Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice appears to be a financial success and a critical disaster. Fans are divided, the critics hated it, but it made a ton of money anyway. This begs the question: how much better would it have done had it been less flawed?
A video game would never have been allowed to have been as sloppy as the Batman v Superman film. Games get a bad rep, but they pose greater design challenges than films. If Zack Snyder had thought more like a game developer, Batman v Superman wouldn’t have been the confused, bloated, humorless wreck that has become Hollywood’s biggest nerd tax. Here are five things game design could have taught the kind of, sort of, kick off to the Justice League.
(Some spoilers ahead)
1 – If you design an asset or a mechanic, use it more than once, and be consistent.
So many expensive toys were designed for Batman v Superman that only got used for a single scene. This ultimately feels unsatisfying, since the film careens wildly between ideas without ever settling on one. The human brain doesn’t like useless information, and a lot of stuff happens in Batman v Superman that never gets applied again later. We know from game design principles that if something doesn’t feel meaningful, it’s going to frustrate the people paying to be entertained by it.
A video game can’t get away with the ever-changing rules regarding kryptonite that have plagued modern Superman films. Superman Returns was mocked for having Brandon Routh’s Superman lift an entire island of kryptonite, but Batman v Superman similarly plays fast and loose with kryptonite’s effects. In one scene, even the dust makes Supes instantly weak and in pain. He can’t fish the kryptonite-tipped spear out of fifteen feet of water without being overcome. But only moments later, he’s flying through the air with the damned thing, stabbing Doomsday for all he’s worth. He even gives it an extra shove after he’s mortally wounded.
In any game setting, that would be considered power gaming, and that’s bad form.
It was also a missed opportunity to show Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as that DC Trinity. Doomsday being slain by a weapon made by Batman, designed for Superman, and wielded by Wonder Woman would have woven the characters together doing what they do best: fighting. Even the spear’s design seems most naturally connected to the Amazon. Why the hell did Batman make a spear? It’s an unwieldy, low-tech weapon when kryptonite shards fired from some distance would make greater tactical sense — which is exactly how it was handled in the comics.
In a video game, the film’s approach would be considered bad gameplay design all around.
2 – Limit the moments where the action doesn’t dominate
In a video game, this focuses on cut scenes, but in Batman v Superman, it’s about the sheer number of moments in the film that have nothing to do with Batman fighting Superman. We don’t care about congressional hearings in a movie that promises one superhero punching another superhero in the face. We definitely don’t want to see lectures on fascism when we’ve paid to see two superpowered meatheads spar. Character motivations are important, but there are ways of including them that are incorporated into someone making something explode. Action genre products are called Action for a reason.
Batman and Superman glower at each other plenty for the first half of the film, but their first opportunity to go toe to toe on the docks ends up as nothing more than the two heroes growling bad dialogue as they stand so still they look like their game glitched.
3 – Effective tutorials are essential
A film’s first scenes are essentially their tutorial levels. They should give the viewer some key information that’s going to come in handy later. Batman v Superman sacrifices its early moments to force film audiences to watch Batman’s parents die AGAIN. There are other things a non-comics-reading audience should have gotten much more exposure to before they had to apply it to the action, like what Wonder Woman’s bracelets and lasso do, and that Wonder Woman’s abilities essentially come from magic so Kryptonians are vulnerable to them. My brother-in-law is originally not from North America, and he had no idea that Wonder Woman had a magic lasso, so the best fight in the whole movie left him kinda confused. My sister, on the other hand, had not seen Man of Steel, so she didn’t understand why Kevin Costner suddenly appeared in a scene with Superman.
And the Flash warning to Batman is a totally random WTF moment without knowledge of Flashpoint, a Flash story arc that’s already being retold with much more skill on the Flash TV show.
Similarly, the film introduces Doomsday, a critical Superman villain, with very little explanation. This minimizes the threat Doomsday posed. Doomsday’s original origin is a complicated one, and the whole point of the character was to create something that could offer Superman raw physical challenge. Superman fans knew why Doomsday’s arrival on screen was inherently ominous – he’s the character that killed Superman in the comics — but no one else knew why it was important, so the outcome of that fight confused most of the theatre I was in, which brings me to my next point.
4 – Main character deaths should matter.
Fail states are important parts of a video game. They have their origins in the arcade era, when exhausting your lives meant you had to put more money in the machine. Now that game consoles are the dominant way people play games, savvy game designers have gotten creative regarding how to handle playable character deaths. Death and permadeath, for instance, are different things in gaming.
The death of Superman near the end of the film was so disingenuous, and the prolonged twin funeral scenes so drawn out, that it felt like an over-long load screen. My gamer brain was imagining a respawn timer counting down to when the audience could collectively get back in the game. Then I heard the woman sitting next to me say “He’s not dead”.
Of course he’s not dead! So why pretend that he is?! Stop making copies of The Empire Strikes Back, film directors! The equivalent of Han Solo doesn’t have to end a second film in carbonite.
5 – You can only make one game at a time.
We know what happens when an action adventure game suddenly drops in Real Time Strategy elements: bloated disasters like Brütal Legend. Batman v Superman meets a similar fate for identical structural reasons: it tries to be too many things at once. Elements from the comics pulled from The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman, A Death in the Family and The New 52, as well as some moments cribbed from the Injustice video game, are all mashed together in one film, even though any one of those arcs has enough content for a solid movie on its own. The resulting script was morbidly obese.
But the overkill goes deeper than that. I never thought I’d see Arkham City Batman and Lego Batman on the same screen, but Batman’s power armor look is so evocative of the kid-friendly Lego brand that I giggled despite myself through that thoroughly boring fight.
The problem with that suit design is that upon seeing the film I promptly warned my friends with kids that the suit is a lie: it’s not a kid-appropriate movie. It’s too bleak, too cynical, too angry, and too slow. Making a film kids will enjoy isn’t just about bloodless battles. It’s about telling a story a kid can understand.
Any film involving Superman should be kid friendly: a failure to understand that is a failure to understand the appeal of Superman. As bleak as the latter Harry Potter films were, even they understood that you can’t off the hero.
The full title of the film: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indicates the split personality that drives the film into narrative psychosis. On one hand, it’s supposed to be a long-awaited big screen clash between DC’s two most popular characters. But it’s also expected to serve as a backdoor pilot for the Justice League. The result is a crappy Lex Luthor who would have made a great Riddler and a series of Diana Prince/Bruce Wayne scenes that are interchangeable with the dynamic of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The movie never finds its feet… because it’s a centipede.
Games have to manage their budgets more wisely, and playtesting would have caught these mistakes.
So perhaps we should stop sneering at movies that remind us of video games, and realize that video games have many things to teach action films.