Now that we’ve all seen the epic majesty that is Captain America: Civil War and eagerly await to see it again (and if you haven’t seen it yet, shame on you), we are left to ponder where exactly that leaves Warner Bros./DC Comic’s earlier released competitive counterpoint, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (and if you’ve paid to see that one more than once, shame, shame; everybody knows your name).
The question we originally started with was: “Does Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice deserve its negative critical reception?”
While I have read and heard glowing reviews from fans of Dawn of Justice, lauding its darker, more serious tone and daring story direction, I have also heard firsthand accounts of audience members walking out of the theater in the middle of the film. There has never been a superhero movie as polarizing as Batman V. Superman, perhaps not even a movie in general. Critics panned the film, but it made money. Comic book fans (particularly those of Batman) reportedly loved the film, while general public left the theater in confusion and disappointment. What happened? Why was the reaction so split? What could this mean for the future of the Warner Bros./DC Comics’ combined “Cinematic Universe”?
It is obvious what DC Comics and parent company Warner Bros. were thinking. After seeing the phenomenal success of rival Marvel Comics’ “combined cinematic universe” backed by the Disney powerhouse, DC and the WB wanted to capitalize on this success with their own premier group of superheroes, the Justice League. Marvel Comics took a gamble and hit the jackpot by making a long-term plan starting with 2008’s Iron Man, weaving the stories of many movies together over time, culminating with 2012’s The Avengers, and continuing from there. However, DC wanted to take a shortcut by starting with a Superman solo movie, 2013’s Man of Steel, and wanted to see “Avengers money” by the second or third film of the franchise.
DC Comics, banking on the general notoriety of their own superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, plus the prior success of Batman movies, such as Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, believed they could fast track the storyline of their movies to get to a combined “movieverse” of their own to match the success of Marvel’s. The problem is DC/WB believed they could do the superhero genre “better” by making it “darker”, “more mature”, and “realistic”—again like the “Nolan Trilogy”, but with Superman.
Let me rephrase that: DC/WB wanted to make Superman more like Batman. Thus, 2013’s Man of Steel kicked off DC’s own “combined cinematic universe” to rousing…mediocrity and controversy. Yet they decided to stick to their guns for all future installments. Batman V. Superman is only the second movie of their combined franchise and their plan has already backfired.
Let’s apply an analogy to the difference in approaches between Marvel and DC’s cinematic universe. Marvel lit the kindling with Iron Man and by the time of The Avengers, there was a roaring bonfire beach party that everybody was invited to. It’s the party that’s still going eight years later and shows no sign of stopping. DC and Warner Bros. on the other hand, had a gas can and a lighter with Man of Steel…and napalmed a forest full of woodland critters three years later in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Although critics might disagree, I didn’t think Batman V. Superman was a wholly “bad” movie. It was well performed by talented actors, the fight scenes were incredible, fast-paced, and action packed, the plot was easy enough to follow (although the characters’ motivations were somewhat murky), and the movie was overall more entertaining than Man of Steel. However, while not “bad”, the movie did have more than a few problems.
One major problem was how much they tried to shoehorn into the film, detracting from the central plot.
It made it seem like Warner Bros. was just trying to rush through Batman V. Superman (…Guest-starring Wonder Woman…with plugs for Aquaman and others, etc.) to set up for the following Justice League film. There was none of that glorious Marvel build up through interweaving multiple movie storylines.
Interestingly, throughout the popular comic book boom of the late 80s and early 90s, it was mostly Marvel Comics noted for their edgier, more realistic take on the superhero genre. At the time, DC was better known for its galactic-scale epics and fantastic, altruistic heroes. Both sides still had their zany adventures and dark storylines respectively, but that was just the overall public perception. One major exception on DC’s side was Frank Miller’s 1986 future, alternate universe story “The Dark Knight Returns”, which helped move public perception of Batman away from Adam West’s colorful “Caped Crusader” from the 1960’s TV show and paved the way for Tim Burton’s darker, cinematic take on the character in 1989.
As it just so happens, “The Dark Knight Returns” is the basis for the plot of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice because in it, future Batman fights a politically corrupt future Superman.
Wait…so Warner Bros./DC decided to use an alternate universe/future version of Batman as the introduction of the character into their movie franchise? I feel like a stereotypical southern mechanic looking under the hood of a lost tourist’s car: “Well, thar’s yer problem right thar!”
It doesn’t help matters that the other half of the plot was lifted directly from another famous, yet controversial, actually “canon” storyline. Unfortunately, it would be a major spoiler if I told you which story it was…but I can tell you it was way too soon in the franchise to do and a huge reason for the negative reaction from the audience and critics.
I would like to take a moment to point out a positive in the movie’s favor, something you may not like…
Despite which “version” of Batman the story utilized, Ben Affleck was a good choice. Although mockingly dubbed “Batfleck” before the movie’s premier when it just seemed like stunt casting to garner attention to the film, he gave a phenomenal performance in the role. Another controversial casting choice that was considered by many fans as a bad was Jessie Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Still, I thought even Eisenberg had a fantastic take on the character. Many people forget that before he became the billionaire self-styled ruler of Metropolis, Lex Luthor had been a criminally insane mad scientist for most of his criminal career. In a movie that was considered “too dark” for the character of Superman, Eisenberg’s Luthor brought in some much welcomed levity, though it too had a dark twist to it.
During the first week of the film’s release, Batman V. Superman saw the worst drop off in ticket sales of any blockbuster in history. Although Batman V. Superman had a highly successful opening and made enough money at the box office to “recover its investment”, it was a critical failure and considered a disappointment because it fell short of one billion dollars. Most, if not all of its success, came from the hype and excitement of a movie featuring Batman fighting Superman and introducing the first live-action Wonder Woman in film. However, it saw a rapid drop in ticket sales due to negative reviews and word of mouth once the movie finally released. People just didn’t like it.
Warner Bros. and DC may have just lost too many fans and harmed the entire genre of superhero movies. BvS was even accused of putting a damper on Captain America: Civil War ‘s opening weekend, due to the general public shying away from the genre as a whole. Luckily, critical acclaim, positive audience response, and just plain being a good, enjoyable movie that just so happened to also be about superheroes fighting each other gave Civil War a huge boost in ticket sales after the fact.
BvS has undeniably changed the way DC Comics is handling the future of its superhero movies. First of all, director Zack Snyder has left the Justice League film and has been replaced by George Miller, the director of Mad Max: Fury Road. It has also been rumored that the next installment in the DC Cinematic Universe, the villain-centric Suicide Squad, has spent millions in last minute reshoots to make the movie “funnier” before its release date in just a few months. What this means for other upcoming films in the franchise like the completed Wonder Woman and the already casted Aquaman and The Flash, is as of yet unknown.
It appears DC Comics saw the need to “lighten up” even before the negative reaction to BvS. The company had been planning a “Rebirth” for their comics’ line after the failure to of the “New 52” reboot in 2011. To discuss the full folly of the New 52 would take an entire article in and of itself, but the bottom line is DC Comics decided to revamp their comic books and invigorate sales by restarting (most, but not all) their characters and stories. However, instead of sticking with the atmosphere of larger than life heroic legacies and adventures, they decided to become Marvel Comics in the 90’s, yet another ill-conceived attempt to catch up with the competition by taking a step backwards. Even Superman, the shining beacon of hope and strength for the company, was affected.
Superman may have always been criticized for being unrelatable as a too-powerful character, but he always tried to present himself as the best of humanity. With New 52, however, DC decided he should struggle with being an alien…making him even more unrelatable! He’ll eventually lose his powers and secret identity to roam the country on a motorcycle. Yeah, because that’s somehow more in touch with fans…I guess? However, the DC Comics “Rebirth” promises to bring “Legacy” and “love” back to the pages of their books, but that is an article for another day as well.
Like I said before, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a bad movie. DC Comics and Warner Bros. just totally misjudged their audience. They believed their audience could handle something darker and more mature in their superhero fare, but the truth is most people want to see a superhero movie and have fun.
We do want our heroes to face tragedy and drama, pathos and pain, but we also want to leave the theater entertained—not angry and lost because the hero’s choice at the end didn’t make sense. I am still looking forward to what was foreshadowed in Batman’s dream, but I just wish they’d lighten up the mood a little. Hopefully, Suicide Squad and “Rebirth” are going to be steps in the right direction. Besides “Rebirth”, DC Comics’ head scribe and Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns, has stated he intends to bring “hope and optimism” back to DC Comics. Whether that is just for the comic books, includes the flagging fledgling film franchise, or is meant for the company’s financial future as a whole remains to be seen.