The DCEU's Batman And Superman Were Confused
Man of Steel chose to follow the example of The Dark Knight Trilogy and go for a grounded, deconstructional idea that would present an approximation of the real world and see how the classic hero could come out of it. This saw iconography changed - the Fortress of Solitude is a crashed Kryptonian ship - and lessons twisted - the two fathers Jor-El and Jonathan Kent were explicitly ideologically opposed - but also pushed Superman into an area of moral conflict. Clark Kent and Kal-El merged into one identity and he was unsure whether to be an ideal or a protector. The film's ending, where he causes mass destruction in a bid to stop an invading Zod, whose neck Superman eventually snaps, attempts to show a clear decision but is marred by the implications.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice extended that, with Clark Kent debating whether he belongs on Earth, struggling with the balance of those close to him and the duty to all humanity. Through all this, though, there hasn't been a clear example of Superman as everybody knows him - every heroic act was delivered with a scowl - until he sacrificed himself at the movie's climax.
Of course, BvS also introduced the other side of the pairing. Ben Affleck's Batman entered an already established world as an antagonist to Superman, which created a lot of hurdles; this was inherently going to be a darker version of the character, and had to do it in a world derived broadly from the previous dark and gritty version of the character. The result seemed to shirk the challenge. Snyder's Batman was a murderer, tossing goons onto grenades and using the Batwing to gun down criminals, and plotting with fervent anger to kill Superman.
They looked like Batman and Superman, but they weren't Batman and Superman. Which made it all the stranger for several constants in their character to remains. Batman doesn't kill Superman because he sees his humanity through memories of his parents' murder, while Superman ends the versus movie having inspired hope in a population that we're told over and over despised him. Were these the classic characters or not?
The Alter-Egos Were Removed Almost Entirely
One of the most underrated influences of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how it gradually eroded the idea of a superhero's alter-ego. Tony Stark declared himself Iron Man at the end of his first outing, but so too did Steve Rogers never hide being Captain America or Thor take up the Donald Blake persona. It's such a low priority for the series that even Peter Parker has his secret identity revealed to Aunt May at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming. It's for the benefit of the universe, streamlining interactions and allowing audiences to identify more directly with the characters, but has also removed it from the wider superhero formula. And this has some startling results when applied to other franchises.
Whereas the mask was central to Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale and Brandon Routh in their respective roles (all their movies had subplots involving them hiding the truth), Henry Cavill's Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman came after the cultural shift, and it shows. Clark Kent is unquestionably the front for Superman, meaning that for all the attempt to ground him, the meek journalist really is just a pair of glasses. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is simply Batman without a mask, not caring for his playboy theatrics and doing most of the Caped Crusader's detective work.
Spider-Man aside, these characters are the two most linked to their everyday personas. The journalist and the billionaire, two people from different worlds with the same secret. In making the personalities of both indistinguishable, and having none of the recognizability that buoyed Tom Holland's Peter Parker, that's lost.
Justice League Destroyed Both
So far, we've exclusively discussed flaws with Snyder's version of Batman and Superman, but while they certainly are important they're hardly the endpoint. That comes with Justice League.
Famously, Warner Bros. was unhappy with Batman v Superman's performance and redirected Justice League. When it became clear Snyder's team-up was still in that vein, they brought in Joss Whedon to pen some plot-streamlining and humor-adding reshoots, with The Avengers filmmaker eventually taking on these directing duties when Snyder stepped away from the project. The resulting film is a Frankenstein's monster, a mishmash of tones as two directing styles wrestle to be coherent. And while it poses problems for the likes of Flash and Cyborg, the heroes it hurt most were Batman and Superman.
Batman is a character-less figure, wandering through the story bringing the team together for plot reasons. The Bruce Wayne mask is gone - by the end of the film, a random burglar, a whole fishing village, and anybody smart enough to figure out why Wayne Manor is suddenly the Hall of Justice knows the truth - along with his hatred of weapons - his backup plan for Superman is nicknamed "the big guns", while he's incapacitated in the final fight because his Parademon blaster runs out of ammo - and any semblance of being the "Dark" Knight: the first words out of his mouth after almost being killed by Supes are "something's definitely bleeding." Whatever Batfleck was before, in this movie he's Clooney-level caricature.
Superman is somehow worse. The reshoots focused heavily on his character, which made for an even more jarring presentation of hope and, noticeably, a digital upper-lip to hide Henry Cavill's Mission: Impossible - Fallout mustache. While this means Superman is more like the Reeve version audiences fondly remember (complete with beats of his score, brought in by Danny Elfman), it's so muddled and at odds, not just with what came before but itself.
Over three movies, you can see the dismantling of everything that made these two characters so enduring while a thin facade of iconography tried to distract you. This was accompanied by a gradual box office decline and sharply increasing audience disinterest. When Marvel Studios just went from strength to strength, the sound the death knell is deafening.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020