So last week, I offered up my spoiler-free review of Batman vs Superman, discussing the film in broad strokes because it hadn’t been out long enough to drop a bunch of spoilers all over everything. Now, though? Now, it’s been out almost two weeks. So I’m going ALL-SPOILER, ALL THE TIME.
But first, a confession: Last week, I called Batman vs Superman the best super hero movie ever, and in doing that I am guilty of a bit of hyperbole. Of guilding the lily. Of saying something outrageous to get your attention. Because Batman vs Superman is not, in actuality, the best super hero movie ever. That honor must go to the Adam West Batman movie, to which Batman vs Superman can only ever be considered a distant second.
Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Danger: Diabolik is probably better, too. It’s technically a super villain movie, of course, but it’s so clever and stylish that I might have to give it the nod. Which puts Batman vs Superman in third place, at best. If I thought really hard, I might come up with something else that beats it, too, but I dunno. Super hero movies are generally kind of weak.
I’ve found most of these films (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) to be glib and formulaic. They get by mostly on charm and special effects, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s also not the kind of stuff that endears them to me very much. Even the ones I like, I tend to like for very specific things: the way Sam Raimi captures the feel of the post-Ditko Spider-Man so perfectly, or Terence Stamp’s incredible imperiousness in Superman II, or Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. These things elevate otherwise-flawed films to something lovable and entertaining. That’s especially true of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Iron Man, which picks that movie up and carries it on its back. But even Downey can’t save the third act, when the movie falls apart in plodding, paint-by-numbers spandex tediousness.
So I guess what I’m saying here is that the bar isn’t set very high when it comes to super hero movies. The simple act of not being incredibly obvious launches Batman vs Superman over that bar, and into my own personal upper echelon of films in the genre. But I’m talking generalities here when I’m meant to be getting specific. So! ON TO THE SPOILERS!
I was going to start with Batman again…
…but a few articles I’ve read / arguments I’ve had on social media tell me that the best place to start is with Lex Luthor, and his master plan.
This is some convoluted shit, I’ll admit, and there are a couple of holes in it. But I’ve seen lists of thirty-some-odd plot holes, and smirking rundowns that assume the film doesn’t make sense while simultaneously demonstrating that the authors didn’t understand it. Mind you, I don’t think they’re stupid or anything. I just think they didn’t pay close enough attention. So, god help me, I think I need to respond to that.
Let’s start with Luthor’s motivations. Much like Ben Affleck’s Batman, Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is a control freak with deep-seated mental problems. Luthor tells Holly Hunter (I know I should look up her character’s name, but… she’s Holly Hunter. Senator Holly Hunter) something about his father’s struggles with an oppressive government in East Germany, but that’s only part of the truth. The part that he thinks will sound good to someone in the American government. Later, we learn the rest of it: Luthor Senior was an abusive bully, and that’s given Luthor the Younger some serious issues with authority. So he sees Superman as a threat to his (and, ultimately, mankind’s) autonomy. But that’s only part of the truth, as well. Underneath it all, he’s also a megalomaniac with a tenuous grasp on sanity. So he not only wants to destroy Superman and break the public’s growing faith in him, he also wants Superman to know that he’s responsible for it all.
To bring that about, he hatches a Gordian Knot of schemes that are admittedly a bit difficult to unravel, especially since Luthor has to stop and regroup and alter his plans as events move around him. But let’s try. His opening volley against the Man of Steel is the film’s opening scene in the fictional “Nairomi, Africa.” Luthor’s hired mercenaries out the CIA agent posing as Lois Lane’s photographer, the situation goes pear-shaped, and Superman flies in to save his girlfriend. He takes out the local warlord with the gun to Lois’ head, and Luthor’s mercenaries execute all of that warlord’s actual supporters before fleeing the scene.
There’s been some debate over whether or not Superman killed the warlord. I assumed not, others assumed so. I don’t think the film tells us enough to know for sure. But Lois does claim later on that Superman didn’t kill anyone in the incident, so I’m taking her word for it.
Regardless, Superman is blamed for the deaths, leading some critics to wonder why anyone would think that, when those men were shot. But that’s assuming the bodies were retrieved, which seems unlikely in light of the testimony given by a woman who survived the aftermath. She tells us that the incident destabilized the region, sending other wannabe warlords swooping in to fill the void, killing indiscriminately as they battled for power. The whole region descended swiftly into chaos. So all the authorities have to go on is this woman’s testimony, and she blames Superman. The Secretary of Defense isn’t very happy with him, either, criticizing him for playing boy scout without taking the larger picture into account, and causing far more deaths in the long run.
So regardless of what anyone believes, Superman’s taking the blame. Which means that Luthor’s plan works pretty well. It makes Superman a more controversial figure in the eyes of the public, and plants seeds of self-doubt that Luthor will help to bloom later. In the meantime, he’s got people retrieving a radioactive substance (Kryptonite) from the ruins of the Kryptonian ship that went down in the Indian Ocean in Man of Steel. He wants to import it to the United States, and get government support to make a Kryptonite weapon to use against Superman. Holly Hunter denies him the import, but another senator agrees to give him access to both the Kryptonian ship downed in Metropolis, and the corpse of General Zod.
One of the genuine plot holes comes in here. Luthor shows the senators footage of the Kryptonite cutting Kryptonian skin. But if Zod and Superman are the only Kryptonians left on Earth, and he hasn’t been given access to Zod’s corpse yet… Where the hell did that footage come from? When I see the movie again, I’ll be looking for a line to explain that. But until I find it, I’ll have to assume it’s a mistake.
Now. Running alongside all this, we have Batman unearthing an entirely separate scheme connected to the rest only by Luthor’s paranoia: his investigations into the “Metahuman Theory.” This is the idea that, if Superman existed among us in secret all those years, there have to be others doing the same thing. This is a sideline to his “destroy Superman and everything he stands for” schemes, perhaps the place he’s going next once the Kryptonian threat is taken care of. But he’s at least started the ball rolling on it and, being an obsessive super-genius with near-limitless wealth and a network of operatives around the globe, he’s finding the evidence he’s looking for. This is what brings Wonder Woman into the story. Luthor invites her to the same fund-raising shindig he invites Bruce Wayne to, and (I think) for similar reasons: to get a closer look at them. I base this primarily on the way Luthor’s henchwoman Mercy seems to be staring at them from the edges of the screen.
Anyway. From a storytelling perspective, this Metahuman thing stops the movie dead in its tracks for a few minutes. Once Wonder Woman’s on-screen, it’s only important as set-up for the eventual Justice League movie, and director Zack Snyder spends way too much time on Wonder Woman watching found footage video of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash. It’s fun to speculate about (which I’ll do later if there’s time), but it’s also a momentum-killer for this film.
Back over in the main plot, things get more complicated. Luthor imports the Kryptonite illegally, but Batman steals it from him. So Batman works on the Kryptonite weapon, and Luthor is forced to resort to whatever he can find in Zod’s ship.
In the meantime, though, another avenue of pursuit becomes available. A now-homeless former Waynetech employee who lost his legs in the battle with Zod makes the news when he tries to deface a Superman statue. Luthor posts bail for the man and contacts him afterwards, giving him a fancy new wheelchair and bringing him in on the plot against Superman. The homeless guy becomes a public anti-Superman activist, and is called to speak at the Senate hearings being called by Holly Hunter in the wake of the African incident. It’s not clear whether he knows that Luthor’s planted a bomb in his wheelchair, but I tend to think he does; his demeanor at the hearing is that of a man ready to die for a cause, and he gets his wish.
The bomb goes off, leaving Superman unharmed, but killing everyone else in the room. This nets Luthor a couple of things. First, it allows him to get revenge on Holly Hunter for refusing his influence. But more importantly, it further damages Superman’s public image, as many publicly wonder why he didn’t notice the bomb before it went off, and others (well, Nancy Grace, at least) proclaim that he may have been in on the bombing from the outset. Superman himself plays right into Luthor’s hands at this point, his guilt and self-doubt over the incident causing him to withdraw from society. So that’s another good move for Luthor.
Some have questioned, however, why he sacrifices Mercy here, sending her into the room to die when she doesn’t have to. My response to that is simple: she’s his excuse for not being there himself. When he’s talking to Holly Hunter before the hearing, he says that he’ll be a few minutes late. But he makes a point of telling Mercy, right in front of Hunter, to go in and “make sure nobody steals his seat.” Sending Mercy in makes his own absence less conspicuous. It’s cold and calculating, but it’s very much a super villain kind of thing to do.
A genuine plot hole actually may come in here, however. Later on, Luthor tells us that he’s responsible for the crazy notes the homeless guy was sending to Bruce Wayne. But those notes would have been coming in long before Luthor even knew who the homeless guy was. When I was watching the film, I assumed he meant that he was responsible for the last couple of notes, which cut more directly to Bruce’s neuroses as Batman. But a couple of critics have mentioned it, and it makes me wonder what Luthor actually said. I’ll clear that up for myself on a second viewing.
Those notes do bring us into the home stretch, though. With Superman’s public image ready to collapse, and knowing that Batman has the Kryptonite, Luthor starts priming Our Heroes to fight. He goads Bruce Wayne with the crazy notes, then sends Superman out to bring back Batman’s head under threat of death for Martha Kent. He seems to hope that Batman will win, but Luthor wins either way. If Batman takes out Superman, then Luthor’s problems are solved, and he’s also gotten the personal satisfaction of seeing Superman kneel before him. And if Superman wins, that gives Luthor his revenge against Batman for stealing the Kryptonite (as that jar of piss he sent Holly Hunter proves, Luthor is nothing if not a vindictive bastard). And he’s still got his final contingency plan, his ace in the hole, in place: Doomsday.
Some have asked why Luthor would be willing to unleash such an unstoppable monster on the world, and it’s a good question. When Doomsday immediately attacks Superman and ignores Luthor entirely, I wondered if he had control over it in some way. But I don’t think the movie gives us enough information to know for sure. If Luthor had actually given the order to attack, it would have cleared things up. As it is… That’s a flaw, for sure.
Unless, of course, Luthor has completely lost his mind by that point. His grasp on sanity is never strong, and in the last scene of the movie, he certainly seems to have snapped. There’s a pretty fair argument to be made here that he loses it sometime after he gets on-board Zod’s ship. The computer there offers to teach him about extraterrestrial life, and he’s eager to learn. We don’t know what he finds out, but in that last scene, it seems pretty obvious that he’s heard the Good News About Darkseid. So maybe he really has just flipped out. Given himself over to Anti-Life, and all that. Hmm.
That’s all feckless speculation, of course, based on my knowledge of the comics and the hints given about where these movies are going next. Darkseid is a natural bad guy for the eventual Justice League film, and that weird Batman post-apocalyptic dream sequence definitely gives us a glimpse of some Parademons flying around:
A bit more speculation for you: that’s not a dream. It’s a glimpse of things to come. When Batman wakes up, after all, he’s immediately visited by the Flash, bringing him a message from the future that he was “right all along” about Superman. So does that mean we’ll eventually see the Man of Steel turn bad? Hmm. Considering the Parademons, I think it’s more likely that Darkseid’s involved in that somehow. Possessing Superman, maybe, or controlling him via Anti-Life. Or maybe it’s a dream, after all, and I’m just rambling. Time will tell.
But I digress. My point here is that I think Luthor’s schemes make a lot of sense. There are gaffs, and some grand silliness (like that bit when he wears Zod’s fingerprints to take control of the Kryptonian ship). But if you pay attention, and put the pieces together, it works. That may be more effort than some expect to make on a super hero film. It may even be more effort than anyone should be expected to make. But it’s effort I enjoyed making, effort that made the movie a lot more fun for me to watch. And that’s why I think it’s a cut above the average spandex movie effort.
And now I haven’t got much time left to talk about the other stuff I liked, but there were a few things I can’t leave without mentioning. All the “angels and demons” stuff, for instance, and how it resonates so well with Superman and Batman’s traditional roles. How all the Christ imagery Snyder built in around Superman…
…actually managed to work as proper foreshadowing, rather than horrible obvious telegraphing of his death. And how he died to not only save Batman’s soul, but to restore Wonder Woman’s faith, and to ultimately bring justice back into the world.
(Admittedly, that last bit will have to happen in a later movie. But, still. It’s totally there.)
Then there’s all the little details that made this version of Batman so fascinating to me. Like the way his age and experience inform his fighting style, which is brutally efficient, with very little wasted movement. And how he uses Bruce Wayne almost as effectively as he uses the Bat. I especially liked the bit where he backs a fighter at an illegal bare-knuckle boxing event, and nobody seems surprised that he’s there. It put me in mind of some of the hints Grant Morrison dropped in his Batman run about Bruce Wayne’s “millionaire playboy” reputation including a slightly unsavory side. Now, I’m reading in a bit there; the scene’s too quick to address the subject at all. But as a modern take on the traditional debauched dilettante rep, it makes sense to me.
I also loved the very first Batman scene, in which Snyder goes out of his way to make Batman as terrifying as possible, even to the audience. Written from the perspective of two cops interrupting him in the act, the scene only gives us glimpses of Batman, who comes off like a horror movie monster. He leaps out of shadows, and the biggest impression he makes is the screaming of his victims.
Those screams are the introduction of the Bat Brand, maybe the biggest indication that something’s wrong with Our Hero. He’s got these bat-shaped brass knuckles that heat up with a built-in electrical coil, and he uses them to burn a bat into the flesh of criminals.
It’s incredibly cruel and fetishistic, an even bigger sign that he’s gone wrong than his later use of guns. There’s some attempt in one of the film’s numerous talking-head news sequences to establish that the brand is a “death sentence” in prison, that the other prisoners will kill anyone with the mark. But that idea doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, at least not without more explanation than it’s probably worth. The branding itself is enough evidence that Batman’s on the wrong path. It’s a sign that he’s starting to dehumanize criminals, and that’s no good.
It’s also key to how he’s viewing Superman. If Batman’s already dehumanizing actual human beings, blinding himself to the good in humanity, how can he see the alien Superman as anything but a threat? As far as he’s concerned, Superman showed his true colors in the destruction of Metropolis, and any supposed good deeds he’s done are merely a cover for something more sinister. It’s an irrational viewpoint, but as I said last week, the whole thing has made Batman feel helpless, and he doesn’t respond well to helplessness.
That’s why the climax of their final battle works so well for me. When Superman says “Martha,” it makes Batman pause. That name’s gotta be a pretty big trigger for him, after all. But it’s not what makes him stop. What makes him stop is the fact that Superman has a mother at all. It’s the fact that Superman spends his dying breath not begging for his own life, but begging Batman to save his mother’s life. That’s what snaps him out of it. Suddenly, Superman is human to him, and he sees exactly how wrong he’s been. In that moment, he pulls back from the brink. Superman has saved his soul.
This is proven a couple of times afterward, but nowhere more definitively than in the final scene. Batman confronts Luthor in prison, threatening him with the Bat-Brand. But he doesn’t use it. He punches the wall, instead, leaving his mark beside Luthor’s head rather than on it. So he’s still all about scaring some bad guys, but Superman has redeemed him from his excesses.
And… and… Whew. My fingers hurt from the typing, and if you’re still reading this at all, you’re probably getting pretty tired of me running off at the mouth about this damn movie. So I’ll stop here. Finally.
Damn. For a guy who hates funnybook movies, I sure have spilled a lot of pixels on this one…