Context matters. It is how we understand the world around us. In storytelling context allows the audience and authors to make sense of the drama and story. In criticism, it shapes how we view an object.
Try as I might, the corrosive disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has yet to go away. It’s diminished certainly, however, it remains a perplexing piece. One good thing to come out of it is the discussion about it, and a series of excellent posts from Birth.Movies.Death. Recently, one of their writers noticed a commenter’s point, concerning the similarities between the Superman-Zod fight from Man of Steel, and a throw down between Superman and Captain Marvel in Justice League Unlimited 207 “Clash”. The article points out the visual similarities both fights have theorizing that “Clash” served as inspiration for the climactic battle in Man of Steel. Writer Siddhant Adlakha notes “The real perplexing bit is how it feels like it’s been lifted in a way that completely ignores context”.
I cannot say if this sequence did serve as conscious inspiration for director Zack Snyder. Mr. Adlakha’s statement, however, epitomizes Zack Snyder’s oeuvre, which is most clearly seen in his films Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman. You could potentially add Dawn of the Dead to the list but that breaks the comics related theme the mentioned films share. Snyder has a preference for visual aesthetics, but not the full context they originally existed in. He consistently decontextualizes elements in an attempt to make a reflexive statement, often failing to make one.
Watchmen(film) is a faithful-bordering-on-fetishistic adaptation of the comic of the same name in many regards. On the surface level it’s all there, the plot largely remains intact, save for a smart change to its ending. The director’s cut of the film is a more watchable version but still has a soulless quality too its recreation of artist Dave Gibbons comic panels. Something is lacking in the contextual change from page to screen. The missing element is the formal elements of comic books employed by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons to tell the story of Watchmen. A reciting of the books plot reveals a not all that unique pulpy murder mystery with a dash of alt-history. It was how the creative team used the language of comics to build that alternate world that elevated the work and gave it heart. These include post-modern elements such as including Nite Owl I, Hollis Mason’s biography, and comic Tales of the Black Freighter in the margins of each chapter. Along with the general formal ticks of comic books. Watchmen in totality becomes more a comic book about comics and how they function than a traditional narrative. In the adaptive process the majority of these formal elements could not be translated to screen, leaving Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse the base plots and themes but without the tools that told them well.
Watchmen(film) is at its best when it, like the source material, consciously uses the formal techniques of its specific medium to tell the story. The montage, built upon film editing is perhaps the key defining feature of film; Snyder uses that to beautiful effect in the credit sequence set to “Times They are a Changing” by Bob Dylan. In a little over 5 minutes, Snyder narrates (contextualizes) perfectly the effects that the rise of superheroes have had on 50 years of world history emphasizing, the tiny changes they wrought. It is a completely original addition and something that could only be done with film. He most succeeds at modifying formal elements of comics into film in the Doctor Manhattan Mars sequence from Chapter IV “Watchmaker”. Doctor Manhattan experiences time all at once. To represent that on the page, Moore and Gibbons juxtapose images across time and space, linked together by Manhattan’s internal monologue. The page and panels become the complete unit of time and space. To recreate this effect, Snyder once again employs a montage linked by the constant narration of Doctor Manhattan.
It’s also worth considering the time the film came out, March 6, 2009, to understand the critical and financial reaction. As a comic about comics, Watchmen could only exist due to the vast history of the genre; or else it would have nothing to speak to or context to exist in. As a film genre, superhero movies were nowhere near as mature as their comic sources. Iron Man and The Dark Knight had come out a year prior and it would be another 3 until the first Avengers film hit the big screen. The general public was not yet conditioned to seeing superheroes team-up much less be deconstructed in brutal and psychological detail.
Let us return to the climatic fights of Man of Steel and “Clash”. The similarities are obvious, the massive city wide destruction two super beings fighting creates, debris fills the frame. Man of Steel goes one step further in building a context for this destruction by recreating 9/11 imagery during the sequence as muted masses wander through dusty spaces covered in white chalk. That is a context that hit, perhaps, too close to home for audiences looking for the escapism these kinds of movies trade in.
In both instances, Superman comes off like an asshole, starting a wanton fight across the city. But it’s only “Clash” that elicits an emotional response beyond fear and shock at the destruction left in his spectacular wake. The context is key.
In “Clash” Superman is at the end of his rope. He has been expertly manipulated by Presidential candidate Lex Luthor, to give himself and the Justice League some very damaging PR. After his fight with Capt. Marvel and realizing what he believed to be a bomb was a generator for the non-populated proto-city they just leveled, Superman apologizes and begins to attempting to mend the situation. The clash has long and short term affects, most immediately Captain Marvel the ten-year-old Billy Batson and Superman fan is so disappointed in his idols behavior he quits the Justice League. The episodes writing is credited as Teleplay by: J.M. Dematteis Story by: Dwayne McDuffie, by the end of it we realize why Superman acted this way, and the lesson being taught in those 22 minutes: that even the best superheroes make mistakes when acting with distrust.
Man of Steel, whose writing is credited as screenplay by David S. Goyer story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, fails to articulate a heroic character for Clark Kent/Superman, showing his early life filed with hesitancy and selfishness. He isn’t a very good hero and doesn’t want to be one. A view that is antithetical to the popular conception of the character. Without this heroic context, audiences both in and out of frame are left wondering at what they’d witnessed. For all the ham-fisted Christ symbolism Snyder backed into the film, itself an erasure of Superman’s Jewish heritage, he wasn’t very Christ-like. Actor Henry Cavill looks like Superman, but isn’t one audience understood.
Snyder’s love for reference looms heavily over his follow up 3 years later, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the end he created a film that trades mainly in visual references but lacks a soul and developed context to give anything dramatic weight. The follow up was announced by a reference at San Diego Comic Con 2014 when Harry Lennix came out on stage and read a well-known passage from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. To his credit, Snyder does explicitly say multiple times that what would become Batman v Superman would be influenced or inspired by The Dark Knight Returns not a direct adaptation of it.
However, in citing his sources Snyder already creates an extra-textual space to begin viewing his film in. A comparison quickly reveals the lack of dramatic weight his story has. Within the film itself the reasons why this is happening are poorly articulated, the theatrical cut overall is a structural mess. Where that foundation should be audiences are left in the gulf wondering why it’s all happening. In affect transforming these actors into high budget cosplayers in a high budget fan film.
In this gulf, only comparisons to its inspirations (The Dark Knight Returns and others) and why that works in infinitely more ways than this pale imitation exists. It goes back to the announcement at SDCC ’14. Harry Lennix’s speech was the one Batman gives to former best friend turned enemy Superman after mortally wounding the man of steel. What is missing is the historical context Frank Miller was afforded with his elseworlds story. It was the final conflict between two best friends who the times have turned into enemies. Seeing an older Batman and Superman was akin to seeing Kirk and Spock say goodbye to one another in The Wrath of Khan. They had an unspoken history, grudges, and stories to tell. It’s a context Batman v Superman could never have, Snyder turns their final fight into their first contact. They barely interact with one another before their quickly thrown together fight. They have no history, or stories, but plenty of misplaced grudges. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rendered dramatically inert because of it.
And that’s before Snyder decides to reenact the “Death of Superman” paradoxically as the event that brings the DC trinity together…for all of 10 minutes. That sequence is another great example of playing with someone else’s toys with no respect or understanding.
Zack Snyder is a supreme visual composer, often with the help of cinematographer Larry Fong. He is honest about his influences; it is a matter of how they inform or lack thereof the story telling going on where he falls far short. Snyder like any media addicted nerd speaks in the parlance of popular culture. He just expects everyone to understand his language and bring with them the extra-textual knowledge necessary to piece together his new text, like spackle to bricks.