Possibly the biggest news out of this past weekend’s San Diego Comic Con was the announcement of the first ever live-action, theatrical film to star both Batman and Superman. The new film (which doesn’t have a title yet, but I’m predicting either Batman vs. Superman or World’s Finest) will be directed and co-written by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, and will see Henry Cavill reprise his role as Superman. DC Entertainment is looking to kick its new shared movie universe into high gear to compete with Marvel’s Studios’ seemingly-unstoppable blockbuster hit machine. Comics fans know there’s tremendous potential in a Batman/Superman movie, and have been clamoring for one for years, but after the mixed reaction to Snyder’s Man of Steel, there’s reason for a little trepidation.
There are a lot of directions DC and Snyder might take with a Batman/Superman story that could lead to an enjoyable and lasting movie, but here’s one fan’s opinion on how it should be done:
(Spoilers for Man of Steel ahead)
Respond to the end of Man of Steel.
One of the most controversial elements of Man of Steel was the violence and destruction dealt out by Superman in the final act. During his climactic battle with General Zod, the two god-like Kryptonians laid waste to the city of Metropolis in a reckless rampage that made the war-torn New York of The Avengers look like a picnic. Thousands were no doubt killed as skyscrapers toppled into one another, while the supposedly selfless hero Kal-El never even looked back to view the terror in his wake, let alone prevent it. The battle ended with Superman snapping Zod’s neck, demonstrating that this version of Superman is not afraid to use lethal force as a last resort.
If fans were upset that the new movie Superman was guilty of both the mass involuntary manslaughter of civilians and the second-degree murder of a supervillain, imagine how one might react if this happened in your own universe. Even the most trusting and optimistic citizen would have a hard time placing his or her faith in an unstoppable alien who, willingly or not, demolished one of the largest cities in the world without a thought. In this context, one would seem totally justified in trying to prevent such an event from happening again. Indeed, if he had the means, he may feel he has a responsibility to do so.
Obviously, Bruce Wayne is such a man.
Due to the success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which was evoked in the Comic Con panel and in the design of the film’s logo) it’s become very popular to pit Superman and Batman against one another, and there’s little doubt that they’ll do the same in this new film, but it could be argued that, in the wake of Man of Steel, Batman has never had better justification to pick this particular fight. This Superman is a wrecking ball, a potential extinction level event who’s claimed stewardship of the Earth.
For this story to work, however, it would have to be established early on that Kal-El is aware of, and deeply regrets the damage that he helped cause in the previous film. Perhaps he uses his abilities to help to rebuild the city, or visits a memorial erected in honor of those who died. He should be very public about it, making it clear that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to earn humanity’s trust. Batman, being Batman, should just not believe him, because honestly, a lot of people wouldn’t. From there, the story is easy: they begin at odds with one another, they each score victories, they earn each others’ respect and team up to face a common foe.
Which brings us to the obvious:
Snyder was wise in not having Lex Luthor appear in Man of Steel, instead offering the physical threat that moviegoers have come to expect in summer superhero films. (Sorry, Superman Returns.) Man of Steel did, however, acknowledge the existence of LexCorp, Luthor’s multi-billion-dollar corporate empire, meaning that future installments would feature the white-collar supervillain version of the character that comic fans have come to love since his introduction in the mid-1980s. The last generation of comic stories have seen Luthor become an adversary not only of Superman, but also of Bruce Wayne. Lex is the dark shadow of them both – a man of Bruce’s means and intelligence who uses his advantages for the benefit of his own greed and vanity, and a man with Superman’s ability to more or less rule the world but without the conscience to abdicate the throne.
While Batman investigates Superman in the shadows, Luthor could be the public face of humanity’s fear of the invincible alien who tore down Metropolis, taking advantage of their worst instincts and turning the world against him. Superman can’t end Luthor without proving him right – that he’s a bully who can unilaterally make choices that affect all of humanity – but Batman, or rather, Bruce Wayne, can. Theirs is a battle between two businessmen on equal footing. This is what makes Luthor the perfect villain for the World’s Finest heroes, and why he’s been a go-to for such team-up stories in the comics for decades. It’d be hard to imagine Snyder passing up on this.
Don’t go “Full Miller.”
At the announcement panel at San Diego Comic Con, director Zach Snyder made it clear that the Batman/Superman movie would not be an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. However, he (or someone at DC Entertainment) chose to use a quote from DKR to announce the project, and the Bat-symbol used in the promo art is clearly based on the design used in that same book. It’s clearly going to be a source of inspiration for the new film, and this is where Snyder, Nolan and the gang need to tread lightly, because while The Dark Knight Returns is the story that contains the most famous Batman vs. Superman fight, it’s also the one in which it’s the most difficult to root for either of them.
For those of you who haven’t read DKR, the climactic battle between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel features an aging, brutal Batman who beats the ever-loving snot from his former friend without an ounce of remorse or mercy, and a naive stooge of a Superman who tries to destroy the only person who kept Gotham from slipping into total chaos because Ronald Regan asked nicely. They both come across looking like assholes, particularly Batman, who’s supposed to be the hero of the piece. (If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of The Dark Knight Returns. Sue me.)
It goes without saying that Batman and Superman are going to be at odds at the beginning of the film. As pointed out above, there’s already a very simple explanation for that if they choose to use it. But it’s important that both characters come out of the conflict looking like heroes, if for no other reason than because there’s going to be a Justice League movie, so they’re going to have to get used to one another anyway.
More importantly, the value of the Batman/Superman friendship in the comics is the acknowledgement that there’s more than one right approach to a problem, and that each of us, as a human being, needs a little of both of these characters in our heads. Batman is clinical, suspicious, and plans for every worst case scenario. Superman is hopeful, confident and genuinely expects the best out of people until given reason to expect otherwise. Neither of them is always right – that’s why they need each other. That’s why we need them. Audiences should not walk out of a Batman vs. Superman movie continuing to argue about which one is cooler or better. They should leave understanding that they’re both great, just different from one another, and that’s okay.
Fans have waited decades to see Batman and Superman meet on the big screen, and there’s probably no final product that would please them all, but with enough care Snyder’s World’s Finest could honor both characters, and prove that DC’s line of films is fit to go toe-to-toe with Marvel’s.