Slight Batman v Superman Spoilers Below
When Batman Vs. Superman was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013, NPR’s Stephen Thompson joked, “Wow, they’re combining the grim, self-important joylessness of Dark Knight Rises with the grim, self-important joylessness of Man of Steel.”
Now, the unfortunately re-titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is here and it might just be the biggest “I told you so” or at least “about what I expected” in recent movie history. Every Hollywood insider, blogger, hardcore comic book enthusiast and film critic who has read the tea leaves, paid attention to the marketing and came away fearful of this project’s imminent failure as a film, as a piece of branded entertainment and as a seamless gateway into to the DC Cinematic Universe has seemingly had their opinion validated.
However, it’s also a cultural event which is guaranteed a big opening weekend worldwide. Given Batman v Superman‘s reportedly out-of-control budget, assessing the film’s financial success will be difficult to asses until weeks two, three and beyond when word of mouth will have spread.
But forget that for a second. Hold back your disagreements if you are someone who loved Man of Steel and loved or at least greatly enjoyed Batman v Superman. Let’s table any kind of reflection on the financials behind Batman v Superman until the box office totals come in. Instead, let’s talk about trust.
It is very easy to be cynical about the film industry. The corporate conglomerate-owned film studios must produce product to generate profit throughout a well orchestrated, worldwide value chain. So the studios produce homogenized films which emphasizes language-neutral spectacle over narrative to better appeal to places like China. Financial risk is discouraged, and the fickle whims of the stock market must be satisfied. The middle area between blockbuster and micro-budget indie has fallen apart, and key creatives who used to operate in that territory now make fantastic TV shows. As such, TV dramas and comedies have overtaken their film counterparts in quality and cultural impact (though, to be fair, that particular transition is not simply due to a brain drain).
Plus, there is a lasting cultural assumption, regardless of its accuracy, that most Hollywood executives are money-obsessed coke fiends who view The Wolf of Wall Street as aspirational. That might be why I’ve already seen several articles joke Warner Bros. executives will only be concerned about Batman v Superman‘s reviews once they pull themselves away from their piles of coke to look at the box office results.
How we sarcastically picture Hollywood in our minds:
Perhaps it’s tempting to give in to such snarky reactions because at its core the film industry pretends it’s about art when it’s truly about commerce, and that hypocritical divide undermines everything. Our picture of it being a land run by white men is confirmed by each new round of discouraging diversity statistics, and every time we hear about yet another sequel, reboot, revival or adaptation we grow more certain that Hollywood has run out of ideas.
That brings me back to trust. We typically place our trust in specific directors and actors, taking comfort in the assumption that their involvement will make a movie watchable. However, in this era of hyper-branded cinematic universes we’re being asked to trust higher-ups who are looking at balance sheets and chasing industry trends. Do we truly trust the studio suits behind the emerging Ghostbusters, Transformers, King Kong/Godzilla and Universal movie monsters universes know what they’re doing? Will they hire the right creative talent? Even if they do, will they be able to then get out of the way of the creatives? Ask Marc Webb how well that turned out for him with his Spider-Man movies.
These emerging cinematic universes must appear to have an actual cohesive vision if we are to actually trust them. That can only come from a respected central figure who has a wealth of institutional knowledge of the property. Star Wars has that with Kathleen Kennedy (have you seen how many classic movies she’s produced?). The Marvel Cinematic Universe obviously has Kevin Feige. Warner Bros.’s DC Universe has…Zack Snyder?
“I have done really well in my career betting on Zack Snyder. If I can bet on him once or twice a year, I’d love it,” is what WB Film studio president Greg Silverman told THR in 2014, attempting at the time to explain away the studio’s run of box office bombs by pointing to its apparently bright future with its DC Cinematic Universe.
A glance at Snyder’s actual career box office totals calls bullshit on Silverman’s assertion (beyond 300 and Man of Steel) and paints a picture of a filmmaker who has somehow failed upward. Now he’s been handed the keys to the DC Cinematic Universe along with his producer wife Deborah Snyder. We’re supposed to trust these two?
Well, yeah, if you liked Man of Steel, 300 or Sucker Punch. If not, you’re pretty screwed.
THR sagely argued in its Batman v Superman review, “But after Man of Steel three years ago, the studio had to know what it was getting with director Zack Snyder.” He has made a drab, joyless and completely wrongheaded affair with a jumbled narrative and CGI mess of a final act. Now he’s more or less refusing to apologize for the more controversial bits in which iconic superheroes display no aversion to killing.
Well, no shit. He’s Zack Snyder, and he made a Zack Snyder movie. His excuse for why his Batman is a sociopath who gets off on not directly killing but instead creating the circumstances which bring about death (e.g, it’s not Batman’s fault if you happen to be standing next to thing he blows up) is essentially, “Frank Miller did it.”
But we’ve been here before, and we probably will be again. For the past three years, Snyder has repeatedly defended his decision to have Superman kill in Man of Steel, admitting he was initially surprised by the controversy but he wanted Superman to kill someone so that Superman could then learn afterward that killing people is wrong. Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan and WB rightfully and quite adamantly rejected such an asinine idea until Snyder and co-writer David S. Goyer fine-tuned their argument by placing Superman in a situation where he either kills someone or lets an innocent family with little kids die.
As for the catastrophic collateral damage from the Zod-Superman fight, Snyder initially downplayed the importance of any innocent deaths before walking that back and claiming it was always meant to be addressed in a sequel. It is, not to the degree you’d expect from the trailers though.
Based on Batman v Superman, Snyder’s biggest takeaway from the Man of Steel controversy was you should stage your final battles in abandoned areas. When that’s not possible, have a newscaster hilariously claim everything should be fine since those in the affected office buildings have surely already gone home for the evening. The Daily Planet building clearly didn’t get that memo, but maybe the newscaster was speaking specifically about LexCorp headquarters. Either way, at least Snyder (or perhaps someone above him at WB) is trying.
Then Snyder turned around and made Batman a killer, and your fear he actually learned nothing from Man of Steel.
However, as NPR’s comic book critic Glen Weldon recently argued these characters have been around long enough to inspire all sorts of different interpretations. Snyder’s not actually wrong about the Frank Miller Batman, and even the Christopher Nolan version chose to let some people die rather than saving them. Superman has killed people in the comics before as well.
So don’t rail against Batman v Superman because it doesn’t represent your preferred versions of these characters. Rail against it because it’s a bad movie. Point out the plot holes. Criticize the endless Christ imagery. Tear apart the unbelievably choppy editing. Call Snyder out for casting Jesse Eisenberg and then failing to reign in him. Argue Age of Ultron‘s nonsensical and widely derided magical pool sequence with Thor setting up the Infinity Gauntlet was a stroke of genius compared to Batman v Superman‘s completely incoherent Knightmare sequence and unnecessary Justice League cameos. Rage against the screenwriters for providing none of the major characters a truly compelling motivation for the way they behave. Take this damn film to task for turning two of its maybe only four notable female characters into damsels in distress. Openly wonder what the hell was up with all of the supremely lazy dream sequences. Geek out over Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman sharing the screen together, but then think back to how much better their team-up would have been if they’d operated like an actual team instead of barely talking to each other and simply waiting for their turn to hit the bad guy.
Here’s the real tricky part: who do you blame for Batman v Superman‘s apparent failings? Is it Zack Snyder’s fault that he made a Zack Snyder movie? Who’s actually in charge here?
The answer might be “no one.” As THR’s Kim Masters wrote last April, the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t actually have a Kevin Feige. “Snyder, now finishing Batman v. Superman, is a key player, along with his wife, Debbie. Also in the mix are producer Charles Roven and a team of Warners executives, including president of creative development and worldwide production Greg Silverman and executive vp Jon Berg as well as DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson and DC chief creative officer Geoff Johns.”
That was the same report where a Warners insider flipped the middle finger at Marvel by claiming the DC universe would be “filmmaker-driven,” an obvious dig at the perception of the Marvel movies as being factory line productions lacking distinct personalities. However, it was also the report where agents representing screenwriters hired for DC movies said things like “they just haven’t been thorough about their whole world and how each character fits and how to get the most out of each writer’s time by giving them direction” and it “felt like they were throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck.”
Batman v Superman is ultimately cobbled together from a variety of comics, most notably The Dark Knight Returns and [HUGE SPOILER. STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET] The Death of Superman. It’s heavily implied Justice League 1 & 2 will take its cues from Injustice: Gods Among Us and possibly Justice League: War. So as far as Justice League goes the shit they’ve thrown against the wall stuck, but where are they on Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Shazaam and Cyborg? Who’s responsible for pulling those projects together? Who do we trust to execute a consistent vision?
For the immediate future, if DC is truly filmmaker-driven then David Ayer and Patty Jenkins are calling the shots on Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman respectively. However, Zack Snyder’s set to start filming Justice League: Part One in a couple of weeks meaning he gets to continue to be the guy who learns next to nothing as a storyteller and is responsible for introducing us to DC’s biggest characters outside of the Suicide Squad. There are already rumblings online about whether or not it’s too late to remove Snyder entirely or perhaps exert more oversight. However, after Man of Steel what else did WB really expect? They saw a guy who totally knows his splash pages and Frank Miller, and they said he seemed like their perfect Joss Whedon. Now they’re stuck with him, and so are we.