It was considered among the biggest blunders in corporate history.
Back in 1985, Coca-Cola—in a desperate bid to keep up with rival Pepsi, which was preferred in taste tests—introduced a sweeter version of its cola dubbed New Coke. You probably know what happened after that: ridicule, failure, keys to the executive washroom being confiscated.
If you think giant corporations learned a lesson from New Coke about foolishly trying to mimic rivals, you haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the critically drubbed but commercially successful downer from director Zack Snyder.
The film, starring DC Comic’s iconic trio of heroes, is clearly chasing the success of Marvel Studios, and in doing so, abandons everything that makes DC great.
Even that “v” in the title is not exactly a natural fit. Heroes fighting one another is a Marvel innovation.
DC basically created the superhero back in 1938 with Action Comics #1, and through the 1940s and 1950s, largely defined what we think of as a superhero: optimistic do-gooders in brightly colored costumes who worked for the public good and always drank their milk.
Witness the origin of the Justice League in 1962’s Justice League #9, in which the group of heroes is drawn together to defeat evil aliens and then very civilly decides to unite. “We ought to form a club or society,” Batman says to Superman, Wonder Woman and the others, as though he’s excited for something to put on his college transcript.
It wasn’t until the modern Marvel universe was created in 1961 that heroes became more complicated. Writer-editor Stan Lee turned the comic book world on its head by publishing heroes who acted like real people as opposed to DC’s sanitized gods. And when these characters met, more often than not, they smashed each other through a brick wall, often due to a misunderstanding—exactly what happens in Batman v Superman.
The truth is, there’s no plausible reason for Superman to battle Batman, in large part because the classic Superman should be above petty conflicts like that. And the movie strains for much of its 2.5-hour running time trying to give us a premise that pays off the title, and in the process is forced to turn the “big blue boy scout” into an even bigger scowling, out-of-character mope than he was in Snyder’s Man of Steel.
The idea that Superman and Batman would even live in the same universe is also something that Marvel perfected—especially when it comes to carefully planned string of movies that make up their cinematic universe.
Starting in 1961 with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, Marvel began building a massive fictional world in which all its heroes lived. Characters from different titles would interact and events in one book would have repercussions in another.
DC’s titles were originally much looser, and Batman only met Superman in print for the first time in 1952.
But of course, Marvel’s parent company Disney has reaped billions off its cinematic universe, and so DC is hoping to follow suit with Batman v Superman, despite the fact that its stable of characters might be too disparate to operate within the same tonal universe.
Unlike Marvel’s core heroes, most of which were created over a three-year period in the 1960s by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, DC’s big names were dreamt up by different writers and artists and under different editorial supervision.
If Superman seems like an odd fit in the grim-dark Batman universe pioneered by director Christopher Nolan, this could be why.
There’s nothing wrong with updating old characters—except when it betrays their fundamental nature. An early 1940s DC memo mandated that superheroes don’t kill, but here Supes and Batman directly and indirectly pile up a body count in the hundreds if not thousands.
One super-sized clue about how much the filmmakers and studio wrestled with shoehorning Superman into this ill-fitting Snyderverse comes with the hero’s ultimate fate. Let’s just say, like New Coke, he’s been recalled.