(This post contains spoilers for Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.)
The internet has spoken. Purveyors of the ‘Release the Snyder Cut’ hashtag have gotten their way, and the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is imminent. Fans will finally get to see the divisive director’s true vision of how DC’s most powerful heroes join forces to save humanity.
For those unaware, Snyder had to leave the third movie of his planned trilogy after filming finished due to a family tragedy. Warner Brothers tapped Avengers writer and director Joss Whedon to take over, which resulted in a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie.
Snyder and Whedon have vastly different styles in tone and aesthetics. The Justice League that WB released in 2017 was an uneven hodgepodge of ideas panned by critics and fans alike. Reshoots and rewrites doomed the project, and the resulting fallout had the suits at the studio canceling plans for future spinoffs and sequels.
Amongst hardcore Snyder enthusiasts, however, there was always the belief that his vision was never brought to fruition. They were convinced that if given the opportunity, the director would deliver a Justice League that was superior to the one released after Whedon’s meddling. That’s when ‘Release the Snyder Cut’ began trending.
WB finally relented and gave Snyder a reported $70 million to complete the story he began with Man of Steel in 2013. He promises that this release “will be an entirely new thing.” It will be R-rated, four hours long, and released on HBO Max in four installments beginning March 18. The film will also see limited distribution in select theaters.
With this in mind, I decided I would revisit Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I re-watched these films with an open mind and low expectations. I wanted to see if my original criticisms held up or were just clinging to unfair biases.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of Snyder’s films, I admit he is a talented visual storyteller. His films are always beautifully shot, with jaw-dropping action scenes, and he is adept at using imagery as a metaphor. Some of his pictorial analogies can be ham-fisted, but the man has a style and is ambitious. I can appreciate that.
There is a lot to like in Man of Steel. The opening scenes on Krypton are incredible. The emotional weight connecting Jor-El and Lara over their decision is tangible, and the introduction of Zod and his zealousness sets the stage for what’s to come. Russel Crowe and Michael Shannon are perfectly cast and bring gravitas to both roles.
The oil tanker scene when we first meet an adult Clark is also excellent and marvelous to behold, ending with the first of many Superman/Jesus allegories. However, the first misstep of the film is the inclusion of Chris Cornell’s ‘Seasons’. I’m a massive fan of that song, but it takes me right out of the movie each time I watch it. There’s no need for it, and it’s the only occurrence of a popular song in the entire film.
Another fantastic moment is when the bus Clark and his schoolmates are on drives off a bridge and starts sinking into a river. The young Kryptonian saves the day but is told by his adopted father that maybe he should have let everyone drown. This, along with Pa Kent’s death, is problematic.
Traditionally, Jonathan Kent instills a morality of self-sacrifice into his son, and when he dies, Clark learns he can’t always rescue everyone. Snyder (or more appropriately, screenwriter David Goyer) alters this vital lesson and implies that for self-preservation, perhaps he shouldn’t save everyone.
The third act is action-packed and a little messy, but that’s inherent in most sci-fi or comic book movies. One of the criticisms was that Superman had a disregard for the destruction and loss of life that resulted in his fight with Zod and the other Kryptonians. This is somewhat true, but the military was as much to blame as the neophyte superhero for the collateral damage and death. Compared to what would have happened had Zod completed his mission, I think the mayhem that ensued saving the world was acceptable.
I originally had issues with Superman killing Zod, but now I don’t feel as strongly about that inevitable conclusion. Unlike Batman, abstaining from killing has never been a creed of Kal-El’s. Zod clearly states that there’s only one way the fight will end, and that’s by one of them dying. The main question that still nags at me, though, is, how did he do it?
There have been attempts to explain it by saying Kryptonians can hurt each other or that Superman had been on Earth longer, so, therefore, he was stronger, but I’m not buying it. Before that moment, they went toe-to-toe, and there was no indication that Zod was weaker. They were also hitting each other with everything they had, but there was no blood or bruising or vulnerability from internal injuries or breaks. It’s an inconsistency that I can’t look past.
Overall, Man of Steel is a very good movie, even if it’s not the character I recognize entirely. Henry Cavill is a great Superman, and the rest of the cast was superb. It looks great, and despite a few flaws, it’s the best (so far) in Snyder’s vision of the DC universe.
Next up is the absurdly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Serving as a de facto sequel to Man of Steel, Snyder bastardizes two classic comic storylines that force a conflict between DC’s most famous heroes and set up his premise for Justice League. Perhaps it’s unfair to lay the entire blame at Snyder’s feet, as David Goyer and Chris Terrio are credited as the primary screenwriters. Whoever is at fault they don’t do justice to either The Dark Knight Returns or The Death of Superman.
There is a good movie lurking somewhere in the recesses of BvS. After an unnecessary retread of Batman’s origin* (that includes one of those ham-fisted visual allegories), the film begins with how the rest of the world, and Bruce Wayne in particular, witnessed Superman’s battle with Zod. Though the reasons the two heroes clash are flimsy, the actual fight is masterfully shot and choreographed, and each time Diana Prince/Wonder Woman shows up, it is a delight.
*(It was brought to my attention by redditor Mankankosappo that the retread of Batman’s origin was necessary, and I agree. I had originally intended to discuss the whole “Martha” controversy but negected to do so. The retelling of Bruce’s parents being killed and his father’s last words being “Martha” are integral to the story that Snyder is telling. It provides a pathway for Bruce to regain his humanity while recognizing the same trait in Kal-El. Trauma is a core theme in this movie, and the opening scene is vital to that narrative.)
But there are innumerable problems with the plot and characterization. The writing and portrayal of Lex Luthor are laughable. He is a twitchy, neurotic creep with daddy issues who isn’t the least bit intimidating or menacing. To think that this goober could be a threat to Batman or Superman strains the limits of credulity.
The world is also too quick to turn on Superman and believe that he is a cold-blooded killer (though he does pulverize the warlord that is holding Lois hostage) and may have been involved in the Capitol bombing. Bruce Wayne is also easily manipulated. The world’s greatest detective had 18-months to find out the truth about Superman. He should have known he wasn’t a threat, no matter how jaded the Caped Crusader had become over fighting a losing battle against Gotham’s criminals.
In The Dark Knight Returns, the source material Snyder and the writers borrowed from, Superman was a lackey of the government, sent to put down a rogue Batman who was defying a law that prohibited superheroes from fighting crime. In Frank Miller’s masterpiece, the fight between them was unavoidable. And even then, Batman was never going to kill Kal-El. In fact, he faked his death over murdering his former ally to preserve a kind of peace.
This brings me to the oft-repeated point that Batman never kills. (Save the comments that in early issues he did. It has long been considered canon that is the one line he will never cross.) I lost track of the people that he killed in BvS. He crushed people’s skulls, committed vehicular homicide, and even straight-up shot people to death. “A gun is a coward’s weapon.” Guess who said that? Snyder and his apologists can forever defend this choice, but it will never hold water. I don’t care what ‘Elseworld’ story or justification is used. Bruce Wayne/Batman doesn’t kill.
Gotham and Metropolis being just across the harbor from each other is too convenient. Lex’s plan is very convoluted and prone to holes if you look too closely. The inclusion of Doomsday is unnecessary – which makes Superman’s death feel hollow – and would have been better served in another movie. Luthor’s computer files that have video and logos for the as of yet unnamed Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash are only there to set up the next movie.
The main problem with BvS is that it was overly ambitious. Snyder wanted to do too much. It’s almost as if he wanted to put his fingerprints all over The Dark Knight Returns before another filmmaker was allowed to adapt it. If that was the case, why not just jump forward in time and do that movie? As faithful – albeit somewhat flawed – as his adaptation of Watchmen was, he would have nailed TDKR. Instead, he crammed Dawn of Justice with an abundance of a story that neglected the overall narrative, just to set up another movie.
Here’s hoping that his vision of Justice League can right the wrongs of BvS and Whedon’s mishandling of the team-up that some of us have been waiting a lifetime to see. Whatever Snyder delivers, I know it will look incredible, it won’t be boring, and it will give us something to debate for years to come.
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