I keep going back to the scene in the desert. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are meeting with a torrential warlord. Olsen takes harmless photos of the interview when Anatoli intervenes. There’s something distinctly meta about this scene. Olsen, a surrogate for director Zack Snyder, and Anatoli, a stand-in for an overbearing studio with an agenda of their own. Anatoli plucks the camera from Olsen, extracts the roll of film and exposes the negative, desecrating the pictures into ruin. Considering Olsen’s doomed fate, I can’t think of a better metaphor that captures the trials that plagued Batman v Superman in the editing suite. Snyder, the idealistic filmmaker, has a vision. But he is beholden to the studio the same way Olsen is beholden to Luthor’s henchman. This gave us the theatrical cut, which Snyder admirably stood by. The Ultimate Edition (the supposed compromise between the studio and Snyder’s original vision) was meant to realign what was supposed to be the greatest fight card in the history of the world. But does a longer movie equate to a better one? Yes and no.
The skeletal structure of the film remains the same, but the Ultimate Edition does illuminate plot points that were merely glossed over or otherwise nonexistent. It certainly sheds light on what was going on in that desert, that of a methodical frame-up implicating the man in blue (Anatoli sears the dead bodies as if they were subjected to Superman’s heat vision). This renewed plot point introduces us to a new character: Kahina Ziri, a Nairomian grieving the loss of her parents. Her testimony fans the flames of global outcry that inevitably lead to the public indictment of Superman.
This gives us a better understanding of how Luthor is manipulating these two titans into conflict. Lex may have the Kryptonite, but in his quest to cut Superman down to size he finds his greatest weakness: public opinion. Clark ironically informs public opinion as a journalist, so it’s fitting then that Luthor sets Clark’s sights on Batman, engaging him in the zeitgeist surrounding the Caped Crusader.
Clark wonders how a city can allow a lone hero to trample on their civil liberties. At the same time, the rest of the world is debating what’s to be done about a meta-human who tramples international borders. Yes, this Batman kills people, but Superman himself has also gotten people killed. So who is the real hero? And what does being a hero mean when by definition it effectively means getting other people killed?
The knowledge of the other’s existence causes both Batman and Superman to question their own. The most frustrating part about the film, however, is that it seems totally uninterested in any moral debate whatsoever. It simply settles for a taunt (“Do you bleed?”). Even when Superman is called before the committee, he doesn’t get a chance to speak. Because the plot has to move forward, so the explosion has to happen before Superman can get a word in, not after. The only thing the Ultimate Cut can do is explain why Superman couldn’t stop the bomb (Wally’s wheelchair was made from the same mysterious metal used in Nairomi, therefore Clark couldn’t have seen it).
I suppose the film doesn’t know what to say about Superman’s fateful battle in Metropolis, the same way the film has no idea what to say about a Batman that can kill. Instead, the film wants them to go at it, which is fine except the conflict is rendered all but pointless (“Save Martha!”). The shared name of a mother still doesn’t resolve either of their actions. It simply side-steps the title conflict for the sake of moving the plot forward yet again.
Luthor might be the biggest point of contention in the script. He knows what apparently the rest of the world doesn’t, that Clark Kent = Superman. He doesn’t stop there. He also knows the identities of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. But how does he know? And why would he want to wage war against them? Since the film is subtitled Dawn of Justice it’s convenient for the plot if he serves as a villain to all. Yet in doing so, he single-handedly assembles the Justice League. He could very well be construed as the film’s hero.
Such goes on to demonstrate that a longer cut simply cannot salvage a bad script. It’s still unclear as to why Lois Lane was in the desert to begin with and why she’d risk herself so callously for a scoop. It seems like a gross misuse of her super-powered boyfriend whom she knows can save her at any moment (and since Clark comes in well after the bullets started flying, it can be argued that Superman allowed Jimmy Olsen to die along with those caught in the crossfire).
The Knightmare sequence still has no business being in the film. I’ll admit, I love how batshit bonkers it is (the Omega symbol and the ensuing parademons definitely whet my appetite for Darkseid). Contextually, it does feed into Bruce’s paranoia with the Flash pointing out that he was “always right” about Superman. But like the Lex Corp files of the Justice League, it feels so obviously tacked on. It’s as if the studio hijacked the screen and said, “Hey! Don’t forget, we’re making more movies!” The studio seems to have forgotten that these characters were never mentioned nor hinted at in Man of Steel. That film at least had subtle world-building. This, on the other hand, is outright obnoxious, which speaks to the product as a whole. BvS tries so hard to make a promise for future DC films that it forgets to deliver the promise they made on this one.
We were promised Man of Steel 2, but after Warner Bros. realized how many leagues behind they were compared to Marvel, they decided to play catch-up. They wanted to use a concept they had been trying to get off the ground for years (Batman vs. Superman) not as an event film, but to simply usher in the Justice League, which is what makes BvS such a pointless affair. By comparison, Marvel gave each of their characters a solo outing before teaming up in Avengers, providing them the legroom to do some proper world-building. It was a commitment, for sure, but a commitment that paid off. Warner Bros. clearly want their Avengers-level success. It’s just a shame that they decided to cut some serious corners to get there.
BvS has moments of greatness. The opening, despite retreading through Batman’s origin, is as moody and stylish as we’ve ever seen. Though borrowed heavily from The Dark Knight Returns, it feels as though it’s in the same grimy streets as Watchmen. The central fight between Batman and Superman is similarly engrossing, borrowing from the aforementioned comic and bits of Batman Hush. Snyder, ever the fanboy. He gets insanely giddy once he’s got the Holy Trinity in play (Wonder Woman may have been shoehorned in the plot, but at least she steals the spotlight). I believe Snyder when he says he made this movie for the fans. But the studio clearly made this for a payoff that they didn’t exactly earn. BvS forgets to give Superman a movie (let alone a performance), neglects to give Wonder Woman a character, and disservices the rest of the Justice League by settling for fan service and nothing more. Going back to that scene in the desert, the Nairomian warlord says to Lois Lane, “Ignorance is not the same as innocence.” Perhaps the execs at Warner Bros. should take note.
I suppose the ignorance lies on our part too. We had sky-high expectations going in. We were blinded by them, transfixed, starry-eyed, just like Bruce Wayne. “There was a time above, a time before. There were perfect things. Diamond absolutes. But things fall…” Bruce’s opening narration is painfully astute: “In the dream, it took me to the light. A beautiful lie.”