between Superman’s desire to do good melded with his fear of how people would receive the idea of a superpowered alien among them.
As superpowered aliens, the film’s villains exacerbate this tension, and the film leaves an open-ended question at the end rather than providing an answer to the thesis of whether our modern society would indeed accept such a being. A final scene depicts Superman and Harry Lennix’s General Swanwick pleading with each other for mutual trust.
In BvS, Swanwick has become the secretary of State and seems to still be wrestling with whether he should trust Superman. BvS continues to ruminate on the question by alternately showing groups that look up to and borderline worship Superman with senators and victims of the Kryptonian invasion who distrust him immensely—at one point even holding a public Senate hearing where they discuss whether Superman should be accountable to the government.
In light of real-world events like the sizable contingent of voters backing initiatives like Donald Trump’s infamous wall, there is weight to this line of thought, but the film never commits to an answer. This is a serious misstep, as Superman—the Boy Scout, the beacon of hope, the man who believes in humanity more than it believes in itself, according to the source material—should provide a definitive answer to the question of whether he, or any unfamiliar force, should be dismissed as malicious by definition or should be allowed to stand on its own merits.
“Man of Steel” asked the question, “Batman v Superman” should have answered it; and perhaps it did (as I will get to in a moment), but not in the way you’d expect of a Superman story.
Superman Squanders His First Kill
Many moviegoers rankled at General Zod’s death by Superman’s hand in “Man of Steel.” It was definitely a break from the comics, where such a thing would only happen under zany mitigating circumstances like mind control or oddly-colored kryptonite, and many hated that scene on principle. The counterpoint is a school of thought that has long said Superman is “boring” as a character—meaning he is fantastically powered and can provide for visually spectacular adventures, but he is too resolutely good, too pure, not complex enough to be an interesting character.
“Man of Steel” depicted the beginning of his career, and it was messy: a huge battle in a crowded metro area with lots of collateral damage, and the decision to kill a foe before said foe killed more innocent bystanders. Superman is obviously and immediately aggrieved by his action, and I think in this interpretation of the character this moment could have worked.
It could have been a teachable moment, so to speak. Having spent the entire movie to that point wrestling with whether the world would accept him and his powers, Superman could have realized exactly where the line is, who he can be, and what he should and should not do. It was a logical plot point for a Superman who isn’t so preternaturally wholesome, who has struggled with his own fears and doubts and battled his personal demons throughout the film, a moment for him to realize exactly what makes him the monster people fear instead of the hero he wishes to be. It could have humanized him and added color to a character often considered too simple, and thematically it would have fit with the postmodern take that permeated the film.
“Batman v Superman,” however, never builds on this. Superman may not have destroyed a city this time, but he displays none of the potential character growth I mentioned above, almost retroactively making Zod’s death a mistake. It had all the potential to vault Superman to his rightful place as the Boy Scout of the hero community, this time having learned his lesson the hard way rather than having been born infallible, and it is completely squandered as Superman mopes his way through the same fears and doubts as the first film, unmoved and unchanged.
It’s Not Just Superman Who Fails to Grow
At their root, the major characters in comics are all various archetypes, which should be templates for their onscreen characterizations. Superman, as mentioned before, is the Boy Scout: he is the good-natured beacon of hope who is supposed to inspire the best in everyone.
The Superman of these two films, as described above, does not match this archetype. He’s more akin to a child with a gun, just smart enough to know he controls immense power, but unsure how best to apply it and even misapplying it to disastrous results. Having him wrestle this notion and grow rather than being uncorrupted from the word go would not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to Superman from a literary standpoint, but the fact that he doesn’t grow in these films is unconscionable. He is not alone in this regard, however.
There is a character with xenophobic distrust of Superman, one who wants to stop him at all costs no matter what the evidence says. This one is at peace with murder, chaos, and grand theft as reasonable means, and faces off with Superman in a powered suit of armor.
This is the part where I should be able to say “I am speaking, of course, of Lex Luthor.” But I am not, for this character is Batman. The Batman archetype is more or less “the smartest guy in the room.” He knows every technique the story might require, from various martial arts to more mercurial disciplines like escape artistry, and is the World’s Greatest Detective. He knows everything about everyone and has devised a plan for every situation. He is an excellent judge of character and holds to a strict moral code that dictates he does not kill.
The Batman of this film is a raving lunatic much more akin to Marvel’s Punisher or, again, Lex Luthor. He racks up quite the body count in this film, from throwing henchmen on their own grenades, machine gunning them from the Batmobile, or simply running them over. He does all of this remorselessly, and those he doesn’t kill he brands, something he’s never done in the comics (and which we learn from a newscast “many believe to be a death sentence in the prison community,” so he’s directly and knowingly contributing to even more deaths off-screen).
The Worst Batman Ever to Appear in Film
Further, he learns that Luthor has obtained kryptonite and that it has lethal implications for Superman. In one of the most unbelievable moments in an unbelievable film, he discusses with Alfred his plan to steal it. Alfred intones that he’s doing it to prevent Luthor from using it for nefarious purposes, yes? No, Bruce retorts, he wants it for his own ends.
It’s a huge wink to the audience that yes, we know this is obviously something Batman would never do, but we’re going to have him do it anyway because we need a superfight, right? In this film, the would-be “world’s greatest detective” fails to realize Superman had been fighting Zod and destroyed the world engine that threatened to end humanity. Instead, Batman sees only the collateral damage caused by the fight in the opening scenes.
He also fails to see through Lex Luthor’s machinations. He fails to see that Superman had no hand in the Luthor-engineered Senate hearing bombing that only Superman survived. He misses all of this, and decides he has to murder Superman. Neither his characterization nor his character arc makes any sense. He is by and large the worst interpretation of Batman ever put to film, bearing only an aesthetic connection to the character of Batman, just like Superman.
Aside from the characters, director Zack Snyder muddied the plot in a way that supports the xenophobia touched on before, and begun in “Man of Steel.” Previously a savant at translating comics pages to screen, here he simply robs Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” for imagery, but none of it works because his plot machinations don’t set up these moments as well as Miller did in the comic.
End the Superman
To wit, there is the nuking of Superman (yes, really, Superman gets nuked in this film). In the comic, Superman diverts a Soviet nuke that would have slaughtered 20 million people and incited World War III, getting caught in the blast radius after diverting it into an uninhabited desert. He gets put through a wringer, but survives the blast while lamenting the loss of flora and fauna even though human life was preserved, still pure, still hopeful, still feeling tangible loss at the bellicose action.
Movie Superman, however, is willfully nuked by the U.S. government while attempting to defend Metropolis from the monster Doomsday, the government having decided whatever good he’s done is not enough to decide against making him willful collateral damage. The end of Snyder’s thesis then is that Superman does not inspire hope; he is tolerated for two films until it becomes inconvenient to not murder him while serving other ends.
The people who are supposed to be inspired by this man are more than willing to snuff him at the first opportunity, and this may be the most unnerving result of the entire film, a metatextual referendum on xenophobia that says yes, we are right to be afraid of the outsider and if given half a chance we should end him.
The film attempts to walk this back after Superman’s death by showing inspired crowds surrounding his memorial, but it rings completely hollow after everything else the film has shown us. It seems this scene was written because someone said “We’re supposed to have a mourning crowd scene when Superman dies,” despite the dissonance from the theme and plot.
The Death of Hope
In summation, while the film no doubt carries weight as a visually spectacular blockbuster, it is not in any way an honest translation of the two title characters, instead essentially crafting a film about Super Untrusted Immigrant versus Super Unhinged Psychopath and electing to call them Superman and Batman despite the utter lack of thematic overlap between the beloved characters of the comics and the templates used in this film.
Even more alarming is the two-film arc using Superman to justify fear of the outsider and what he can do, a total inversion of the inspiring and hopeful tone taken by virtually every Superman story ever crafted from the comics, through the Donner films of the ’70s, the animated series, and even into 2005’s “Superman Returns,” despite that film’s also lukewarm reception. Superman, the ultimate symbol of all that is good, who has stood up for the metaphorical little guy no matter how small, has been reduced on screen to a magnet for fear and indignation, betrayed by the very people he wants so badly to protect, and scorned by his government.
Is that message of fear and hate the one we really want to take from our heroes, especially in a world where Donald Trump is running for the presidency on a platform at least partially built on demonizing outsiders? Superman deserves better than this series of films, and so does the audience.