There's been a lot of new information surrounding Warner Bros.' Justice League, and there's trouble on the horizon...
In the summer of 1961, New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris pursued the single-season home run record set by Babe Ruth, one of the most beloved New York Yankees and baseball players and athletes and celebrities of all time. The public rooted for Mantle. He was charming, gregarious, generous, and handsome. This same crowd hated Maris, because he was shy, private, dour, and uninviting. Mantle was "supposed" to break the record, and Maris was "supposed" to, to put it in modern Internet parlance, "die in a fire." Maris didn't care about the record, but cared about doing his job well, and one of his skills that allowed him to do that job was hitting home runs. So what did he do? He broke the record. Mantle, however, for many reasons, did not. He fell short. Was the crowd happy? Then? No. Now? Roger Maris is one of the greatest and most beloved Yankees and baseball players of all time, his record broken only relatively recently by two guys cheated to do so.
Why am I talking about this? Because Marvel Studios is Mickey Mantle, and Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder are Roger Maris. The public's conception of superheroes is, fittingly, Babe Ruth (a conception actually created by Marvel Studios). Marvel Studios plays its game in a way that is charming, satisfying, and generally pleasing, while WB and Snyder tried doing it their own way. To quote the tagline for the Billy Crystal film about Maris and Mantle, "Why did America have room in its heart for only one hero?"
With all the news surrounding Justice League and its shift towards a brighter tone, towards including more humor, it's impossible to not see the influence of Marvel Studios. They wrote the book, and anyone that deviates is not welcome.
A movie like Man of Steel and, by extension, Batman v Superman, was never going to gain traction with a wide audience by sheer virtue of its concept. The audience's preconceived notions of Superman were never going to gel with a tone and outlook that trafficked in realism and cynicism and, ultimately, shrouded any hope. The films are flawed, to be sure, but those flaws do not justify the reaction the films received--especially Batman v Superman. The reactions are not to the films themselves, however, but to the ideas of the film--not to how well the films execute their plans, but the the plans themselves. Audiences could not reconcile what they believed to be Superman with what they saw.
This isn't the fault of the movies, but the fault of the audience. They did not give the movies a chance. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman did not reward any previous knowledge of the heroes and their comics, there were never any real references for anyone to "get," there were no obvious celebratory, fan-service-y moments. They were honest, realistic, heartfelt, and tragic looks at a man that became an icon (and an icon that became all-too-human). Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were not celebrations of the icons you knew, and you were not patted on the back for liking Superman, for liking Batman. You were asked to look at Superman as a stranger, to see his journey and understand him in a time when superheroes are associated with a good time at the movies. The general public has no room for an existential character study of someone they want to see punch things.
To the public, there are no popcorn moments in Man of Steel, nor in Batman v Superman. I disagree, but I can concede that there aren't any to the level of gratification one finds in a Marvel Studios film, and that's what audiences expected--even more so than they do from the Marvel Studios films. Let's face it: to the general public, before the 2008 release of Iron Man, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were not the household names that Batman and Superman were. Marvel Studios had to teach audiences to like those characters, so they worked extra hard to do so.
Batman and Superman are icons of American culture. When a film featuring both of them releases in a post-Marvel Studios world, the average movie goer who doesn't pour obsessively over news and behind the scenes footage and interviews thought, "Oh, those superhero movies are pretty good and Batman and Superman are characters I know." To Marvel Studios' credit, they've taught the general public what a superhero film is with heroes no one wanted. Along comes the heroes everyone wants, at a time when we have an idea of what a superhero movie is.
When the film we get is decidedly not that, we balk. Understandably so, but it's not the movie's fault--it's ours. Again, the movies are flawed, but because they, in effect, rejected our advances and told us they weren't going to be that easy, we lashed out and picked on things we easily forgive in other franchises--especially in the Holy Grail of the Christopher Nolan Batman films.
Those films, especially The Dark Knight, are not at all dissimilar to the Snyder films (considering the overlap in those involved, that's not at all surprising), but they released at a time when the public was still learning what superhero movies were. In the time since The Dark Knight, Marvel Studios has risen to prominence, making even The Dark Knight Rises, which is a more enjoyable film than its predecessor, seem lacking.
Deadpool is the best film Marvel Studios never made. It takes their formula and rids itself of the compulsion to be inoffensive (not just in its jokes). It was economical, smart, and sharp, while still delivering what fans have come to expect, just in a cleaner, less let's-please-everybody way. "Here we are," the film and its sires said, "take us or leave us." They certainly should be credited for their confidence.
As a surprise to no one, Zack Snyder isn't particularly good at pleasing audiences. Whether through studio pressure or his own insecurity or both, he tries to please audiences, and it's often forced and unsatisfying. Action sequences, humor, they all ring false because they aren't what he's trying to do. 300 and Watchmen work because of his slavish replication of the source material. When left to his own devices, however, his work is much more abstract, introspective, and aesthetic. He has an eye for image and theme, approaching the big picture with pictures. When he's required to do the quippy one-liners and the cheer-inducing fights, however, he fails.
What do you think audiences are paying to see when they go to a superhero blockbuster?
Zack Snyder may not have been the right choice to bring Batman and Superman into Marvel Studios' world, but that doesn't mean he made bad movies. He just made movies we didn't want. They're movies that are better at the things they do well than they are bad at the things they do poorly. The good parts of these movies are really good, while the bad parts are not bad enough to sink the movie.
Captain America: Civil War is a great time at the movies, but it's forgettable. The things I talked most about were how great Spider-Man was, how great Black Panther was, how fun the airport scene was, and how I didn't care about the last third of the movie. Batman v Superman is an almost overwhelmingly satisfying meal after the appetizer that was Man of Steel. It stayed with me long after and I kept remembering things about it that I appreciated. It's filled with gorgeous visual flourishes and ideas that are worth unpacking for days on end. From the delightful melodrama of Lex Luthor's entrances and exits, to the Greek opera of the showdown between Batman and Superman; from the discussions of religion's role in society, to power's role in society, to feelings of responsibility and reconciling what you are with what people think you should be--people could be right in criticizing it for doing it too much.
There is one moment in the film that's a little more fan service than necessary, and that's the arrival of Wonder Woman (the introduction of the other members of the Justice League is 100% fan service and has no place in the film's narrative, but that's a major flaw we, for some reason, won't forgive even though Marvel Studios does that all the time). Her arrival on the battlefield is immune to criticism, though, as it lifts the movie because it really isn't just fan service--it's indispensable culture service. She arrives a female superhero featured not just in an important plot role (Black Widow), but celebrated as an equal in both narrative, artifice, and spectacle. Wonder Woman's place is alongside Batman and Superman (even leading them as she is in that sequence), and the movie screams it.
Zack Snyder is what we've come to stereotype as an indie film maker. He's experimental, trafficking more in the juxtaposition of images and ideas than the immediately satisfying, than the Robert Downey Jr. quips and the Joss Whedon camaraderie and the arousing fight scenes. This does not mean his movies are bad--they're just different. Nor does it mean Marvel Studios' movies are lesser--they're just different. One is better at ideas and big pictures (things ideally suited to icons of such stature as the Trinity), and one is better at the visceral thrills and excitement associated with blockbusters. I love both movies. I will buy Civil War on Blu-Ray when it comes out, just like I will purchase Batman v Superman. There's room for both--not one, or the other. There's room for Batman v Superman and Civl War. We should welcome both. (I saw Batman v Superman three times in theaters, and enjoyed the hell out of it each time.)
Ultimately, though, none of this matters.
I loved the movie, a lot of people hated it. That's okay. That is the point. Movies are subjective, and we're gonna like what we like and not like what we don't like. What's not okay, however, is that it's not enough to just not like the movie in question--it's seemingly of the utmost importance to make sure everyone else agrees. It's important for everyone to understand how "bad" the movie was. Rampant hyperbole aside (I saw someone refer to Batman v Superman as a "war crime"), it's not important people agree with you. You won't agree with this piece, and that's okay.
I enjoyed the movie, but every expression of that derision was met with scorn, ridicule, and sometimes anger. I felt personally attached to the movie, and would defend it. None of this should have been necessary. Superheroes are now a part of modern culture. This isn't middle school where you can bully others until you're right. If you love Superman as much as you claim, which is why you hate these movies, where does Superman condone bullying? But I guess if Batman kills in this movie then all bets are off, right?
The point I'm ultimately trying to make is that by tearing down Batman v Superman, we've scared Hollywood. When the benchmark for blockbuster success is a billion dollars at the box office and only one of the three major superhero releases this year have achieved that, Hollywood's going to start sweating. Which movie made a billion dollars? You guessed it, Captain America: Civil War.
Producers of these films may talk a lot about wanting to make good movies and wanting to make their own movies and wanting to do new things, but even they have bosses who have bosses who have bosses who see these not as something of cultural importance, but as a business. And when they look at it as a business, they look at numbers, and when the numbers aren't satisfying, things change until the numbers are satisfying.
Who's numbers are satisfying? Marvel's. If you're running a company, and your primary concern is money, what are you gonna do? You're gonna do what works.
Listen to the news surrounding Justice League and tell me it isn't a shift towards what makes Marvel so successful: brightness, humor, and fan-service. Every headline I saw today mentioned a brighter tone, including more humor, and the outlook of the DC Cinematic Universe being something fans would want. That would make everything better... if everything was still sunshine and roses.
Is there superhero fatigue? Is Marvel Studios' formula sustainable? Imagine a world in which Justice League does The Avengers as well as Marvel did it. That's great, right? It's a lot of fun and a huge success... but if it looks anything like what all the other movies have looked like, where's the incentive to change? Look at how many sequels and reboots and reboot/sequel hybrids there are. Look at how few original franchises there are. Look at the budget disparity between blockbusters and indie films, or even just smaller Hollywood films.
Hollywood is averse to change, so if they try something different and the public lashes out, what do you think they're going to do?
You didn't have to like Batman v Superman, but you didn't have to hate it. You didn't have to start flame wars and sign petitions. You could have celebrated its good qualities. The funny thing is, Hollywood listens. But when it's a lot easier to yell terrible things than it is to celebrate good ones, what do you think they're gonna react to? Kevin Feige, the only man worshipped by fanboys more than Christopher Nolan, is on record as saying that if DC films do well, all superhero films do well. The better superhero movies are received, the happier everyone is, and the more superhero movies we get. It's in everyone's best interests for these films to be celebrated. I'm not saying you should lie. I'm not saying that if a film is flat-out bad you should make stuff up, but you shouldn't tear it down. Tearing it down helps no one. Absolutely no one.
But there's more fun to be had in posting articles that pit Marvel against DC, in inciting a rivalry, in bashing things we don't like than there is in lifting one another up. Doomsday may have killed Superman at the end of Batman v Superman, but if we don't open our minds and focus more on what we like, we'll be the ones killing not only Superman, but every other superhero.