13 Ways of Looking at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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1. As the inevitable outcome of the superhero franchise frenzy that has overtaken mainstream filmmaking.

2. As an indicator of what the next ten years of our filmgoing lives will look like.

3. As Zack Snyder’s attempt at making the superhero Apocalypse Now, an attempt at capital-A Art that demands stern consideration, a film that purports to outdo everything that came before it. This is sort of the only way to understand some of the choices he makes, like opening the film with a maudlin montage of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents that leads immediately into a scene evoking 9/11, or the odd fever dream sequences, or the allusions to contemporary international and domestic politics, or the repeated use of slowmo, or the exaggerated efforts to stage iconic frames. These things exist, at least in my reckoning, to guide the viewer into believing they are watching something that is More Than Superheroes. It might be that, but it also isn’t very good.

4. Or, actually, he might’ve already tried to make Apocalypse Now with his adaptation of Watchmen, so I’m not sure exactly what this is. Uh.

5. As the unintended result of demanding that comic books and superhero movies be taken seriously. Of course these things can be taken seriously; they didn’t need recognition from Hollywood or the Academy Awards or the New York Times to be valid artistic enterprises. When we rewarded Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series with over $2 billion and unprecedented acclaim, though, we communicated a very particular idea of what we wanted serious superheroes, especially Batman, to look and sound like. These movies confused relentless gloom for art and adulthood, but this played well with Hollywood’s ideas of what “real” movies look and sound like, so it worked out. Also: they made over $2 billion. So this is where we end up.

6. As at least $250 million that could have been spent on anything else.

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7. As an opportunity for a critical earthquake, by which I mean the point where tension built up over a long period of time finally hits a tipping point and must be released in some violent fashion. For any number of reasons, critics have been largely positive in their appraisal of the last decade’s worth of superhero franchise films. There are exceptions. Green Lantern in 2011 is one example, but it was an island of a film, and there was little reason for most viewers to have any loyalty to it before seeing it. The Marvel franchise is something entirely different, and I’ve been surprised at how near-universally (and unduly) generous the critical community’s response to the series has been. Probably the real turning point for this was in 2008, when Iron Man was released and was surprisingly good, and was followed a few months later by The Dark Knight, which was gravely serious in such a way that it allowed critics to contemplate it with grave seriousness. The door on Good Superhero Movies had been kicked wide open, and writers from all corners responded in kind. More importantly, audiences for these films are notoriously enthusiastic, and their attention is a valuable commodity to media and news purveyors of all variations.

So it’s not coercion, exactly, and certainly much of the warm response is sincere, but there is also a general sense of positive momentum that follows the release of many of these films now. Even releases that don’t quite hit the mark in popular reception are still given very decent reviews (Avengers: Age of Ultron stands at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example). I’m going to go ahead and suggest that commercial and advertising interests exert some pressure on many outlets, as well. Perhaps this kind of consensus becomes exhausting over time. So when the whispers of a genuine stinker start coming down the pipeline, reviewers might understandably sense an opportunity to vent their frustration with the entire enterprise by proxy. Soon enough you’ve got a pile-on, and something that is casually not-good gets elevated to the status of legendarily shitty.

8. What I’m saying is that Batman v Superman is not a great movie, but it’s not really much worse, or even any worse at all, than most of the superhero films that’ve been released over the past ten years. Batman v Superman’s mistake is that it is bad out loud. Joss Whedon’s films, and by extension the rest of the Marvel films made after Iron Man, are mostly bad with a wink. They are messy, obnoxious, and profiteering in ways very similar to Snyder’s movie, but they commit some portion of their runtime to telegraphing supposed self-awareness to the audience, which gives viewers a chance to convince themselves that they’re watching something smarter than average, rather than just gorging on capitalist commerce. Batman v Superman makes no such plays at self-mockery and is unreservedly serious. It is not good and makes no feigned apologies for it. But bad out loud is unacceptable.

9. To try to illustrate the effect of the momentum of critical consensus and popular expectation, let’s take a look at some excerpts from the few positive reviews of Batman v Superman, for contrast:

“No such worries for the film itself. Batman v Superman may be a hammy, portentous affair but Snyder directs it with aplomb. He takes these cod-heroic, costumed elements and whisks them into a tale of heavy-metal fury, full of pain and toil, surging uphill, across the flyovers, in search of a climax.”

“The scope here is unashamedly novelistic, and although the plotting of the film’s first act is arguably muddled, Snyder’s sheer formal audacity means the stakes feel skin-pricklingly high at all times: if he is prepared to go this far, I found myself often wondering, just how far is he prepared to go?”

“But oddly, the film ultimately proves to be not just a redemption tale for virtually all of these characters, but an embodiment of the fundamental American belief in the individual. Although its deep bench of recognizable talent and a story with an incredible variety of moving parts suggest the necessity of cooperation – a well-oiled machine whose parts all work together towards a common goal – Snyder allows almost every ‘important’ character an opportunity to shine, to distinguish him or herself. […]Because Snyder’s film is a reminder that superheroes aren’t merely a frivolous distraction, or even a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but an embodiment of our best selves – or at least what we want our best selves to be. A cinematic, cultural and personal triumph, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is emotionally inspiring, aesthetically significant and critically important for America itself – as a mirror of both sober reflection and resilient hope.”

Just kidding. These are all taken verbatim – except for the title and director’s name – from reviews for The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that is also preposterously serious, filled with unnatural philosophizing dialogue, stuffed with subplots and characters and fan service, and is 20 minutes longer than Batman v Superman.

Reviewers’ complaints about BvS generally refer to its extended runtime, its grim tone, its overabundance of plot elements, its franchise baggage – all of which are present in TDKR. Those same elements, minus the dreary tonal choices, also exist in every Marvel release dating back to The Avengers, at least. Each of the two Avengers movies is only ten minutes shorter than BvS, and both include more lead characters than Snyder’s film. And the first of those Avengers films, in particular, received waves of acclaim.

I’m not going to allege conspiracy here or even claim bias. Instead, I’d like to suggest inconsistency, as well as a laxity in our critical analysis, a tendency to be too generous in our assessments of films that already have every conceivable advantage over us. It’s cinematic poptimism. At some point, this eagerness to embrace bloated comic book blockbuster filmmaking had to eat its own tail. The problem, in retrospect, is that when that moment arrives, it makes the previous decade’s worth of analysis look a bit ridiculous. Batman v Superman is unremarkable, but it will be remembered as a critical disaster. This puts its peers in uncomfortable positions.

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10. There is already talk of a 3- or even 4-hour cut of this movie, an R-rated version that could see release later this year on home video. Some take this as evidence of an ambition that was too big for the typical Hollywood market. They believe this longer edition will salvage the film and restore its intended glory. I don’t think a 4-hour cut would be much different. It would retain the standard film’s weird pacing issues, its labored dialogue, its bizarre shifts in momentum, and all of the other curiosities that comprise the current rendition. It would basically be the same film but longer.

I believe this to be the case because I don’t think Snyder’s vision for this film was compromised by corporate interference. He may have felt pressured, or contractually obligated, to include certain plot elements for the larger franchise’s sake, but generally, this is very much Snyder’s movie. His directorial vision is present throughout the thing, and Warner Bros. happens to be lucky that their corporate interests align nicely with Snyder’s idea of what a film like this should be.

We can compare this to Age of Ultron, a movie that Joss Whedon disowned almost immediately after its release, claiming that it was compromised by franchise necessities and overburdened with stuff outside of his control. Whedon’s film received a significantly better critical response but is directorially less unique. It’s a blander film without much identity beyond its quipping cast of characters (which, by this point, is likely also mandated by conglomerate ownership).

This is the other side of the corporate megafranchise coin. I think these are both pretty bad movies. Whedon buckled under the pressure and made something boring, overwrought, and messy. So did Snyder, but his film has a greater sense of authorship and a clearer artistic vision. Rather than buckling, he embraced the corporate parameters and made a movie with a stronger personality.

More personality isn’t always good! It certainly didn’t save Batman v Superman. The film demonstrates intent in a way that Age of Ultron doesn’t, though. Snyder’s movie is more visually consistent and considered than anything that’s come out of the Marvel camp in a long time, and while his visual selections might cause revulsion, the fact that he made those selections and saw them through to filming, editing, and release is unique in this landscape.

Look at the first scene to actually feature Batman, for example, with its shadows and sharp cuts that obscure him, with its focus instead on kidnapped women and the criminal he’s branded and cuffed to a heater. Or consider the sequence in which Superman flies to Mexico to rescue a young girl from a fire, after which he’s surrounded by reverent crowds in a mock tableau. Though these scenes host repugnant sociopolitical implications, this kind of visual deliberateness is unknown to the recent Marvel cinematic universe.

There’s maybe a misconception that the brand of tonal darkness and grim philosophizing that’s so prevalent in BvS is a default or standard mode, due to its pervasiveness in comics and videogames, in particular. This isn’t quite true, though – it’s a distinct choice, an aesthetic consideration with repercussions. It’s a ruthless choice, but it is a choice; you have to consistently attend to this decision throughout your filmmaking process to get a film this miserable. This reflects design in a way that most Marvel movies don’t. It’s a movie that is bad as a result of intent, which, I think, is more compelling and more interesting than the alternative.

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11. As a return to superhero hagiography. Recent superhero films have trended toward humanization of their protagonists. Nolan’s movies attempted this by highlighting Bruce Wayne’s interior conflicts, his moments of weakness, his flirtations with a dangerous thirst for power. Marvel films include some of this but leaven the proceedings by making their heroes speak more like the intended audience. The films hope to shorten the distance between viewer and hero by making their casts and tone casual, looking for an easy relatability.  

Batman v Superman sprints in the opposite direction. It places its superheroes back on the pedestals they were on decades ago, as titans that are explicitly, exaggeratedly larger than life. Snyder began this process with Man of Steel, and, like that film, he makes overtures toward humanization and relatability here. These attempts only serve to make the eventual deification of these characters even more striking when it inevitably occurs. That desire to return these icons to a status of godliness is apparent in Snyder’s visual presentation, his framing, in the musical scoring, and in the narrative trajectory. Superman may be living in an apartment in the city, working at a newspaper, and dealing with relationship troubles, but he triumphs over everything, even death. He isn’t one of us and never could be.

I haven’t watched or read any interviews with Snyder, so I’m not sure if he’s addressed the controversy surrounding the casual kill count and calamitous destruction in his films. If I were guessing, though, I’d say his inclination to elevate his heroes plays a part. His focus on their righteousness, their importance, and their impossible capabilities renders most everything else irrelevant. This feels less like a stated misanthropy than an ignorance of consequence. Admittedly, neither of these is desirable.

If you can separate out this cavalier attitude toward human death – which, you know, is a substantial request – then, honestly, I think there is something refreshing in this approach. The drama of the relatable, flawed superhero has its place, but sometimes, the rubber band needs to snap back in the other direction. Snyder attempts a corrective that is, in its execution, wildly irresponsible, though I appreciate his initial goals. As understandable as it is that we’d want to see something of ourselves in a superhero, it’s also absurd. In many crucial ways, these people are nothing at all like us. It is in our elevation of them to the status of icon, in the distance we place between ourselves and our legends, that we learn something about our condition (not all of what we learn is good, by the way). This perspective has gone underrepresented in the superhero film renaissance. (Batman Begins is probably the most notable exception.)

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12. Here is what it really comes down to, for me: I don’t like when salespeople try to be my friend. This is the modus operandi of the Marvel series, and I find it frustrating, tiring, and vaguely insulting. The Marvel movies are selling a product – one big product that contains many little products – while pretending to be on the side of the audiences who spend billions of dollars to access that product. These films use quirky dialogue and moments that graze the fourth wall to imply an understanding of the inherent silliness of this entire enterprise, but this is bullshit. Marvel and its parent Disney have constructed a profit-generating movie machine without historical precedent, and convincing audiences that profit is not its purpose is a critical component of its success. Marvel movies are the blockbuster equivalents of brands on social media.

The company’s Tony Stark-ing of its series exemplifies this. In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark’s blend of knowing sarcasm, arrogance, and offbeat charm was a breath of fresh air in a despairing blockbuster environment (remember I Am Legend? the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels? Spider-Man 3?) Within a few years, that character’s distinguishing features had been indiscriminately adopted for the entire franchise, leading us, eventually, to protagonists like Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, who is really just an asshole. By Iron Man 3, Tony Stark himself had become intolerable. And in the Avengers films, we have whole casts of heroes and villains that speak entirely in the same chummy vernacular Whedon fashioned for his Firefly and Buffy series (itself a close linguistic relative of the Stark persona). The filmmaking became blander, formulaic, more efficient, less personal, but always presumed fealty from its audience. The Marvel franchise offers up convoluted plots without any stakes so as to allow infinite iteration, full of gratuitous references to larger continuity, all housed inside scripts that do little but occasionally flatter the viewer’s ability to recognize metahumor.

Well, Batman v Superman isn’t trying to be your friend. It’s trying to awe you. It is a vain and misguided film that endeavors, without much success, to locate the sweet spot between art and commerce. But it feels more earnest and genuine than its peers, and it is candid about its billion dollar aspirations. It spends $250 million and 2 and a half hours to convince you that it’s very important, that it’s real art. So it fails. Whatever! If this is the media environment we are destined to live in, I would rather watch the earnest failure than the wishy-washy, pandering one being offered, year after year, by Marvel & co.

It would be safe to say that I’m not a representative sampling. Marvel’s movies break records as a rule and their fans love to examine every element of the universe being created. Batman v Superman includes some similar indicators of the greater continuity that will be featured in upcoming films, and with good reason. These details grow loyalty.

A few months ago, Marvel released a trailer for Captain America: Civil War that featured a brief glimpse of Spider-Man in its final seconds. Here is a set of comments from one of the Reddit threads about that trailer:

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That kind of enthusiasm can be quantified. As of April 2016, its number is probably somewhere around $170 million within the first weekend of release, and well over $1 billion in the weeks after that.

13. As an object lesson in getting exactly what we ask for.

 

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