Revisiting the DCEU: Man of Steel & Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
A look back while we wait to move forward.
Starting on Saturday, I decided it would be fun to revisit the DC Extended Universe—one movie a day, since I already own all of the films and most of them I’d only seen once. While some people on Twitter lamented that I was “doing this to myself,” I have found that it has actually been kind of fun. That’s not to say that time has not softened the quality of these films, but with dozens of superhero films between them over the past few years, revisiting them has at least been interesting. So today, we’re going to start with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Man of Steel (2013)
In 2013, we got the return of Superman with the film Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, starring Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman.
Let’s get into the positives of this movie first.
Amy Adams is great as Lois Lane. They do a good job of showing her to be a savvy journalist who knows her value and can run down a story no matter where it is. Yes, there are times she plays a damsel role, but honestly, when you are the only lead who can’t really fly, that’s bound to happen. Michael Shannon is excellent as Zod, and the fact that he dies is ultimately disappointing because there is so much to be explored with that character that was left out.
I also think that Henry Cavill, when he gets to play the bits of Superman that are actually super, does a good job. The flying scene is awesome and is one the times it actually feels like a Superman movie.
Zod’s second in command, Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul, is still one of the standouts of the film, and I’m so sad she hasn’t done anything big since.
Where the movie falls apart for me, fundamentally, is that I think they got the Kents wrong. Jonathan Kent telling a young Clark that maybe he should have let a bus full of school children die is something the narrative just cannot come back from. One of the cores of Superman’s character is that he gets his morality from the Kents. In Man of Steel, it doesn’t feel like they’re teaching him any moral lessons. They always say that whatever he will be, “good or bad,” will change the world, but they treat it as a yolo, not a “we hope you are good.”
The fact that Jonathan Kent dies in a tornado when Clark could easily save him just really ruins the film for me. It’s so clumsily done, and just like when I first saw it seven years ago, the moment just makes me dislike the entire production.
Combine that with the Jesus imagery when Clark goes to the church, the fact that Jor-El will not stay dead but Lara is just gone, and how Superman is written to be even more precious and übermensch than he was intended just highlights that this is not a Superman movie for me.
Plus, it drags after a while because the fights are not interesting to watch. They’re just punch-punch-smash because that’s all people think Superman can do.
Man of Steel is not terrible, especially when films like Hellboy and Dark Phoenix exist in this world, but it thinks that we need a gritty, “realistic” Superman. I think you can do that without turning the Kents (and Jor-El) into hyper-individualized donks.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Unedited Edition) (2016):
Funny enough, Zack Snyder himself also did a live stream and tweet of the unedited edition of Batman v Superman over the weekend. That wasn’t part of my plans, and I’ll be watching that later, but for now, let’s discuss the 2016 film that was torn apart, yet left a huge footprint on the comic book movie landscape.
Firstly, while I saw the theatrical cut the first time, I watched the unedited 3-HOUR CUT for the sake of the rewatch because everyone says it’s better. I wouldn’t say it was better, because while it felt more like a full movie, it only highlighted that there is too much going on here, and it should have been two films, not one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, and directed by Snyder. It takes place after Man of Steel (18, months to be exact), when Superman is a hero, Batman is now a The Dark Knight Returns-era grumpy Bat, and Lex Luthor, obsessed with Superman, plots to have the Batman vs. Superman fight that the fanboys deserve, which … I guess is exactly what we get.
Alright, the good: Lois Lane, again. In the ultimate edition, we get to see a lot more of Lois being a reporter, and she has a very meaty role. I genuinely think Adams does amazing justice to Lois, and I wish she didn’t get hardcore damseled in the third act for plot reasons. She and Cavill also have great chemistry in that bathtub scene, which sells the tragedy of their love more than the script does.
Ben Affleck plays the role he’s supposed to, and he’s fine doing it. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, in this film, I completely love. She’s mysterious, playful, and manages to outmaneuver Bruce and his ego. It’s fantastic. Jeremy Irons is a perfect sassy Alfred, and he has excellent chemistry with Affleck.
The biggest problem with BvS is that the story is pure nonsense. First of all, you can’t just take the Dark Knight Returns version of Batman and plop him into a movie like this that is meant to be a sequel to Man of Steel and a bridge to Justice League. That version of Batman, as created by Frank Miller, is an alternate universe, non-canonical version of Batman that is overall a loner, and not someone who would want a Justice League. That character was created when the grim, older version of Batman was not a thing, and while popular and important to the comic book history of the Bat, he is a character that is best used in his own environment.
Deconstruction versions of comic book characters only work when you use them for that purpose.
Also, doing The Death of Superman and The Dark Knight Rises in the same movie is not just too stuffed, but it is two completely different narratives, both of which focus on the side of one of these heroes. By pushing it together, neither one gets any real justice. Plus, we’re talking about a world where Superman has only existed for … 18 months, and every time we see him save someone, he looks miserable.
I think that BvS wants to set up for future movies and ask a lot of real-world questions about “how would the world react to Superman?” which could be an interesting movie, if it were just that movie and really focused on it. Do a whole Superman vs. the Elites movie, something that actually has something to say about his morality. Attempting to put Batman in here as a foil who sees Superman as a threat, largely because he’s being manipulated by Lex Luthor, only makes him look foolish and paranoid—especially because of the Martha scene.
Even if this movie had been excellent, the Martha scene would have ruined it because if the entire ideological war between these two characters can be defused by their mothers having the same name, then it doesn’t mean anything. This is the problem: This movie doesn’t mean anything. It uses the non-white characters, save for Perry, as props for Lex Luthor and his plans. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor could have been great if he could have just not been the campiest element in the entire film in a way that seemed totally off. I get what they were going for, but it doesn’t actually work in the film.
Rewatching these films didn’t make me mad, and I wasn’t bored, but both were too bloated with ideas, and a three-hour runtime can’t fix that problem. It’s sad because I see the potential, and I can almost see what both of these films were tying to do, but the thing about comics is that it’s a medium that is built up over decades of storytelling. Distilling all of that into one film is already hard to do, but if you try to combine two ambitious miniseries into one film that can’t even pick a singular focus, you get BvS.
(image Warner Bros.)
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