I’ve never revisited Man of Steel, and I don’t plan to in the near future. After watching Dawn of Justice in theatres, I made pretty much the same decision. Have I gone back on that now that I’ve seen the Ultimate Cut? That’s a little harder to parse. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen presents three different versions; the theatrical cut, which I didn’t like; the Ultimate Cut, which contains added scenes as well as an animated version of Tales of the Black Freighter; and finally the Director’s Cut, a happy medium that expands on the original in ways that makes the film enjoyable. But are they different films? Are Director’s Cuts entirely different entities, and where does one draw that line? This Ultimate Edition is by no means a Kingdom of Heaven re-do, but it plays like a different enough experience to warrant its own write-up. In fact it’s mostly a step up, but at this point in time, it exist as a corollary to a pretty miserable movie. That film’s pitfalls still exist, although some of their effects are slightly muted, but in padding the film with connective tissue that makes some amount of plot and character sense, the Ultimate Edition lets Batman v Superman breathe. Granted, it still builds up to an unfathomably mind-numbing finale but, it least it’s delayed by about thirty minutes.
In addition to being an expanded story, the Ultimate Cut shines a light on many of the original’s problems. That it merely spackles them over with lip-service is another matter, but it clarifies a great number of things about BvS’s construction. Namely, that even a tighter edit and a relatively coherent narrative (or at least one that doesn’t feel like a fever dream) can’t save what is clearly a wrongheaded approach. Superman makes more sense, as do many of the things around him, but that doesn’t stop him from being a drag.
In both cuts, Clark Kent eventually talks about how Superman was his father’s dream, regardless of what the previous film had to say about that. It’s one of those weird retcons that might’ve actually worked if he was the least bit aspirational. His introduction in the UC is about as close as we get to this, because rather than ramming a dude through a thousand walls, our first interaction with him involves him punching down a missile (and the CIA drone that fired it) before it hits a crowded village. I mean, he still implicitly breaks that dude by smashing him through concrete, but given his interaction with the American military at the end of Man of Steel, where he childishly brings down a surveillance satellite, seeing him start this film by making a major statement on U.S. foreign policy is pretty damn delightful…
…but would he have stopped the drone, or been there at all, if it weren’t for Lois Lane? Regardless of the approach to Superman, it doesn’t fix the film’s major structural problems. Superman’s third-act turn is still all about Lois (despite him having made a similar, more streamlined decision moments earlier, as I mentioned back when I watched the film), so with every new addition that helps the pacing, what’s essentially happening is either the delaying of the inevitable, or the highlighting of a crack. Superman is given much more to do in his own movie, though part of this is owed to expanding on the implicit. We now go through a more detailed conclusion of the criminal branded by Batman, seeing him get stabbed in prison and even following Clark as he interviews his wife. This moment, along with Clark’s other Gotham interactions, even put Batman in a new light as we get to see the far-reaching consequences of his vigilantism, though it’s never something he gets to experience. His apparent self-awareness still comes from the “Martha” moment, the shoddy buildup to which is left untouched.
The film’s opening now sees Bruce Wayne help a second young girl, when she’s separated from her classmates. It’s a nice additional detail, but it doesn’t add much by way of new information. He isn’t more heroic, he’s merely the same amount of heroic for just a little longer. Make no mistake, the effects of these moments are palpable, in that they make sure the film doesn’t fall apart completely – it no longer stumbles over itself, jogging briskly along without jarring edits – but does it really matter if we’re dealing with the same characters, the same arcs and the same story? After all, as awkward as the original’s transitions were, these were its main issues. As much as the UC clarifies factual points (the henchmen now burn the bodies that Superman is blamed for, instead of just shooting them), it still follows the same broad trajectory, and the same internal journeys.
Jimmy Olsen introduces himself by name (which again, is merely a factual point), and a woman from the village shows up in Metropolis to testify against Superman. It expands on the general feelings we already see expressed by news anchors, and it gives the henchmen more business – apparently she’s been blackmailed into lying, which undercuts what could’ve been an interesting new dimension for Superman’s guilt – but it’s cut short, quite brutally, before the woman is able to interact with a single major character. At the very least, Superman now sticks around to help people after the explosion, and Lois’ makes various new discoveries, about who set Superman up, and Scoot McNairy’s bomb-chair being lined with lead. This is all certainly new information for the audience, but it doesn’t change how she feels about Superman (she never doubts him for a second), and she never brings them up with him either, even though he’s going through a crisis of conscience!
Things "make sense" now, in that the film has fewer plot holes. They "make sense" in that you can track scenes from one to the next, but they still don’t make sense for the characters. Nothing really changes with Luthor, Batman or Wonder Woman, and while Superman at least feels like he has empathy, it’s counteracted by all that stern-faced moping. There are, however, many more details in this version of the film. Some come through TV broadcasts – Jon Stewart wonders why the red and blue hero refuses to identify as an instrument of U.S. policy (a perfectly in-character question for anyone in this world except Jon Stewart), and both Gotham and Metropolis’ citizens are allowed more time to be sounding boards for the film’s disparate philosophies.
Do these added details make for a better film? In a word, yes. It’d be foolish of me to claim otherwise, because they make the universe and the characters feel more complete, more alive, and more dramatically feasible. And yet, they do little to make these now "more alive" people interact with each other, or with the plot, in ways that are remotely interesting. Wonder Woman is on the bench for at least two hours now, so her return feels even more out of the blue (as cool as she is, I still maintain she adds nothing to this story besides her presence), and the film continues to suffer from its own sequelitis.
By merely expanding on existing material instead of excising redundancies – The Flash’s appearance will probably never make sense – all that’s really ensured from a narrative standpoint is that no amount of oiling of moving parts will make this kind of approach work. Superman’s borderline misanthropy is now preceded by a genuine drive to help people, which makes it all the weirder. As much as Batman questions his own morals and criminality, he still stabs a guy in the chest before blowing up Callan Mulvey. The film may flow more smoothly and be richer in detail, but it also injects steroids into its internal contradictions. Then again, perhaps steroids aren’t the substance of choice here. It’s more like the film has been injected with Super Soldier Serum, amplifying the good for those who loved it, and the bad for those who didn’t.
There is, however, one addition I loved. After Superman’s death, and right before his funeral(s), we’re treated to shots of an empty Metropolis during the day. Restaurant chairs lie unturned from upon tables, and Daily Planet screensavers flash on in front of an empty office, as we get a glimpse of a framed headline that likely felt similar: “JFK Shot Dead.” It’s the first time Superman’s importance really comes through, or perhaps the potential importance of a Superman that actually lived up to these scenes.
These characters either make no changes, or changes that are unmotivated, and the world’s perspective on them goes through an equally unfortunate whiplash. One moment they’re seen as malevolent forces, the next they’re heroes for the world to worship, only despite all looming questions of fear and responsibility, we don’t ever see how the world sees them during (or after) their ascension. It’s not just Batman and Superman’s arcs that are foregone, it’s the most important arc of all: the arc of the audience.
Note: I could be mistaken, but the Jar of Piss scene felt way longer this time.