Why The Dark Knight Returns is better than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

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It’s no secret by now that Batman V Superman is not a good movie. Some are even questioning whether it’s the worst of the new wave of superhero films – and I’m inclined to agree. It is the cinematic equivalent of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Luckily, we already have an excellent version of the Batman vs. Superman story: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It’s actually kind of peculiar how closely Zack Snyder (and also David Goyer) follows certain things from the comic in his movie- and he does a couple things pretty well – and for others, he tosses the source material to the wind and substitutes his own crap. He definitely read/watched TDKR, but I don’t think he got it, other than the “wicked fight, bro!”

There are three major places where the film suffers for it: The Characters, The Story, and The Fight.  I know what you’re thinking, “But Tyler, that’s like the whole movie!” and you’re right. A lot of this movie is total garbage. I will however concede that some stuff “looks” right. That is to say, Batman in his robot suit looks really cool, the kryptonite gas was a cool effect, Wonder Woman looked perfect. Zack Snyder is a director capable of creating some very nice visuals (and also pretty bad ones), but unfortunately I’m not sure he understands the rest of what makes a movie.
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Let’s start at The Characters. Batman and Superman are both pretty simple characters. Batman’s parents got murdered by criminals and this has driven him to fight crime as a vigilante. With a sharp sense of justice, Batman refuses to kill people or use guns, because that is the line that separates him from the criminals. Superman is an invulnerable good guy who always sees the best in everyone to a fault. He considers it his duty to save people and do good. They’re friends. Batman is limited by his manhood but unburdened by his lack of humanity , and Superman is the opposite. For Batman, the ends can justify the means, but not for Superman.

TDKR got this exactly right. The story starts ten years after an international treaty has banned superheroes and the characters follow as a logical extension of that point. Superman, being the good boy boyscout, still operates under the US government as a weapon/deterrent. He respects the chain of command and is doing his American duty. Batman is slowly being eaten away by the rise of crime in Gotham until he reaches a breaking point and gets back into action. This rattles the government and they send Superman to get Batman to stop. Batman is doing what he thinks is right – he’s doing what the government cannot or will not do to save Gotham, Superman is doing what he thinks is right – he’s respecting the law and doing what’s right in the eyes of the establishment. Friends are put at odds over a central conflict in their relationship.  It’s all pretty simple. Batman is the main character in an ensemble cast, and it helps us have something to latch on to while learning this world.

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The characters in BVS are flat at best and confusing at worst. Superman seems like he only wants to save people when he feels like it. There’s this long saving people montage, where he just seems pretty burdened by the whole thing. Batman fucking kills people and hands out death sentences with a hot bat-brand (holy fuck do I hate this). So, already we’re miles away from any form of accuracy in the characters, but do they work in the film? I’d have to say that they don’t. Batman and Alfred were the only characters that I really understood what they were doing (most of the time) and why. Batman wants to kill Superman because he’s semi responsible for a hundred 9/11s and it’s dangerous to have a superhuman on the loose. Alfred’s just like, “Hey maybe that’s not the best idea.” It’s simple, and I get it. Oh, and I understand Lois’ character – she’s a reporter, she loves Superman. Done. Flat, but done.

Superman himself is more of an enigma. He’s not in the movie a whole lot, so it’s hard to get a bead on his motivations. He mostly just seems confused and meandering, unless Lois is in danger and he’s got purpose all of a sudden. He seems like he’s got some ideas about the responsibility of the press, but that’s one of a hundred themes that shows up only to disappear. He mentions something about how vigilanteism is bad or something, but he never really has cause to fight Batman until Martha gets kidnapped (more on that later). Since that fight is literally the point of the movie, we’ve just got Superman wandering around wondering what his place is until ten seconds before it’s time to throw down.
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I want to talk about Lex Luthor for a moment, while we’re talking about lack of character. I’ve never seen a character spew so many rants and unveil so little about themselves. I got to a point about three quarters through the longer-than-star-wars bore marathon when I realized: I don’t know why Lex Luthor wants them to fight. I know he wants to make Doomsday, but I don’t know why. It all comes back to “he wants to kill Superman”, but why does he want to do that? Is it because of the one hundred 9/11s? If that was such a big deal – and it should be – why bother framing Supes in Africa (more on that later)? Is it because he’s a god? Because he’s dangerous? We need a scene – and it doesn’t have to be long – but we need a scene where Lex is talking with an underling or something and there’s no agenda or anything on the table and he just says “We need to kill Superman because _______”. He pontificates a lot about gods and what is and what isn’t a god, but we need a character to just talk straight every once in a while. Is he going through all this damn trouble just to prove Superman is a fraud? Question mark? It’s outside of the scope of what I’m trying to do here, but it bears mentioning that a jar of urine plays a pivotal role in this story.

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Next up, the story. TDKR has a tight, tidy story. BVS is a total mess. For TDK I’m going to try and go plotline by plotline, but it’s confusing and all over the place.

TDKR follows Batman. When we begin, he’s hung up his cape and he’s trying to fix crime from within the system. For example, he’s been funding surgery to aid the rehabilitation of TwoFace. He flips through the TV one night and sees that TwoFace has started killing again, the news of every station is reporting on it, and then he flips onto The Mask of Zorro and he flashes back to the night his parents died and he remembers why he donned the cowl and this becomes his call to action. A key point here is that the origin story is an organic part of the story. He sees how far gone Gotham is, and he sets out to take down the gangs. It’s crazy simple, and after the setup everything logically follows. Superman gets sent by the president to take down Batman. Batman has known this has been coming for years and he’s ready, because that’s what Batman does.

BVS starts with a flashback/dream of Batman’s parents dying, for no apparent reason, other than to make audiences around the world ask, “was that supposed to symbolize a cumshot?”. From there, we go back to the mass destruction from the end of Man of Steel from Batman’s point of view at ground zero. This sets up Batman’s motivation and I guess I’m okay with it. I’m not a fan of rehashing Batman’s origin for no reason, but OK, if you absolutely MUST.

From there, we go to one of my favourite of the not-sense-making plotlines: Lois Lane interviewing an African dictator (what exactly does she do at the Daily Planet again?). The dictator has got some american private security protecting him. She’s got a photographer with her who’s actually a CIA agent. The CIA photographer gets shot in the face, and the private security turns on the dictator and innocents in the area. Lois finds herself in peril and THAT is when Superman decides to show up. Lois figures out that the security contractors were using secret LexCorp bullets and we later find out that these guys were hired by Lex to frame Superman. Fucking what? So GENIUS Lex Luthor has set up a scenario to convince people that Superman shot people in Africa and used bullets that led directly back to Lex. Just so we’re all on the same page: If he used regular bullets and not LexCorp bullets, there would be no thread for Lois to tug on and there would have been no mystery. Even if you accept that this conspiracy would have fooled people into think that Supes shot some people…. WHY WOULD YOU LEAVE A FUCKING CLUE LIKE THAT?! And what even comes of it? The Anti-Superman hearings? From a story perspective, why is that necessary? We just had a million 9/11s. The writers should have treated that as what it is – a lifechanging major tragedy – and had people be pissed about THAT. Instead, we’ve got Lois going to Washington and solving the mystery that Lex hired those guys as hitmen to set up Superman. Something that everyone in the audience already knew about a completely unnecessary plot point. This movie is already longer than Star Wars. We don’t need this.

While all that’s happening, Batman learns that Lex is involved with bringing kryptonite into the city or something, so he decides to investigate him. There’s actually some good stuff in here. Batman being a detective, Bruce Wayne acting drunk. This movie gets some parts of Batman really right. I totally understand his deal, and his motivations and why he feels inadequate in the face of Superman, etc etc. His story gets silly when he starts investigating Lex’s computers and he steals some data off of Lex’s mainframe or whatever. After he decrypts the data he finds viral videos of other superheroes accompanied by the finest logos that the graphic design team at LexCorp could provide. That’s our setup for the next movie, folks. There’s no teasers after the credits, just a shitload of them during the actual movie.

I’m actually really struggling to remember how BVS unfolds because there’s no solid through-line. What’s Superman doing during all this, you ask? He wants to cover the Gotham Bat in the paper instead of the local Football team, he saves some kids in Juarez, and he’s sad and talks to his parents.

Lex is jib-jabs his way through the plot, reading aloud his intro to philosophy essay to anyone that will listen. He frames Superman in Africa, and he uses that to try and get a Senator to allow him to import kryptonite. The senator shuts him down, so he sets up a suicide bombing at the senate – which I guess gets pinned on Superman too, so now he’s allowed to get his kryptonite and stuff. Why are people so willing to believe that this god-man would use human weapons instead of just like farting and killing a whole city block. Lex gets access to the kryptonian ship from the last movie which is still in the heart of Metropolis, for a good reason I’m sure. In a series of baffling scenes that aren’t truly explained, Lex does some blood magic with the Krypton computer and Zod’s corpse and that somehow makes a cave troll. I mean… Doomsday, it makes Doomsday. And the reason he did this is because Batman and Supes needed somebody to fight after they became pals

We’re actually getting close to the main event now. Batman steals Lex’s kryptonite – which I guess was Lex’s plan because he wants them to fight? – and he spends an afternoon making kryptonite weapons and power armour and doing crossfit. In DKR the kryptonite weapon “wasn’t easy…took years… cost a fortune.” But if you want to bypass all of that gravitas and have Batman figure it out in the amount of time it takes most of us to assemble an Ikea shelf, whatever. He dons his armour and heads out into Gotham, where I guess he hopes to just bump into Superman.

Meanwhile, Lex pushes Lois off the side of a building and Superman is instantly there. Which is odd, because Lex has also kidnapped Superman’s mom and Superman knew nothing about that. In fact, even though he can locate Lois in the middle of Africa whenever she’s in mild danger, he resigns himself to needing Lex (or Batman) to find his mom. Lex says that he’ll let Ma Kent go, if Superman goes and fights Batman. Luckily Batman is out there at this very moment, just waitin’ for a fight. This is one of the most convenient scripts I’ve ever seen.

Those are all the major plotlines leading up to the fight. This movie is confusing and convoluted and it doesn’t have to be. There’s no main character, and I don’t understand the motivations of several major characters. Do you see how unnecessarily complicated that is compared to the simplicity of TDKR?

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The fight is a major part of both stories. It’s kind of why we’re here. While the fights share a superficial visual similarity, they could not be more different. It’s similar to the difference between the lightsaber fights in the Star Wars Prequels, and the Original Trilogy. Take for example, the fight at the end of a New Hope. Widely regarded as “the worst fight in the series cause it’s the most boringest”. However, this fight is about more than the lightsabers. It’s about a master and an apprentice meeting after being estranged for many years, and tensions are high. They’re trading barbs back and forth and we learn stuff about those characters. It’s about the master’s sacrifice for the greater good. Compare that with the fight at the end of The Phantom Menace, which is all about spectacle. The meaning of the battle isn’t much deeper than “There’s a bad guy, lets get ’em!” These characters don’t have any quarrel!

To bring it back to Batman, the TDKR fight was short on spectacle, big on emotion – like A New Hope. BVS was the opposite – like The Phantom Menace.

TDKR posed them as a Lawful-Good (Superman) vs. a Chaotic-Good (Batman). It was simple, but it was an ideological conflict and it made goddamn sense.  Both characters thought that they were right and you could side with either one of them. You really got a feel like this has been bubbling under the surface for decades. It’s always been the difference between the two and now it’s coming to a head. Everyone is going to hell tonight. Not to mention that events like Superman and the nuclear explosion and the resulting nuclear winter serve to depower Superman. In tandem with Batman’s planning, it really puts the two on a believable even footing.

In BVS, they’re not as diametrically opposed. In fact, neither of them has a real philosophy. After Batman’s traps – which I did kind of like – it’s all about the punches and breaking stuff and the spectacle. Here’s the thing though: the spectacle is boring. The visuals in this part of the movie are the second worst (first place goes to the sepia toned fight under the nuclear explosion) in the movie, everything is grey and drab and it just looks blech. The fight is predictable: Kryptonite? Batman’s winning. Kryptonite’s wearing off? Superman’s winning. Kryptonite? Batman’s winning again. It’s like a more tedious version of the terminator fight at the end of T3.

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And then our paths COMPLETELY diverge with the end of the fight. In TDKR, Batman has been repeatedly telling Supes, “Don’t fuck with me, just let me be me.” and the end to this fight perfectly encapsulates that. Batman hits superman with his hard-earned kryptonite weapon (an arrow shot by Oliver Queen). Superman is completely incapacitated and Batman – while beating the shit out of Supes – says, “You’re gonna be fine, but I could have easily made that lethal.” Superman hears Batman’s heart is failing and Batman collapses. At Batman’s funeral, Superman hears Batman’s heart still beating and we flash forward to Batman – having faked his death – in a new Batcave training a new generation of Batmen. “Don’t fuck with me, just let me be me.”

The BVS fight ends with Batman cutting up on Superman’s face with a kryponite spear. Let’s push aside the fact that Batman would never sadistically kill anyone like this, let alone Superman. He would do it quick to the heart or a vital location and then he’d be real sad about it if he absolutely had to kill Superman. But let’s forget about that because we’ve reached the dumbest scene in the movie. Superman says “We have to save Martha”. And this totally knocks Batman off his game and he’s like, “Martha? That’s my mother’s name! How do you know that name?!” And then Lois runs in and says “That’s his mother’s name too!” And now they’re pals and the last two hours of hating eachother just dissolves.

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Then they team up against Doomsday in another boring fight that looks like garbage. Everything is just grimy and sepia. I don’t know why, but it was super apparent in this scene whenever a character turned into a cartoon to do a crazy fight move.

This is where Wonder Woman shows up and everyone says, “Yay!”. I might have enjoyed her, but thanks to Zack Snyder’s tone-deaf music choices (see also: The Watchmen, Sucker Punch), I’m too busy wondering why there’s a guitar riff happening in a movie that’s been exclusively choirs and epic orchestras up to this point. There was kind of a cool moment when everyone comes together and they work as a team and defeat Doomsday. Wonder Woman uses her lasso, Batman uses Kryptonite bombs, and for reasons unknown, Superman wields the kryptonite spear that weakens him just by being close to it.

Unsurprisingly, Superman dies. Equally unsurprisingly – thanks to all the crosses and Jesus imagery – he’s not dead for real. Batman in TDKR came back to life with a purpose. It answered the question “and then what?” succinctly and quietly hinted at another story to come. BVS gave me little reason to wonder or care what Superman might do after his resurrection. I guess he’s going to go around grudgingly helping some more people.

And that’s the movie. It’s a long, boring, confusing slog. It’s longer than Star Wars. If you’re still reading at this point, I urge you, just watch The Dark Knight Returns on Netflix. I realize I spent a lot of time here trying to trace the narrative of BVS and poke holes, and very little of TDKR, but that’s because TDKR is pretty easy to sum up (and watch) and it has relatively few problems. It’s about the same length, and the story naturally feeds into itself and things happen organically. Don’t spend $20 on this 3D imax garbagefest. Don’t spend $20 on the Justice League movie, whenever that happens. Batman V Superman barely set up the world that it lived in, how could it possibly excite me for a next one?