Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice broke me. I attempt to do the same back.
There are two reasons why watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is like being lost at sea. Firstly, it’s just an awful, awful experience. Secondly, you never know exactly where on earth you are – and in most cases, that’s quite literally the case.
Remember the climactic scene of LA Confidential? A dilapidated house, bullets flying everywhere, Russell Crowe shouting a lot? There’s a load of of stuff going on during this shootout, but we always know where our heroes are in the small confined spaces of the area, and what their individual gazes are directed to. How about the terrific doorway action sequence in Monsters, Inc., where not only are Mike and Sully travelling bullet-fast through one setting, but also constantly hopping in and out of a different universe altogether? Again, we never lose track of what’s currently happening, and what has happened – in both movies, you’re always aware of not only the ‘why’ of what the characters are doing, but the ‘where’ too; it’s a crucial element often overlooked in big blockbusters, and the picture always suffers for it. But BvS brings it to down to a whole new level of terrible (I guess because, at this juncture, it probably feels it has to).
Apparently, Metropolis and Gotham – the respective abodes of Superman and Batman – are next to each other on the map, separated by an inexplicable stretch of water. Hindsight would be a fine thing for Man of Steel in this case, seeing as the existence of Gotham was never mentioned during that film – but why not make it less utterly unbelievable in BvS, and merely situate Gotham farther away? Possibly a distance that real cities can be found apart from one another? Any real reason for Metropolis and Gotham’s near-Siamese pairing would make sense if our main characters weren’t one of the following: an alien who can travel to the other side of the planet in moments, or a billionaire with tech so advanced he could probably make the same trip in a similar amount of time. But the true problem here isn’t a side-effect of poorly thought-out town planning; rather, it’s shambolic editing that’s to to blame for BvS’ deeply-rooted incoherence. We jump to and fro from Metropolis to Gotham, and half the time it’s head-scratchingly difficult to ascertain where the blazes we physically are at most points in the story.
Let’s focus on one setting, to nail my argument home (and so I don’t get even more confused). If you asked almost every audience member going to see BvS if Batman’s lair – the Batcave – was situated in Gotham or in Metropolis, chances are that every single one would answer correctly: ‘Gotham’. But I’m of the opinion that movies should work just as well on a desert island: to push our lost-at-sea metaphor even further, if you had been living disconnected from popular culture for a long time – and being stranded on a desert island will do the trick – then a good movie should still work as a standalone story. Sure, bits and pieces wouldn’t work – like customs, fads, catchphrases, references – but if a film is working at its best, i.e. drawing its strengths from character, from story, from craft, then everything you need to know that’s important should still translate.
I know it’s true that sequels have the benefit of an audience who will be already familiar with characters, and by extension, the world of those characters too – but in the good sequels (i.e., good films) then the same desert island rules apply. But Batman v Superman is a completely new take on Batman, and deserves to be introduced properly. In automatically assuming that the audience knows elements from the source material like the Batcave, and Gotham as a city in general, is a tremendous foul-up: essentially, Zack Snyder is mistaking an audience’s cursory knowledge on a subject for godlike omniscience. I like the fact that he’s done away with, or skipped entirely, parts of Batman’s origin – but if we’re shown the death of his parents yet again, why not so much as a quick establishing shot for the Batcave, or even for Gotham?
Delving further still, we’re never even genuinely introduced to the Batcave; we see Bruce Wayne appear from an elevator and walk through the Cave toward his lab area, before a single wide shot allows more of an impression of the overall space – but it’s incredibly brief, and we still have zero idea of where we are location-wise. We’ve also no indication of the actual size of this place, or again, where it is in the world. In a later, explicitly quick shot we realise that the Cave is somewhere beneath Bruce’s modern apartment; now, if we were shown Bruce’s snazzy yet inconspicuous flat at first, and then taken down into the lower levels under the lake to the Batcave, this would have a hugely positive effect on the movie, and on the character of Batman itself. You can see this at work in almost every other cinematic version of Batman. It’s almost crushingly basic stuff, and yet serves unimaginably important purpose to the character of Batman.
But the problems reach deeper still. The scene just before the one set in the Batcave is of the police stumbling on Batman in the middle of detaining some bad guys, and is also a geographical mess as we’re never made explicitly aware that this scene takes place in Gotham: in fact, the only reason we assume it’s set in Gotham is because Batman happens to be there, and going by that logic, we’re not even sure where the Batcave itself is located. Even though years of public knowledge ascertain that the Batcave is a Gotham-centric place, it still exists only in fiction; if we saw the Empire State Building, we’d know for a resolute fact that what we are watching takes place in New York City. But assumption on the audience’s lot is still not enough; basic film grammar insists that our brains read this film just as we would any other, and therefore demands actual visual storytelling to gets it information across, 73 year-old canon be damned.
You know what would be an easy – if lazy – fix? A simple title card. Metropolis has one at the start of the film when ‘Mankind Is Introduced To The Superman’ – why doesn’t Gotham get one too? Kinda seems unfair. All I know is that if I became stranded on a desert island, and a fully-functional TV set, DVD player, and power generator washed ashore, along with a single DVD – a copy of Batman v Superman – I think I’d kick the disc back into the water.
Keep your eyes peeled on Flickreel for the next instalment of Everything Wrong With Batman v Superman. Man, I hate this movie.