It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than ten years since the release of the last Batman movie. Since then, Warner Bros. has developed a cinematic universe that includes not only the DC Comics adaptations but also a fresh new take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The studio has released eight films in this shared universe, and counting. While the films have mostly lived up to our expectations, one particular piece of media has become a true rarity: an original idea that stood out among the rest. This was the case with 1989’s Batman vs Superman, where director Zack Snyder used his clout to present us with something truly unique and special. Inspired by the success of The Dark Knight, the movie follows a daring rescue attempt by our vigilante hero, Bruce Wayne, who takes on the persona of a super-powered being known as the “Man of Steel” in order to save the day. At the same time, Lex Luthor and his army of scientists experiment on animals in order to create their own Superman substitute. The movie is considered an innovative take on the superhero movie genre, and as a result, it’s become something of a cult classic.
Setting The Tone
If you’ve never read the comic book on which the movie is based, you might wonder what exactly happened in the story behind the scenes. The screenplay was written by Sam Hamm, who’s probably best known for his gritty noir films from the 1940s and ’50s. The main difference here is that it’s a comedy. Indeed, while there are dark undertones to be found in the comic book, the filmmakers decided to pack all of the punch without any of the gloom. This is most evident in the opening scene, where a young Bruce Wayne (played by a then-unknown Robert Pattinson) is seen joyfully celebrating Christmas with his parents (played by John Cleese and Valerie Harper). The film then cuts to the present day, where we see Bruce (now played by Ben Affleck) preparing to go to work in a normal office setting. This is a clear indication that Snyder and his team intended for this to be a lighthearted take on the whole superhero genre.
The Rise Of The Anti-hero
It’s a familiar story: a corrupt corporation has decided to capitalize on a newly discovered oil reserve, and they pay off a crooked politician in order to get their way. This politician, however, has plans of his own, and he forms an alliance with a disaffected youth. Together, they battle against injustice and corruption, only to be rejected by the community they’re trying to help. Is it any wonder that people are turning to vigilantism as a solution?
You might not expect to see a lot of heart in a movie about vigilantes, but 1989’s Batman vs. Superman is a shining example of the anti-hero narrative. The filmmakers went to great lengths to humanize these characters, giving us an insight into their struggles. Take Clay Wilson (Robert Pattinson), for example. Born William Blake, he goes by the name Clay because his father named him after a childhood hero, William Blake. Growing up, Clay idolized his father, who was a decorated Naval officer, and followed in his footsteps. It’s only in his twenties that he decides to rebel against his old man, quitting school and going pro. This decision proves to be a huge mistake, as Clay is gunned down within a few days of his decision. After being pronounced dead by the police, his body is discovered by his father, who’s now retired from the force. Distraught, his old man vows to get revenge, and that’s what drives him to become the vigilante known as the Wraith.
It’s a simple, but effective, story device. In a lot of ways, the character of the Wraith is a combination of several anti-heroes rolled into one. He, like Batman and Tony Stark from Ironman, has a mastery of science and technology. However, where those characters solved their problems with gadgets and advanced weaponry, the Wraith instead relies on his wits and his brawn. He’s also a loner who lives in the shadows, emerging only when necessary and vanishing before anyone has a chance to identify him. When he’s brought to justice, it’s usually by a group of similarly minded people, withstanding orders from a higher authority. For instance, after he singlehandedly defeats a group of bank robbers, the government enlists him to help stop a crime wave that has been plaguing the country. It doesn’t hurt that he also possesses a massive body count either. In his first adventure, he shoots and kills seventeen people, including an eight year old child. This naturally leads to his decision to go on the run, and live ever after as a wanted man.
The Dark Knight Returns
As we’ve established, the DC Comics adaptation is quite different from the movie that followed. Batman Forever and Batman Begins, the two previous films in the series, were largely based on graphic novels, the former adapting from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the latter adapting from Batman: The Animated Series. The graphic novels serve as a prequel to the events that took place before the events of Batman vs. Superman, and were published in the early 80s, when Miller was riding a wave of popularity that saw his books turned into graphic novels and adapted for television. In them, Batman is seen as a dark, moody figure who’s struggling with inner demons, a lot like the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
This is the Batman that Zack Snyder and his team wanted to bring to the big screen. In adapting the graphic novels, the filmmakers had to find a way to tone down Miller’s more adult themes and make the film acceptable for younger audiences. One of the ways they did this was by adding a layer of humor into the mix, with Alfred (John Cleese) famously quipping, “Maybe we should put a little more coffee in your mug!” Even the infamous Laughing Mask, a.k.a. the Joker, gets a chuckle out of the audience. What’s more is that many of the jokes land quite unexpectedly, like the one about the coffee mug.
Whether intentional or not, this strategy worked. It wasn’t just about making the film less violent, as Miller’s Dark Knight series is indeed a blood-soaked affair, but more about humanizing the character. Thanks to this new take, the Batman franchise would enter a new era, one where it evolved from a dark character study into a larger-than-life action adventure.
If you’ve never read The Dark Knight Returns, now might be the right time to remedy that. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to get into the spirit of Batman vs. Superman, or for anyone who just wants to have a better understanding of what happened behind the scenes. It would be remiss not to mention that the novel is also quite good, and highly entertaining. One last thing, Alfred’s new nickname, “Butch,” is derived from the character of Batman himself. So if you ask us, it was both funny and fitting.
If you’ve never been a fan of the character, it might seem odd to learn that there was a time when Superman was actually considered a dark character. The original source of this idea is, of course, the movie, Batman vs. Superman. The character was created in the late 1930s as a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, opposing what he saw as the tyranny of the big business owners. He would often disguise himself as a laborer and swoop in to steal from the rich and give to the poor. This was, in part, because he wanted to keep the people of Earth safe from the evils of capitalism, but also because he believed the downtrodden needed help. These beliefs make up the backbone of Superman’s character, and it is clear that director Snyder has drawn upon them. That said, while he still believes in the good of humanity, Superman II’s Lex Luthor is a more sophisticated opponent, and it takes a bit more digging to find his underlying motives. This is why, while we can glean a lot from Batman vs. Superman regarding the character of Superman, it’s not always easy to place into practice.