Raising the Stakes: Batman v Superman and What Not To Do

I hadn’t planned on seeing the new Batman v Superman movie in the theaters, but we had a free night and were plain old curious about the bad reviews. By the time we walked out of the theater, I had a lot of ideas about what the movie should have done differently. And since most of the problems were in the story telling avenue, it’s not too difficult to come up with blog topics to go along with them. This will mostly be spoiler-free, but some of the details that come from watching the movie will likely make certain parts of this post easier to understand.

Just so it’s said, the movie didn’t get everything wrong. Wonder Woman’s intro was handled very neatly, and was probably the most solid aspect of the entire movie. But it was otherwise disjointed and the main characters were not as smart as they should have been. (The world’s greatest detective ends up tearing through the streets in his Batmobile when he had lots of other, much quieter and stealthier options to get the job done – just to give one example.) If I had to pick the weakest part of the movie, I wouldn’t be able to. But the lack of investment in the outcome would certainly be in the top five.

Story telling at its simplest needs three plot points: the inciting incident, the turning point, and the climax. Batman v Superman had none of them. If there are no stakes to begin with, it’s very difficult to raise them.

To begin, the movie confused the inciting incident with backstory. Yes, Superman exists. Yes, he got into a battle with someone from his home world that could have killed everyone on planet Earth. Yes, a lot of people died. But adding in that Batman was upset with the gratuitous loss of life during an alien grudge match doesn’t equate to being an inciting incident. I didn’t see a problem outlined, and certainly not one that lasted for the duration of the story. Superman’s storyline didn’t start any more solidly, either. He rescues Lois from some trouble she got herself into while doing her investigative journaling (which turned her into little more than a damsel in distress, but that’s an entirely other topic long enough to be its own post), and then didn’t think twice about the fact that there were suddenly people claiming he’d killed the entire village where he rescued her.

The turning point was another complete misfire, largely due to the fact that there was no real inciting incident to establish what the Story Goal was supposed to be. I want to say that the turning point was right before the actual Batman v Superman throw-down, but that was really more like Superman’s Dark Moment. Batman’s turning point never really happened – he continued with his pursuit of Superman until one “pivotal” moment where a single detail broke through his blind animosity, and only then did he actually lay down arms. After that, Batman’s storyline was complete, which made the rest of the movie feel anticlimactic. There was also absolutely no tension when Batman had to rescue a person of interest afterward, because there had been zero-build up to it and any tension that did exist was spent on the outcome of the Bats vs Supes fight.

When there isn’t a real inciting incident, or turning point, there’s no possible way to pull off a satisfying climax. We’d spent so much time with Superman and Lois that there wasn’t any significant investment in the importance of Superman’s mother. And Batman didn’t have anything going on other than his pursuit of Superman, so that pretty much made the fight they engaged in the climax of his story. Superman’s story sort of had a climax, if you consider him vs Luthor as the real story, but it was almost entirely lost with the misdirects going on in the him versus Batman story, and I had no real investment in the outcome.

What they could have done:

  • Establish tension between Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne, or Batman, and also between Lex Luthor and Superman. Use Luthor’s plans to pick an inciting incident.
    • Luthor was concerned about meta-humans on Earth. Maybe he was working on technology to identify them. Maybe Wayne Enterprises kept blocking him, legally, because whatever he was proposing could also have been used to identify the Batman.
    • If meta-human testing, or some other kind of advanced deterrent, or a weapon, maybe something about it goes public in an incident that Superman has to deal with. Terrorist stealing it, trying to weaponize it, or if its an AI that the machine goes crazy… It’s a comic-book universe. Lots of options. Maybe the incident even takes place in Gotham, and Bats and Supes can have a pissing match over turf.
    • Now that Luthor has a reason to dislike Batman and Superman because they both were involved in disrupting his plans, go forward with plot.
  • If the story has Luthor as the true antagonist – not Batman or Superman – he proceeds by using them against each other as they attempted to establish in the movie, but now it has form and substance. Use this to craft the turning point.  Questions to answer:
    • What does Luthor want to do about Batman? What about Bruce Wayne, if anything? Where does it go right?
      • He was interested in meta-humans – what if he’d been trying to recruit Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman, or even any of the other metas that were briefly touched on during the movie? What if one of them had agreed, and kept facing off with the others until Luthor’s true plans were revealed?
    • What does Luthor want to do about Superman? Where does it go right?
      • Make Superman’s issues with Batman more personal. Maybe Luthor made it look like Batman did something he didn’t really do, just like he was trying to do with Superman and that village.
    • There needs to be a mini-climax and then a Dark Moment and then the actual Climax. If you’ve got all three for both characters, then it’s a solid story arc. Preferably their emotional arc Dark Moments are right before or during the plot’s dip before the climax.
  • Have the audience on the edge of their seat, knowing that the fight was going to happen, but nail-biting through the outcome because it would seem impossible for Batman or Superman to back down. The climax itself would be the story within the story – resolve the tension between Batman and Superman only to have the overarching plot reach up to smack them around.
    • They discover Luthor’s plans, and now need to deal with them.
    • It might be too late to deal with them.
    • Figure out what price they need to pay to win the day.

There was a lot that Batman v Superman attempted to do, and there were quite a few moments where if a little more focus and detail was given, it would have helped the plot incredibly. Instead, too much fell through the cracks or was skipped altogether, almost as though the story-teller forgot how to properly follow through on a train of thought. For instance, Superman can hear Bruce’s earpiece as he communicates with Alfred when they’re both at a gala together. Lex Luthor singles him out to introduce him to Bruce, which should have registered to him as odd, but its happening simultaneously to the earpiece thing. And although Superman has to leave to save people from a fire, it was only barely hinted at as the reason he doesn’t pursue Bruce – plus, after saving the people, he doesn’t return to the question of what Bruce was up to, either. That moment at the gala was one where there seemed to be an escalation of tension – will Clark confront Bruce? will he alert Luthor’s people to what Bruce is doing? why does Luthor get a kick out of Clark and Bruce meeting? – and then…nothing. Flatline. Which unfortunately set the tone for the rest of the movie. The main source of tension – the whole idea of Batman versus Superman – didn’t even tell the audience what would have happened if they had killed each other. It was so lackluster that if Bruce had killed Clark or vice versa, it could have been resolved with just a, “My bad, bro. My bad.” And a lack of consequences to anything going on means an audience is not going to be invested in the story. Not one bit.

To detour very briefly into a contrasting comparison where things were done correctly, you don’t have to look any farther than the 2012 Avengers movie. The inciting incident is, of course, the opening scene. Loki steals the tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D., establishing himself as the villain. This leads to the gathering of the Avengers, and their struggles as they try to thwart Loki’s plans. The turning-point is when Phil Coulson dies. It pushes the characters toward an internal resolution of self (IE, their emotional arcs) as to how they are going to behave for the rest of the story. It’s also very much a plot point, in that Loki wins, temporarily, and shows the lengths he is willing to go to achieve his plans, making the need for the Avengers to defeat him that much more dire – AKA: Raising the Stakes. The climax is when the portal closes. It is the ultimate sign of Loki’s defeat, followed by the capture and imprisonment of the god himself. The heroes save the day and each of them has a sense of a job well done, which also a reinforces their resolution as a team in the final moments of the movie knowing that they needed each other to accomplish the task. This rounds out both the narrative arc and the various emotional arcs in a neat, tidy bundle.

One of the reasons why Avengers was such a widely well received movie is because of the intertwined nature of the internal (emotional) and external (narrative) conflicts. Viewers were invested equally in the story and the characters. The character struggles were of a dual nature, against themselves as a team and against an enemy that was cunning, and knew their largest weakness as a group. Additionally, each character individually hit highs and lows as the movie progressed, coordinated to the progression of the narrative, and that is very much something worth striving for in any story.

A lot more could be said about the storyline of Batman v Superman, and future blog posts will likely touch on this again. Have you seen the movie? If you had to pick just one thing you would do differently, what would it be? Can you list one thing the movie got right? The comments are always open.

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