Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a film with an awful lot of problems. Now, you could say that about a lot of superhero movies, but not a lot of superhero movies are then re-released with 30 minutes of additional footage, so the existence of Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition has forced many of the film’s naysayers to revisit the motion picture and re-evaluate it. I myself have revisited this motion picture twice within the last 24 hours, and I have been trying desperately to figure out what the heck went wrong, because this half hour of new footage doesn’t seem to have fixed much of anything.
Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition features a few new characters, elaborates on Lex Luthor’s complicated plan, and introduces a scene of Luthor actually talking to another alien species. The sequence in Africa is longer (but it plays out the exact same way) and Bruce Wayne also gets naked. For the most part, the film is largely the same, but longer, and maybe slightly better paced.
The thing is, the problem with Batman v Superman was never that there wasn’t enough of it. The problem – or rather, the fundamental problem – was that it played like a humorless chore. That’s not to say that all superhero movies need wisecracks, but the sort of self-seriousness on display in Batman v Superman is usually reserved for earnest propaganda films about religion or politics. The implication is that nothing on-screen in Batman v Superman is a laughing matter, that all of it is very important, and that filmmaker Zack Snyder is desperately trying to say something.
And even that could have been okay, but it’s very hard to say something when it seems like none of your characters actually stand for anything. As the film plays out, in both versions, Batman and Superman come across as unlikable hypocrites. Batman judges Superman for his selfish abuse of power, while himself murdering criminals left and right, or branding them so they can be shanked later in prison. He has no moral high ground. Meanwhile, Superman judges Batman for inspiring fear through his vigilante actions, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he has done the very same thing and on a global scale.
“Seemingly oblivious” is actually the correct phrasing here, because after watching Batman v Superman several times I think I have finally zeroed in on the one scene that really ruins this entire movie. And it’s not the scene where Jimmy Olsen is unnecessarily shot in the head, and it’s not the scene where Batman and Superman put aside their differences because their mothers coincidentally have the same name.
Actually, it’s a montage.
First, let’s back up a bit. Batman v Superman opens (after a flashback dream sequence) with Bruce Wayne in Metropolis during the climactic events of Man of Steel, trying to actually save people while Superman causes horrific devastation. We witness Bruce Wayne judging Superman for his behavior, and then we cut to 18 months later, when Superman continues to act selfishly and without regard to the consequences of his actions in order to save Lois Lane’s life. He literally says he doesn’t care what happens to other people, because Lois Lane is his priority. That’s not a very Superman-like mentality.
However, it is a mentality that he was supposed to grow out of over the course of Batman v Superman. It just doesn’t play that way. The idea of the film is that Batman and Superman criss-cross each other on their own personal journeys. Batman lets his fear of Superman drive him to behave exactly like the monster he was worried about, and Superman – inspired by testimonials from people his actions have impacted, and even inspired by accusations of hypocrisy from Bruce Wayne himself – begins to accept that if people look up to him as a God, then he has a responsibility to behave benevolently.
This moment comes about 53 minutes into Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition (slightly earlier in the theatrical cut), when Superman realizes that he’s wasting his time at a library fundraiser, while less fortunate people are literally dying. So he immediately leaves and saves who he can, which leads into an extended montage of Superman rescuing astronauts from a disaster, rescuing flood victims and performing many other good deeds in rapid succession.
This is the moment in the film – from a structural perspective – when Superman finally starts acting like Superman. But it doesn’t play that way. Instead it plays like he’s completely failed both humanity and himself, because it’s being presented completely wrong.
Superman’s triumphant moment of self-realization and personal achievement plays out to depressing music while respectable people constantly berate him and say he’s doing a terrible job. Superman is in the midst of becoming an inspirational beacon of hope to humanity during this montage, but instead of allowing that to seem like a good thing, director Zack Snyder intercuts it with lines like: “Human beings have a horrible track record of following people with great power down paths that led to huge human atrocities,” and “To have an individual engaging in these state level interventions should give us all pause.”
To put it another way, imagine if Rocky ended not with celebratory music and Rocky Balboa’s personal satisfaction at “going the distance,” but with an extended montage of sports commentators explaining exactly why Rocky Balboa deserved to lose his fight with Apollo Creed, set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The same plot point would have happened but the audience would have taken away a very different interpretation of the moment, because their emotions were being guided in exactly the wrong direction.
If Batman v Superman‘s montage had played out like Superman was finally and heroically finding himself, the rest of the movie would have still had problems, but the fundamental storyline would have come across. Superman is trying – too late, but trying – to take the moral high ground. He attempts to reach out to Batman to get him to stop his increasingly violent vigilantism. But the damage has been done, Batman is too far gone, and a confrontation is inevitable. Only by forcing Batman to acknowledge their similarities – in an undeniably awkward plot point, since it hinges on a total coincidence (i.e. their mothers have the same name) – are they able to find their common ground and unite for the common good. So when Superman dies at the end of the film, Batman finally realizes he missed his opportunity to be inspired by Superman in life, and he chooses to be inspired by him in death.
And since the film completely glosses over the fact that Superman was supposed to be inspirational in life, none of this otherwise emotionally satisfactory storyline works. Again, Zack Snyder never actually emphasizes that his fledgling Superman ever became a fully-formed, aspirational superhero, so it doesn’t make much sense that he’s treated that way in death. So all of Superman’s interactions with Batman play out entirely from Batman’s perspective, one of mistrust and negative judgment because we have no reason to doubt that Batman was right all along about Superman. Because again, even during a montage where Superman saves people all over the world, Zack Snyder only focuses on how much Superman sucks.
Re-editing one scene from Batman v Superman wouldn’t fix all of the movie’s problems, or even most of them. Lex Luthor’s plan is still unnecessarily complicated and full of holes. (Like, why frame Superman for a crime using bullets you invented, that can literally ONLY be traced back to you?) Lois Lane’s investigation into Lex Luthor’s schemes has no impact on the film except to explain Lex Luthor’s schemes. It’s incredibly easy to lose track of how many people Batman murders. And Superman can find Lois Lane within seconds from anywhere in the world, but he assumes it’s impossible to find his own mom within an hour, only to then later assume that Batman can easily do it in about ten minutes.
And yet, again, re-editing this scene would fix the fundamental problem. The self-seriousness of Batman v Superman would have been more justified because the film would have had a moral stance to take. Batman and Superman would have seemed more heroic because, eventually at least, they would have stood for heroic ideals and the movie itself would have supported them, instead of constantly supporting Lex Luthor’s argument that both Batman and Superman are terrible people.
We’re not going to stop talking about Batman v Superman any time soon. Some people seem to think this new version is a vast improvement on the theatrical cut, and they’re entitled to that opinion, but I strongly disagree. This is a movie that makes serious storytelling mistakes on a foundational level, and I suspect we’re only going to uncover more of them as time goes on. But even if Batman v Superman does prove over the course of time to be the disaster that many of us think it is, at least it’s an interesting disaster, and at least this much scrutiny means that future filmmakers will be able to learn from this film’s missteps.