‘Batman v Superman’ and the Anatomy of a Superhero Movie

     April 1, 2016


Despite merciless reviews of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder’s film broke multiple box office records, both domestically and internationally. In citing the seeming discrepancy between performance and critical reception, many echoed the sentiment that this movie “is for the fans.” I’ll admit, there’s something to be said for the fact that you can now purchase a movie ticket and see Superman, Batman, and (the best part of the whole shebang) Wonder Woman fight side by side on the big screen, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me this film was made for the fans.

We are well into the Golden Age of comic book movies. Disney’s Marvel Studios is about to release their thirteenth installment of the MCU (Captain America: Civil War). Fox’s Marvel division is wrapping up their second X-Men trilogy on top of two Wolverines, one Deadpool, and three Fantastic Fours (including the latest reboot). Meanwhile, Sony strategically partnered with Marvel to redevelop Spider-Man after five earlier efforts. At this point, we know what a superhero movie made for the fans looks like: something that, in the face of creative liberties, remains true to the essence of these comic book characters, while the best films offer something new that audiences haven’t seen before.


Image via Warner Bros.

From the beginning, Henry Cavill’s Superman was Snyder’s child. Pa Kent molds Clark into becoming a savior from the sidelines, one who doesn’t fly around looking for innocents to save, but who does so when events directly impact him. Batman v Superman tries to amp up his heroics, but the overt Christ imagery seems at odds with this all-powerful force who also destroyed humanity in an attempt to save it. And now I find myself back at the ever-present Man of Steel ending debate. Despite every conceivable defense thought up by Snyder, it seems Superman hasn’t learned his lesson, since he plows a terrorist through a wall in the beginning of Batman v Superman, a presumed fatal blow for any human. As Devin Feraci of Birth. Movies. Death. notes, this vision of Superman makes sense knowing that Snyder will be tackling an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s objectivist The Fountainhead. But, again, this would imply that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were not made for the fans, but Snyder, or perhaps a studio anxious to kickstart their cinematic universe, or both.

Batman v Superman was destined to make money no matter what the critics said because it was made up to be such a highly anticipated cultural moment. Ticket pre-sales broke Fandango’s records even before the first reviews trickled out, but how much money Batman v Superman will earn in the long run remains to be seen. Man of Steel’s all-time domestic box office sales are overshadowed by Iron Man 2 (one of the worst MCU movies), Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi’s worst Spider-Man movie), and Deadpool, the little superhero film that could. The latter taught Hollywood a valuable lesson: even with a measly production budget, a filmmaker can make big bucks if there’s a clear understanding and passion behind the material. To date, Deadpool has raked in $735.6 million worldwide for Fox, even surpassing the bigger-budgeted X-Men ensemble films.


Image via 20th Century Fox

Deadpool was a movie made for the fans. It also happened to be a movie that fans had never seen before brought to life on the big screen: a foulmouthed ex-mercenary who often broke the fourth wall while decapitating bad guys with his katanas. Deadpool bore the mark of a superhero movie because Wade Wilson was a part of the Marvel universe, but this wasn’t a superhero movie. At least, not in the traditional sense. The Marvel Studios of The Avengers capitalized on this concept of a non-superhero superhero movie. Sure, Captain America donned the star-spangled costume from the comics, but his films became about a time-displaced soldier in the midst of a modern political thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy, something Marvel was worried fans might reject due to its strangeness, found success as a sci-fi space opera a la Star Wars. The same can be said of Ant-Man (a heist film at heart), Thor (a man of myth at odds with the modern world), and Iron Man (about the implications and complications of technological advances).

This approach seems to contradict itself: how can you appease comic book fans by initially ignoring the superhero element? Without the cape, you just have the person, and it’s key to understand who this person is. In a roundabout sort of way, when that becomes the focus, you gain a faithful comic book adaptation. Batman v Superman has the wow factor of being something fans have never seen before, but with so little character development and impatient editing, it gave the impression that character wasn’t as important as launching the DC cinematic universe.


Image via Warner Bros.

Back during the Warner Bros. panel at last year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, the clear winner from the DC slate based on fan reaction wasn’t Batman v Superman; it was Suicide Squad. The reel had been bootlegged so many times that the studio released it online in hi-res, and the buzz it drummed up was instantaneous and electric. These characters are not heroes. They’re villains who bring with them all the psychological baggage that comes with being a psychotic killer with the worst taste in men (Harley Quinn), the best sniper assassin in town (Deadshot), a woman trying to overcome the beast within her (Enchantress), and so forth. Even without an epic face-off, the footage made this film look infinitely more interesting than its blockbuster sibling because it gave the impression of breaking the superhero movie mold.

As we move ahead down the line of DC’s slate, other titles, like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, give rise to the same sensation. Diana Prince is not your typical heroine; she’s an Amazonian warrior with Herculean strength and agility who’s been plucked out of her mythological home and placed in the misogynist world of man. Arthur Curry, too, is a god-like figure who represents a world fans have never before seen realized on the silver screen: the underwater world of Atlantis. If their stories are done right, they could add a lift to the polarizing DC universe. They’ll be equally hard to ignore when they stand beside Batman, The Flash, Cyborg, and (I’m assuming) Superman in a splash page-worthy attack pose for Justice League: Part One, even if Snyder’s involvement already has fans and critics doubting the film’s quality.

The WB’s superhero franchise is still very much in its infancy, but they should’ve also learned from Disney, Fox, and Sony’s efforts to built their properties. So far, we’ve only seen what a DC film looks like with Snyder at the helm, and he’s not going away anytime soon; he has a hand in every solo film up to The Flash and will return to helm Justice League: Part One. With fresh eyes (i.e. David Ayer on Suicide Squad, Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman, James Wan on Aquaman, etc.) the DCEU can still thrive. But, in the words of Marvel’s Kevin Feige, “have confidence in the characters, believe in the source material, don’t be afraid to stay true to all of the elements of the characters no matter how seemingly silly or crazy they are.”


Image via Warner Bros.

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