Batman v Superman’s Empty Obsession With Grimness

Like Deadpool and Daredevil, the new Zack Snyder film mistakes bleakness for quality—and the story suffers for it.

Warner Bros.

Jimmy Olsen, the freckle-faced, bow-tie wearing photojournalist, is a well-known member of Superman’s ensemble cast—a bumbling, lovable sidekick who’s always getting into scrapes the hero has to rescue him from. He’s been in basically every cinematic Superman iteration, including Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and yet many viewers may have missed his brief appearance. He’s present in the early scene where Lois Lane interviews a fictional African terrorist and gets double-crossed; her male companion, played by Michael Cassidy, is gunned down and identified as Jimmy Olsen only in the credits. When asked why he felt the need to kill him off within minutes of his appearance, Snyder was ready with an answer. “We don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

There may be no better evidence than the above for the profound mistake Snyder has made with Batman v Superman, intended as a the beginning of a massive franchise for Warner Brothers based on the DC Comics universe. Snyder’s initial plan for Jimmy Olsen was to cast a big-name actor like Jesse Eisenberg, then surprisingly kill him off in his first scene. After meeting with Eisenberg, he instead decided to cast him as Lex Luthor—but otherwise stuck with his plan. For the director, “fun” apparently equals shocking violence and death—so perhaps it’s no surprise that Batman v Superman is such an unrelentingly grim affair. It isn’t the first comic-book property to mistake darkness for quality, but it fails more than its predecessors by not grounding that darkness in anything richer.

The dominating presence of the Punisher in Daredevil’s flawed second season, for example, at least existed as a philosophical counter to the titular hero’s crime-fighting code, a representation of the lines of vigilantism and how easily they can be crossed. The ultra-violence of the box-office smash Deadpool was only part of a whole, a logical element of a film that sought to mock the excesses of comic-book movies in every single way, from needless crossover appearances to convoluted origin stories. Batman v Superman, on the other hand, isn’t in on the joke. Snyder might think there’s something clever in tossing Jimmy Olsen’s body onto the pile of anonymous lives lost throughout the film, but it feels unnecessarily bleak: a spiteful reaction to decades of cheery heroism.

It may not matter from a commercial perspective—Batman v Superman made plenty of money in its opening weekend despite receiving largely negative reviews. But Snyder is being tasked with launching an ongoing series of connected films, aping Marvel’s successful approach over the last eight years. A prominent feature of the Marvel films’ success, starting with the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the original Iron Man, is consistency of tone—there’s snarky humor, frothy romance, and a lovable jackass in each installment, from the sci-fi epic Guardians of the Galaxy to the celestial slog of Thor to the small-scale heist movie Ant-Man. That style has rightly met with complaints of blandness: Even the darker hero vs. hero setup of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War feels low stakes, as if fans know everyone will end up friends again soon enough. But mixing levity into its formula has helped Marvel market its films to a broad audience of youngsters, teenagers, and older viewers nostalgic for their own comic-book collections.

Batman v Superman tilts in the opposite direction. Its Batman, as played by Ben Affleck, is an embittered street warrior, burned out by 20 years of crime-fighting in Gotham and utterly cynical about the future. An opening scene relates Superman’s arrival (in 2013’s Man of Steel, also directed by Snyder) as Bruce Wayne’s 9/11, as he dashes and dodges among the rubble of Metropolis to save his company’s employees while Superman does battle with the villainous Zod in the sky. Batman brands criminals with a hot, bat-shaped iron and barks about Superman needing to be destroyed if there’s even a one percent chance he’s bad. This Bush-era, us-or-them rhetoric might have signaled a fascinating alternate take on an already much-explored character—if only Snyder had any intent on following through (he didn’t). Batman instead learns his lesson by the end of the film and pledges himself to the cause of justice.

Why is Batman so antagonistic and cruel, murdering criminals multiple times throughout the movie? When asked, Snyder referenced Frank Miller’s legendary 1986 comic The Dark Knight Returns, which imagines an older Batman resorting to more brutal methods to keep the peace in a dystopian future, eventually doing battle with Superman (a battle he, it should be noted, loses). Miller’s comic, an undeniable masterwork, was a landmark moment in “grim and gritty” mainstream comics, the same movement that birthed heroes like the Punisher and Deadpool. These characters existed as a reaction to decades of simpler tales about do-gooders. If Snyder is doing the same, pushing back against the sunnier, funnier world of Marvel, he picked an odd film to do it with—Miller was writing about the end of his hero’s life, whereas Snyder’s universe isn’t the dystopian future, but the recognizable present. There are future films to consider here.

Batman v Superman’s subtitle, Dawn of Justice, suggests a bright future, with the legendary Justice League on the horizon. The film has no such optimism. Superman is a distant, stoic figure throughout the film, hated by Batman and much of the world for his seeming invincibility, and wrestling with the question of whether he should even try to fix things on Earth if he’s so despised. He ends the film (spoiler) dead in a coffin, after another cataclysmic battle (this time with a colossal monster named Doomsday). He’s likely to return—the final shot suggests as much—but Dawn of Justice also contains several apocalyptic visions of the future that suggest he could come back as a bad guy.

The only defense of Snyder that makes sense is that he hasn’t made a superhero film at all, but a Randian treatise, where only the strongest can win the audience’s respect while mere acts of heroism amount to nothing. So what if Batman beats up criminals or if Superman rescues innocent survivors from floods and tornadoes? Who cares about the content of their character? The world is unrelentingly evil, and Superman’s only heroic moment comes as he sacrifices himself on that altar, holding chaos back for at least another day.

Despite the unpleasant tone Snyder has set, there’s hope in the upcoming DC properties that will be helmed by other directors. A Wonder Woman film will arrive in 2017, and though she doesn’t get enough to do in Batman v Superman, she’s a welcome presence untainted by everyone else’s unrelenting gloom. Further off into the future, James Wan is slated to make an Aquaman film. The director is known for horror films such as Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, but in an interview Monday he emphasized how crucial humor is to his style as a filmmaker. He said he’s excited to “to actually show a really different, cool, badass side to this character … but at the same time, let’s not forget to have fun with it.” It’s an approach more comic-book movie directors would do well to emulate—at least for the sake of fans.