There’s an idea that’s been developing for the past few years in comedy around reference humor or call-out humor. Comedians — or film or television — will, in place of a joke, simply call out a title and hope that’s enough to make viewers laugh. This is often confused with meta-humor because it exists on the same spectrum, but doesn’t go so far as to make an actual joke. The best recent example is Deadpool, which has several jokes on this spectrum, some of which work and some of which don’t. To familiarize yourself with the concept, you can watch it again with the question in mind, “Did that pop-culture reference actually say something about pop-culture, or just remind me that it exists?”
The Easter eggs in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aren’t jokes, but they operate in much the same way. The movie references several iconic stories and teases future movie storylines, but doesn’t actually play those stories out.
Since Batman v Superman opened last weekend to several March box office records and critical derision, several articles have come out talking about all the Easter eggs in the movie indicating that Darkseid’s coming will be the primary crossover storyline of DC’s movie series.
Most of these hints come in one of the bizarre, out-of-nowhere dream sequences of Batman (Ben Affleck). Batman looks down on a massive Omega symbol carved into the ground, pictured above, at the ruins of a city and massive plumes of flame springing from the earth, all of which indicate Darkseid has arrived and transformed Earth into Apokolips. The sequence continues with Batman acquiring a stone, which the audience is meant to think is kryptonite, but being betrayed and ambushed by soldiers adorned with the Superman insignia and a bunch of weird bug things that are apparently Darkseid’s shocktroopers, parademons. Then, Superman (Henry Cavill) shows up and yells at Batman for killing Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Batman wakes up to see the Flash (Ezra Miller) reach back through time to him and tell him he was right about Superman and that Lane is somehow key to all this. Batman then wakes up for real. Additionally, in a deleted scene which should not have been deleted, we see Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) communing with what appears to be Steppenwolf, Darkseid’s general. This explains Luthor’s certainty throughout the movie that more powerful beings are coming from the sky.
Where Deadpool begs the question of whether or not something is funny simply because its name is called, Dawn of Justice asks whether or not something is dramatic and powerful simply because it is alluded to, and there’s an argument to be made that it can be.
Dawn of Justice, like Man of Steel before it, is filled with religious themes and imagery. It’s a clever, deliciously cynical idea — the goal was to put the DC universe in the real 21st century world, and if an alien who seemingly knows everything and can seemingly be everywhere at once were to show up in the real 21st century world, more people would see him as the Antichrist or the Second Coming than wouldn’t. The sequel introducing Batman and Luthor, both of whom see Superman as an existential threat and want him dead for reasons both practical — Superman could turn on them and destroy the Earth at any moment — and personal — Batman, in this movie, embodies friction between man and God, bearing toward Superman both an inferiority complex for his power and a righteous anger for his poor use of it.
If the general storyline is that Superman is God and Batman fights him because his benevolence is in question, the subtext of Darkseid, who is literally an evil god, being on the way is a boon to that story, as is the subtext of Luthor being a Satanist and a necromancer instead of the film’s awkward moral center. There’s a great symmetry at play with this plotline, too — General Zod (Michael Shannon) tried to turn Earth into his homeworld, Krypton, in Man of Steel, and Darkseid’s standard procedure is to turn planets into his wasteland homeworld of Apokolips. This knowledge of what is to come genuinely makes the movie better and more powerful.
So making it into a mysterious Easter egg/deleted scene that most people will only understand once they look it up after the movie may not have been the smartest move.
The answer is yes — context of stories that came before can enhance the story you’re telling now, but not if they’re handled as woefully as they are by Zack Snyder. In Dawn of Justice, scenes foreshadowing upcoming movies create either a sense of impatience when the movie pauses to barrage viewers with cameos or befuddlement during the scenes foreshadowing Darkseid, which aren’t explained in the movie in any way. Even the key deleted scene wouldn’t make sense without someone spelling it out. The movie’s many references to the Dark Knight Returns and Death of Superman storylines draw eye-rolls at how forced and out-of-place the lines are, whether or not a viewer knows they’re references.
It comes back to something people were saying when this movie was first announced — that DC was doing things in the wrong order, putting the crossover before the individual movies, the opposite of what Marvel did. It’s a readily apparent flaw, and it’s going to be even more readily apparent when Captain America: Civil War comes out next month and uses the same techniques Dawn of Justice used to much greater effect. Civil War will bring to fruition a conflict that has been bubbling for eight years now, not one that debuted three years ago in a movie that no one liked. It will be referencing movies people will have been watching in its leadup, marathoning in some cases, instead of comic books a lot of people may or may not have read.
At the end of the day, it’s all just another example of what DC is doing completely wrong despite Marvel having already done the exact same thing completely right.