Film

Zack Snyder v Cinema

WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING IN BATMAN V SUPERMAN?

 

The films of Zack Snyder fascinate me. He has his visual flair, his prolonged dependence on a self-conscious style, the fact that only one of his directorial efforts was based on his own original idea, and most notably his unerring ability to divide his audiences in two.

This last fact was played out hugely with Man of Steel, but that was merely a warm-up for the initial panning, then defensive praising of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And it’s not really a case of either side listening to the other, as those criticising Snyder’s film are only pushing further away from those who love the film, who seem to be doubling down on their ability to find diamonds in the rough.

So I’m interested in this. Interested in how a film and filmmaker who operates in the popular sphere of cinema can cause such a divided reaction. (And yes for every person who loves a film there’s another who doesn’t, but the arguments about Snyder and BvS don’t really seem to be about taste, the rhetoric is dissolving down to who is right and who is wrong, as if either side thinks the other mistaken.)

But before I go into the film itself, a few caveats:

First off, this is in no way a commentary or response to the legacy and background of these characters as they exist in the comics. I don’t really read comics, and so can only consider the films as they come to me, without any preconceived knowledge (cultural white noise of superheroes notwithstanding).

In saying that, I can recognise that certain aspects of these films are not for me. But that’s no reason why I should ignore them. I love films, and I love how film evolves, and ignoring superhero/comic book movies in this all-pervasive time would be tantamount to ignoring all mainstream cinema.

So to that end, when I’m commenting on the film, its plot, and the characters, I am commenting on them as they appear in the film, and as the film itself instructs me to interpret them. I’ve no other way to do so.

(I suppose one could argue that these films are designed to be read as part of a multi-platform, cross-media exposition, and to disregard what is happening in the comics, TV shows and other films is to deprive the fullest experience of any one film. Fine. But if the net result of that design choice is that the film itself sacrifices storytelling and therefore the audience’s experience of the story, then I don’t see this as a growth or evolution in film, but rather a large step backward.

More on that later.)

(Also, spoilers large and small.)

 

1.

To begin with: it’s worth commenting on Snyder’s directorial approach in general. And really, this seems to be both the most Snyder-like film and the least Snyder-like film at the same time. The film is constantly struggling to work out what it wants to be. To clarify: the film is the furthest point along the Snyder continuum we’ve yet reached where it has become painfully obvious he doesn’t know how to convey story through image. He can tell it, sure, and he has his characters do that at length, but talk doesn’t make the story for the audience, and the images don’t support what is being mouthed by his marionettes. But on the other hand, Snyder seems to have abandoned his surety in bombastic tableauxs, his unwavering adherence to slow-motion sequences and locked-camera tapestry. Every now and then he does drift back into this style that, for all its emptiness, at least made his films infinitely watchable. But those moments are few and far between, and saved largely for shots of Superman where he is portrayed as the god so many people keep banging on about during the first half of the film. But here these shots almost come across like pale imitations of his work in Watchmen with the Dr Manhattan character, work which was itself pale imitations of the Alan Moore originals.

And really, the entire first half of the film is at war with itself. It reads almost as if they had no clear idea of how to sequence these scenes and they’ve laid out all the cue cards and just picked them up at random. Some might happen chronologically, but that’s not really indicative of a coherent journey for the audience.

There is no logical connection between scenes that can connect the audience’s comprehension to a larger framework of the narrative. In small moments this can be okay, particularly in opening scenes when out-of-context non sequiturial moments can be paid off later in the story and the audience can fit the piece into the jigsaw. The last two Nolan Batman films did this (think the plane hijack in The Dark Knight Rises), but here these conflicting scenes are largely without context or consequence. And they just continue, for a whole hour or so.

Two moments in particular stand out, not as egregious in the whole scope of the narrative, but more as symptomatic of how Snyder’s film fails to understand story.

The first of which is the hearing where Senator Finch et al are are discussing the fallout from Superman’s supposed slaughter in Africa and his rescuing (again!) of Lois. This potentially has the ability for Jimmy Olsen’s death to register some form of impact on Lois, and other characters, but he’s never mentioned again. Instead we cut immediately to Lois in the bath – naked, it’s worth adding (probably to emphasise her vulnerability? idk) – and Superman comes home to comfort her by jumping in the bath fully clothed, ending in a somewhat lighthearted moment.

Somewhat, because the audience is still reeling from whatever the fuck happened to Jimmy and now that Superman is being blamed for this. Time has passed, but not for the audience, and the emotional throughline is being continued here and we are expecting entirely to be dealing with what we just witnessed, but Snyder instead wants to lay some romantic groundwork. Or something. It shows a complete lack of understanding where the audience is at a given point in time.

Later, Perry White goes to find Clark at his desk, for some reason that probably has to do with putting out a football story when there are far more interesting things happening, and wittily references The Wizard of Oz to suggest Clark’s flown back to Kansas.

Cut to Kansas.

EXCEPT WE DON’T.

Instead it’s to Batman and his dream sequence about Martha and bats or something.

Several scenes later we get Superman at Kansas, in pretty much his only scene with his mother, but any kind of causal connection to the plot that’s been established evaporates, and so to the audience’s connection to the emotional state of the characters.

This is Snyder’s biggest sin. His complete lack of understanding of emotional storytelling. And yet his stories seem full of emotion. But it’s witnessed emotion, not shared. Think of the scene at the end of Man of Steel, the one everybody hated, where Superman kills Zod and then screams in agony. We can see he’s in pain, we can hear him, but we don’t share it. The audience is still picking their jaws up from the wanton carnage around the Kryptonians and wondering why this was the end of the film. Telling the audience to care about a character’s emotion isn’t the same as generating a story where the audience shares in the character’s emotion, because they’ve matched that dramatic journey beat for beat through careful plotting.

(As a comparison, think about The Force Awakens, which suffered from similar storytelling laziness and shortcuts, and yet created memorable characters that seemed universally loved despite the mess of story underneath them. That isn’t by accident. The film managed to successfully convey an emotional arc for all of the major characters, even if the beat-by-beat storytelling was iffy throughout.)

Right at the end of the film, just when we think everything is done and we can go back to our fortresses of solitude safe in the knowledge that another cinematic universe has been bellowed into life, Snyder reminds us once again that he doesn’t know what film he’s making.

Why does he interrupt the funeral scene to show Batman threatening Lex in prison? And then, fresh with Lex’s cackling prophecy ringing in our ears, Snyder dumps us right back into the funeral? One story has been shoehorned into another, and neither work. We either end the film full of portent about the darkness (and grittiness, no doubt) to come, or we end with a lamentation to a fallen god. But both are short-circuited because Snyder can’t choose. Pick either the emotional arc of Superman as our messianic sacrifice, or play out the bombast of setting up DC’s cinematic universe.

And this gets to the heart of why the film’s narrative seems so disjointed and unsure. It doesn’t know what story to tell.

 

2.

Whose film is this?

In theory, this is a sequel to Man of Steel. But Superman, and Clark Kent, disappears from the film for the length of a bible. The film begins with Bruce Wayne, so initially we might assume we’re nominally in his point of view for the story, but he too is forgotten at length, or at least has a character that is played out without consequence.

To be honest, the characterisation is probably worse than the film’s predecessor. There we had a conflicted Superman who didn’t really develop at all over the course of the film. But they at least made vague shadow-puppets about who he was supposed to be as a character, even if those motivations were rather flimsy. In BvS, the film is unclear what Superman’s motivations are at all.

Does he have any? Other than to save Lois, several times? And his mother? (Who he only shares one scene with, but you know, we’re supposed to care about his desperation to save her because he emotes on screen?) He is a hero, because our first main interaction with him is his rescuing of Lois in Africa, and this is played out heroically. How else are we supposed to feel? But the film then posits that everyone hates him (for a good half an hour, before Perry White finally cottons on and thinks the Planet should run a questioning headline), and he does nothing to stop this?

He doesn’t show up at the hearing until it’s too late? He doesn’t clean up the detritus of the wreckage he caused in the last film? He glowers at people he saves? For the first half of the film the only thing we think he wants is to ask questions about Batman, who he’s confusingly opposed to? Later, he clearly wants to save his mother (again, he tells us), but this isn’t really a character-defining motivation, nor an arc for the story. So what does Superman actually want?

He complains that Superman never really existed, and that it was a silly dream of his father, but it seems as if he’s talking about Kevin Costner here, and not Rusty, his actual father who actually dreamed of a Superman leading the Earth toward goodness, whereas Costner was all about letting people die for unclear reasons.

Anyhow, he’s talking about Costner, who’s apparently had another dream despite being dead, because Costner turns up later on a mountain and talks about how hard it is. Again, we get this spoken to us at length, just like we did in Man of Steel, but we never actually see Superman finding it hard to be good. It isn’t dramatised. When he wants to help, he does. And it’s rather easy. Show the fucking story, Snyder.

At the end, when he dies, it’s because ‘this is my world’, but by this stage who the hell knows whether he means Earth, and he wants to save it, or Krypton and he needs to join the Cave Troll in destruction because neither fit on Earth. The moment could be read either way because, again, we have no idea what the character wants.

The other competing hero, Batman, is not too different. Again, he’s a hero for us, because we see how he saves everyone he can at the beginning when destruction is happening around him. He’s the guy that runs toward the disaster. So far, so heroic. But what does he want? To kill Superman? Because why exactly?

I can appreciate that people valued this depiction of Batman, and that Affleck’s performance was generally well-liked, despite the fact that he spends most of his time glowering at screens. At first it seemed like this Batman was a direct continuation of Nolan’s character, but then he proceeds to do really stupid things.

For Batman to get to the point where he wants to kill Superman, he needs to make several inane decisions and remain completely oblivious about any larger connection to his actions. This runs counter to how the character was portrayed in Nolan’s films who seemed to have a constant awareness of the bigger picture (and yes I know I said I was judging the characters on how they appear in this film and only this film but hang on, there’s a point), so Snyder basically gives us a conflict between two heroic characters that can only occur if they continue to make worst-possible decisions at the worst-possible times.

This is the heart of what is wrong with BvS, and some of it predates Snyder’s involvement. His choices as a director only exacerbate the rotten core, rather than amend it. Starting off with two ‘heroic’ characters who then have to be in conflict with one another makes the conflict inert. Neither will defeat the other, and the audience intrinsically knows this, which makes the first two hours of BvS a stolid bore. Furthermore, by allowing us to share both characters POVs, we as the audience become smarter than them, we know more, and their stupidity is exponentially larger.

Imagine just for a minute if this film was solely Superman’s point of view. Firstly, it then has direct continuity with the film that precedes it. Secondly, we can share in his incomprehension of Batman’s actions. Batman becomes a distant figure, one we only glimpse, and therefore can only glimpse his motivations. Superman’s mistaken mistrust of Batman is validated, and suddenly the conflict appears much more organic and understood. When it is revealed that they are fighting the same battle, the characters realise it at the same time we do, and hey presto! we share in their emotions.

But superhero films of late, and Snyder’s films in particular, don’t have this control. If film is just as much about what you don’t show against what you do, then controlled, limited perspective is undoubtedly what might have made BvS a whole heck better. Remember, this is a character who fundamentally doesn’t understand humanity, yet wants to help them and make them better. We can’t empathise with that perspective unless we too are given it. But these films want to have all of the cake and eat every last crumb as well. We have to have more characters, more fan service, more tip offs to later films, more in jokes and references to texts that have no bearing on the text at hand.

Modern, popular, blockbuster filmmaking has become lazy.

And superhero films are to blame. As they’ve grown in prominence, and in box office takings, they’re suffering the fate of amplification. Every film must outdo the last, and now every film must do more than what others have done before. But films have a critical mass, and you can’t just keep stuffing things into them without losing things as the same time. Hence the reason why we get no actual dramatised character development but instead have an endless array of characters discussing who Superman is, who Batman is, what they mean and what they are supposed to do. Endlessly talking about it. The films have no subtext because it’s been excavated and shoved into the mouths of the characters.

And this happens because not only did studios realise they had a ready-made audience for comic book films, with pre-existing fans, but they also realised those fans had pre-existing knowledge of the characters and the plots. Instead of earning character moments, and revelations and resolutions, audiences now do the heavy lifting in their own heads, join the dots to import prior knowledge into a film that doesn’t actually contain that information.

Think: is Jimmy Olsen even named in the film? is Wonder Woman? what is Lex Luthor’s motivation at all? why is there the Knightmare sequence at all in this film? why does the Flash appear in some sort of hallucination to Batman (and not named at all)? why does Wonder Woman choose to get off a plane and fight at the end? (She does verbalise some sort of inner conflict, but that only happens after, and so there’s no dramatic impulse for her to be there at the end.) How does Lex know about Lois and Superman, when all of his choices rely on that knowledge?

The film tells us nothing about these, shows us even less, and the audience is meant to square all those circles in their heads while still trying to make sense of a patchwork plot and unmotivated action sequences that run for an interminable amount of time.

By relying on imported knowledge to tell a story, these films are telling us they don’t actually care about storytelling. All of the other factors are more important, and so far, we reward them for this choice by buying tickets. Expecting Marvel and DC films to suddenly get smarter at storytelling when we give them no incentive to is absurd.

 

3. 

So why do we keep watching these things?

Marvel has at least found a formula that works for them. It’s a low common denominator (not the lowest, but still), where every plot is basically the same with some surface details shifted around but the plot mechanics still pretty much identical from one film to the next. They get by on this functioning plot, likeable characters, and the whole imported knowledge of the audience.

DC should be applauded for trying to embolden directorial vision in their films. Their first problem is that it happened to be Zack Snyder’s vision. But why have so many people doubled down on their belief that the critics are wrong and BvS is legitimately ‘good’ cinema? (And, in a wonderful groundswell of revisionist enterprise, somehow they’ve decided that Man of Steel too was misunderstood and is actually great, you know.) What is good? That people get to see the things they like, even if the language and mechanics of that story don’t work?

I don’t think this is a case, as it was with Man of Steel, that there was a separation between viewers – between those who understood how a blockbuster film should work and those who didn’t. The tangible details, as Film Crit Hulk talks about.

There are fewer ‘good’ tangible details in BvS. It is narratively incoherent, it has no character development, it doesn’t even have a consistent directorial style to fall back on, and yet the resistance to seeing this film for what it is seems stronger.

The problem, I think, is the imported audience themselves. We’ve been given too much, and too often.

Think of Deadpool, a film willed into existence by the audience despite the awful earlier incarnation and the lack of credibility for the lead actor.

Think about how long everyone wanted a film with Batman and Superman in it, how this is a story pretty much born out of a ridiculous fan argument about who would win a fight.

Well, we found out. Nobody wins.

We’re sold on this before we go in, and it’s too much to back out. When a film ostensibly gives us what we want, we can’t suddenly turn around and give it back. We’ll wallow in the muck and say it’s the best darn muck we ever did see, because we made it. We paid for it. And now we have to live with it.

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