“Taste is entirely subjective, but quality is not.”
Welcome to the quote that literally changed my perspective on movie and art appreciation forever. For the longest time, I was — like so many of you — convinced that discussing movies was a 100% personal endeavor. People like what they like and don’t like what they don’t, so who’s really to say what is or is not good? It all inevitably comes back down to our own subjective preferences, right?
Well… no, actually.
Peep game: It is completely valid for you to enjoy tacos and not like hamburgers; this is something that no one can really take issue with or try to convince you otherwise over; it truly is a matter of taste. This being the case, it is totally legitimate for you to prefer eating at Taco Bell over In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys, for those of you outside the West Coast).
However, it would be verifiably inaccurate for you to then claim that Taco Bell serves food of superior quality than In-N-Out, simply because you happen to prefer it. In-N-Out is demonstrably of higher quality, in terms of both ingredients and preparation, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter. They are better at making hamburgers than Taco Bell is at making tacos. Again, this does not mean you should like In-N-Out more than Taco Bell; its superior quality has nothing to do with how much you may enjoy it.
Likewise, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a low-quality movie, regardless of how many people may like it, defend it, and (especially) how loud and committed they are to this preference/defense. They can favor it above something like Captain America: Civil War all they want, and I’d have nothing to say about that at all, but they can’t say it’s a better told story or a movie of superior quality, because that is manifestly untrue. Just like with the Taco Bell/In-N-Out metaphor, Civil War was clearly so much better at being Civil War than BvS was at being BvS. It’s no contest.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that the process of movie review and criticism is — or can ever even hope to be — considered truly objective, mind you, because we will always have our biases and pre-existing preferences working within our assessments, to some degree or another. But I am saying that, when done right, the process of movie review and criticism is not entirely subjective. There are some objective criteria we can use while making our evaluations. These include how engaging the characters are written, the skill with which they’re performed, how well the fictional reality is established, the coherence of its plot, the consistency of its tone, the effectiveness of its pacing, and how well it sets up its payoffs and pays off its setups.
It is by these criteria that I can comfortably lay claim to the not-entirely-subjective assertion that BvS was not very good. But instead of me laying out all the reasons for this (which has become a dead horse so thoroughly beaten at this point that my asking you to go through it all again should qualify as some kind of crime on my part), I thought it better to paint the vastly improved narrative picture for you by fixing everything wrong with it. (Note: I did this once before — just recently, in fact— with The Force Awakens, and really enjoyed the process, so much so that we’re running it back again for this.)
For those of you who disliked the movie as much as I did, I figure you might enjoy a version of it that doesn’t make you wanna ram your head into a wall to distract from the pain. And to those of you who keep tenaciously — and yet still erroneously — insisting that it’s some kind of “misunderstood masterpiece” (Please), I issue this challenge: If you can read through what follows and come out the other end NOT feeling like this would’ve been a pronounced upgrade (through sheer narrative competency), then I promise I’ll respect that. All I ask in return is that you take off your “DC Defender No Matter What Cap” and really, genuinely, truly be honest with yourself as you read. Nothing bad will happen to you if you do this, I swear.
So What Was This Movie About Anyway?
(Note: Before we begin, it’s important for me to state that I also think Man of Steel was a poorly-executed movie that got Superman all wrong, so much so that I have genuine contempt for it. However, for the purposes of this piece, I’m accepting it as is and basing what this movie should have been as a sequel to that. Seems only fair.)
First of all, this movie was actually four separate movies crudely smashed up into one. The first is your basic sequel to MoS where Superman must deal with his place in the world in the fallout of the Battle of Metropolis (people don’t trust him, etc.), the second is The Dark Knight Returns angle taken from Frank Miller’s classic comic, the third is the cinematic universe creating Justice League set up, and the fourth is The Death of Superman storyline.
Right off the bat, you axe The Dark Knight Returns and Justice League set up strands. The first because that’s a story about the end of Batman and Superman’s relationship — as opposed to the beginning—so it doesn’t thematically fit here at all, and also because it presents a fascistic, pushed-over-the-edge, basically sociopathic Batman before you’ve given the audience whatever version of him existed before that. (You can’t take a character in a new direction when that character hasn’t even been introduced yet.) And you get rid of the second strand because you just don’t need it: having Batman and Superman in the same movie together already creates the shared universe by itself, and the two of them together have far more mainstream appeal than all of The Avengers did combined before 2012.
(Look, I have no complaints about Wonder Woman in the movie; she was fine. She was just wholly unnecessary, and much better introduced through Themyscira and the Amazons in her own movie. Especially when the best idea they could come up with for her being in this one centered around her trying to retrieve a digital photograph. You know, the kind of photo that can be reproduced an infinite amount of times on a countless number of servers and devices with tremendous speed and ease. But she just needs that one. That’s definitely the only one. Ummm… OK.)
So, you focus on the sequel to Man of Steel and set up The Death of Superman while using Batman to both accentuate the story with his very presence as well as establish your cinematic universe. Nice. Good start. Ambitious but cohesive and clean.
The movie starts out well enough, with Bruce Wayne recounting the tragic events that happened to his parents (aside from, you know, the part where Thomas Wayne now actually gets himself and his wife killed in front of their eight-year old son by pushing a fistfight with the man who has a gun pointed at his family). This should have been done without credits. Then the credits roll as the filmmakers montage his training and early successful adventures as Batman. He’s established as a bad ass who can handle anything. The idea here is that the loss of his parents made him feel utterly powerless, and he worked his ass off his whole life to never feel that way again and with great success. Final opening credit rolls.
Then cut to him being on the ground for the Battle of Metropolis, trying his best to help people and make a difference but to no avail. No matter what he tries, there’s just too much destruction. He is powerless. Then, he comes upon a young girl, sitting beside her two dead parents and crying. Maybe the mom has a busted set of pearls strewn about her even. BOOM. Just like that, Bruce Wayne becomes that victimized eight-year old again. And as he embraces the young girl, he then looks up to see Superman and Zod continuing to fight recklessly throughout the city, destroying even more buildings and killing even more people, which Bruce still can’t do anything about. This is where that palpable rage enters the stage: Superman’s power has brought him back to a place he swore he’d never go back to. It’s on.
We reopen one month later, not eighteen months. All of the questions and doubts about Superman are still going off in the same way, but not because of some confusing and unnecessary Benghazi-like foreign relations disaster in Africa (which, inexplicably, involves the execution of Jimmy Olsen for no reason whatsoever). Rather, it's merely in response to the incredible amount of destruction in Metropolis. Some people want Superman to answer for it, while others think he’s their savior. Done. Because that’s all you need. It’s WAY more effective, WAY easier to follow, WAY more visceral, and WAY more central to the storyline so far.
Then we’re introduced to Lex Luthor, who recounts his own experience during the Battle of Metropolis (i.e. the day that changed everything for everyone). His story thematically follows Bruce Wayne’s at first: a human titan dwarfed due to the god-like power displayed by an alien. However, unlike Wayne, his resulting contempt stems from having been the biggest deal in Metropolis… to then becoming an afterthought. Nobody cares about him anymore; he’s now yesterday’s news; he immediately becomes irrelevant in light of Superman’s existence. So his animosity doesn’t come from emotional trauma (or some overly complicated and barely intelligible god complex) but rather his ego. Because Batman’s a good guy, and he’s not.
So now we have our two main witnesses to Superman’s arrival and what that means. Each is suspicious and angry. Each is prepared to do something drastic about this. Each represents the threatened human perspective. They are sympathetically aligned initially, though for different reasons and without the other’s knowledge, creating a philosophical conflict the movie now plays out between them.
While this is happening, we are also spending real time with Clark and Lois, learning about who they are now after everything went down in MoS and what they’ve come to mean to one another. We get to see and, more importantly, feel Clark’s confusion and guilt, and how Lois helps him with all that. Hopefully, we even come to care about them as people, outside of who we already know they are and why we know they’re important.
The Inevitable Clash
So then, Batman and Superman eventually cross paths. Though, and I must go all caps here, NOT AS SOME KIND OF DICK-SWINGING CONTEST BETWEEN TWO ARROGANT PRICKS, but rather while trying to do some good in each of their own ways; this becomes a clash of styles, of how best to approach the job they both have as heroes (with Batman’s feelings of personal anger underpinning his professional hostility, of course). Superman’s not out to emasculate him, because he’s not a douchebag, and Batman isn’t trying to kill him, because he’s not a killer.
And while we’re on the subject, BATMAN ABSOLUTELY NEVER KILLS ANYONE OVER THE COURSE OF THE MOVIE. One, because the violent disregard of human life while trying to achieve your own personal objectives constitutes literally the entirety of his quarrel with Superman (so him doing the exact same thing just completely deflates the premise of this whole enterprise), and two, because, again, they are heroes. Yes, it would be unreasonable to expect a normal person to defend the sanctity of human lives that are trying to end theirs, but superheroes AREN’T NORMAL PEOPLE. That’s the absolute point of their fictional existence: To not treat these situations like we would.
Anyways, so Batman and Superman have their disagreement, rooted in how Superman made Batman feel that one day — which Superman still has no idea about at this point — and Batman resolves to come up with contingencies for neutralizing this alien-god who cannot be trusted (i.e. Kryptonite weapons). Meanwhile, Luthor is doing the Zod’s-body-to-Doomsday scenario separately from what’s happening between our two heroes. He is NOT manipulating both Superman and Batman like f — king toddlers into fighting each other; their issues are their own thing. (Doing it to Superman is one thing, but to Batman? Really? Luthor makes Batman into his dim-witted tool? BATMAN. Ummm… OK.)
The Good Guys Make Good
So then, towards the end, Batman and Superman are about to clash — due to their misunderstanding — and Batman is about to unleash his Kryptonite weapons (keep the gas bombs and the spear; those are fine) on the being he feels so threatened by, to the point of being emotionally compromised. But Superman then sees this, and realizes there’s so much more going on here. After some probing, he comes to understand how his actions helped bring them to this place; through Batman’s rage, he’s able to feel the cost of his disregard while fighting Zod (in a way he had failed to up to this point), and is affected by it to a degree that Batman recognizes as well. They don’t make all the way up or immediately become best buds (or — with a soap opera level of drama — fall in bro-love because both their moms had the same first name), but they reach their detente. Common ground is found.
And that’s when Doomsday bursts onto the scene (perhaps without having to look so much like a cave troll from Lord of the Rings though), and the two of them must deal with it together: Superman can maintain going toe-to-toe with the monster for at least a little while, while Batman has those special weapons. And both make sure to actively protect the innocent lives around them during the battle (instead of just sterilely writing those out with two quick bits of dialogue, so the filmmakers could get back to trashing everything — like they seemingly have to do in every movie now — without horrifying large swaths of their audience with the overt implication of hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths like last time); not one person is allowed to die, no matter the ass-kicking Superman gets for it. And boy, does he take an ass-kicking for it.
Eventually though, Superman kills the monster with Batman’s Kryptonite spear and “dies” in the process, in front of the whole world. And it is here that the sequel to Man of Steel is resolved, as Superman completes his arc with Batman’s help: Superman allows himself to be broken and sacrificed for the survival of his new home, once and for all laying to rest the doubts about him. In a way that has now been properly set up and made clear to the whole audience (i.e. not just that small minority of fans who decided to love this movie long before it ever came out in order to validate their pre-existing investment in the success of the DCEU... and so did all the work for the filmmakers by projecting their own sense of coherence and meaning onto it... and then later made the film out to be "totally mature and complex" in discussions to mask this projection), he atones for his earlier mistakes during the Battle of Metropolis in the ultimate fashion, and in the eyes of everyone.
Most especially Batman. Batman now sees past his trauma and anger, finally recognizing Superman as a true hero in every sense of the word. By the end, he goes from feeling powerless by the might of the god to being humbled by the courage of the man. And as he feels this, so do we.
Batman then gets Luthor, and it all ends with the burial. During which, Bruce is talking to Alfred over the radio in a “what now?” moment. He realizes more threats will come and, with Superman gone, the world will need others to step up. After all, if Superman exists, then it follows that there’d be those like him. It’s just a question of finding them.
That sounds like a job for the World’s Greatest Detective, now doesn’t it?