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