One of the major announcements coming out of last weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con was news about the sequel to this year’s Man of Steel. They did a little reading from a comic book establishing a conflict between two heroic characters, and then they showed a logo fusing the Superman and Batman symbols (not the logo at left, but a more movie-like rendition). A few days later, the prospective title was announced: Man of Steel 2: Superman vs. Batman.
Reportedly, fans at SDCC went wild with the announcement. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But even if I had been, I don’t think I would have been among those cheering and clapping. This announcement does not thrill me. And I wonder if, in the larger context of movie fans, I’m not alone.
I’ve been thinking for a little bit on just what bothers me about the premise here, and I think I’ve boiled it down to a few key points.
The first is that it feels like it’s pandering to the hardcore fans. Yes, that’s a bad thing. But there’s always been a segment of fans that have said that when Superman and Batman should fight each other when they meet on the big screen for the first time (hard to believe that with each having had movies for more than 20 years this is their first big screen meeting). There are problems with catering to the fans, however. The first problem is that the fans are not a unified whole, and the most vocal segment may not be the same as the majority. Maybe they are, I don’t know, but it’s hard to quantify and so it’s dangerous to assume. For my part, I’ve always been among the segment that didn’t see any reason for them to fight. They’re both heroes, and the “let’s you and him fight” manner of superheroes meeting each other and having a misunderstanding was a tired, pathetic cliche in the comics forty years ago. It’s old hat for anything but the big screen itself, and as for the big screen, I don’t think most movie goers (who vastly outnumber comic book fans even when restricting it to superhero movie viewers) are likely to care. Ask them about a fight between Superman and Batman, and “Why would they fight?” is likely to be the most common question, followed closely by “Wouldn’t Superman just mop the floor with Batman?”
Now, the comic book dialogue quoted at SDCC, and the apparent inspiration for having them fight in the film, is from The Dark Knight Returns, a Frank Miller comic. I’ve seen a few sites claim recently that it’s probably the most recognizable comic storyline to non-comic readers. Putting aside my numerous issues with Miller’s writing, I find this a dubious statement at best… and more importantly, an empty one. Most people who don’t read comics have never heard of it… because they don’t read comics. Say The Dark Knight Returns to most people and they’ll think you mean the latest movie and just got the name wrong. I say this not as an argument against the idea, but more as an argument against using the alleged popularity of “Returns” as a reason.
But the bigger problem with pandering to the hardcore fans is that they don’t want a plot, they want a scene. They don’t know how to turn it into a proper story. And, all too often, the actual writers don’t know how to grant the fans’ wishes in a good story either. It was the vocal hardcore segment of the fans that insisted Venom had to be in the Spider-Man movies, and look how that turned out (mind you, that’s about how well I expected Venom to turn out). I’m not saying a story that includes a fan-favorite character, concept or scene can’t work out well… I’m just saying that the thing should evolve naturally from the story, rather than looking at a fan-favorite concept and saying “OK, here’s our movie.” The marketing that DC Comics and Warner Brothers have done so far indicates the latter approach. Still, catering to the fanbase is probably the smallest issue here. (After all, I’m a fan myself. I can’t very well complain too loudly about the idea of doing what fans want while simultaneously expressing my own views of how things should be. I am merely pointing out pitfalls.)
A bigger problem I have with the idea is how it’ll affect the story itself. As I said, there have been a lot of stories in the comics where one hero has wound up fighting another. What there haven’t been a lot of are good stories with that premise. This is because the premise is rather shaky to begin with; as noted above, why are two heroes fighting to begin with? They’re both good guys, and they’re both pretty obviously good guys. Batman’s not venturing out of Gotham City until he has the situation reasonably under control, and there’s no way Clark “Ace Reporter” Kent isn’t going to have a reliable take on Batman’s character by that time. Meanwhile, Batman isn’t going to mistake Superman for a villain because Batman has more than three functional brain cells. It must be noted that even in The Dark Knight Returns, where the dialogue quoted at SDCC came from, it’s a comic in which Miller had to set things in a distant and alternate future in order to have the fight happen. He had to significantly warp both characters’ personalities, because with the characters as they are in the regular comics, it wouldn’t normally happen.
Yes, Batman often has a scrap of kryptonite on his person “just in case” in comics today. The Dark Knight Returns had a deeply negative effect on the character long term, as the literal insanity of the character from that alternate take was incorporated into the mainstream version for years to come. Batman for many years was portrayed as an extreme paranoiac… though even then he didn’t outright instigate fights with Superman, nor did Superman instigate them with him. And yet, even with that paranoia, the kryptonite ring wasn’t Batman’s idea in the mainstream comics… it was Superman’s. They live in a world where mind control is real, and of course, the existence of one Kryptonian implies the possibility of others, who may not all be benevolent. The irony is that Man of Steel provides a good reason for Batman to make such preparations without having to get him and Superman into a fight, while giving Superman a personality and public persona (“I’m as American as it gets”) that would make him unlikely to start the fight and unlikely to be the target of Batman starting it.
That essentially leaves mind control. But mind control stories are generally pretty iffy to begin with, and do we really want Superman to be out of control of his actions for a significant portion of his own film? (A mind-controlled Batman is no threat to Superman, so it would have to be Superman who was under mind control). Alternately, there could be trickery involved, but it would rely on both characters acting uncharacteristically gullible and impulsive. The writers may surprise me, but I’m not seeing a good story premise here.
Of course, it could be that it’s not really a major part of the story, but just a scene, such as the Thor-Cap-Iron Man fight in The Avengers. But then it’s a dumb title for the film. A dumb title is a much smaller issue, but it would bespeak a carelessness that could lead to problems elsewhere in the story.
The tone this film is probably going to have also concerns me. Superman fighting Batman is a dark concept. When I watched and reviewed Man of Steel, I was concerned about how the darkness of the film didn’t fit Superman very well. I wavered between giving it three or four stars, ultimately giving it four based on it building a solid foundation for future films, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be as dark. If I had known about this announcement at that time, the balance would not have tipped towards four stars. As I had always feared, Warner Brothers appears to have learned the wrong lesson from the success of their Batman films, and concluded that “Dark = Good” when it comes to superhero films. But that is not the case; it is merely the case for Batman films, and not even always then. Dark can be good. It can also be bad. Lightness can be bad. And it can also be good. Superman Returns is a light superhero film, and it is bad. Thor is a light superhero film, and it is good. The Dark Knight is a dark superhero film, and it is good. Ghost Rider is a dark superhero film, and it is bad. But too many fans seem to think dark is always the way to go, and Warner Brothers seems to have joined in that mentality.
I’ve seen more than one person complain that Superman is unrelatable because of how good he is. This always baffled me for several reasons. First is that these people never think of themselves as bad people, so why is a good person unrelatable? Second is that Superman and Captain America both have similar ideals of truth, justice, and the American way, and Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers were both high-quality, successful films. Didn’t bother them with Cap, but it bothers them with Superman? (More likely is that it bothered the same people, but those people, while vocal, aren’t the majority they think they are.) And finally, of course, is the fact that Batman is as much a goody-two shoes as Superman. He’s not about vengeance, and never has been; even in Batman Begins, you see him ultimately reject vengeance against his parents’ killer. He doesn’t go rampaging around trying to track down everybody who might be tangentially responsible for those deaths. No, what you see is that he goes out and tries to prevent further tragedies. He’s about hope. Hope for a better world, as once stated in the comics. The notion that a character showing that hope outwardly, such as Superman does, is somehow bad for movies is just silly to me. Not everything has to take place in the darkness. In fact, it’s bad if everything does; if there’s no contrast, what point is there to a different hero and story in the first place?
But what concerns me most about the whole idea is the way it’s going to set the tone and structure of things to come. Justice League is coming in 2017, just two years after Man of Steel 2. The DC Universe’s biggest heroes will finally be on screen together… and the first thing Warner Brothers is having the two biggest do is fight each other? It’s not an auspicious beginning. I realize it worked all right in The Avengers, but first, does DC really want to ape Marvel to that extent, and second, The Avengers didn’t base an entire movie (or at least its title) on the idea. It sets certain expectations, and it’s not the heroic, awe-inspiring teamwork that the Justice League should be presenting.
Structure-wise, though, there’s a bigger problem than even that. It goes back to the second question asked by our hypothetical non-comic-reader above. “Wouldn’t Superman just mop the floor with Batman?” Yes, he would. No, Bat-fans, don’t give me that crap about “if Batman had enough time to prepare”. If Batman has time to prepare, Superman has the same amount of time to prepare at super-speed. Not that he’d really need to; no amount of preparation could help Batman deal with somebody who could incinerate him from orbit — or do any number of non-lethal things from a great distance. Kryptonite only works up close, which means that it can only help Batman win if Superman agrees to fight on Batman’s terms — which is to say, if Superman lets Batman win (which, incidentally, is essentially what happened in The Dark Knight Returns). Superman even has a recurring villain, Metallo, whose entire modus operandi is attacking Superman with kryptonite in close combat, exactly what Batman does in any scenario when he “wins” a fight with Superman. Superman always beats Metallo. Would he really have a problem with Batman, who isn’t remotely as powerful?
No… except the writers often decide to have Batman win anyway. There’s usually some caveat, such as Superman not behaving intelligently due to mind control. But even in the comics situations where he’s been clear-headed, it’s always Batman outwitting the guy whose brain canonically operates at a genius level at super-speed. And that’s the big concern this fight gives me for Justice League. Either Superman wins, and it’s a boring foregone conclusion, or Batman wins. And if Batman wins, it’s virtually certain to be because the writers downplay Superman’s intelligence to play up Batman’s. And this has been the biggest problem with Batman in Justice League of America comics for decades. Batman is, canonically, the smartest member of the team; it’s his main contribution, since he can’t fly or bench-press tanks. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But smart characters pose an extra difficulty to writers: you have to be at least as smart as they are, or the intelligence isn’t convincing. Batman’s a super genius. Most writers are not. (This is not an insult to writers, far from it. It’s just simple statistics. If being a super genius were common, we wouldn’t call it super genius.) So if the writers usually can’t write at the super genius level, how do they write Batman as being smarter than the rest of the League? By making the rest of the League dumb.
I’ve seen it so many times in Justice League comics that it effectively turned me off from reading more of them. If Batman is a regular member of the League, then the League is not effective without Batman. Batman’s usefulness to the team gets taken to such an extreme that it becomes a “League of One”: Without Batman, they lose; with Batman, they win. This pattern holds true for all too many hack writers, even when the League deals with familiar threats, even when the League is able to cope without other significant members. It’s all about the Batman. It should be about the League as a team. The idea of “Superman vs. Batman” will almost inevitably indicate a willingness to play up Batman’s talents at the expense of other characters (first Superman in his movie, then the others). Justice League doesn’t need that. Batman’s already a big star character; pumping him up more is just going to make the other characters come off poorly, and those are the ones that the film needs to work on making them look good.
I realize all of this is extremely forward-looking. Little has been announced beyond the title of the movie. It’s a lot like trying to make predictions based on signs and portents. But those signs and portents don’t bode well for the type of films that I would like to see.