How ‘Justice League’ Can Relearn The Lessons Of ‘Batman Begins’ And ‘Casino Royale’

Recently, our boss and ace scooper Umberto joined several other major outlets and reported from the set of Justice League, which is currently filming on sound stages in London. From Umberto’s scooping, we’ve known hope, optimism and redemption were the operating words for the superhero team-up after the darkness of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and he came away convinced that director Zack Snyder and company were pulling it off.

It wasn’t just Umberto either. Almost all set reports from the likes of io9 to Uproxx, including some noted “haters” of Batman v Superman, came away encouraged and positive, some cautiously, about whether Justice League will work in the ways BvS did not. HitFix‘s Drew McWeeny gave an outsider’s view for comparison and concluded the set visit, as a PR endeavor, was successful in wiping the slate clean for Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman to lead the way to Justice League. For my money, there’s one comment from set visit articles that were published that caught my eye, potentially explaining why Batman v Superman misfired with critics and general audiences and why Justice League has a chance to superhero movie we want and need it to be.

The quote comes from producer Deborah Snyder, wife of Zack, responding to a question from either Kyle Buchanan at Vulture or Devin Faraci at Birth.Movies.Death (both claim to have asked it). Here’s the excerpt from Buchanan’s post.

When it came to touting the new film’s tone, Deborah was Justice League’s most upbeat, on-message pitchwoman; even more so than her husband, she did her damnedest to sell us on the notion of a three-film arc that hit its darkest point in the previous movie but was always meant to swing upward. Still, she hinted at some growing pains along the way.

“If every film is a learning experience,” I asked her, “then what did you learn from Batman v Superman?”

She paused, and let a rueful smile slip out. “The main thing we learned, I think: People don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed . . . They like seeing them in all their glory… I think what’s really great is where we’re going is kind of what the audience is wanting. We just had to take the characters from somewhere to bring them up to where they are and that was our journey.”

It’s about as honest and decent an answer as she probably could have given (she has a job to do and it’s to promote her films). But the sentence in bold is not really true, for two key reasons: Batman Begins and Casino Royale.

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These seminal reboots ushered in an age of re-imagined origin stories, specifically ones that were dark, self-serious, gritty and realistic (though mileage often varied on that last count). These films’ progeny include Robin Hood, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Snow White & the Huntsman, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel, Godzilla, Dracula Untold, Fantastic Four, Pan, and last weekend’s The Legend of Tarzan.

They also successfully reinvented two of the biggest film franchises on the planet. At the time, their method was revolutionary: returning to the literal and figurative roots of the character and rebuilding the elements people loved about them from the ground up. Now, in retrospect, the two films released 17 months apart changed modern superhero and blockbuster films.

Most importantly, unlike Snyder’s belief, they were equally successful, critically and financially, in deconstructing the myths of their heroes, damaged as they were by their previous outings, 1997’s Batman & Robin and 2002’s Die Another Day. Both those films were extravagantly flamboyant, requiring the franchise’s to return to Earth to re-invest audiences and focus on the novel concept of making the protagonist the most interesting character in his own movie.  That’s exactly what Begins and Royale did.

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But what Snyder – and the makers of most* of the deconstructionist reboots that followed these films – missed with that analysis is that neither Royale nor Begins treated deconstruction as an end unto itself but as a paving a path for reconstruction of the things people loved in the first place. In TVTropes parlance, that’s called a decon-recon switch. Audiences didn’t want to see their heroes and idols compromised and demolished; they wanted to see them rebuilt, refined and retrofitted. They want to believe in them again.

It adds stakes and weight to proceedings. Why should we care about the umpteenth portrayal of Batman, for example? Oh, because in Begins, we see every decision Bruce makes on the way to becoming the superhero, from considering taking vengeance on Joe Chill to refusing to take a life on Ra’s al Ghul’s orders, and, most importantly, these decisions make sense. The audience actually gets to understand each facet of Batman. It puts the audience right there with him as the hero saves the day, so when there are payoffs, they are timed for fist-pumps and resonate. The sheer amount of repeated lines and callbacks are staggering. This moment is a stand-out for me:

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Same with Royale. Here’s a raw Bond and he refers to himself as such. In the words of Sam Mendes, who provided his own Bond deconstruction from the opposite end of the spy’s career in Skyfall and Spectre, it was Royale‘s ability to re-invest audiences after 20 films that convinced him there was more to say with the character.

“I felt that what I saw in Casino Royale was a Bond who was capable, as an actor, capable of handling a much bigger personal journey . . . But particularly in Casino Royale, it felt like Bond was back in the center of the movie, because he was on screen the whole time. He had a journey, he had an emotional stake. He fell in love in that movie. And there was no coincidence that, that was the first movie in a long time that had been based on a Fleming novel. So to try to find that kind of personal weight in the center of the movie was really important. That was something that we really concentrated on.”

The problem is that deconstruction has become synonymous with darkness. This false equivalency helps explain how some beloved characters have been essentially deconstructed away, basic morality and all. If Batman is OK with killing people, what’s the difference between him and the Punisher? If Superman doesn’t want to be Superman, why should we want him to be? When audiences feel detached or apart from the protagonists, they don’t emotionally invest in them.

Deconstruction doesn’t mean changing everything about a character or story in order to create something different. It’s about taking something apart to see how it works, understanding it and then rebuilding it better than before. In regards to superheroes specifically, when they’re not acting heroic, it defeats the purpose of paying $10 for a ticket to a superhero movie.

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The truth is not that audiences don’t want to see heroes deconstructed, it’s that the makers of Batman v Superman botched the reconstruction. Like most film geeks, I watched the film’s Ultimate Edition as soon as I could on release. And, like most film geeks, I was impressed. The Ultimate Edition is no longer the incompetent film the theatrical cut was. It’s chock-full of bits and pieces that develop the plot, the characters and themes to a coherent level. Nonetheless, it’s still a misguided tonal misfire and it got me thinking how we got to this point, where Hollywood would make the long-awaited meeting of Batman and Superman a $350+ million, 3-hour, R-rated film that needed to mutilate itself just to make it to theaters. This view was best summarized by Daniel Alter, Umberto’s co-host on Heroic Insider and a producer with keen insight into Hollywood blockbusters.

There are basic problems beyond the limiting atmosphere of the film’s content. In neither cut for instance does Batman and Superman’s confrontation ever get past the impression that its forced and unnecessary, like the writer attempting to convince himself why these two superheroes would go at it. Their actions require suspension of disbelief and don’t entirely make sense to audiences (What moral authority does Batman have to straight-up murder Superman? Why doesn’t Superman immediately explain Lex kidnapped his mother?) and because of that we can’t invest in them or their conflict. The Ultimate Edition goes a long way to improving this, but so much remains baked-in by the script and tone that it’s impossible to eliminate what ails the film.

Snyder maintains it was always the plan to show Superman and Batman at their lowest points in BvS as part of their unintentional Justice League trilogy. It could have been a powerful story but for many people it fell flat because people weren’t emotionally connected to or reinvested in these iterations of the heroes like they were by Begins and Royale. We hadn’t seen them enough in their prime and experienced their joy or triumphs to really appreciate and be moved by their pain and suffering.

When all’s said and done, these flicks may amount to the most reactionary film series ever, surpassing even the X-Men films, with each successive film made as a response to the previous one. Superman Returns was already in production when Batman Begins hit big, so by the time Royale cleaned up in November 2006, it was clear Bryan Singer’s Donner tribute was too backward-thinking to spawn a new series.

So his sequel Superman: Man of Steel became the Man of Steel, in a deliberate attempt to ape the prestige Christopher Nolan brought to Batman Begins. To legitimize it, they hired the cerebral The Dark Knight trilogy mastermind to produce and teamed him with adrenalized fanboy action director Zack Snyder to direct their “Superman’s origin by way of alien invasion” reboot.

Then that movie get derailed by its final act which took superhero violence and destruction to a whole new level so the Man of Steel trilogy they planned never got made, they quickly announced Batman would join the sequel and it would address the repercussions of Superman. Three years later, out popped Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Then that movie got derailed by unexpectedly doubling down on Man of Steel‘s complaints as features, not bugs. The tone was oppressive, the characters were miserable and its themes as compromised as its heroes. Then it was forcibly edited into the theatrical cut, essentially crippling the film.

Now, Justice League is all about hope, optimism and redemption, much like Batman himself according to Affleck after his descent into killing. It’s all streamlined plot (stop Steppenwolf from getting the Mother Boxes!) and, most importantly, fun (The Flash!). While I’m obviously skeptical of Deborah Snyder’s deconstruction comment, I think one reason to be optimistic is another quote of hers.

“They like seeing them in all their glory… I think what’s really great is where we’re going is kind of what the audience is wanting.”

I agree with her here. People want their heroes and storytelling tropes. They just want them earned first, put back together with the same care they were taken apart. The deconstructionist darkness of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were poor Nolan imitations and behind the times. Like Superman Returns, they were backwards-thinking, chasing what succeeded in the past, a common Hollywood trend. Now, there’s good evidence that Snyder is right – they and the audience are finally on the same page. We get to believe in heroes again.

*I exempt Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Man of Steel from my list. Although I haven’t seen The Legend of Tarzan, I’ve been heartened by its reception and intend to check out if it earns the same exemption.

Sam Flynn

Sam Flynn

Sam is a writer and journalist whose passion for pop culture burns with the fire of a thousand suns and at least three LED lamps.