I watched Batman Vs Superman’s Ultimate Edition so you don’t have to, but you can if you want to.
When I saw Batman Vs. Superman in theatres, I was quite certain it was the worst movie I had ever seen. The thought I kept having was that it compared quite unfavorably to Godzilla — you know, the one with Bryan Cranston that never pretended to be anything other than terrible. I saw that movie in theatres too, and boy it was a flawed film, but it knew its role and played it well by simply being entertaining, first and foremost. BvS was, by comparison, hopelessly lost. It was a 150-minute slog, utterly humorless and borderline blasphemous unto the Batman film lore. Underneath the big flaws were a rash of tiny flaws. It was outwardly irredeemable while being inwardly also irredeemable. That is difficult to achieve, let alone overcome, when your source material is something as solid as Frank Miller’s graphic novels, upon which this Superman-Batman conflict’s canon is based. Director Zach Snyder was credited with essentially taking something lovable at its core, and stripping it of its invulnerability, and then bringing it to a place where it stood no chance of survival. It was like a movie about a vampire who lives on the beach, and is also an asshole to women. Zach Snyder’s movie made it not fun to be a Batman fan anymore, a stunning achievement amid the fervor Batman movies had induced over the previous years with director Christopher Nolan’s vision.
Nolan’s Batman films were outstanding, an achievement in taking something fictional, spinning reality into place around it, and then stirring that world into a flourish and ultimately landing on its feet without becoming corrupted. Batman Begins built a world in which Batman could exist, The Dark Knight brought that world to towering heights with exceptional drama, and The Dark Knight Rises managed to control the chaos that had been introduced to that universe (Heath Ledger’s tragic death) and steer the plot toward something of an amicable ending. Rises is often written off as the worst of the three for simply being overwrought, but its task was the most difficult in that it had to reach a higher pitch than its predecessors, then land all the way back on the ground, whereas Begins and TDK had the option of leaving off mid-ascent (but, largely, didn’t). All three movies were narrative tapestries woven expertly by a visionary director in the prime of his career, and they hit audiences in a prime time. The movies were comic-book fun and also the perfect, sweet-spot response to a cultural moment. Snyder’s Batman film was an Irish Carbomb at the end of a night of martinis. Audiences were forced to chug cream and dark beer though their systems were acclimated to the sleek efficiency of sipping vodka with a dash of vermouth. Predictably, America vomited, and BvS was labeled a colossal setback for a DC comics film collective that had competed neck-and-neck with the Marvel movie juggernaut up until that point.
It’s hard to formulate an argument for pity on behalf of something that so many took as an insult: Batman Vs Superman felt like a money-grab, a near exploitation coming too far into an era of unregulated comic book moviemaking to get away with it. Audiences were accordingly expecting something worth its weight in popcorn, something shallower than the heartfelt Nolan films, that didn’t attempt to earn anything. Instead what they got was a mix of either overdone acting with underdone storytelling or the opposite, depending on the scene. It was like someone who missed the whole point of Nolan’s movies made a sequel to them. BvS was caught between being a continuation of Nolan’s Batman legacy and a forcible departure from it. Nolan was an executive producer for BvS; he probably shouldn’t have been. The timing was also poor, with less time passing between TDKR and BvS than TDKR and TDK. Batman Vs Superman could have benefited greatly from waiting two years and coming out as a response to Donald Trump’s presidency, as The Dark Knight trilogy covered the cultural span between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street.
This much can be said about the failures of Batman Vs. Superman before delving at all into the film itself. I remember watching the movie in theatres. It took all of five minutes of the 2½-hour movie for me to realize it was bizarrely different than what was anticipated. I was captivated by how much the film kept digging down instead of moving forward. It seemed to take forever to get moving, and it was really hard to figure out why Batman and Superman were even mad at each other. Some egregious offenses were committed against Batman’s character, most indefensible being his loss of the moral highground, which runs antithetical to Batman’s very existence. None of this felt earned, either, because over the course of the movie it became clear we were watching a Superman film. How can you bring in Batman to a Superman film and make him so essentially un-Batmanlike? It’s one thing if it’s Bruce Wayne’s movie, and we explore with him as he falls away from his moral code, but he’s relegated to guest performer. To be misrepresented, at that point, feels as though Batman has been appropriated to prop up Superman, and that’s where 90 percent of audiences cut bait. Then, just when we’re realizing beyond a shadow of a doubt that Batman is the villain of this story, the Martha thing happens: Batman, a thrust of a Kryptonite-tipped spear away from murdering Superman, is stopped dead in his tracks when Superman mentions the name of his mother, Martha, which also happens to be the name of Bruce Wayne’s mother, a fact every other storyteller has been decent enough to let slide without joking about, or, you know, using as the crux of their entire narrative. Then they become friends and fight Doomsday, what? The end. Basically. Most walked away from the film stunned at its audacious terribleness. It was a film that managed to simultaneously take itself too seriously and too lightly. Was this a popcorn flick or a cinematic commentary? At the outset it appeared to aspire to both, and in its execution appeared to be neither. It was confusing; it was confused. Critics obliterated it, fans abandoned it, and it became cool to hate it. We agreed to exchange high fives for ripping it apart, and move on with our lives.
So what the hell was going on with it? The project had a clear map, and a sufficient amount of effort put into its production, that it’s difficult to see how the execution wound up missing the mark so badly. Between underdone and overdone, the movie was definitely overdone. Snyder obviously cared very much about the film. It’s just that in doing so, he made some basic oversights. I recently watched the director’s cut edition of BvS and holy cow is it better. It’s incredibly long, but you begin to see what was supposed to happen and why. Here are some core aspects of the movie that need to be understood to watch it without feeling extreme hate.
Batman is 20 years into a career of fighting crime and starting to lose it. He’s pissed off. He’s spent an entire lifetime fighting everyone from petty thugs to criminal masterminds for the sake of justice. He’s made it his hallmark not to kill. He witnesses firsthand the devastation of Superman’s heroics during the events of Man of Steel, the true prequel to this movie, and finds it incongruous that Superman is heralded as a savior given that he is responsible for mass death, even of some of Wayne’s employees. He’s simultaneously angered by this loss of life, and feeling inferior because his methods of leaving everyone alive have made for slow progress. He begins branding criminals as a means of putting a hit on them. As in, for their lives. This premise is acceptable, and actually invigorating, to some Batman fans, but, in this case, underexplained. It’s hard to do that smoothly and in a Superman movie. We never see the moment where Batman crosses the line and breaks his code, we only see him on the other side of it. We also don’t get enough references to Batman’s long, surely exhausting career. We see Robin’s uniform defaced by Joker’s ecstatic scrawlings, but we don’t hear this pain acknowledged by Batman himself, or by his personal feelings translator, Alfred. Obviously a lot has gone into Batman becoming a guy who kills when called to do so; it didn’t just happen. Batman still asserts his moral excellence, despite evidence to the contrary. It paints Batman as this loner with his own moral code that no one else matches up with, needing to achieve an ultimate victory of strength to prove his moral correctness. This is exactly where Frank Miller put Batman, and it was outstanding. Frank Miller also did the damn leg work. The theatrical release doesn’t, but the UE cut does a better job.
Superman, meanwhile, is in the prime of his career and killing the game. Supes just finished off General Zod, is being called a savior, and is experiencing his first counteroffensive stemming from that, courtesy of Lex Luthor. Perhaps Luthor’s strongest aspect as a villain is that he’s operating from a place in which he isn’t necessarily wrong, morally speaking. He considers Superman a threat for the same reasons that Batman does, but his methods of dealing with that issue are different. Where Batman wants to kill him face-to-face, Luthor wants to humiliate Superman, prove either that Clark Kent is no god, or that Luthor himself is capable of killing a god, and he does stuff like kidnap moms to achieve his ends. He and Lois Lane work together at The Daily Planet, and they do cutesy stuff like kiss in the bathtub while one of them is fully dressed, or save the other person from certain death in a war zone in Africa. Clark Kent is on top of the world, only to be brought to his knees by joint murmurings from Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and United States Congress that his method of fighting crime is actually devastating.
Lex Luthor is the bad guy, but Batman is also the bad guy. It’s hard to realize when you’re watching Bruce Wayne save little girls from falling debris at Ground Zero of the battle from Man of Steel that you’re watching a villain’s backstory, but doing so makes his character more understandable. Bruce is really affected by what he sees that day, and not only does he see someone stronger than he is, but he sees someone who is a potential threat to everything, and he doesn’t trust that person without having control over them. Luthor’s angle is actually similar to Batman. He wants power over Superman. In the movie, he is the force that prevents the climax from taking place in the form of a rational discussion. He senses the tension between Batman and Superman, and makes sure it gets cut with a knife and not a conversation. The Doomsday angle is another aspect of the movie that feels rushed, or altogether ridiculous. It’s not that the original version of the movie is unclear about Doomsday’s emergence as it happens, is that these scenes are spliced in where we’re busy watching the tension between Bats and Supes come to a head. This has the effect of slowing down that tension while simultaneously making it hard to care about or pay attention to Lex Luthor’s plot to awaken the monster. So when he’s all of a sudden the big bad guy at the end, it’s really what-the-fucky. In the finished version, you get a little more out of the Doomsday buildup, and aren’t so confused when he emerges. This is also slightly a product of the film’s theatrical length: At 2½ hours, it feels like a long two-act play rather than a reasonable three-act one. Doomsday is the third act. In the theatrical release, that third act isn’t substantiated. In the Ultimate Edition, it isn’t so bad.
Most of the added content is exposition. This is the important thing to understand here. As long as it took for the film to get going, it takes even longer in the Ultimate Edition. You have a longer scene in Africa, and more understanding of why that makes the public question Superman. You have more of Clark Kent investigating Batman, and more understanding of why Superman hates Batman. You have more of Lex Luthor, with enough room for Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal to really take effect. You have a murder that I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the original. Two murders? It’s amazing, in the very long theatrical release, how much stuff was underexplained, and willingly underexplained at that! They had the means to explain it, they just felt uncomfortable releasing a 3-hour superhero movie! Given the sheer force needed to change the series from Nolan’s vision to Snyder’s, 3 hours would have been justified, at least, way more so than leaving holes all over the final cut. Let critics bash the run-time of the film, but preserve the integrity of the movie. Of course, criticism of run-time may have hurt ticket sales more than criticism of the content of the film itself. In fact, the putrid reviews added a degree of intrigue that wouldn’t be there for a movie that netted a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. Damn money grubbers.
Wonder Woman feels the exact same. And that’s simultaneously out-of-nowhere and awesome. At first she happens to be at the same party as Bruce Wayne, also trying to steal the same data, and they meet. He figures her out and pitches her on the Justice League via email (as is canon, I’m sure). Then she makes a reappearance as the film’s only badass. While these boys are playing like children, caught up in their emotions, she comes in, does what needs to be done, and stays cool. She’s refreshing, it’s hard to keep up with what exactly she’s doing there, but who cares, it’s a rare spot of joy in a film most generously describable as having some moments of levity.
The Martha thing doesn’t feel as bad. For some reason, the enlargement of the movie makes that tiny little turnpiece feel more OK. Also, when you see it coming, you try and justify it as it’s built up to. You understand that with Luthor unleashing Doomsday, there is a bigger evil at hand, that this fight between them is a bloody rage, that neither man wants to be in this position, that it’s ego run amok, and any de-hypnotizing tick could bring them to their senses. Again, heading to the theatre for a 2½-hour movie, you’re thinking, must be epic, gratuitous, climactic fight between Batman and Superman. Nope. But, when you watch it in full context, you begin to see the forest for the trees. Is it still dumb? Mmm, sure. But I’m over it.
The movie still isn’t great. It’s still up for debate whether Snyder did the right things with the movie. You can say it wasn’t what you were looking for. It’s still bogged down by slow pacing and a lack of action to keep things moving. Batman still kills people. Superman still passes as Clark Kent. The Martha thing, still. But the amazing thing about the Ultimate Edition is that it salvages the integrity that was so heartily wrecked in the editing room. You can watch the movie and say you didn’t like it, but your reasons why are more like differences in opinions and less like huffing at trying to explain how it was somehow a tangled knot of nothing at all. You also could like the movie, and wouldn’t have to duck in fear of being hit with plot holes and other objective failures of the movie that prove the lunacy of your tastes. It’s a product you can defend, and if you were ready for a dark bog of a film and buttchin-stubble Batman, then more power to you. For me, seeing the Ultimate Edition provided the satisfaction of believing the movie wasn’t as terrible and thoughtless as I had remembered, and made it OK for me to be a Batman fan again.
Ultimately (YUP), every second added to the movie makes it better in some way. You may not agree with Snyder’s approach, but you can at least see the dang thing here. I actually liked it, I guess. I think I also don’t like it, still, but I give it credit for what it was trying to achieve originally. Perhaps Zach Snyder was the hero we needed, just not the one we deserved for the theatrical release. Or maybe the reverse of that? He was the hero we deserved, but we didn’t need him? If we’re being totally honest I’m not sure I actually understand that phrase, even though I’ve been quoting it for years. Maybe it’s that Snyder was the villain we needed and the hero we deserved? Oh, hell.