Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Marvel makes it look so easy.  They churn out one blockbuster after another, not all of them gems, but the overall quality is pretty impressive.  And they are making so much money that their corporate overlord Disney doesn’t feel the need to step in and interfere.  They’ve successfully branched out into television and streaming.  Marvel’s media arm has yet to make a serious misstep and they are establishing a model that others, like Star Wars are beginning to follow.

So why does DC struggle so to make just one decent movie from their most famous character?  Part of the reason is that the character of Superman is so hard to depict in an adult setting.  Most superheroes are born from adolescent power fantasies, the wish to have the power to fight back against our bullies and to impress the girls we crush on.  But to my mind Superman has always been from another place.  He represents the wish for an incorruptible, benevolent force that will always protect us.  He is a father figure; a patriarchal god who always provides and never disappoints.  The resemblance of his origin story to Jesus is well-documented and rather obvious.  So it is hard not to depict him as “the big blue Boy Scout,” giving rides to children and applying a simple moralistic code to crime and punishment.  This infantilizes the other characters in the story.

Adult narratives, however, require complication and nuance.  Part of the struggle is figuring out the best thing to do and then finding a way to do it.  Realistic stories include compromises and lesser evils.  And it is difficult to portray that in a Superman story and still have him be optimistic and determined to find and do the right thing.  The easy choice is change him; make him more like Batman.  But that’s not the most interesting choice.  It’s far cooler to keep Superman like he is and see him struggle with a complicated world.  Of course they’ve been doing exactly that in the comics and in the DC animated universe for years.   But then comics people run those two things.

All of DC’s movie rights are owned by Warner Brothers, a major studio.  It’s been this way for years.  There isn’t enough money on the table on the animated side of things for the studio to be tempted to get involved.  But the live action properties are another story.  A superhero movie is by definition a blockbuster.  A lot of money is invested and a lot more is expected to be made.  An established studio like Warner Brothers is simply not going to let a bunch of comic book writers and editors have ultimate creative control.  Something like that wouldn’t even occur to them.

This is the main reason I am nervous about DC, or rather Warner Brothers, trying to set up a mega-continuity ala Marvel.  Of course Marvel’s success makes it inevitable that they try.  But I am not optimistic about their chances of success.  I would much rather that they look to their own past success for a way to proceed in the future.  The Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films is the perfect model for Warner Brothers.  Hire an interesting director with a vision for a character.  Have him pick a production team, writers and a cast, lock everybody up for a three picture deal and let them do what they want in a separate continuity.  Then start over again.

But that’s not the way they are going.  With Avengers films routinely landing in the top ten grossing films of all time, Warner Brothers simply has to make a Justice League movie.  And they have to make movies based on the separate members leading up to it.  DC and Marvel have been stealing from each other for nearly a century.  It makes sense that Warner Brothers should get in on the act.

The plot of Batman v Superman is pretty simple.  Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck doesn’t trust Superman, played by Henry Cavill, after the near destruction of Metropolis during the events of Man of Steel.  Superman thinks Batman plays too rough, terrorizing Gotham’s criminals needlessly.  The two heroes are manipulated into fighting by Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is working on a super weapon with tech salvaged from the earlier struggle with General Zod.

It’s not as bad as you’ve probably heard but it’s still pretty bad.  Part of it is the tone, which is unrelentingly grim.  Director and master of the DC universe Zack Snyder has created an unappealing world with no sunshine and very little hope.  This makes it hard to identify or root for the main characters.  I’m one who likes a little edge to his Batman but they’ve simply gone too far.  And I thought Ben Affleck did a decent job acting it.  Both the leads were decent.  Gal Godot as Wonder Woman was pretty good too.

Even technically the film falls short.  There were times when the computer generated effects looked fake.  In this day and age there’s no reason for that to happen.  The fights were confusing and not very visceral.  You don’t feel the punches for whatever reason.  The lighting is dark and dramatic but offputting.

I have no idea what kind of box office this film will do.  No doubt it will win the weekend but there isn’t much competition.  But it probably won’t put up Avengers type money either.  The audience I saw it with seemed unmoved.  There were a few of us who waited to see if there were any kind of post title sequence (there isn’t) but most people filed quietly out of the theatre.

Maybe it’s just Snyder’s vision for the project.  I’ve liked a lot of his films in the past: 300, The Watchmen, but he’s made some dogs too.  Perhaps if he were moved aside it would get better.

Frankly I don’t know what the answer is.  If I were Warner Brothers I would put some DC comics people in charge of the project.  They know the characters; they know how to make the stories work.  If you’re going to copy Marvel, do it right.

 

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