Batman v. Superman v. Storytelling

Just heard a news report referring to the “long-awaited movie Batman vs. Superman“.

Long-awaited by whom? I keep running into reviews of it, and articles scattered across the last 6 months, that imply or outright state that what fans of superhero movies, and particularly fans of Superman and/or Batman, want is to see them fight for no reason. Is there this huge market of people who care enough about these characters to be interested in this conflict, but don’t care so much about these characters that they mind that the person wearing the red cape shares none of the characteristics that have defined Superman for the last 75+ years?

If I want to see a fight without any reason (other than “let’s see who’s tougher/better”), I’ll watch boxing or MMA or wrestling. What makes superhero stories (and a whole lot of other genres, really) interesting is the emotional resonance, and that comes from context, ideologies, and conflicts that have meaning as well as stakes.

Several members of the Justice League have conflicting ideologies—though it’s always made clear that they have noble intentions, and none of them is outright “wrong”. These conflicting viewpoints can be used to tell some very interesting, resonant stories, exploring the tension between freedom and security, for example, or whether protecting people from themselves is a good thing. And I can totally see how those conflicts could lead to actually exchanging blows—superhero comics are the medium where “find the problem and punch it until it gets better” is a common (and largely accepted) story structure, after all.

It’s also a lousy way for the audience to meet someone. When Justice League decided to have Superman fight Wonder Woman there was a good reason (illusion) and we had 3 hours and 4 significant storylines of getting to know the characters before then.[1] We knew why they shouldn’t be fighting, and knew they were both heroes, making the fight tragic as well as spectacular. Even the fairly pointless fight between Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in Avengers worked reasonably well because we had previously seen multiple stories that had established the characters.

This version of Superman has been given one nearly-incoherent story, and this version of Batman is debuting in this movie. Warner Bros simply hasn’t done the work to either justify this conflict, or make it interesting.

So when you make the fight between your main characters—who are both supposed to be heroes—the central premise of their first movie, it just doesn’t work. You haven’t earned it. Notice how it’s the exact opposite structure that Justice League, Young Justice, and the Marvel movies have used. In all of those, they first gave us cooperation and camaraderie, and later showed how differences could erupt into outright conflict. And in the case of the Marvel movies, we saw the characters in solo movies first, and then gave us the team-up later.

This has the added benefit of giving better character arcs and depth to the characters than you can accomplish in a single movie. Avengers has 7+ main characters (Loki counts!, and maybe Fury) and half a dozen major supporting characters, and over the course of the 12+ hours of phase 1 they’re all at least reasonably well developed. I didn’t feel like Man of Steel managed to meaningfully develop even 1 character[2], which leaves all the heavy lifting of developing Superman, Batman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, and whoever else is significant to Batman v. Superman.

WB is trying to start with “irreconcilable differences” that require a fight to the death, and then introduce something else to avert that. And at the same time they want this to be a team-up movie that shows us the porto-team before it shows us the individuals—those movies are coming later.

Finally, Batman & Superman trying to kill each other is not the “dawn of justice”. It’s its eclipse, if not sunset. And, again, would carry so much more weight if we’d actually seen the heroes coming together to create the Justice League, and only later coming to blows. Done right, it could be an amazing, tragic story, where we could see right from the start that this collaboration was doomed due to ideological differences, and just waiting to see whether they pull it off anyway or, if not, what it is that finally tears them apart.

Instead, we get the cart before the horse: a pointless fight among people that we don’t care about, because we’ve not met them (Batman, Wonder Woman) or because we have and they’ve shown us they’re not heroes (Superman).

[1] Plus, neither of them was a significant deviation from the established characters, so all that you had osmosed from pop culture about them was useful background you could draw upon to round the characters out.

[2] It doesn’t help that most of what should’ve been character development time was spent on flashbacks that were often so tenuously connected to the scene that “triggered” them, that they may as well have been random.

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