The Dawn of Justice filmmakers don’t care that we care about mass destruction.
**Massive spoilers ahead for BATMAN V SUPERMAN– consider this fair warning.**
Probably the most interesting aspect of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the movie’s strange relationship with the very vocal criticism of the collateral damage on display in Zack Snyder’s previous film, Man of Steel. We’ve seen other film franchises react to viewer reactions on the big screen– Star Wars: Attack of the Clones has gone down in infamy for cow-towing too much to the fan complaints over The Phantom Menace— but the response woven into Dawn of Justice is something different. These guys are not looking for our approval.
The idea of mass-scale collateral damage, and most importantly Superman’s blase attitude toward it, actually governs a lot of the first act of Batman v Superman. It serves as motivation for Bruce Wayne as to why he cannot abide a being like Superman to carry on unchecked. There’s a Congressional committee focused on Superman’s activity and the repercussions he leaves in his wake. Even Lex Luthor cites devastation as a guiding force behind his self-serving schemes.
But no one signifies the end result of city-wide destruction and digital chaos more than Scoot McNairy’s Wallace Keefe. An employee at Wayne Enterprises’ Metropolis office, Keefe loses his legs in a building collapse caused by Superman’s battle with General Zod. We follow Keefe’s story throughout the first half of Dawn of Justice, which illustrates how he lost everything following the Battle of Metropolis, how the rampant violence on display damaged him irreparably. He is the personification of our criticism aimed at Man of Steel. And what happens to Wallace Keefe in this movie? He gets angry, he lashes out in ineffectual protest of Superman, and ultimately he becomes a pawn manipulated by Lex Luthor and used to incite more mass destruction when his hi tech wheelchair is used to blow up the Capitol building in Washington.
There’s a great scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill where Bill monologues about why Superman is his favorite super hero. He explains how the attributes that make up the hero’s alter ego Clark Kent– his meek, mild manners, weakness, and cowardice– are actually Superman’s own pointed critique of humanity… this is how he sees us. Wallace Keefe is the same thing, the filmmakers’ own judgment on those who would dare criticize them. This is how they see us when we bring up the scope of devastation and death on display in these movies, and the general lack of acknowledgment of it by the characters.
It’s also worth noting that after the death of Wallace Keefe, Batman v Superman never touches on the idea of collateral damage again. In fact, the big final battle sequence with Doomsday serves mostly as a repeat of the Battle of Metropolis. Sure, there’s less defined buildings and cityscapes for the super powered beings to tear into (replaced by loads of floating CGI debris and embers, which leaves much of the fight feeling weirdly ungrounded from reality)… but this brawl pointedly begins with Batman luring the monster off a deserted island and back into the densely-populated Gotham city. There’s absolutely no logic to this decision, other than on a meta level which seems to equate to the filmmakers giving Man of Steel critics the middle finger and saying “Yea, we’re just going to do the same thing again.”
Part of me almost respects the confrontational attitude of the Batman v Superman filmmakers. In the era of rampant fan service, it’s certainly not the response I expected when the movie started, and it certainly takes balls to risk alienating a fan base by, in essence, throwing their reactions straight out the window. But beyond the surface level, this hostility absolutely feels like the wrong reaction. It seems as though they’re treating this debate as a “Political Correctness” thing, that the bleeding hearts are bent out of shape that so many faceless people are dying in a fictional scenario. And yea, breaking it down that way, it does seem kind of weird to label something like that as entertainment… but that’s also just a part of human nature– we’ve always been enthralled by death and violence. The point these guys are missing in terms of the Man of Steel criticism is that the existence of this willfully ignored devastation also betrays Superman as a character, to his very core. More than anything, Superman is a humanitarian, the guy whose primary focus would always be on protecting people, and that trumps everything… even at the risk of neutralizing a threat. That Batman v Superman brings the hero right back to the city-smasher he was in Man of Steel proves that the filmmakers’ complete and profound mis-understanding of this character continues. They heard our criticism, loud and clear… but they chose to learn nothing from it.
The Batman v Superman filmmakers aren’t dumb. I think they’re well aware of their failings in terms of adapting Superman for the big screen. That’s what undercuts the end of this film, as the death of Superman feels less about heroic sacrifice, and more of the filmmakers washing their hands of a character they just can’t seem to understand. All this adds up to a profoundly cynical perspective for a comic book movie, a shriveled black heart beating beneath the surface of the movie. And that black heart might become a serious problem as the DC Cinematic Universe continues to grow in the years to come.