Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is looking to offer up what promises to be a rich thematic take on the superhero genre – whether one agrees with that thematic density or not – and it also, of course, represents the first expansion of the stand-alone Man of Steel into the full-fledged DC Extended Universe.
That’s a lot of heavy-lifting on its part, and it’s a lot of material to absorb on the part of the audience. To celebrate both, we thought it would be fun to curate a two-part list, offering up a number of films on each point; use our guide to help get into the narrative mood of what director Zack Snyder is carefully crafting for Batman V Superman, or to serve as a refresher course for what the burgeoning DCEU is all about (you’ll be surprised at how many callbacks to Man of Steel there really are!).
Here, then, is our list of 12 Movies To Watch Before Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
(Oh – while you’re in the primer mood, you might want to also check out our DC Extended Universe Character Guide, which gives you the background on many of the characters that we’re going to be discussing here.)
12 Refresher: Watchmen (2009)
A dark, brooding, nihilistic narrative that explores to what depths humanity can sink, with or without superpowers, and to what questionable lengths “heroes” will go in order to right those wrongs.
Such a description might sound perfectly appropriate for Watchmen, director Zack Snyder’s previous comic book adaptation – and it is – but it’s also equally applicable to the character of Batman (particularly in his more modern iterations, and particularly those penned by famed comic book scribe Frank Miller). It’s no wonder, then, that Snyder would helm both – or that viewing the former would help to prepare oneself for the latter’s tone and overall level of characterization.
But here’s to hoping that Batman V Superman isn’t quite as bleak as Watchmen. When a group of former superheroes – who have been forbidden from taking up their vigilante ways again thanks to governmental intervention (an element we’ll see be picked up in the Bat-mythos, as well, later on down this list) – start getting picked off one by one, the most extreme and repugnant of them all takes up the case, attempting to answer that titular question: who watches the Watchmen?
11 Refresher: Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Meant as a tie-in release to The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight is, essentially, a replay of The Animatrix: six animated shorts, each written and directed by a different creative team and each realized in a different animation style. (Though, unlike its forbearer, several of the installments connect together, inserting an interesting element of serialization.) The overall design and continuity of the direct-to-video release is meant to squarely put it within the confines of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, though this is solely a one-way relationship.
Batman (portrayed by none other than Kevin Conroy, the ubiquitous voice of the character in many of the various animated television series) battles a diverse array of adversaries in Gotham Knight, including some from its quasi-predecessor, Batman Begins, such as the Scarecrow (Corey Burton), and some that won’t get their big-screen debuts until this summer’s Suicide Squad: Killer Croc and Deadshot (Jim Meskimen).
More than providing a sneak peek at future DCEU developments, however, the anthology offers up a tone and style purely complementary to Snyder’s in Batman V Superman, as well as a refreshing variety of interpretations of the Dark Knight himself – a boon, as the newly-arrived cinematic universe will offer one of the most divergent yet.
10 Refresher: Justice League: War (2014)
Another direct-to-video release, this time adapting the six-issue storyline “Origin” in the newly relaunched Justice League monthly comic into animated form (you can read more all about that here).
Here’s the deal: when DC Comics decided to relaunch its entire lineup under the banner of The New 52, it kicked things off with a retooled origin story of the Justice League’s formation, set five years before the current (new) continuity.
In this telling, an alien invasion – ultimately revealed to be the doing of Darkseid (Steven Blum), the being heavily rumored to be the big villain in next year’s Justice League Part I – makes several superpowered individuals meet up for the first time, often to very violent effects. Batman (Jason O’Mara), Green Lantern (Justin Kirk), Superman (Alan Tudyk), and the Flash (Christopher Gorham) only end their fisticuffs when Bruce Wayne manages to convince everyone that they’re better working together as a team instead of facing off against one another. Quickly added to the mix are Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan) and Cyborg (Shemar Moore), completing the nascent Justice League lineup as they learn how to function as a team and repeal Darkseid’s conquest effort.
There is ample room for inspiration on all future DCEU ventures here, most obviously starting with the two-part Justice League movie, but perhaps more strenuously with Batman V Superman, when the superheroes come to blows upon their first encounters with one another and when (most of) the League is assembled for the first time.
9 Refresher: The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)
No, Christopher Nolan’s famous trilogy of films – Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises – has nothing to do with Batman V Superman in terms of plot or character. Still, there looks to be more than just a small debt owed to Nolan’s handling of the character, specifically, and Bat-mythos, generally, in terms of tone, style, and general approach; this is initially apparent when looking at Ben Affleck’s costume or, more especially, his Batmobile, but it also extends a bit deeper, tackling such loaded socio-political questions as surveillance, utilitarianism, compromise, and, but of course, fear.
Beyond all that, however, the latest round of Bat-films offer plenty of enjoyment on their own standing. Yes, the movies still dispense more than their fair share of cheese (Christian Bale’s Bat-voice will go down as a running joke in Hollywood history, for instance), but the sensibility that Nolan at least tried to tackle must be appreciated, and the legacy the movies have already accrued cannot be denied – making them essential viewing for any Bat-fan’s rewatch project prior to the release of BvS.
8 Refresher: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts I and II (2012-2013)
Even more influential than Nolan, however, is famed writer/artist Frank Miller, the man who has arguably made the biggest mark upon the character in his 77 year history.
That mark, of course, mainly consists of the legendary miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, telling the story of a bleak future in which all the superheroes have been banned, Bruce Wayne struggles with retirement (not to mention his old age), and a brand-new, worse-than-ever-before crime wave has hit the streets of Gotham City. It’s not too long before the Batman (Peter Weller) returns to active duty, flouting his totalitarian masters – and it’s not long after that that Superman (Mark Valley) is ordered to bring Bruce down, no matter the cost. The resulting street fight between the two has remained one of the most famous sequences in the annals of comics since it was first published 30 years ago.
It’s easy to see just how Miller’s interpretation of the material has overwhelmingly influenced Zack Snyder and BvS, and that’s even before one takes all of the director’s many admissions of such into account. Ben Affleck’s heavy duty battle suit, the big, hulking monstrosity he dons in order to take on the Man of Steel, is translated directly from the page – along with a number of other iconic character beats, images, and designs.
The two-part direct-to-video animated adaptation (yes, again) also does Miller’s work justice, oftentimes repeating the source material word for word (with the exclusion of certain lines of dialogue that would ruffle too many feathers in a modern audience). If you’ve never read the comic – or if you have and just want to see how it would actually look in motion – this is a movie not to be missed.
7 Refresher: Man of Steel (2013)
This might be the most obvious entry on our refresher list, but it’s also the most necessary one.
It’s easy to forget that Batman V Superman is a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, what with the introduction of most, if not all, of the Justice League members in the latest movie, but that’s precisely what it is: a direction continuation. In Dawn of Justice, audiences get to see how Clark Kent is progressing as both a conforming human being and reporter, just how Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Amy Adams)’s relationship has progressed – they’re already living together and, apparently, sharing the bath tub. Audiences will also get introduced to Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Supes’ most famous foe and already the overarching villain of the DC Expanded Universe.
There’s more. The widespread destruction of Metropolis, humanity’s struggles in either accepting or (violently) rejecting a superpowered alien, and the further exploration of Kryptonian culture and physiology (hello, Kryptonite!) will all be central to the plot, and BvS’s tone and overall aesthetic look to be a direct continuation, as well. Man of Steel's Metropolis-destroying third act looks to be Batman's call to action in BvS, after all.
So, in short: make this the last film you watch before venturing out to movie theaters later this month; with all of the constant references and callbacks, you’ll be glad you did.
6 Thematically similar: I Am Legend (2007)
A lone man stands up to a seemingly superpowered menace that threatens to overwhelm humanity (or, in this case, the very last vestiges of humanity). Our hero is a lonely, wounded individual, hounded by the loss of his family, whose only meaningful emotional connection is through one singular relationship (Sam the dog for I Am Legend; Alfred Pennyworth [Jeremy Irons] for Batman V Superman), is only icing on the thematic cake.
Even better is the so-called “Knightmare” sequence, in which a distraught Bruce Wayne (supposedly) envisions what a world ravaged by the extraterrestrial menace of Superman and his otherworldly cronies would be like. Needless to say, the film has a lot more in common with I Am Legend than one might otherwise initially assume.
What remains to be seen in the similarity between these two pictures is in their endings, in their final pronouncements on their protagonists, though we can already start to draw some conclusions here: whereas Robert Neville (Will Smith) gives his life in order to protect humanity’s last, best chance at surviving and rebuilding, Bruce Wayne will inevitably learn the error of his ways and begin to not only trust Superman, but to make him his ally.
5 Thematically similar: 300 (2007)
300, like Watchmen, is a previous entry on Zack Snyder’s filmography. Unlike Watchmen, however, its connections to what audiences will experience with Batman V Superman are more indirect than direct.
Here’s where the overlap exists: an inferior force defends its home and way of life heroically – if also savagely – to the very last man, proving themselves (at least, in writer/artist Frank Miller’s handling) paragons of man. Given that Miller’s understanding and presentation of Batman is cut from the same exact cloth, it’s hard not to see how watching the one movie won’t help prepare viewers for the other. (And the ample helpings of mythological creatures certainly doesn’t hurt; these are the fantasy brethren to the sci-fi monster Doomsday.)
But there’s also much that doesn’t exactly resonate with Batman V Superman, which places 300 on the thematic end of our list as opposed to the primer one. This, obviously, starts with an ending similar in style to I Am Legend’s, in which self-sacrifice is the only name of the game, but it also extends to the handling of the secondary characters, such as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who fundamentally compromises herself in order to help shore up the cause – and then ends up being just as extreme and violent as the 300 titular Spartans. Lois Lane won’t be doing that to Lex Luthor anytime soon. We hope.
4 Thematically similar: Dark City (1998)
Dark City is a dark, pensive noir story that just so happens to be set in outer space; a surprising and inventive cross of Casablanca and The Twilight Zone. It also has as its protagonist a man who quickly discovers he has superpowers, the only way through which he can combat the ethereal alien occupiers of his city and free the sliver of humanity that now calls the floating patch of real estate home.
Alex Proyas, who directed and co-wrote Dark City, created one of the great visionary films in modern cinema, which has gone on to influence such heavy-hitters as The Matrix and finds thematic offspring in Batman V Superman. Indeed, the questions that the two stories make both their characters and the audience ask are joined at the hip: what is the nature of identity in the face of tragedy, and reality in the face of existential crises? How can individuals let themselves be manhandled by society and manipulated by a shadowy select few? Can we ever overcome our own limitations, both physical and emotional, and create new existences for ourselves, both literally and figuratively?
Dark City may seem like the most unlikely of spiritual cousins to what Warner Bros. is so desperately trying to achieve with its DCEU, but it should be one of the first filmic primers to be queued up.
3 Thematically similar: Rocky (1976)
There is, admittedly, little that either tonally or narratively lends Rocky to the premise or story of Batman V Superman – besides, perhaps, a general, vague theme about the power of an everyday man to make himself, by the sheer force of his will, into the stuff of legend. That’s certainly not to be discounted, but it’s also one of the oldest tales told in Western mythology.
What really makes the film stand out so much, then, is the movie’s third act, the ultimate showdown between street-fighter nobody Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). It is not only, we suspect, the knock-down, drag-out, going-the-distance nature of the fight that will have extension to Bruce Wayne’s face off with Clark Kent, but also the essentially tied nature of the conflict’s resolution. (Okay, yes, technically Apollo was ruled the victor, but the audience knows better, dramatically.) Oh, yeah – there’s also the fact that, after their rematch in Rocky II (1979), the two become lifelong friends, with a respect that can only be forged in the ring.
2 Thematically similar: Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is, thanks to its Chuck Palahniuk-penned source material, all sorts of idiosyncratic, satirical, zany (such as by breaking the fourth wall from to time, including its infamous “flashback humor” line), and, well, demented. There’s no possible way that a big-budgeted summer tentpole release like Batman V Superman will come anywhere close to being anything so irregular, imperfect, or organic.
But what storytelling lessons Zack Snyder seems to have learned from maestro David Fincher, particularly for Dawn of Justice, is the raw energy and chaotic aftermath of conflict, both physical and emotional. Whether it’s Ed Norton brawling with Brad Pitt or Batman dueling with Superman, the narrative revolves around polar opposites in both their personalities and in their archetypal makeups clashing with one another, lending a certain level of mythology to the thoroughly modern, arguably sterile, proceedings.
Much as with Rocky, though, it’s the fights that are in the tonal spotlight. The physicality of the conflicts, the brutal nature of some of their outcomes (we still cringe at Tyler “fighting” Lou [Peter Iacangelo]), and the epiphanies and self-realizations that are literally beaten out of the protagonist all seem to have more than their fair representation within BvS, making this nearly the perfect companion piece.
1 Thematically similar: The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
It all comes down to this: a final showdown between two superpowered titans, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the former Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), as literally the fate of two entire species hangs in the balance. To this day, nearly a decade-and-a-half after its release, The Matrix Revolutions remains one of the most influential depictions of a superhero mix-up; the choreography of the fight, the mix of real stunts and visual effect sequences, and the entire conceptualization of the brawl itself are all some of the best the genre has had to yet offer.
But what might also prove to be influential to Zack Snyder and his handling of the Man of Steel/Dark Knight fight is the Super Burly Brawl’s resolution. Neo realizes, with a little metaphysical nudge from the Oracle (Mary Alice), that there is no way to overcome the suddenly-superpowered Smith. Humanity’s savior, then, opts for a different path – a philosophical and moral supremacy instead of a physical one.
It wouldn’t surprise us at all if Batman and Superman fight one another to a similar standstill, only to have another highly insightful and powerful female figure – this time, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman – come in and help point out the folly of Bruce Wayne’s ways.
Whether accurate or not, the big-screen spectacle of Matrix Revolutions is hard to pass by – or ignore, from a filmmaker’s perspective.
Disagree with our pronouncements? Have your own movies to add to either column? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens on March 25th, 2016, followed by Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016; Wonder Woman on June 23rd, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17th, 2017; The Flash on March 16th, 2018; Aquaman on July 27th, 2018; Shazam on April 5th, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14th, 2019; Cyborg on April 3rd, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19th, 2020.