Having seen Wonder Woman recently, and needing more of Gal Gadot being rad as shit, I finally got around to watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on Saturday night.
It was, as I had feared, 90% threepenny shitshow, 10% legitimately good moments and Wonder Woman.
I could conceivably spend an entire post on the good, the bad, and the what-the-fuck of BvS, but you can get that literally anywhere. There have probably been dissertations written about it. All those grad students who were ABD were like “OH SHIT IT’S TIME” and now there are people who got their doctorates writing about a film whose only saving grace was giving us the groundwork for the Wonder Woman movie.
So instead, what we’ll talk about is what they tried to do with Batman, and how they fucked it up. And you better fucking believe that I’m going to compare Batfleck to Prince Hamlet, because that’s how I fucking roll.
There is a general rule in writing that a story should start as late as logistically possible. As in, the overall action needs to be looming in the very near distance from the beginning. That way you hit the ground running and there’s less of a risk of losing audiences prone to early onset boredom. A classic example of this is Hamlet, which starts with a couple of spear-carriers being like “fucking ghosts bro” and then immediately segues into Prince Hamlet talking to the ghost of King Hamlet, which promptly becomes the story all about how Hamlet’s life got flipped, turned upside down.
This means that the Fresh Prince of Denmark that the audience sees from that point on is drastically different than the Hamlet everyone else at court is familiar with.
Now, let’s bring this back around to good ol’ Bats in BvS. Again, they tried to start the story as late as possible. Here’s the rub, though: the story doesn’t just start late. It oversleeps, forgets about the appointment altogether, goes and gets a coffee, attends some classes, hits up the gym, catches a ride with some buddies to Mexico for an impromptu bender because fuck it, it’s Friday, and wakes up seven days later with a splitting headache, a pet macaque named Froderick, and the sudden realization that oh shit it had that thing last week and oh man its buddies are just gonna kill it for being this late.
Given Batman’s state at the beginning of BvS, I would say that we are dropped into Batman’s personal journey about three movies too late. Because the Bats that we meet in BvS is entirely unlike the Bats that any of us is familiar with. This Batman has a special set of Branding Bat-Knuckles that he uses to sear a mark of JUSTICE into particularly heinous criminals (specifically, from what we know, pedophiles and human traffickers). He also has no compunctions about picking up guns and using them on motherfuckers (and I’m not even talking about the glimpse of the Bad Future with the Parademons flying around, present-day Bruce Wayne/Bats has no issues with it either). Not only that, both the Batmobile and the Batwing have fully automatic forward-mounted machine guns that are used to kill really a lot of dudes.
Which really makes you wonder: what the fuck is this Batman’s problem?
You only get a few faint, easily missed indicators that Batman was not always this way. One is when Alfred (who was played so well by Jeremy Irons) subtly takes Bruce to task for literally branding criminals with a bat symbol. Another is that the news media in Gotham seems to treat the branding as a new phenomenon. A third is when Alfred laments about whether the next generation of the Wayne family will inherit an empty wine cellar, or if there will even be a next generation of the Wayne family (a line lifted verbatim, incidentally, from Frank Miller’s 1986 grim take on Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, whence a lot of the elements of BvS’s Batman are sourced).
Finally, we get to see what, in theory (because this is all speculation I’m spinning out) caused Batman to go off the rails, abandoning those inconvenient ideals about not killing and not using guns that have been cornerstones of the Batman for the better part of a century. We catch a glimpse, ever-so-briefly, of Jason Todd’s Robin uniform, suggesting that it was that Robin’s demise that launched Bruce Wayne over the edge.
But like I said, this is all me strong-arming explanation from subtext and scraps, which I am only able to do because I am unhealthily familiar with several versions of the Batman canon. Most folks seeing BvS don’t know Jason Todd, and they don’t know The Dark Knight Returns (which honestly, despite its blatant right-wing political rhetoric and the fact that Bats is basically Marv from Sin City in a cowl, handled the “old and jaded Batman” concept better than BvS ever did). And there’s never a moment where Alfred is like, “Respectfully, Mr. Wayne, Jason would have never wanted you to resort to firearms” (wherein “respectfully” is employed in that singularly butler-esque fashion that actually means “fuck you”) to show us that things were once different.
For Prince Hamlet, there are plenty of characters who are like, “Man, you remember when that Hamlet kid wasn’t cuckoo banana pants? He was a decent guy. Real shame how he’s gone all nuts.” But Batman doesn’t get anything like that.
Instead, we’re supposed to fill in the blanks from the three movies that never existed. We’re supposed to do the legwork of presupposing that there was once a Batman who adhered to the same principles as all iterations of the character. A Batman who would break a leg but wouldn’t kill someone (movie one). And that this Batman eventually took on a Robin, Jason Todd, in his crusade against crime (movie two, playing fast and loose by skipping Dick Grayson altogether). And that Jason Todd was tragically, horribly murdered by the Joker, his uniform defaced to pile on the guilt for the Bat (movie three).
Which should have been how this Batman was built up. But the impatient fucks at DC, wanting so badly to lather their genitals with that delicious cinematic universe money, just wouldn’t give that sort of time to the character. As SJ pointed out to me while I was watching it, if you offer up a Batman who kills and uses guns without ever showing a previous version of the same Batman who didn’t, you’re not saying “This is a Batman who once was against killing and guns but has turned the corner.” You’re saying, “This is our Batman. He murders the shit out of dudes by shooting them and dropping cars on them. So far as you are concerned, he always has.”
All that having been said, here’s the takeaway: there is a lot to be gained from jumping into a character’s story arc late. It worked for ol’ Billy Shakes, and he was just trying to scratch out a goddamn living. But there is a difference between jumping in late and missing the bus completely. The former lets you get right to the action, and the latter leaves your audience bewildered and angry.
To close this out, let’s appreciate the one really good thing that came out of the hot disaster that was BvS: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Because she’s the only damn one of the whole lot who’s in character.