So I sat down to Batman vs Superman with fair expectation of a continuation of that story and that quality. Decent storytelling, epic set pieces, summer flick fodder. Was I satisfied? Well...it's a tale of two halves, truth be told, but overall I was disappointed.
Now, as always I am going to focus on the story here, which is just well because I feel that this is where Batman vs Superman hinged between success and failure. And for the first hour or so, I was quite happy. Decent pacing, motivations are are a little muddy but at least efforts are made to put them there, and the overall tone, while grim, matches well with the biblical allusions and references to high art to give a sense of gravitas. Not a well-earned gravitas, but a form of it nonetheless.
Batman's motivations are clearer than Superman's, helped in part by Ben Affleck's excellent performance, his first, as the Dark Knight. He certainly comes across as more likable than Bale's iteration while maintaining that all important brooding mood, making him more accessible and sympathetic in the audience's eyes. He's not short of problems in the first half though: the dream/hallucination sequences are hamfisted, and it's really tiresome to see his origin story YET AGAIN. I get that Snyder wanted to approach this movie as if it were the first, but if that's the case then it only makes Batman utterly bewildering, as we jump some 40 years into the future after the death of his parents to see him leaping around a seedy city in a bat suit.
But still, Batman comes off better than Superman. It's frustrating to say that, because this is by all accounts a sequel to Man of Steel so the ball should be in Superman's court when it comes to his own mindset and motivations. Man of Steel even left Batman vs Superman with a solid foundation to build upon. And yet his motivations for taking umbridge with Batman are muddied at best, hypocritical at worst. So Superman doesn't like the way he operates. Two things about that: first, Superman must painfully aware that that's EXACTLY how a lot of people feel about him. Surely he's heard the phrase 'live and let live'? And secondly, Supes' main concern is dealing with the truly evil and helping the little people deal with said evil, with the occasional natural disaster thrown in for good measure. There's a metric ton of those things happening around the world every second. Surely Batman would be a very low priority, then? In that scene alone where Superman basically issues Batman a cease and desist order, he could've been off stopping a robbery, a murder, or suicide. Pedantic, sure, but the main point stands: Batman is the least of Superman's worries. Even Snyder seems to realize this, and ends up checkmating Superman into a forced fight with Batman via Lex's plan, which cheapens the fight between them as it doesn't feel meaningful. Heck, even Lex's speech to Superman before the fight reinforces the feeling that this is a staged, convoluted bout.
But all of that would be forgivable. All of that build up, while rough around the edges, was serviceable and certainly gave the titular battle a sizable fanfare. But the battle still doesn't feel earned, because in terms of the franchise and the DC universe it doesn't feel like they put in fair time and effort for it. Think about it: here we have a rebooted Batman that is a completely new actor to the role. Superman, too, is only one movie deep into his own story. True, these characters have been around for decades, so Batman vs Superman gets a kind of surrogate weight to the battle, but it feels like an echo, a 'what-if?' fantasy rather than feeling real and relevant. That's why Marvel's Civil War works: it's the same characters, the same relationships, the same universe we've seen developing over the past few years, and the conflict really does feel like it's come about naturally. Every punch thrown feels weighty, every verbal assault cuts deep. It's the exact same reason why the duel between Brianne and the Hound in Game of Thrones works: you've seen what makes both characters tick, walked miles together with them, you know what drives them, and you know exactly what led them up to this point. Batman vs Superman barely registers above the cheap thrill of a fan-made Death Battle on YouTube.
But worst of all is the moment we all know, and we all mock, and for good reason: the reason why the fight ends. Superman and Batman have mothers with the same name.
So I'll run the scene back past you just to refresh your memory: Batman has Superman pinned, Kryptonite spear raised, ready to drive it into the weakened Supes and kill him. At the very moment, Superman utters 'Martha'. Batman is thrown for a loop, demanding to know why he said it. Lois Lane walks in, and explains that Martha is the name of Superman's mother. The same name as Batman's mother. Batman falters, yells, throws the spear away. The battle is over. He and Superman are now on the same side.
Even just saying like that makes it sound laughable, like some slapped together fan fiction. It's even more jarring on the screen. Remember that up until this point Batman's motivations were fairly relatable: that he viewed Superman as a threat. Remember his speech to Alfred? That if there was even a one percent chance of Superman turning that he should be eliminated? Pretty solid motivation for the Dark Knight. So why does Superman sharing a mother's name cancel that out? Batman has always been sensitive about his parent's death, sure, but not to the point that it'll switch his view of Superman from The Greatest Threat To Mankind to My New Best Buddy.
The sudden about turn is so sudden, so laughable, so unbelievable, that everything after that point feels significantly worse for it. I mean, BvS succumbs to the typical blockbuster climax of course, but it feels even worse than usual because the protagonist force of Batman and Superman is an empty husk. They even threw in a gratuitous Wonder Woman and a tiresome CGI monster just to make sure any potential this movie has is utterly buried. Remember that timeless pan shot around The Avengers as they stand back to back in the middle of New York? You couldn't help but smile. When you get the 'money shot' of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman standing shoulder to shoulder before a fire, I could only roll my eyes.
So what should've been done differently? Well, frankly there should've been at least one solo Batman movie with Affleck and one more solo Supes movie before this project to give their character development some space to breathe as well as making the set up of the Justice League feel more organic, but let's just assume that we've got just the running time of BvS to do this.
First, you've got to make Batman appear truly, mentally unhinged. Show examples of him becoming distraught at the mere mention of his parents. Batman should lash out at someone who didn't really deserve it, overstep his line as a protector of Gotham. Not only does this give Superman more of a reason to after him but it makes the Martha moment just a little bit more believable.
Second, the way Batman is about to kill Superman should parallel the murder of his parents, except now he is in the position of being the killer. His mother should be killed first so his father's final word is 'Martha' before he too is killed (yes, I know he does say this, but he mutters it: it's got a be a yell, something powerful that sears itself on Bruce's mind). This gives Batman's refusal to go through with killing Supes another reason.
Third, they CANNOT be best buddies. They should be at an uneasy truce at best. All the reasons for hating each other haven't suddenly disappeared after that fight. They recognize a greater evil when they see it, but these two should have unfinished business. Furtive glances at one another. Not helping each other get up when they fall. What you shouldn't do is have, say, Batman single-handedly rescue Superman's mother (as great as that set-piece was) and say "I'm a friend of your son."
This wouldn't fix BvS but it would to some way to addressing some of the problems. There's so much potential in BvS, and sometimes it shines. But it collapses under its own weight of Universe-Building for DC and fumbling the key moment so spectacularly you could swear it was done on purpose. It's a grim world, this world of the Justice League, but then again there is very little to be cheerful about.