Batman V Superman: A Two Act Movie

Let’s be honest. We all knew an opinion piece on this was coming. I have already been very vocal about my feelings toward Superman and, upon seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, those feelings haven’t changed. It’s an exhausting, visually striking, and deeply flawed movie that leaves your heart and soul weary on the way out of the theater.

I should probably mention, to asuage bias, that I am employed by Warner Bros.

A lot of very smart people have been writing a lot of very good close readings of the film. At two and a half hours long, there is A LOT to unpack here. However as a screenwriter there is one major element that I haven’t found addressed in this film at all. There’s no first act.

Stories generally fall into a three act structure. You may know them as begining, middle, and end. The first act introduces the setting, protagonists, and the plot. This act generally ends when an inciting incident causes the status quo to drastically change. For example, Titanic’s first act is how Jack and Rose arrived on the ship and ends when he stops her from committing suicide.

But there’s no moment like that in BvS. The entire movie is rising action from the start until Batman and Superman fight, and by then there’s only about a half hour left in the film. This means the inciting incident is Man of Steel, the previous movie in the DCEU. Every action characters take in BvS is a reaction to that film. Characters are introduced as though we already know them, relying almost entirely on their pop culture cache. Lex Luthor is evil because he’s Lex Luthor. Batman bats man and always has. We don’t even get information on how Superman’s Clark Kent life has been going for 18 months.

On a side note, from Superman’s perspective this movie is just him trying to live his life until one night some floppy haired guy he doesn’t really know kidnaps his mom and tells him to kill Batman. What the hell.

Instead we’re drop kicked into act two and sit through hours of build in plot lines that are blown up instead of followed through to get to a fight at the end with zero emotional stakes. Hell the big spoiler moment at the end of the film could have been avoided if Batman Superman and Wonder Woman had taken 30 seconds to have a conversation!

Oh see now I’m ranting. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to talk about plot structure.

See, the second act of a story is already the longest and hardest to maintain. It’s hard to pin down what has to happen in act two, but it always has to have a turning point at the end leading into act three. Act three is easy. Act three is when the iceberg hits the Titanic.

This is why I have become fond of a five act structure. One where the second act is finding a new status quo, the third blows it all up again, and then the fourth picks itself back up so that everything can dovetail into act five.

The traditional second act is essentially divided into three smaller ones. Since they don’t need to take up so much space the writing becomes very economical. No unnecessary story beats there to fill time. This is how much or broadcast TV is written. Since they must conform to commercial breaks they write with acts and their breaks in mind.

Movies don’t have a direct line for when one act ends and another begins. But when you know what you’re looking for, they’re easy to find. Which is why I am astounded that I can only find one in a movie that many people worked very hard on and cost several hundred million dollars to produce.

Although hey, if this script can do this well I’m going to do just fine.

-JP

PS, I still feel pretty hopeful for the future of these DCEU movies

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“I can do this all day.”

Before we move any further:

This trailer for Captain America: Civil War is top notch. I have spoken about how the Distinguished Competition (what the old Marvel editors would call DC) have had a bit of trouble figuring out their marketing campaign for Batman v Superman. It is difficult to sell the conflict when we don’t really know either party in the fight. Ben Affleck’s Batman is a new iteration and while I thought I knew Superman, this version can be very violent and erratic. Captain America and Iron Man, on the other hand, have been with us for about eight years. We’ve seen them meet, bond, and fight before. And that’s why Civil War is going to hurt so damn much.

There are a lot of epic moments in the trailer. The underwater super prison, the Black Panther/Bucky chase, Tony Stark’s Iron Glove… thing, Black Panther totally unfazed by a barrage of bullets (because his suit is 100% Vibranium and absorbs all the impact force), Scarlet Witch vs The Vision, Ant-Man leaping off of Hawkeye’s arrow, the group shot of everyone running at each other and, of course, Spider-Man.

But what really stands out in this trailer, far more than the whiz bang explosions, is Steve Rogers.

It’s the quieter moments, like when all of the collateral damage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is thrown in The Avengers’ faces. Steve tells General Ross to stop, not because he’s had enough, but because he sees the look on Wanda/Scarlet Witch’s face at looking at Sokovia again.

Greater still, it’s when Iron Man has Cap dead to rights and says, “Stay down.” and Cap just replies, “I can do this all day.”

Because it’s this:

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Because he’s still the scrawny kid from Brooklyn who can’t stand a bully. Even after World War II. Even after being frozen for nearly 7o years. Even after fighting aliens and gods and killer robots. Even after the enemy he thought he’d destroyed came back as strong as ever. He’s still that kid.

There’s a fairly iconic panel of Captain America from, ironically, a Spider-Man comic back in the comic series Civil War. It wasn’t the best event series in comic form, and I’m very happy the movie is only using the bare bones concept for its story. Still, I think this panel perfectly distills who Steve Rogers is, as he explains to Spider-Man what America means to him.

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This is also why this character works so well in these movies. He’s too righteous and good to find internal conflict. His powers are too mundane for the epic stories of Thor but his enemies are too great for something smaller like Ant-Man. No, you test Steve Rogers by throwing everything against him, and watch him refuse to bend from his beliefs. You put him in a traditional conspiracy movie and watch him become the moral compass for everyone involved.

And then you put him into a no win scenario. You put his best friend from childhood on one side and his best friend from the present on the other. You see what happens when there no longer is a right answer. You watch him try to save everyone even when he knows that isn’t possible. You watch in horror as the friendships and life he’s built over the past few years comes crumbling down.

This is why the Marvel movies work as well as they do. They know their characters, and they know exactly how to test them. Tony Stark’s arc has been all about learning from his mistakes and learning to accept help from his friends. After Ultron, he knows they need oversight. He knows he needs oversight. Black Widow has always been with one organization or another. This is all she knows. Hawkeye will do whatever is best for his family. Each and every one of them are willing to fight for their beliefs, because that’s what made them heroes in the first place.

Whether we knew it or not, this story was always going to happen. Now I’m just scared of what the fallout of it will be. Just like in The Winter Soldier the entire MCU is going to change following this one, and it doesn’t matter which team comes out on top. Because they will all have lost a piece of themselves.

Except for Spider-Man. He’s just happy to be here.

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Yay! Look how colorful he is!

-JP

PS – My recommended marathon before watching Civil War is: Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. You come in with Cap, meet Iron Man, find out what makes him tick in one of his solo adventures, return for Bucky’s big debut, and then see how the Avengers roster changed so drastically.

An Anecdote on Democracy

When I was a Freshman in High School, we elected a girl named Nina to be our Class President.

Nina was an Indian girl who took almost entirely honor classes. She was smart and kind and responsible far beyond her years. Under her leadership our class successfully completed fundraiser after fundraiser. The money from these going towards our eventual class trip to Disney World in Florida.

Her tenure for that first year was an unmitigated success, so in Sophomore year we reelected her and the good times rolled. I know her government was strong because, like any good student government, nobody really talked about it. We only really notice when there’s a problem.

Things changed in Junior year. I remember hearing about Nina’s big competition, not by reading any campaign poster, but by hearing guys around the hallways bellow, “ROSS THE BOSS!” at completely random intervals.

Out of nowhere a movement of white men began to elect their own candidate, Ross, into office. Their main reason for running against Nina was, well, “she’s a bitch”.

The election became more of a farce than a lesson in politics. Ross’s supporters would boo Nina when she went to speak at debates. They called her out for being elitist and raised Ross up as a candidate of the people. Despite all this, I figured Nina would win once more. I figured only assholes were voting for Ross, and from what I knew of my class the asshole vote was very small.

But he won.

The campaign against Nina made enough people in the school dislike her that they chose to elect Ross the Boss.

What followed was a year of pure net loss for our class. Our financial savings for our senior trip dwindled as our government planned failing fundraiser after dance after failing fundraiser. It could have crippled us had it continued for another year. Luckily we elected someone else to office and salvaged our trip.

The reason I’m writing down this story should be obvious to anybody paying attention to the presidential election. Candidates and their supporters are acting as childish as a bunch of idiotic High School Juniors. In my school the wrong candidate won, not because their policies were better, but because their supporters were dedicated enough to turn public opinion against the best candidate.

I don’t want to use this platform to tell you who I think the best candidate is. What I can say is, make sure you know what you are voting for and not who you are voting for. Find out their policies, and then take a look at those policies from a third party source. Check them on their blatant lies, because right now they will say anything to win. They’re like a toddler who just wants a cookie SO bad.

I think the American political process is coming up upon a major turning point, and I for one hope it’s one led by logic and reasoning and not passion and anger.

To my nerds out there: Think Vulcan, Don’t Act Romulan.

-JP

PS – But seriously, the Electoral College needs to be removed from the whole process. It’s stupid.

Happy Birthday Clark Kent

On February 29th, about 30 years ago (plus or minus 10), a rocket crash landed in Smallville, Kansas. That rocket was found by a kindly couple. Farmers Jonathon and Martha Kent, two of the kindest and most loving people on Earth, and very likely the only people capable of raising the most powerful being on the planet into a beacon of hope for all to see.

Now that I am working on the Warner Bros Studio Lot, a great deal of conversations are coming back around to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have written about the film before. I will write about it again. Hell, I’ve written about Superman before, but the conversation that I keep having is that Batman is fundamentally better than Superman, and that simply is not true.

From start to finish, Superman is a better character than Batman. He is a better character not because of his strength or his enemies. No man is defined by his enemies, bat fans. Superman is great because underneath the curled hair, red cape, and underwear on the outside, Superman is Clark Kent.

Imagine finding out in your toddler years that you are strong enough to lift a car over your head. That you can jump incredible distances and melt things with your eyes when you get angry.

 

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If you wanted, you could throw a tantrum that levels your home. You could do whatever you wanted, whatever it is that toddlers want to do. But instead of being scared of you, your parents embrace you and decide to help you learn to control your capabilities.

Your father ties a line to you to teach you how to fly. Your mother knits the indestructible blankets from your spaceship into protective clothing in case anything goes wrong. They teach you how to use your powers for right instead of wrong and instill in you all the best morals of America without any of the hatred so often seen in our country.

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The world around you is made of cardboard and it is your responsibility not to break any of it. This is your planet too, and you must be grateful every day that it was here to save your life.

And yet you’re a teenager. High School is hard and you know how easy everything would be if you took off your glasses and showed the world, and the cute red headed girl, how incredible you really are. But that wouldn’t be right, because you about the darker side of humanity by now. You know how lucky you are to have the life you live, and you would much rather use your strength to spread that love and compassion wherever you go.

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All your parents ever wanted for you was to give back to the world. And you do. You save the world, but more importantly you save people. You’ve seen all sides of humanity and you still believe each and every one of us is worth saving, and each person you save is so much more important that defeating Lex Luthor, General Zod, or Brainiac.

All of your great super heroic deeds. The other god like people you spend your time with. At the end of the day you still choose to be Clark Kent. Clark Kent who wears glasses. Clark Kent with severely stooped posture. Clark Kent who can’t catch the eye of the woman he loves because she’s too busy looking at you.

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But it’s all worth it to be among us. Because what’s the point of it all if you can’t live among us. Yes, you’ve seen the darkest we are capable of, but you have also seen the light. Once more you have the burden of showing us the way. Showing us how power does not have to corrupt, because if you can be capable of so much and still use your great strength to save people, then how can all the evil on Earth justify itself?

That’s Superman. The original and still the greatest. Sometimes, if we’re all really lucky, a writer really understands him. When that happens we get some of the best comics ever written. For example:

The Curse of Superman – Action Comics (2011) #9

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This single issue story by Grant Morrison (an excellent comic book writer who knows Superman)and Gene Ha is essentially a throw down between the Supermen of two different alternate realities. One one side there’s President Superman, who is essentially Obama, who fights against another Superman that is literally a brand come to life. President Superman shows how the ideal of Superman transcends race and class, while Brand Superman shows how warped that ideal can become in the face of franchise expansion.

Superman for All Seasons

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If you know of Batman: The Long Halloween then you are familiar with the team behind this book. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale craft here an excellent story set in Superman’s first year in Metropolis. Here are two panels that prove this one understands Supes:

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Secret Identity

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Yet another Superman story that’s more about the idea of Superman than the real thing. Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek with straight up amazing art by Stuart Immonen, is about a kid growing up in our world with the unfortunate name of Clark Kent. He is compared to Superman his whole life, hates it, and then one day starts displaying the same abilities as the comic book character. He steps up and takes on his namesake’s responsibilities, displaying how important the ideal of Superman is, even in the real world.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

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Fun fact: Alan Moore is a genius. Yes he wrote one of the darkest Superhero stories ever with Watchmen, but he has also written some of the brightest. He has written both an incredible run on Supreme, a Superman knock-off initially created by Rob Liefeld, and what could be considered the final word on Superman with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? A Superhero Conclusion story (so, the opposite of an origin story), This tale perfectly uses the entire Silver Age of Superman to tell a story that could expertly send the character off into the sunset, if such a thing were ever necessary.

For the Man Who Has Everything

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Hey it’s Alan Moore again! And this time he brought along Dave Gibbons, who did the art in Watchmen. For the Man Who Has Everything is the story of a fateful birthday for Superman, when the evil alien warlord Mongul drops by and plants a, uh, evil plant onto Superman. This evil plant, a Black Mercy, causes Superman to live out his perfect fantasy life, on a Krypton that never exploded. The only way to free himself is to let this world around him die, and when he comes for Mongul after that you get to see one of the scariest things in the universe. Angry Superman.

Oh! And they adapted this into episode 2 of Justice League Unlimited, which is currently streaming on Netflix!

 

All Star Superman

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This is easily the best Superman story I have ever read, and it’s another conclusion story! Hmm, maybe we should lay off origins and do some more conclusions. InĀ  this tale, Superman flies to close to the sun, high fives Icarus, and becomes stronger than ever before. The downside is that all of his cells are exploding from too much energy and he is going to die. In his final days, Superman completes the greatest feats in his entire lifetime. If you think Superman’s strength makes telling stories about him hard, this one will prove you wrong.

Also they made an animated movie about it if you don’t like reading!

 

Superman’s longevity exists because he is an icon that will never die. He is a beacon of goodness that we should all aspire to be. It can be hard to see sometimes, but he is incredible. So here’s a Happy Birthday to you Clark Kent! I’ll see you again for the next one in four years.

-JP

PS – honorable mentions go out to the first Superman Movie and Superman II, as well as all of Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited.