(Spoilers for Batman V Superman to follow.)
“What we have here is a failure to communicate”. So says Strother Martin’s chain gang captain in the classic Cool Hand Luke and, somewhat bizarrely, that’s the quote that popped into my brain while succumbing to the final bludgeoning showdown in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
That film is taking its critical lumps right now, and it feels a little unfair to pile on with yet more criticism, but this aspect of the film really jumped out at me, and makes me wonder just what Zack Snyder has in mind for Justice League Part One.
The context, you already know. Even if you’ve not seen the movie, you’ve likely seen the trailer. Lex Luthor’s mutated Doomsday monster is on the rampage and Batman and Superman put aside their beef to take it down, along with Wonder Woman. The image is instantly iconic – DC’s three biggest heroes, side by side, in live action, on the big screen for the first time. Regardless of the flaws that riddle the rest of the movie, it’s a rousing moment.
What follows is, sadly, less exciting.
The trio goes to work, pounding on Doomsday and being knocked back by energy blasts. They use fists, weapons, heat vision – whatever they have in their respective arsenals. What they don’t do is talk to one another.
Think about it: at no point during this punishing slugging match with an indestructible Kryptonian monster do any of the three communicate with the others. After posing for the trailer shot, they just take their moments in the action spotlight in turns. Even in the lull of battle, there’s no camaraderie, no banter, no tactical discussion. No teamwork.
Apart from the “Is she with you?” quip, and a brief back-and-forth about killing monsters, there’s literally no meaningful interaction between the characters during the fight that follows. Wonder Woman holds Doomsday with her lasso while Superman strikes, but that seems more like chance than strategy. Batman hangs at the sidelines and fires off a Krypton gas grenade. At no point do any of them tell the others what they’re planning to do or why.
Superman and Wonder Woman, two of the pillars of the DC Universe, allies and even lovers over the years, and in their first film together they barely even share a word. In any film that would be odd, but in a film that is designed to introduce the concept of these people as a team? It’s bizarre.
Now, you could argue that there’s no time for them to hang out and chat, or that they’re all so badass they don’t need to voice their strategies aloud. Those are both passable No-Prize explanations for the omission, but they don’t make up for such a gaping hole in Dawn of Justice’s reason for existing. Here’s the perfect chance to show Batman as the master tactician, Wonder Woman as the seasoned warrior, Superman learning that even gods need help. Instead, we get three characters each having their own private fight with a common enemy.
I hesitate to bring a Marvel comparison to the table, for fear of inflaming the brewing fan wars further, but it can’t be helped. Even in the first Avengers movie, the action scenes were designed to show how each character complemented the others, how this disparate group was stronger together than apart. In the wake of Man of Steel, lots of people focused on The Avengers' Battle of New York as an example of how to show mass comic book destruction while still keeping your heroes looking heroic, but it’s not just about seeing them rescue civilians.
It’s about the way Captain America takes command, immediately and confidently. The way Iron Man handles the perimeter and “brings the party to you”. It’s Hawkeye on the rooftops and Black Widow using her assassin skills. It’s Cap and Thor, back to back, fending off Chitauri together. It’s about Banner’s return to the fold, and his crowd-pleasing “I’m always angry” entry to the fray. That whole sequence isn’t just full of cool shots, it’s full of important and enlightening character beats – and that’s been carried on throughout the Marvel movies since.
It’s not that Dawn of Justice doesn’t achieve the same success, it’s that it doesn’t even seem to try. It’s supposed to leave us hungry for the Justice League, yet its founding members barely even acknowledge each other in an action scene created solely to showcase their combined might. For a movie in which no plot point, no subtext, escapes without being weighed down with spoken exposition, DC’s heaviest hitters fall mysteriously silent right when we’re primed to see how they bounce off each other.
It has to be a deliberate choice, but what does that say about Snyder’s approach to a full team-up movie? Many have commented on the weird Objectivist philosophy spouted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Snyder’s desire to turn Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead into a movie certainly illuminates that choice. These characters are only ever concerned with their own internal needs. Is that why we have a superhero team-up in which they fight together without ever truly teaming up?