A day after the Star Wars trailer broke the Internet, the Batman vs. Superman trailer landed with a resounding thunk. It was the nerds who led the disappointment. And it was a sort of scramble to explain exactly why. There were individual components that when described, seemed to be good things, seemed to hearken to the stories we love most. But it lacked the soul to hold it all together, so it was more animated corpse than amalgamation of the best elements of old stories.
But the disappointment was more than just driven by the trailer not being very good, it was driven by the fact that the trailer provided copious evidence that Zack Snyder has completely missed the point of both Batman and Superman. The latter was already in evidence with the dropping of the mythological ball in Man of Steel, but this takes it to an extra level.
Whether they end up being canon in this iteration of the DC Universe or not, the elephant in the room is Nolan’s trilogy, a trilogy that nailed the character of Batman in a way that had never been done on film. So whether you liked the particular stories or implementation told, they still had at their heart a loyalty to the character that made them work. All Snyder had to do was coast on that character concept. Instead we get angry Batman making stupid threats.
Further, every part of that trailer is cut and pasting almost directly from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Remember this exact shot from the trailer?
The difference is that the fight between Batman and Superman in that iconic comic is something that has been earned and long coming. They are two men who have been friends for decades. That scene is loaded with so much pathos and tragedy that it’s almost unbearable despite how inevitable it is in the context of the story. But snagging that visual and having Batman snarl at this flying dude he’s never met? That’s mistaking the gloss for the meaning, the sizzle for the steak.
Zack Snyder thinks about comic books the way that Peter Jackson thinks about Tolkien. All he sees are the battles and the fights and is completely blind to the themes and characterization that make those bouts of violence mean anything. Snyder is taking one of the greatest comic books ever to be printed, swiping the visuals and thinking he’s creating a new version of the story. Batman fighting Superman was never the point of Dark Knight Returns, that was just the genre framework for rendering a battle between ideologies, between two old friends. Take that out and just toss the two characters against each other like a manic seven year old slamming action figures together and you might as well have Batman take shield surfing lessons from Legolas for all the loyalty you have to the story.
And the themes that Snyder is missing really do matter. There is a reason why we keep telling iterations of this same story: because it doesn’t have anything to do with demigods in spandex destroying city blocks. This story is supposed to be one of the tension between working within the law and working without it. Superman has always been about law and order underneath, but not in some trivialized stereotype. Think of it more in terms of Jack McCoy, who will fight to the hilt for the principle that the law matters for its own sake, and if we break it we’re no better than criminals. It’s not that McCoy or Superman are simpletons who only think in black and white, but that they believe that living in the grey area kills morality.
“You always say yes to anyone with a badge or a flag” is how Batman critiques that view. Batman comes from the other side of the system, of the side that has been failed over and over again by the law. And he believes that to fight evil, in a sense you have to become evil. That it does justice no good to follow the rules of a corrupt system. “Sure we’re criminals,” he growls while laughing at the Congressional committee trying to control superheroes, “we’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.”
Snyder setting the two up to be enemies so that they fight? Bullshit. The two are friends, brothers in arms, and that is exactly why their fights matter. They are friends because they are both good, and they both believe in most of the same things. But they believe in mutually exclusive routes to that justice. And they’re both right and they’re both wrong.
Good Batman and Superman stories set it up so that neither of them is right, so that they are both the causes of and solutions to the problems that exist. Snyder has no sense of that nuance, and that trailer really drove home just how little concept he has of these two characters.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.