[Opinion] - Making Batman v Superman Work


In which I attempt to arbitrate this fight, and work to make a brighter dawn.

By now, you’ve probably either seen Batman v Superman: Return to Neverland, or you won’t. Statistically speaking, if you did see it, it was likely you saw it on the opening Thursday, Friday or Saturday and had purchased your ticket in advance of the abysmal reviews. This is backed up by the 55% box office drop from opening Friday to opening Sunday, which is now the record holder for worst day-to-day opening weekend performance ever . Things look even bleaker with a 68% drop in the second weekend box office (if a film has competition, which BvS: Revenge of Jafar did not, a 50-to-60% drop is the norm). In short, it appears that once the hype machine died down and the product was left to speak for itself, the audience largely concurred with the critical consensus: a visually impressive film with an interesting character in Wonder Woman (down mostly to her scant use), but overly long, overly dour, and unfocused.

As has been my tendency, when a film leaves me unimpressed – not necessarily because it is bad, but because it came so close to living up to its potential – my mind begins to wander. Rather than being entertained by the thing I spent money to see, I start seeing “what if’s” dance before my eyes. What if this character’s motivation were clearer? What if this plot device was moved to a different act? What if everything were tighter, untied by an actual theme or thesis rather than the juvenile desire to see a lot of punching? A truly terrible film is often beyond redemption, but a disappointing film shows a sliver of what could have been. In those instances – as I have done for Return of the Jedi, Prometheus, even the entire series Primeval: New World – I organize these “what if’s” and offer an alternative interpretation.

As always, I begin with giving myself rules. Otherwise, I could go mad with power and write down any random thing that comes to mind, and I’m pretty sure that’s how Zack Synder, David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio got us into this mess in the first place. So, rule number one: the film must follow the same basic framework as the movie as it exists. The same characters, a minimally similar plot. This is about highlighting how close they came to telling an enjoyable story, not about throwing everything out and starting from scratch; that’ll be for Warner Bros to do in a few years’ time. Rule number two: the film cannot disregard the events of Man of Steel. This one hurts me. BvS: The Search for Christopher Robin is a boring movie, and an insulting movie, but it isn’t entirely without merit. The merit is just buried beneath massive amounts of adolescence and venial spite. But I capital-H Hate Man of Steel. It is a torturous, sour congealment of bad storytelling. Nothing would make me happier than to disregard it in every possible way, but this is meant to be a cinematic universe, and we can’t just pretend the movies we didn’t like didn’t happen. That takes Bryan Singer and a time travel plot device to pull off. Also, from a writer’s perspective, it is more of a challenge to find a story worth telling born from the womb of the swollen, putrid construction of every bad impulse and “artistic choice.” Or, can I pluck a flower from that turd?

Not really a rule, but perhaps the greatest motivation for me in this is: can this story be told without sacrificing characters who have had established motivations and very clear morals for nearly a century? To me, the whole point of adapting an established character is to see how they would react to any given scenario, but react in a way that is consistent to the character. If you sat down to enjoy a Sherlock Holmes story, and the detective was a lascivious rabble-rouser who made decisions based on gut instinct, you’d likely walk away with a dissatisfied taste in your mouth, because that wouldn’t be a Sherlock Holmes story. That’s literally in-name-only Sherlock Holmes. Consistency of character means that it doesn’t matter if the detective is operating in Victorian London or the 22nd Century, fighting Nazis or played by Robert Downey Jr., is 90 years old or partnered with a Hobbit. The same is true of Superman and Batman, and of any adapted character. What Synder and Goyer and Terrio have done is created a film, and by extension a film series, based around characters who call themselves by these names, but aren’t those characters. They don’t act like them. They don’t react like them. They aren’t consistent with how those characters behave. If you aren’t going to make use of the characters as they broadly exist, then why bother at all?

With that in mind, and keeping in mind that this isn’t a script, and isn’t exhaustive, but more of a Wikipedia-style summary of:

Batman/Superman – the Disgruntled Variation

Open the film to black, with the sound of the World Engine beating down on Metropolis. Continue with a soundtrack of the destruction of Metropolis, garbled through the competing noise of several different news networks reporting on the destruction, and on Superman’s fight with Zod, as the black fades away to show an open grassy knoll. The camera pans up to reveal Wayne Manor, sitting in isolation, far away from the nearest signs of Gotham or any civilization. The manor looks antiquated, almost preserved. The credits begin to roll as the camera pushes in towards the manor, while the destruction of Metropolis continues to play in the soundtrack. Entering the manor, the audience is taken on a roving tour of the house; through the foyer, the kitchen, the various drawing and estate rooms, all empty. None in shambles, no dust accumulated, no sheets drawn over the furniture. This is a house that is kept immaculate, but is never used. It is for show, a museum piece. We enter the library, and push through a false bookshelf into a shaft and are plunged into darkness, with a dull light at the end.

We emerge in the batcave. It is clearly too much to ask for a giant coin and a T-rex, but the batcave is kept in much the same manor as the house above: preserved, but too much space for too little use. The camera takes special care to pan past empty display cases, where once an entire family of suits might have stood, but are now all empty, save one Robin costume, damaged and enshrined. As the credits end, the camera centers on a wall of screens, showing the destruction of Metropolis from every news source and internet site, the source of the soundtrack all this time. A lone figure, silhouetted by the glare, watches. As we move to profile, we see clearly Bruce Wayne as he watches in stoic horror, jaw clenched, brow furrowed. Stepping into view on his far side is Alfred Pennyworth, whose horror is unshielded. They watch, Alfred unable to contain a simple, “dear God.” Bruce offers, “Not a god,” while the camera focus on a central screen, showing Superman. “A man.”

There is no reason to revisit the deaths of the Wayne’s. While that event, yes, informs Bruce’s motivation, his actions in the narrative are a more successful way to express how Batman operates. Wayne’s personal involvement in Metropolis at the start of the film is one of the things that the film does successfully, but I’ve taken a different tact here. Rather than have him take part in the destruction of Metropolis in a minor role, I’ve cast him almost in the role of audience surrogate. Like us, he watched the destruction on a screen, and was shaken by the cavalier loss of life. He feels everything that we the audience felt after Man of Steel came out. He asks the same questions we did, namely, how can Superman be a hero if he destroyed so much, and killed so readily? This opening shot also establishes Batman’s isolation. His home is removed from the Gotham he protects. Likewise, despite its size, it is hollow. Even the batcave shows signs of having once been a fuller place, where a leader operated, not a loner. When we meet him, this Batman is a silhouette cast against a sea of light, a shadow in his own home. Alfred’s presence is as curator of the fa├žade of Bruce Wayne, but also as his anchor to humanity.

One year later; in Africa. A village is being terrorized by a militant group. They are taking food, medical supplies, and small boys. A boom in the sky, and almost instantaneously, Superman lands between the villagers and the assailants. They fire; he’s bullet proof. He receives a command from a military officer to terminate the hostiles. In the wake of Metropolis, Superman has willing allowed himself to become an instrument of the US Military, to show his willingness to work with authority, rather than unilaterally. This is due to massive public distrust and fear. They do not see Superman as a symbol of hope; they see him as an alien no different from the other Kryptonians. This would carry on throughout the film, with both Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne referring to Superman as “the alien,” as a callback to the way Man of Steel adamantly refused to have anyone refer to Superman as Superman, in one of it's many shame-based storytelling choices. Despite his work, Superman’s public image has not improved. He’s still seen as a killer and a monster. Superman’s eyes glow red, and he seems to wrestle with a decision, but in the end he disables their guns, then uses his super speed to disarm and incapacitate them. Turning to the people he just saved, they still cower. He is noticeably dejected.

Taking them to a UN aid camp, the villagers flee, but he explains the situation to the lead aid worker, Diana Prince. Prince, rather than essentially looking out for her own self-interest as she does in the actual film, in this version is the ambassador of peace that her character usually represents. Keeping things about her past ambiguous is fine and fair, but the line in the film where she “lost faith in mankind long ago” is far too bitter for Wonder Woman. Better to have her, out of costume, working one-on-one with people, helping anyone that needs it through whatever methods she can. Since every line of dialogue in a movie is meant to move either a character or the plot forward, their conversation would be something of a confessional, with Superman expressing his disappointment that humans are scared of him, and Prince pointing out that as long as he thinks of them separately as ‘humans,’ how can they trust him? He shoots out of the sky like a meteor, moves faster than they can see, shoots laser beams out of his eyes. They don’t see him as a man, they see him as a weapon, and he sees himself the same way. Looking someone in the eyes goes a long way to helping establish trust, and maybe he should start with himself. There could also be a winky sort of line in here about Superman not being certain why he felt comfortable being so honest with her, and she could replay she brings the truth out in people. You know, fun? That thing that didn’t exist in the finished movie at all.

Back in Metropolis, after some reunion scenes between Clark and the Daily Planet staff, Lois and Clark are sent out to cover the mayor’s dedication of the memorial for the victims of the World Engine. Lois is assigned to cover one of the guests of honour, Lex Luthor, and Clark is assigned the other guest, Bruce Wayne. At the ceremony, some exposition from the mayor would establish that in the aftermath of the destruction, LexCorp and Wane Enterprises were the primary funders of the rebuild, a work still in progress. The goal is to set up Luthor and Wayne as two sides of the same coin. Both are charismatic billionaires who severely distrust Superman. Luthor’s manifests as blatant and unabashed xenophobia – think Donald Trump preaching to the base – which is popular with the masses. Wayne internalizes most of his mistrust, and uses it to motivate his investigation into Superman. Because what every Batman movie forgets is that he is as much The Detective as he is the guy who punches bad guys in the throat. This also establishes the primary dichotomy of the film: Superman is pulled between these two men's ideologies. If he wanted to, he could become the unstoppable instrument of oppression that Luthor paints him as, or he can be the symbol of hope that Batman will eventually recognize him to be.

The character development in Wayne and Luthor’s cases would largely be dependent on two factors. One, evidence. The more Batman learns about Superman, and gets to know him, the more he is swayed that Sups is a force for good. He is also guided by his devil’s advocate, Alfred, who won’t allow Wayne to be overtaken by his darker inclinations. As Wayne threatens to give in to his emotions and write Superman off as a threat, Alfred is the one to talk him down, to see the potential in Superman. For Luthor, it would be the opposite. Confirmation bias means that he twists every action Superman takes into a negative. He sees only the facts that support his case. And he is unquestioned by his bodyguard Mercy Graves, who would only say the line “yes, Lex,” throughout the film, a demented yes-man variation of “I am Groot.” So, Wayne is buffeted by opposition and reasonable debate, Luthor is propped up sycophants. Wayne’s role is an ascent, Luthor’s a descent. But all that would unfold over the length of the film. Right now, we’d learn that both Luthor and Wayne have been using their rebuilding efforts to sift through the rubble and find anything that might give them an advantage. For Lex, this is mostly technological. For Wayne, he has Kryptonite. Both men know the other has something of value, but doesn’t know what. They are both in violation of a Federal order giving the military control over all recovered items, and the military suspects that both men have ulterior motives as well. So, you have Luthor suspecting Wayne, and railing against Superman. You have Wayne suspecting Luthor, and plotting against Superman. And you have the military, commanding Superman, who suspects both billionaires of something shady. Conflict and motivation! And also the meat of the first act: setting up this triangle of intrigue.

The second act would build towards the confrontations between these parties, with Superman and Batman having their out at the end of the second act. Superman would turn to Lois and Martha with his struggle between being a symbol of force or a symbol of peace. Unlike in the finished product, where Superman is told by his loved ones to essentially screw everyone else and do what is best for him; in this version, his family would be supportive and caring and not narcissistic misanthropes. Bruce’s development would come out during his investigation though conversations with Alfred. Maybe Bruce doubts Batman’s future in a world of aliens and forces so much more powerful than a single man. Alfred would remind him that a single man stood against a wave of crime and corruption that threatened to destroy Gotham as assuredly as the World Engine destroyed Metropolis, and won. Bruce looks to the Robin costume and laments that it doesn’t feel like he’s won. Luthor, progressing in his experiments with the alien tech he’s discovered, becomes obsessed with the idea that Wayne has something of value. He fakes evidence to present to the military that Wayne has been hoarding the tech he himself has stolen. The military sends Superman to retrieve this tech from Wayne. When Superman arrives in Gotham, at Wayne Enterprises, he is met by Batman. Batman declares that this is his city, and Superman isn’t welcome. That in twenty years of operating, his city walls are strong, while Superman was in Metropolis for twenty minutes before it became a field of ash. Superman counters that Gotham’s wall are built on a foundation of fear and intimidation. Batman asks how that is any different from how Superman operates. Superman gets a little pissy and demands that Batman get out of his way, Batman says - in his own way - make me. Superman uses his x-ray vision to see under the cowl, and says with surprise, “Bruce Wayne?” Batman leans in, a devilish smirk on his face, and Batman-voice whispers, “Clark Kent.” Because Batman is the cleverest goddamn man on the planet. Then they fight.

But rather than just have this be a fist fight, it should play into both character’s complete power sets: their full strengths and talents. Superman is physically strong, but he’s very conscious of his public perception, and careful to limit damage. Batman, meanwhile, is meticulous and ridiculously prepared. This should, rightly, be a huge set piece, making use of the entire Wayne Tower: elevator shafts, with use of close quarters, flying and grappling. And perhaps most importantly, no actual punching. Superman could kill Batman with a single throw, and Batman’s martial arts wouldn’t even register. So, you have a game of cat and mouse, until it becomes obvious that Batman is leading Superman underground, to a secure location: a kryptonite infused chamber. In the actual film, the moment when Superman realizes he is weakened and that Batman is suddenly stronger than him is probably the best moment of the film. Likewise here, as Superman believes he has Batman cornered, but slowly realizes that he’s getting weaker, Batman uses the opportunity to throw one single punch, laying Superman out. Superman explains that the military only wanted the tech back that Wayne stole, which causes Batman to pause, asking where they got their intel. Superman says Luthor. Batman curses. Luthor used the opportunity of the two heroes distracting one another to launch an assault on Wayne Enterprises and obtain some Kryptonite. The heroes rush to stop them, get into a bit of action, but Superman is still recovering from Kryptonite exposure, and Luthor’s goons get away.

Act three begins with the two having an earnest discussion about motivation, in the batcave. Batman clearly articulates his problems with Superman, and Superman basically cops to all of them. He arrived in the public eye on a wave of destruction, which has buried him ever since, and he’s been trying to dig himself out. This would also be an excellent opportunity to make those oh-so-classic kinds of comparisons about the fundamental differences between them. Batman operates in the dark, by manipulating fear, under a mask. Superman operates in the day, in full view, unmasked. And yet Batman is folk hero that Gotham rallies behind, while people villainize Superman. This is also an excellent point for Batman to note that the decisions he’s made, the tactics he’s used have driven people away, and have gotten people killed. In fact, a nice philosophical discussion about the merits and demerits of deadly force would fit both characters quite well, considering that Batman refrains from killing, and Superman is trying to look like he isn’t a killer. The discussion moves to Luthor, and his motives for setting them against one another. Wayne admits he has no idea what all Luthor has taken from the wreckage, and shows Superman the information he does have. Superman recognizes it as most of the incubation pods/birthing chamber things from Krypton, but that it wouldn’t be any use without a Kyptonian biological sample. He has a terrible epiphany.

Returning to the military, Superman is chastised for failing in his mission to bring Wayne in, and that this is only the most recent in a series of insubordinate actions that could be construed as aggressive action. Superman ignores this, and demands to see Zod’s body. He’s told it is secure, but he demands to see it. The military acquiesces, and takes him to the corpse, which is missing. The military is at a loss, and Superman is angry. Luthor, meanwhile, has been trying to reanimate Zod’s corpse using the Kryptonian chambers, and by using other recovered tech as a control device he manages to create a viable product. In the actual film, they used Doomsday, but honestly, Doomsday is a boring character. He was created out of desperation and gimmickry, and has no personality beyond being the thing that killed Superman that once. I feel there is considerably more emotional potential in Bizarro, at least a Bizarro-like notion. Luthor’s plan is to unleash his Franken-Zod on the world, to rain down terror that he can blame on Superman, and since Superman is the only Kryptonian left, people would believe him. Luthor would leverage this public support into winning military contracts, and now with Kryptonite in his possession, to create anti-Superman weaponry. He unleashes BizZod, and sits back to watch the mayhem.

Batman focuses on Luthor, while Superman goes after BizZod. Batman infiltrates LexCorp, making his way Raid-style to Luthor’s control room, where he is drone-piloting BizZod. An excellent opportunity to showcase Batman’s ruthless efficiency. Superman however, is failing to subdue BizZod, and he’s having flashbacks to their previous confrontation. Wanting to keep any fight away from populated areas proves difficult with Luthor in control. Sups successfully knocks BizZod into the African desert, where he damages the control mechanism. As it appears that BizZod has the upper hand, Wonder Woman appears in full garb and saves Sups. He asks her who she is, and she recalls the “trust someone when you look them in the eye” line from earlier. BizZod takes off, with Sups and Wondie giving chase. Batman arrives in the control room, where Mercy stands guard over Lex. A somewhat protracted fight between them takes place them before she is defeated and Luthor, who has no physical capability, surrenders. Batman attempts to take control of BizZod, but the controls are unresponsive, and he’s coming home. BizZod crashes into the LexCorp building, tearing the place apart looking for Lex, as the malfunctioning controls let some of its self-awareness creep back in. Superman and Wonder Woman arrive and bully-brawl the monster, with Superman ultimately finding himself in the same position he was in with Zod before, hands around his neck and little other choice but to snap it. Batman reappears, telling him that there is another way. Superman worries that there isn’t, but Batman assures him “there is always another way,” revealing the Kryptonite Luther stole, in a lead lined box. Superman starts feeling weak, as does BizZod, and Wonder Woman knocks him out. Batman closes the lid, and offers his hand to Superman, helping him to his feet.

To end: Bruce Wayne, sitting at his bank of computer screens in the batcave. Alfred approaches, likely with food. In the background, the Kryptonite visible in one of the display cases.

Alfred: Everything alright, sir?

Bruce: I think so. Luthor’s awaiting trial. Wayne Enterprises has put in a reasonable offer to his former share holders for control over LexCorp's assets.

Footage of Luthor entering a prison cell, a look on his face that could either be festering anger or self hatred.

Alfred: What about the alien?

Bruce: Superman... is where he needs to be.

Footage of Superman flying low and slow through the streets of Metropolis, with children looking up in wonder.

Alfred: Actually, I was speaking of the other one.

Bruce: In military lock up. Its condition is degenerative, apparently. Luthor’s equipment was designed to produce immediate results, not lasting ones.

Footage of BizZod in a containment cell, looking sickly and weak.

Alfred: And you?

Bruce: (Pause) I’m where I need to be.

Alfred turns as if to leave, but turns back.

Alfred: We’ve been through a lot over the years. And in all that time, I’ve stood by you. Even when I didn’t agree with you. Even when I thought you were losing yourself to the thing you created. So, I hope it is not out of line to say, having stood by and watched, that I’ve always felt Batman was never more effective…

He places a hand on Bruce’s shoulder.

Alfred: Bruce, that you were most effective, when you weren't doing this on your own. When you were part of something bigger.

Bruce: I agree.

In a reversal of the opening shot, the camera starts in profile of Alfred standing behind Bruce, pulling back to reveal the screens playing a range of footage, of Superman flying, of Wonder Woman, of Aquaman, and the Flash, and Cyborg and a bunch of little Easter Eggs of other potential Leaguers (like Nightwing and Batgirl). With Bruce silhouetted by light, we pull back into the cave as it fades to black, the light around Bruce creating a halo that almost looks like a sunrise on the horizon.

Dawn of Justice

And now, it’s time for your thoughts. Comment below, on the Facebook page, or send us a tweet. What would you have changed? Would you have changed anything? What do you think of this version?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

2 comments :

  1. I love your version of Dawn of Justice. It sounds a lot better than the original. Less overstuffed, and more clear in focus and structure. I also enjoy your take on Batman and Superman.

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    1. Really, that's what it's all about: focus. Any writer knows the key to writing a good story is (in order) 1) who are the characters; what makes them behave the way they do, 2) what is happening, and 3) how do the characters react, and is it consistent with number 1? Once you have those three elements, it doesn't matter how complex the story or the characters are, the audience still understands the what because they understand the why. And BvS failed miserably at that. Which, considering Synder and Goyer's record, shouldn't have been surprising, because I honestly don't think they know themselves.

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