Trying to not make this a pretentious post defending superhero movies is going to be a little difficult, considering what I’m actually about to say, but please bear with it. I don’t pretend to know a lot about comic lore either, and can thus only talk about these adaptations from how I feel they work as movies. But since seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice twice over the past two days, and coming to terms with my enjoyment of it, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people receive these sorts of movies in the canon of filmmaking. There’s always going to be a lot of talk about whether movies of any genre “deserve” to be praised for one reason or another, but that all comes from the same place.
(Don’t you worry, this won’t be a spoiler-y post about BvS re: plot.)
Zack Snyder released a very similar film to Batman V Superman (henceforth abbreviated to BvS) in 2009 – Watchmen. That adaptation admittedly had the virtue of a much more prominent, interesting storyline, in my opinion. I think its aims were heaps clearer due to the fact that its “heroes” (if they can be called that at all) didn’t really exist in multiple universes and storylines, and didn’t need to be distilled into a single origin story. That film was effectively the origin story and it’s also where it ended quite definitively. But structurally, Watchmen definitely served as an homage to the original comic than it tried to appease a general audience, which is something BvS has been accused of doing as well.
The experience of in-group, out-group dynamics when watching something supposedly mainstream like a Batman/Superman movie can come across as overly try-hard. This is especially so to those of us who are of the opinion that while superhero stories can present deeper sociocultural themes in their narratives, they don’t need to be artsy to make a point. Leave that to the Terrence Malicks of the world.
Snyder has always been kind of toeing that line between auteurism and blockbuster success, honing films such as 300 and Man of Steel that arguably ruled box offices without necessarily being good movies. Even I myself struggle with liking something he’s done that isn’t Dawn of the Dead, plainly because many of his movies feel unnecessarily bloated. Whether it’s their over-desaturation in colour palette or excessive slow-mo action sequences, much of the storytelling is lost in sheer visual spectacle.
That said, I don’t think BvS is nearly as obnoxious as his other work – it’s certainly melodramatic but it’s as though he’s finally found a balance. Because if Snyder is going to be invested in bringing beautiful if perhaps thematically shallow films to us, each shot has to be deliberate. My opinion of BvS is that it’s the first time in a long time that function is of higher importance than the visuals. Furthermore, the film itself isn’t thematically shallow; it’s just that one has to pay attention to way too much detail all at once to discern it in one sitting. It’s the kind of movie that unfolds with each rewatch.
I know there will be people who disagree with me because the film itself shows so much more than it tells, and so much of it references stories to come. That makes it feel up in the air, and those criticisms are valid. On the other hand, it’s refreshing that there is no exposition scene, no quirky genius necessarily explaining everything that’s going on alongside each gadget Batman makes – it’s all quite subtextual. Whether that’s “smarter” or not isn’t really the issue because it’s simply a different but equally effective approach to superhero storytelling.
This isn’t a “superhero movie vs. comic book movie” debate but the fact that there can be a film about superheroes that resembles an actual comic so much is truly kind of brilliant. The fact that it flops with critics or falls short for some audiences is a given, because this actually feels quite experimental. I don’t want to tip my hat to Snyder too much though – he’s only been mildly successful this time around.
After the blockbuster fatigue of 2015, with Age of Ultron receiving split audience reactions, and the Fantastic Four reboot utterly tanking left and right (note: I liked that movie too), it’s very obvious that superhero films have to become a more diverse genre. Not just in the sense of representation that we know of, but in the styles of filmmaking “acceptable” to create these worlds. I think I read a headline today that questioned if what BvS was offering was even what people wanted. Clearly, it is to some extent when you look at the overwhelmingly positive responses from DC fans. There are even people – like myself – who really like it not because we think it’s perfect or have thousands of pages of backstory to reference, but because there are truly enjoyable things about the film that are presented in an intriguing and (dare I say) cool way. It’s different, still tells the same story, and I love that.
It’s almost laughable to ask this question, but I’ll do it for the sake of this post: Do superhero movies even need to be appealing across the board? An almost yes would be one way to answer it, considering the kinds of budgets that go into making these films – the financial risk is way too high for a tiny reward. But looking at how BvS is absolutely smashing the box office wide open at the moment obviously shows that comic book fans are a force to be reckoned with. This isn’t even new – studios have banked on films like these to be vastly profitable for more than 10 years. If people care enough about these characters, they will invest that love into supporting projects (dependent on level of privilege – financial, social, political, etc.).
Honestly, it’s almost refreshing to have people finally question the format of these films again, despite unwanted aggression from detractors and defenders alike. We’ve probably reached peak superhero saturation by now and have to ride it out or just turn to some other thing to satisfy us. But as someone who has thoroughly enjoyed these sorts of movies since I was a young child, it’s incredibly exciting. BvS succeeds where AoU failed – the former actually has me looking forward to future projects instead of back at what’s gone past (a golden age…).
Of course, this isn’t 1000 words of DC vs. Marvel because I absolutely do not care enough to compare them. They have good and bad points each. But as a film – as surprised as I am to say this – BvS might very well be the tip of the iceberg to something really, really good for DC. I personally like the fact that the “super” in “superhero” is returning to something fantastical and inherently ludicrous – kind of like a Baroque painting. DC films have never ever been “darker than Marvel’s” in my opinion – they are all camp as fuck and deserve to be unabashedly so. Thus, Snyder’s utterly exaggerated movie-making style actually works. Shock, horror. Maybe I should re-evaluate all my life choices after this.*
* I’m quite happy to continue disliking MoS, leave me be.