Why Marvel won the battle of the battling superheroes
*Abundant spoilers from the get-go*
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War are in many regards very similar films. Both films feature superheroes. Both films centre on those heroes fighting each other. In both films, the impetus for that conflict is the collateral damage that resulted from the superpowered battles in previous films. Both films begin with a scene in which the parents of one of those heroes is murdered, which allows them to inherit the vast wealth they will one day use to build the suits of armour than will enable them to become superheroes. After these murders, both films then move onto an action sequence in Africa, the casualties of which turn the public against heroes.
Yet they differ in one really important regard: Civil War works, while BvS doesn’t. That’s not just my view – though it certainly is that too. On Rotten Tomatoes, Civil War has a resounding score of 90% whilst BvS elicits a measly 27%. There are cases where audiences and critics, whose reviews power Rotten Tomatoes, disagree but this is not one of them. BvS hasn’t lost money, in fact it’s made rather a lot of it. But a film featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman would always manage that. It has, however, underperformed. A project this massive ought to be aiming to be one of the year’s biggest hits. Yet it’s not only been comfortably outgrossed by Civil War but also by Zootopia. The Jungle Book is not far behind and had Deadpool opened in China it would almost certainly have topped BvS too. And it’s only May.
Worse still its failure has likely depleted the supply of goodwill surrounding the franchise which will likely hurt the box office takings of future instalments. So where did Marvel go right and DC/Warner Bros go wrong? Here are a few suggestions:
Let us start with the most commonly voiced complaint about BvS: it is a bit of a slog. Its combination of brooding characters, a gloomy colour palette and a story that focussed on the suffering of ordinary people that superheroes create. That makes it a rather dour affair.
The same could be said of Civil War – it is a film where at one point it appears that Steve Rodgers is going to smash in Tony Stark’s face – but for the fact the darkness with jokes. Falcon and the Winter Soldier bickering over legroom in a Renault Clio is not simply amusing: it also helps us relate to those characters and prevents the tone of the film becoming morose.
That said, I don’t think this is the crucial distinction it is made out to be. It’s quite possible to make a superhero film of any quality in any tone. The Dark Knight is gloomy and fantastic, the Fantastic Four is gloomy and excruciating.
The sad reality is that the problems with BvS went way beyond a lack of jokes and couldn’t have been fixed just by throwing some in.
2. A function for its shoehorned in hero
The narrative of BvS did not require Wonderwoman. Likewise Spiderman is more or less extraneous to Civil War’s story. But in order to set up future films they had to be in there.
Both films make a virtue of this commercial necessity. Wonderwoman’s entrance into the final battle is the only fist pumping moment in BvS. However, she is underused and her presence appears to have confused Chinese audiences unfamiliar with her character.
Spiderman is better used: a wisecracking, exuberant and innocent teenager gatecrashing the film counterpoints the darkness that would otherwise pervade the proceedings.
3. A plot that makes sense
After the aforementioned scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents being (once again) murdered and an impressive flashback to the carnage at the end of Man of Steel, BvS moves to a scene in Africa. Louis Lane and some of her colleagues are kidnapped by a warlord they are supposed to be interviewing. As soon as the hostages are out of sight, a group of private military contractors arrive and begin shooting people. Then Superman arrives and rescues Lane.
Something probably has been lost in the process of summarising that scene but not much. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. None of the elements besides Superman and Lane have previously been introduced. Nor is there a proper through line between this scene and the one before or after. This makes it hard for the audience to place it in context.
Even if you manage to, there’s still a definite lack of internal logic. The confrontation in Africa was apparently orchestrated by Lex Luthor, so Superman would be blamed for the deaths caused by the mercenaries. But it’s never explained why anyone thinks Superman, who has super-strength and can shoot laser beams from his eyes, would shoot people.
There are definitely problems with the plotting of Civil War but they are relatively minor. The introduction of a number of the heroes is rather contrived. But I’d rather be thinking “it’s so obvious what the writers are doing here” than “I haven’t got the faintest idea what the writers are doing and apparently neither have they”.
It’s also probably fair to say that appreciating Civil War depends on having seen the proceeding Marvel films. But at this stage we really need to accept that Marvel isn’t making films but a TV series new episodes of which are shown in cinemas biannually. You can’t join the MCU after 13 episodes and fully comprehend it, anymore than you could Breaking Bad.
While Marvel lean heavily on things they have previously shown in their movies, DC/Warner Brothers rely on you knowing stuff they’ve never shown and don’t explain. The formation of the Justice League and the arrival of the villainous Darkseid are foreshadowed. In a Marvel movie, this would have been done in post-credit sequences or easter eggs. Batman v Superman sticks them into the main body of the film. If you’re an audience member who realises these sequences are basically irrelevant to the story you’re currently watching, they are jarring and mess up the rhythm of the film. If you don’t and you, therefore, try to incorporate them into your understanding of that story, then it becomes even more baffling.
4. An understanding of what its heroes are fighting about
In Civil War, the UN gives tells the Avengers that their activities need to be regulated. A faction lead by Tony Stark wants to accept that regulation, whilst Steve Rodgers and his allies reject it. There are wrinkles and complications but fundamentally that is what the audience needs to know to follow the film’s conflict between superheroes.
Any decent hero vs hero story needs to be able to boil down its central conflict to a sentence or two. Six X-Men films are a battle about whether Mutants can co-operate with humans or whether conflict is inevitable. In Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Punisher thinks it’s acceptable to stop criminals by killing them, whilst Daredevil rejects that view and tries to stop him.
In Batman v Superman, Batman and Superman are not two sides of a single dichotomy. Indeed, their reasons for fighting each other are tangled and rather hypocritical. Batman thinks Superman is too powerful and produces too much collateral damage, even though he is himself rather powerful and has himself produced plenty of collateral damage. And Superman dislikes Batman being a vigilante despite being a vigilante himself. The lack of clarity about why they were fighting in the first place makes it hard to invest in the conflict or to understand its sudden resolution.
5. A decent villain
Speaking of unclear motivations let’s turn to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I like Eisenberg and think he does a good job with the material he’s given. But that’s not great. Luthor as an entitled tech bro could work – indeed I predicted it would – but the execution is really sloppy. It’s clear what his immediate objective is: kill superman. But what lies behind that? He seems to have been damaged by his abusive father and – for some reason – that makes him resentful of Superman. At points he seems to share Batman’s misgivings about the inherent danger of the existence of a being as powerful as Superman but later goes on to create one himself. There seems to be some religious thing going on but what it means is unclear. There are no signs of Luthor having a faith that might be feeding into his motivation. I suppose he could have become a disciple of Darkseid but if so that only happens in the film’s final act long after his plan began. Alternatively maybe it is his self-belief that is powering his actions: his arrogance is palpable and perhaps killing the most powerful creature on the planet is to him what stealing paintings is to Thomas Crown. But why then all the ponderous Revelation lite warbling? Perhaps, he simply wants Superman out of the way, so the Man of Steel can’t intervene with his plans to blow up California in order to inflate the values of his landholdings in Nevada or whatever supervillains are into these days. But if Superman is an obstacle that must be cleared away in order to carry out a larger plan, what is that larger plan? Any of these would have been fine – ok maybe not the abusive father one but the others seem OK – but rather than choosing one or finding a way to mesh several together BvS leaves Luthor to blunder directionless through a film he’s supposed to be driving the narrative of.
By contrast, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is an understated highlight of Civil War. A lack of screen time means that Marvel villains often wind up being rather generic. They are vaguely evil, they want to destroy and/or rule things, which they will proclaim in a booming voice before being killed in the final act.
Despite Bruhl having even less screen time than his predecessors, he makes a far greater impression. The comic book character with whom he shares a name is a leader of Hydra who has surgically attached a purple mask to his face. The name turns out to be a red herring. The film’s Zemo is a villain rather than a supervillain. He’s a soldier whose family was killed during the events of Age of Ultron and, not unreasonably, blames the Avengers. With no powers of his own, he can’t possibly defeat them in a direct confrontation, so he manipulates them into battling each other.
He works better than the average Marvel villain for a number of reasons. Having gone in expecting him to be a character similar to the one Reed Diamond plays in Agents of SHIELD, he came as a welcome surprise. And Bruhl is a very capable actor able to bring plenty of pathos to his performance without becoming hammy in the way many of his counterparts do. And his character meshes with the film’s broader theme: that revenge is an inherently destructive motivation. It’s also true that being less objectively dangerous, makes him seem more sinister. His motivation is mysterious and his cruelty is more apparent: killing someone by drowning rather than using some supernatural mcguffin just feels more real.
To wrap up…
Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCU has come in for a lot of criticism and there is plenty to criticise. His pursuit of darkness for darkness sake leads him to, for example, complain that in the Nolan Batman films, the hero goes to “a Tibetan monastery and…[is]…trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie.”
But the errors that really bothered me were not to do with the concept but the execution. The visuals and some of the action sequences are clearly the product of the kind of obsessive craftsmanship that can only arise from a genuine love for the task at hand. But that just makes it all the more glaring when everything else is so slapdash.
This contrast is clearly a reflection of Snyder’s priorities. His back catalogue makes clear that what matters to him is whether stuff looks ‘epic’. If it does then nothing else seems to matter. What is less clear is why Warner Bros – having spent $250 million on the film and presumably wanting to see a return on it – apparently collaborated in this indifference. Man-child auteurs may disdain narrative coherence and relatable characters but audiences probably won’t. Had the studio pushed for an additional rewrite to rationalise the plot and the character motivations – and perhaps also throw in a joke here or there – Snyder’s grisly vision intact would have remained intact but would have led to a far better film. Indeed, Warner Bros might have wound up the with something like Captain America: Civil War.