Spoiler alert: this post discusses Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice's plot at length.
In the wake of all the bad reviews being levied against Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder and the cast have maintained that the movie isn't really for critics, but rather for hardcore comic fans.
"I’m a comic book guy and I made the movie based as much as I could on that aesthetic. And so I don’t know how else to do it 100%, so it is what it is," Snyder told Yahoo.
It's an odd distinction of mutual exclusivity, and the way Snyder is framing the critical response to the film is especially important. Not only does he suggest that only die-hard comic fans can truly appreciate Batman v Superman, but he botched a key element of the conflict at the heart of film in such a way that it totally contradicts the idea of making the movie with comic fans in mind.
Saying that Batman v Superman is made for comic fans insults both comic fans and critics
Sure, there are probably a few instances where critics who didn't like the movie aren't familiar with its comic book source material. But it's not like critics can't appreciate a good story about a subject they're not an expert in. Critics didn't need to be fans of Irish immigration to America in the '40s and '50s to appreciate Brooklyn, nor did they require in-depth knowledge of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal to fully appreciate Oscar Best Picture winner Spotlight.
Meanwhile, it's patronizing to suggest that comic book fans' taste level is at odds with cultural criticism — that they'll ignore Batman v Superman's clunky dialogue or strange editing because they're so passionate about the story. And Snyder displays a weird flash of cultural ignorance in expressing the belief that a passion for comic books yields lenience, because it appears he underestimates how much superhero comic books defined the childhood realities of the fans he's supposedly appealing to.
But the most egregious portion of Snyder's claim is that Batman v Superman is a byproduct of his love for comic books. The truth is that Batman v Superman is a comic book movie made by someone who didn't like what he read in comic books. And the film's cornerstone — the cloudy, overwrought conflict between Superman and Batman — is the clearest evidence of this.
In the comic books that Snyder has allegedly read, including Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, which he says was the inspiration for Batman v Superman's aesthetic and themes, Batman and Superman fight because of ideology.
In Miller's tale, Batman and Superman see justice differently. Batman has lost faith in the government, while Superman has pledged his obedience to it. Yes, their conflict is partially rooted in hate — they do dislike each other — but Miller's dystopian story is about two figures engaged in a philosophical and political war rather than something personal. Their violence transcends a simple bout of physical brutality between two superheroes. And we explore our own ideas of justice, authoritarianism, faith, inspiration, the United States, and the political philosophy governing it (among a trove of other things).
That level of nuance is completely absent in Snyder's film.
The film's title fight is essentially meaningless
The superhero beatdown in Batman v Superman is presented at face value. And it's completely personal. There is a sliver of talk about justice in the beginning, because Superman accidentally killed people who worked for Bruce Wayne in Snyder's last film, 2013's Man of Steel. But this detail is dropped for a grand design that involves Lex Luthor tricking Batman, the smartest superhero in the DC Universe, into hating Superman by framing him in Africa and in a suicide bombing at the US Capitol during a congressional hearing where Superman is present and should have heard the bomb.
Then Luthor tricks Superman into fighting Batman because Luthor captured Superman's mom, setting him up against a Batman who hasn't figured out that Luthor is playing him. From there, the situation descends into a steaming pocket of nonsense, because Superman won't just tell Batman that he's fighting because his mom has been captured. Batman is close to totally killing Superman ... until he finds out their mothers have the same first name, and then Batman goes off to rescue Superman's mom.
It's an absolutely thoughtless conflict, one that makes these superheroes into nothing more than Luthor's pawns and victims of a misunderstanding. And it's resolved in a way that feels like an interlude, an appetizer whose sole purpose was to just get us to the bigger battle.
There's no weight to their fight. There are no stakes to its resolution. And there's absolutely no indication that Snyder, the self-professed "comic book guy" who created this thing, actually understands what Miller was going for in The Dark Knight Returns beyond the dark and grim feel of the book.
When Batman and Superman fight, it's more than just two iconic heroes battling one another. They stand for values, a history, and philosophies that extend beyond the two of them as individuals. And "comic book people" — the audience that Snyder insists he's trying to please — will be the first to tell you this. Batman v Superman may have set records at the box office, but it's a major creative failure — and the primary reason why is that Snyder, despite his alleged comic book roots, couldn't get this simple part of the iconic rivalry right.