Picture this: you are writing the next Justice League movie. But you can’t do it alone. So you have Zack Snyder sitting in front of you at a restaurant. Snyder directed “Batman v Superman” – and he’s directing the next Justice League movie. So here’s the the million dollar question (or in this case billion dollar question): what would you do differently in “Batman v Superman” to make Justice League a much smoother picture? (And remember, Zack Snyder is sitting right across from you the whole time.)
Last week I wrote about how to tap into your inner critic to make your writing better. This week, I’m going to show that critiquing in practice – by digging into a movie I have mixed feelings about, “Batman v Superman”. This is going pretty in-depth, so there’s a SPOILER warning in advance.
It’s about two weeks since I saw the movie, and my mind keeps coming back to one pivotal character: Batman. Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader kicks a lot of butt in this movie. We see him beating up, branding and burning criminals alive (I’m not a big fan of that last part). We see him investigating the mysterious White Portuguese in Gotham. And later we see him preparing for the fight of his life – against the Man of Steel himself. Dictionary.com defines a protagonist as “the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or literary work.”
Batman protags the hell out of this movie.
Like Indiana Jones or Han Solo, Batman is a man of action. He’s always moving towards some goal, whether it’s stealing Lex Luthor’s supply of kryptonite or inventing a Batsuit capable of taking on Superman head-on. Wonder Woman is also a force of nature, and though she doesn’t figure prominently in Batman v. Superman’s first two acts (her character shrouded in mystery), she does have a particular goal in mind – reclaiming a picture from Luthor. The proactive drive of both characters throughout the plot makes them among the most interesting and engaging figures in the film.
By comparison, Superman isn’t protaging – instead he is orbiting around the plot. While Batman and Wonder Woman both plunge into a Luthor-centric conspiracy, Superman isn’t really going in any direction. Sure, we see him being Superman, saving people in montage after montage, but we don’t see him moving in any goal, whether its earning the trust of humanity or just making making the world a better place. Perhaps its because Clark Kent is wracked with questions on what and who Superman should be in this modern world.
Now, it should be pointed out that conflict needn’t be external. In fact, internal conflict is one of the best ways to develop a character. And the theme of accountability for the incredibly powerful certainly resonate – since this very theme will also be explored in BvS’ competition, “Captain America: Civil War”. But the problem is the movie prematurely ends this conversation when the Senate hearing on Superman is blown up by a pawn of Luthor’s. By the end of the movie, there is no more conclusion on the nature of Superman – even as the world mourns for his death.
Beyond the characters, the structure of the film presents a key problem. Most stories involve a movement from reaction to action. But “Batman v. Superman” runs in the reverse direction, from the proactive push of Batman to Superman and everyone else being caught up in Lex Luthor’s fiendish plot. (And like Superman, Luthor is another character whose goals are neither established or concluded.) Even though most superhero films usually end with the main characters reacting to the threat presented by their arch-nemesis, the hero usually decides to dramatically confront the villain and the end the threat.
No such decision is ever made by any of the characters (save perhaps Wonder Woman, who is leaving Metropolis when Doomsday attacks). None of the characters make the crucial decision to stand against the villain, leaving the themes of the movie vastly undefined. Instead, they are merely caught reacting to his plan. (The theme of heroes cooperating with one another, doubtlessly important for the upcoming Justice League movie, is also undermined by Superman’s sacrifice, which seems needless when there are two other people capable of wielding a kryptonite spear on the battlefield.)
Ultimately, there are several merits of “Batman v. Superman” to learn from – and several mistakes to avoid. Chief among the merits are that characters are much more compelling in action – which is why Batman and Wonder Woman both appear as breakout characters of the film. On the other hand, “Batman v. Superman” lacks the necessary progression, not only from reaction to action, but also towards a unifying theme, which crucial to any story.
Critiquing can definitely be a valuable learning tool for a writer. While critiquing can highlight the p(l)ot holes to avoid in our own stories, it’s still secondary to the real challenge of the process – writing and creating – and that’s something you can’t do from the backside or the armchair.