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.