Ask Chris #330: Batman v Superman v World-Building
A: If you're a longtime ComicsAlliance reader, you might recall that I had very little interest in seeing Batman v Superman, to the point of once stating publicly that the only way you could get me into a theater for that thing would be to give me $750 --- give hundo to see it, two to talk about it after, and then fifty for snacks. A few weeks ago, though, I actually sat down to watch that thing in all its questionable "Ultimate Edition" glory when a podcast with the amazing title of The People v Batman v Superman made a donation to a charity of my choice in order to get me on board.
If you don't have time to listen to the whole thing right now, then just close your eyes and imagine 105 straight minutes of irate screaming. You've pretty much got it.
That movie has Some Problems, friends.
But at the same time, a lot of its more egregious sins came from the way it portrayed its two title characters, along with Lex Luthor and Lois Lane. While its attempts to shoehorning in the rest of the Justice League were certainly bizarre, they also provided the movie with some of the only moments that managed to be more interesting than infuriating. I still don't know what she was doing there or why she was flying on a commercial airline or even how she got onto that plane with one (1) piece of carry-on luggage that somehow contained a superhero costume and a sword, but I'm in agreement with everyone else who saw that movie and thought that Wonder Woman was unquestionably the best part of it.
Even the rest of the League has some interesting parts. I mean there's a part in that movie --- and if you haven't seen the movie, you're 100% going to think I'm making this up --- where the Flash pops out of the friggin' Speed Force in an homage to Crisis on Infinite Earths to deliver vague warnings to Batman, and look. That's not good by any stretch of the imagination, and it has that ring of taking a memorable scene from the comics, divorcing it from any context, and throwing it in there so that people are fooled into thinking it's a smarter movie than it actually is, but I sure as hell wasn't bored while it was happening. Confused, stunned, and sleepy, yes, but never bored.
The biggest problem with how the movie presents characters like the Flash and Aquaman to the viewer, partially because watching Wonder Woman sitting at her computer watching YouTube videos is only slightly less boring than watching anyone who isn't Wonder Woman sit at her computer watching YouTube videos.
Again, you have to take my word on this one if you've managed to dodge the movie this long, but the worst thing about that entire sequence is this weird idea that Lex Luthor is not only responsible for naming the other superheroes, but that he's also had someone go in and do some graphic design work to make sure Aquaman and the Flash have their own logos for these top secret security files that he has for reasons that I still don't know.
I'll admit that I'm not super into the extra short films that a lot of superhero movies include with their home video releases, but I would absolutely watch a five-minute film about the poor dude working at Lexcorp who thinks he's designing action figures and can't figure out why they won't let him give these guys a couple of swords or something. "But kids love swords," he says, wondering why they won't just let him turn Aquaman into a pirate.
But, you know, there is some potential there. If Jason Momoa's Aquaman is anything like Jason Momoa himself answering questions about Aquaman, and doesn't just spend all of his time trying to convince us that Aquaman is actually super cool bad dude that no one should ever make fun of, I honestly think he could be great. And honestly? As presented in the movie, Cyborg's origin story involves a Mother Box and hints at Apokolips in a way that's much easier to be intrigued by than the scenes where Steppenwolf shows up and instructs Lex Luthor on how to turn General Zod's corpse into Doomsday using blood sacrifice and an egg timer.
Again: I am not making any of this up. If that movie was literally any good at all, it would be fascinating just by virtue of how weird it is.
Point being, while the introduction of the League has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie and is presented in a way that makes absolutely no sense, there's not actually a whole lot wrong with it.
The problem is the context.
A superhero team like the Justice League, one that's built from the same kind of disparate pieces as the Justice League that we know from the comics, requires a shared universe where all of those things can coexist in a comprehensible way. Completely apart from its other failings, BvS doesn't really do that. Instead, it just sort of grafts pieces together in a way that never quite makes sense and just sort of hopes it'll work out for the best.
For the record, it does not.
The main problem here --- at least in this particular regard --- is Batman. BvS is meant to be our introduction to this version of Batman, but by the time we're meeting him for the first time, he's been Batman for a while. It's not quite Dark Knight Returns --- although the movie is more than willing to just strip-mine that book and throw it in a blender with the KG-friggin'-Beast in an effort to convince you that you're watching something you already like --- but he's very clearly years into his career as a crime-fighter/spree killer.
He's been Batman long enough to have not only had a Robin, but to have had that Robin die at the hands of the Joker. And again, it is bananas to me that when this movie introduces us to the concept of Robin, it's as something that used to exist. It's past tense from jump street, and by the time we get to the Academy Award-winning Suicide Squad, it gets even weirder with the reveal that Batman's been around long enough to have fought Deadshot and Killer Croc, and that supervillains have been around long enough that we have special prisons to house them.
Don't get me wrong: I actually do think that there's a lot to be said for a mass media superhero story that skips all the origin stories so that we can get right to the adventure. We're at the point now with superhero movies (and TV shows, because it's always worth noting that there's a successful television show out there where the Atom, Firestorm, and a bunch of their friends got to ride around in a time machine fighting Vandal Savage with Hawkman knives) where we just don't need to see it anymore.
With characters like Batman and Spider-Man, the origin is something that we're all pretty much on the same page with already. We don't need to see Thomas and Martha Wayne getting shot in an alley, because we've already seen it. It's not necessary, and I know that because I've seen a shared universe spring up around a version of Batman that doesn't really bother setting everything up with Crime Alley: Batman: The Animated Series.
It is, of course, something that gets mentioned quite a few times over the course of the series, and we definitely see it in Mask of the Phantasm along with a bunch of other flashback stuff, but it's not where that show starts. Batman is, for the most part, already Batman, and so are the villains. With the exception of the Mad Hatter, the Riddler and Two-Face, who gets a few appearances as Harvey Dent to set up his tragic fall, we don't really get a lot of origin stories for the major villains. We might learn who Clock King is and how he came to be, but the Joker is already the Joker by time we meet him, and the same goes for Penguin, Catwoman, Killer Croc, and so on down the line.
Heck, if you want to take it even further back, Batman '66 did the same thing. The murder of the Waynes is mentioned exactly once, in the very first episode, and almost all of Gotham City's arch-criminals are already well into their criminal careers by the time they're biff-bam-powing at the Dynamic Duo.
All except poor Professor William McElroy, that is, but even his dissociative head injuries are presented as a known quantity.
All of which is to say that it can be done, and you can even throw in specific origins as it goes on, because a shared universe always has plenty of reasons to grow and introduce new ideas and concepts.
The problem is that that's not what BvS does. It's not what it does at all.
BvS is not only building off a foundation laid down by an origin story --- Man of Steel --- but it is itself presented as an origin story, which I know because the very first friggin' thing it shows us is Thomas and Martha getting gunned down in Crime Alley. It's just an origin story that wants to skip over everything so that it can get to what it thinks is the cool part.
One of the weirdest quirks of this cinematic universe is that we get get hours of origin story in Man of Steel. We get Krypton, we get Smallville and Pete Ross's weird cusses, we get Pa Kent being a sad sack who gets Twister'd out of existence for no particular reason, and we get Superman wandering around screwing with rednecks and not being Superman until he is thirty-three years old, because why bother showing someone being Superman when you can shoehorn in that Jesus reference you're so proud of?
It's an origin that lasts for the entire movie, and by the end of it, we are at least theoretically ready to see Superman going off and doing some Superman stuff. But that's not what happens. Instead, we get a movie that tells us that the second thing Superman does is fight Batman, and the third thing he does is die.
With Batman, though, we kind of get the opposite, but it's presented in the same way. Instead of hours of origin story, all we know is that his parents got shot, and then the next time we see him he's full on Batman, driving around in his gun-covered murder car and putting on his Renfaire Batman armor to fight Superman, but we're also told that somewhere in between, he had Robin, moved out of Wayne Manor because he was sad, and presumably fought and apprehended Joker, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and Killer Croc.
Then it does something that might even be weirder with Wonder Woman, where we're introduced to her as this fully formed character, only to set up a movie that goes back literally one hundred years to show her origin story for hours. It's so weird.
It's a story structure that I honestly cannot even begin to comprehend. There's connective tissue there that's completely missing, and that connective tissue is where you actually do the work of building a shared universe.
I'm of the mind that there's literally nothing that could've saved that movie, and my suspicion that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have poisoned the well for everything that comes after will probably keep me from seeing the rest of them, but I do think that they could have done a better job building up the Justice League if they had allowed that connective tissue to build instead of just dropping a bunch of blurry .mpegs onto Wonder Woman's laptop.
Honestly, it would have done a lot if they'd brought back Michael Keaton to be Batman, said that this Batman had been around since 1989, and just claimed this whole thing was in continuity with the Tim Burton movies. I mean, it'd be weird as hell, but a) if you've already got one Batman who loves to murder people with his gun car, why bother making another one, and b) this movie's already got Kryptonian blood sacrifice and Crisis references. Would a 65-year-old 5'9" Batman actually be that much weirder?