Batman v Superman v The Dark Knight Returns

Zack Snyder has cited Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as his main source of inspiration for the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Up until its release, as a big fan of Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation, I was excited. Since its opening midnight showing, I have been trying to get my head around Batman v Superman. I have studied the film and the source and after multiple viewings and re-reads of the book, I am still baffled by most aspects of the film and by Snyder’s comments.

“When I read that comic book series, you know, in ‘86 I was floored by it because I felt like it promised me something. It challenged … my fundamental notions about Batman. It sort of inspired me to reconnect with Batman the character and comic book in general. […] I sort of wanted to homage the comic book in this movie as much as possible was to say thank you to Frank for sort of giving me back Batman in a way that I could understand as modern … Even though we don’t follow that story, necessarily, the imagery that I chose to try to emulate in the movie was a way of me saying ‘thank you Frank’ for making my aesthetic.” Zack Snyder  (source http://screenrant.com/batman-v-superman-dark-knight-returns-influence-zack-snyder/)

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I feel like this film, the first ever to feature both Batman and Superman, promised something. The question is, did it deliver? I contacted Batman theorist (author of Batman Unmasked and Hunting the Dark Knight) and Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, Dr. Will Brooker, to see what he thought on the matter. It seemed he agreed that Snyder had indeed missed the point, when it came to The Dark Knight Returns.

“I would say Snyder typically borrows visuals, rather than considering themes or even overall tone. He directly quotes aspects like the pearls in the Wayne murder sequence, the armored Bat-suit and even, for a brief second, Batman’s pose from the cover of DKR, but the movie isn’t an ‘adaptation’ of the graphic novel in any conventional way.

I’m afraid I think Snyder, while adept at copying the look of individual images from comic to cinema, tends to be attracted to things that ‘look cool’ and isn’t as proficient at (or perhaps, interested in) storytelling, character and dialogue. Those things did look cool, so he succeeded in that respect, but while DKR has its problems and can be criticised for its politics, I think it’s a rocking good story with solid characterisation and memorable lines, which I couldn’t say for BvS.” – Dr. Will Brooker (source- BionicFingerFilms)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is essentially The Avengers in reverse. It is a punchline told before a joke, perhaps more accurately, a tower built before its foundations. It is Warner Bros’ attempt to reap the benefits of world-building and character development without putting in the legwork. In contrast, since 2008 Marvel have established their characters on the big screen, easing non-comic book reading viewers into a universe that at first was inhabited by scientists and spies, later working their way up to gods, monsters, raccoons and ants. Warner Bros have jumped the gun, ignoring what that made The Avengers and it’s sequel successful such as character growth and established goals, dishearteningly, all for a quick buck. Due to Marvel’s legwork, comic book properties are mainstream and more profitable than ever, there are enough hardcore fans now for Batman v Superman to, through midnight showings and its opening weekend, make its money and run. Similarly to missing the point of what makes the Marvel films work, Snyder has also misunderstood what makes The Dark Knight Returns a success. 

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The Dark Knight Returns is a comic book mini-series that spanned four issues through 1986, written by the sometimes revered, sometimes deplored Frank Miller and illustrated by Miller with Klaus Janson. When a fifty-five year old Bruce Wayne brings Batman out of retirement due to increasingly frequent and increasingly violent crime waves in Gotham, he comes under fire from the media, the government, old foes and old friends. This Batman is clearly the model for Ben Affleck’s portrayal in Batman v Superman, his aged, battle-scarred attitude brings a dimension to the character previously unseen on the big screen. For many, The Dark Knight Returns is the definitive Batman book and the characteristics Miller imbued the character with are still prevalent in mainstream Batman books and other media. It, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, ushered in the modern age of comics, where stories became increasingly gritty and realistic and characters became darker and more psychologically complex. Through The Dark Knight Returns, Batman was taken seriously again in mainstream culture and was distanced from the campy nature of the 60’s Adam West era, this opened the door for Tim Burton’s Batman film which was released only three years later.

Thematically The Dark Knight Returns’ plot serves to explore: authority, ideology, politics and foreign policy, duality and so much more. Miller contrasts complex characters in situations brought about by socio-political and interpersonal factors whereas in Batman v Superman, aside from loose God v Man imagery and some 9/11 parallels, there isn’t a subtext. Batman v Superman is, in Lex Luthor’s words, ‘The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world’, which equates to two people punching each other for no apparent reason.

So Lex doesn’t like Superman, he fears and envies Superman’s power because he has always believed that knowledge is power, hence devoting his life to learning, yet Superman’s inherent strength disproves his belief? If that is the case, then why must it be Batman that defeats him? My guess is that Lex considers Batman a champion of men and offers him up as our best against a god. I feel that I am clutching at straws, trying to connect the dots myself when in reality Batman’s motivations for repeatedly punching Superman are money, ticket sales and toys. Someone out there will tell me that I just don’t get it and that the movie is going over my head but this is high-concept spectacle cinema aimed at the lowest common denominator, if I don’t understand why the two main characters do the thing that the very title of the film refers to, that is not my fault. It’s the filmmakers.

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Just what was Lex’s plan?

Aside from homaging certain panels from the comic, Snyder fails to emulate what it is that makes The Dark Knight Returns a classic. Regardless of its revolutionary tone, The Dark Knight Returns brought a new literary weight to a medium that was considered, for the most part, one dimensional. Yet this is the dimension Snyder focuses on, superficialities like: a costume, the look of Batman’s armour, a throwaway line or action sequence. Snyder had a chance to ask some real questions and explore the potential depth to superheroes on film, to an extent that even the massively successful Marvel films haven’t. Instead, he never goes further than skin deep. He takes the look of The Dark Knight Returns and applies it to a miserable, empty, obnoxiously long, two and a half hour film. It is hard to fathom why the film is so long when there is so little going on. Snyder has made the same mistake that many Miller-influenced artists and writers did in 90’s, he missed the point. The 90’s were laden with the likes of Marvel’s X-Force and Image’s Spawn, angsty titles that relished in their post-Dark Knight Returns, post-Watchmen moodiness. They were dark for the sake of being dark and like Snyder, learned all the wrong lessons from Miller’s success.

Examples of Snyder’s mimicry are vast when it comes to The Dark Knight Returns, ranging from the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which is identical, to some clearly influenced moments. Some are cool nods and undeniably exciting to see on the big screen and others are bizarre edits to the source. For example one of the TV personalities, an advocate of Batman, in The Dark Knight Returns, responds to an accusation that Batman is psychotic with, ‘You like to use that word for any motive that’s too big for your little mind?’. This is almost word for word repeated by Lex Luthor, after being accused by Lois Lane of the same thing. The thing is, he is not talkng about Batman, he is talking about himself. I imagine Snyder read The Dark Knight Returns and wrote everything he found cool onto a whiteboard to later cram into any part of Batman v Superman, regardless of context. The Wayne’s murder, Superman’s reaction to the nuke and the Robin tribute are great, some of the dialogue too, especially Alfred’s concern for the Wayne family wine cellar. Although surprisingly, the most iconic speech from the book, ‘I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat, I want you to remember the one man who beat you’, is absent. That is not to say that there aren’t some things that are better left out, the less said about Bruno, the  better.

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Not everything in The Dark Knight Returns should be adapted.

In The Dark Knight Returns the fight between Batman and Superman works so well because it is the end of their run, climactic and crescendoing it simmers with resentment brewed through nearly, at the time, thirty years of the Justice League. References to the League remind us of each time their methods and personalities have clashed. In Batman v Superman this fight happens at the beginning of their relationship. The impact is non-existent because we know the Justice League is going to be formed and everybody is going to leave as friends, compared to The Dark Knight Returns, where the JLA has been forcibly disbanded by Superman’s hand. Also, when Batman ‘dies’ we believe it, we believe this is the ‘good death’ he’s been chasing since the opening page and when it turns out to be a ruse we do not feel cheated or angry but have closure, knowing that Batman will continue his work in a larger way that puts him at less risk. When Superman ‘dies’, it is an empty ploy to garner some forced sentimentally, this is obvious to everyone as the film’s title implies that there will, of course, be a sequel. It is also insulting because it takes so very long. The audience is forced to sit through fifteen minutes of funeral scenes for a character we know is not dead. With inevitable resurrection on the horizon, Superman’s death is nothing more than set up for more of Snyder’s Jesus imagery. Although, how this works in regards to the also deceased Clark Kent alter ego is confusing. 

Zack Snyder’s comments declaring his inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns have mainly manifested in attempts to use the comic to defend, when criticised, Batman’s murderous tendencies in Batman v Superman. Generally, Batman’s one rule is what separates him from his villains, without it he is just another tragic, unhinged, costumed serial killer. When his parents died, Bruce Wayne decided to devote his life to making sure that no child ever felt what he did that night. Although, according to Snyder, this rule doesn’t apply to the children of Henchman #3. Each new version of any comic book character will have variations, which is fine, but when fundamental characteristics and rules get tossed out, established worlds can fall apart. For example what comes of The Joker when Batman has such little problem killing generic thugs? How does anyone justify Batman doing anything other than murdering him? Your move, Suicide Squad.

“I perceive it as him not killing directly, but if the bad guy’s are associated with a thing that happens to blow up, [Batman] would say that that’s not really my problem. A little more like manslaughter than murder, although I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time. There’s a scene from the graphic novel where he busts through a wall, takes the guy’s machine gun…I took that little vignette from a scene in The Dark Knight Returns, and at the end of that, he shoots the guy right between the eyes with the machine gun. One shot. Of course, I went to the gas tank, and all of the guys I work with were like, ‘You’ve gotta shoot him in the head’ because they’re all comic book dorks, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy that does that!” Zack Snyder (source- heyuguys.com)

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When Batman shoots the mutant in The Dark Knight Returns, it is admittedly ambiguous due to the decolorisation of the frame and the blood spatter, although it is definitely not ‘right between the eyes’, and when read alongside lines such as, ‘This is the weapon of my enemy. We do not need it, we will not use it’, which is in contrast, rather unambiguous, it becomes even less so. If Batman is okay with killing the generic mutant thug, why not kill them all? It is efficient. If he is okay with killing in The Dark Knight Returns, why bother with the rubber bullets in the Batmobile? Why did The Joker have to snap his own neck? A Batman who is a killer completely nullifies that entire scene. If Batman can kill a generic mutant or thug, why wouldn’t he be able to kill the man who killed his adopted son. Batman simply doesn’t make sense as a character if he kills. Regarding the Joker specifically, I personally like to think Batman couldn’t kill him because he plain loves him; their fight taking place in the Tunnel of Love, Joker’s lip biting, the kissing, the sex references, ‘Darling’, all point to this. In comparison, Batman v Superman is void of any similar level of symbolism or imagery regarding relationships or actions.

Snyder has, in Batman v Superman, ignored relationships, themes, dichotomies and personalities established in The Dark Knight Returns. He has placed all the ingredients of a potential DC expanded universe into a blender and poured the result into Batman shaped moulds . The characters involved work well together in comics and other media due to their differences, these are what make them interesting; so by making everyone a brooding Batman clone, relationships are dissolved and paradigms are shifted, resulting in the fundamentals of what people are drawn to about these characters being lost. Lex Luthor speaks of antithesis’: ’Black and blue, God versus man, day versus night’, yet characters from opposite ends of multiple scales meet in the middle and are blurred into unremarkable, scowling duplicates.

The best part of any JLA comic, Avengers movie or general superhero team up is when they’ve got down time. For example, the party scene in Age of Ultron, where the Avengers and co attempt to lift Thor’s hammer over drinks; an entertaining physical contest that serves to characterise the team through their individual attempts. This scene tells us a lot about each Avenger; Tony Stark is cocksure in his first attempt then upon failing, falls back on his Iron Man armour whereas Steve Rogers doesn’t utter a word and manages to budge the hammer, revealing his modest yet worthy nature. One can only imagine the DC equivalent, the scene opens on the JLA Watchtower, cut to the interior, the Justice League sit around the classic table in the Hall of Justice, arms crossed and sullen, discussing matters of punching.

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In their defence of Man of Steel, many fans clung to the fact that Superman was new, he and Zod destroyed the city because he was new to the job. Well what about now? His contempt for humanity is arguably worse in Batman v Superman than in Man of Steel. When the senate explodes in Batman v Superman, does Superman look for casualties or try to help at all? No, he listlessly floats away. When he totals the Batmobile, does he give a traditional quip like in The Dark Knight Returns when he asks Carrie Kelly, ‘Isn’t this a school night?’. No, it’s more like, ‘The Bat is dead. Bury it. Consider this mercy’. Hopefully, when he resurrects, it will be with a new attitude, even if that wasn’t the original plan, WB seem to write their scripts in a reactionary manner. Therefore, they will bluntly respond to criticisms of this film, with future films; in the same way Batman v Superman attempts to deal with criticisms of Man of Steel, I’m sure the downfalls of Batman v Superman will be addressed in its follow up. Similarly, Suicide Squad is allegedly already undergoing re-shoots to address its overly serious tone, after people complained Batman v Superman was too serious. I’m sure a Suicide Squad sequel will address problems with that film and the film after that will respond to criticisms of that film. WB’s reactionary strategy means they are constantly on the back foot and this makes it hard to get behind them. To compare to Marvel again, Marvel’s vision and execution is clear and direct, whereas DC seem to be in a rush to achieve something that Marvel have meticulously crafted over nearly a decade. One can hope for an actualised, successful incarnation of the Justice League on the big screen, although Snyder himself doesn’t seem to understand what it is Marvel are doing, stating: “I feel like Batman and Superman are transcendent of superhero movies in a way, because they’re Batman and Superman. They’re not just, like, the flavour of the week Ant-Man – not to be mean, but whatever it is.” (source – thedailybeast.com)

The Dark Knight Returns will be remembered and revered for as long as people read comics, Batman v Superman, unfortunately, will fade into obscurity. I would advise anyone to watch the animated version of The Dark Knight Returns over Batman v Superman, or even better, read the book.

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