Batman v Superman is the highest budget fan-film ever made, with all the awesomeness and problems that come with that. In compressing information, it creates an new style of storytelling. Although it doesn’t totally work, it’s a bold interesting film.
I won’t spoil anything big, but I recommend you read this article after you’ve seen the film. In fact, don’t read anything about Batman v Superman until you’ve seen it. The reviews have not been kind, even spawning internet memes of Ben Affleck’s sad reaction to them. However…
The Reviews Are Wrong
…but not in the way you think.
First, reviews, like all media, are driven by economics. A long insightful critique, like the one one I’m about to share with you, doesn’t drive clicks the way a really savage quote does. People want to see a fight. They’d prefer blood and gods, but they’ll settle for words. The same force that makes us want to see Batman vs. Superman makes us want to see a wimpy critic take the piss out of a multi-million dollar film.
Based on the reviews, I expected Batman v Superman to be a mess. Instead what I found was a very bold swing that doesn’t quite connect – but could have. An experiment. The kind other filmmakers can learn from if they’re willing to take the lessons.
Batman v Superman Invents a New Style of Editing
In a typical film, you see full scenes, beat by beat. Superman sees a child about to die in a fire on the news. He turns from the TV, finds a telephone booth (or whatever the modern equivalent is) and changes. Then you see him fly through the sky. He enters the burning building. The child is scared. He tells her it’ll be okay. The building collapses around them, but he gets her out. He hands her to her mom, and the grateful people thank him.
But this isn’t a typical film. Batman v Superman has a lot of plot points to juggle, and a lot of characters to introduce. It doesn’t have time of a full scene like that – and frankly, we’ve all seen that scene before. The moment we see that kid in a burning building on TV, we know what’s going to happen – so Batman v Superman just cuts to that moment.
Seriously – in Batman v Superman, Clark Kent sees a child in a burning building on TV all the way in Mexico, and the next time we see him he is floating down from the building as Superman holding her safe. All that middle stuff is cut out. Instead of getting a full scene, we get an impression and fill in the blanks.
Except, Batman v Superman doesn’t just give us impressions of scenes. It gives impressions of scenes crosscut. So that Superman-saves-a-child scene is crosscut with Bruce Wayne stealing data from Lexcorp, Lex Luthor giving an awkward speech, and Diana aka Wonder Woman making a mysterious appearance to steal the data Bruce is stealing. Plus, each of those scenes are never shown in full either – we just get impressions of those too.
What Batman v Superman amounts to is a full-on fanboy montage, that assumes you already know these characters and know what is going to happen. And you know what – they’re right.
The Montage Theory of Batman v Superman
The film opens with Batman’s parents being killed. I saw this film at the Alamo Drafthouse, where they were showing Batman and Superman clips before the film. One of the clips they played was a montage from Vulture, showing every version of Batman’s parent’s death. (Watch it yourself here.) We all know that story. Why tell it again?
Well, the film doesn’t. It just gives us an impression of that death, crosscut with a young Bruce Wayne falling down a well. Since the two shots cut together form a new idea, the film creates the impression that this death sends Bruce tumbling into the world of the bat – which is the core of the Batman story.
Where this montage theory fails is when the story becomes complex. Typical films show every beat of a scene for the sake of clarity. If you’re not familiar with the Superman mythos, then cutting from a child in a burning building to Superman carrying the girl out, will raise a lot of questions. How did he get her out of there? Why didn’t they burn up? How did he get all the way to that building in time?
These kind of questions abound in later parts of the film. With each of them, a couple extra moments could have added a world of clarity. As a fan, I can fill some of them in, but others feel like they were just done because it would be cool. Which leads to the real problem…
Fan-service by Fanboys for Fanboys
Many of these montage moment feel like they were done for fan service, not story. The most obvious is Batman’s second dream sequence where Batman imagines a post-apocalyptic future ruled by Superman, and his army of humans and flying insect people (really – I’m told they’re a comic reference).
While the sequence is cool – the kind of thing that would be completely at home in a comic or fan film – you could take this sequence out of Batman v Superman and not lose any story. It’s only there for it’s coolness.
Synder does many of fan service elements throughout the film, and many of them don’t hold up under scrutiny. When you ask “why did the character do that?” the real answer is probably “because it’d be cool.”
If you sent me fan film where Batman leads the rebellion in a world where Superman has gone bad and rules a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’d open the link, but seeing it in the theater I just thought “this should have been a really cool deleted scene.”
Likewise, the changes made from the comic – like having Batman brand his enemies – feel like a fanboy saying “this would be badass!” without really thinking through what each change means for the character.
As a fan, I sympathize. There is a certain joy just seeing these characters appear onscreen. The woman next to me audibly gasped with joy when Wonder Woman appeared onscreen. And I have to admit – even some elements screenwriter in me didn’t think worked, the fan in me still appreciated.
Yet canon is held to a different standard then fan-fiction. Many of the choices in Batman v Superman felt like they were on the right track – they just needed an extra draft or two.
Fixing Through the Unexpected
The good of this montage style is that you compress a lot of story and action into each montage. The bad is that you lose clarity, and create moments that don’t make sense.
I believe Batman v Superman compresses scenes because it assumes the audience already knows what will happen. They’re right, but it raises the question – why include these scenes at all?
A good screenwriter will anticipate how the audience expects a scene will play out, and then delivers in an unexpected way. For example, what if Superman doesn’t save the girl? Then what?
Of course as fans, we’d be mad if that happened. So writers do a triple fake-out. First, you think he’ll save the girl. Then the building collapses! Superman emerges from the rubble. He makes grim eye contact. It doesn’t look good. You think she’s dead. Then a third reveal – he pulls the girl from the rubble. She’s okay!
Three fake-outs – first, you think they’ll make it, then they won’t, then they do. No matter what you expected, there is a moment where you’re shocked and it doesn’t go as expected. If you want an example of this triple fake-out, watch any Joss Whedon show. (The first episode of Agents of Shield does one beat for beat with a potential character death.)
Batman v Superman could have leveraged audience expectations to whip their emotions around and take them on a ride. Instead, it uses those expectations to compress time, while delivering on them exactly as expected.
There is value in this style. It’s almost experimental, like a Guy Maddin film, where all but the best parts of a sequence are edited out, and those “best parts” are delivered on over and over again in money shots. Maybe this rapid montage style is necessary to introduce as many characters as Batman v Superman has.
However, I think if you were to combine this montage style with more traditional scenes, written to surprise audience expectations, you could get something really magical. Where Batman v Superman‘s fails, it fails from daring to greatly. It’s the kind of bold swing, I can respect.