Batman v Superman v The Critics

A massive fight has been brewing, but now the gloves are off and the fight has been joined. It's time to take sides.

But the sides aren’t Team Superman v Team Batman, as expected. The great divide is between fans on one side and critics on the other.

At the time of writing, the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has just past the $420 million mark in worldwide box office receipts and has been described as the most successful opening of any super hero movie EVER and the fifth biggest opening of ANY movie.

It has also racked up a number of other records:

  • Biggest opening for a DC comics film
  • Biggest opening for a Zack Snyder film
  • Biggest opening so far for 2016 (including Deadpool)
  • Biggest opening for March, for Spring (in the US) and for Easter.

If ticket sales equate to fan interest, then the movie so far has been a huge hit with the fans, but that hasn’t subdued the verocity of critical reviews. It may even have added fuel to the fire.

Many/most critics have been scathing with the latest addition to the DC Cinematic Universe.

Rotten Tomatoes, a film review website, gave the film a very underwhelming score of 28/100. To get that into some perspective, Ghost Rider - rated by many as one of the worst super hero movies of all time.. OF ALL TIME... got 26 from Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes fans, on the other hand, rated the film 72/100.

A similar, though less pronounced discrepancy exists between the IMDb metascore of 44 (an average of the scores provided by key critics) and the 74 rating given by IMDb’s own readers and users.

These are huge disparities. So how come?

There’s no collusion or conspiracy theory to be found. The critics represent a wide range of publishing firms and websites, each fiercely independent of the other. 

It’s not like Marvel Agents have snuck into these offices overnight and planted these devastating reviews. Or have they? For the moment, let’s assume they haven’t

So, the critics clearly, and almost unanimously, found fault in the film and that’s hardly surprising. It’s a flawed film and struggles particularly at times in the areas of narrative, characterisation and light and shade, but is it as bad as the critics have said? Let’s have a look.

What's wrong with the film

Narrative

Firstly, the film has narrative problems. It tries to tell too many stories and in trying to service those needs, it introduces too many elements and stretches other areas that needed development thin.

While technically a sequel to Man of Steel, that film was made as a stand-alone feature with no plans for a sequel. As a result, to retrospectively turn man of Steel into a prequel, elements of the story line had to be reverse-engineered to accommodate the cinematic back story.

Complicating the requirements of narrative further, DC and Warner Bros. decided that this film needed to be a launchpad for the upcoming slate of DC Cinematic Universe movies, and so this film was tasked with setting the future films up.

Servicing both a previous film and providing a platform for future films is a lot of baggage for BvS to carry and it does take a toll. Providing backstory on not just Batman but also some on Wonder Woman and then add in some dream sequences (if they WERE dreams) that speak to future events disrupts the flow and takes the viewer out of the story.  

Also, why the hell are Metropolis and Gotham depicted as twin cities across the bay from each other? In the books they've always been very separate cities. They represent dual images of New York... one dark city and one a city of light - contrasting but not near each other so that Superman has a base of operations and Batman has a separate one.

Here the two cities are interchangable, and plonked right next to each other, which could be called a narrative choice except it adds not one iota to the story.

Setting up multiple strands of narrative impacted on the flow of the film.

Setting up multiple strands of narrative impacted on the flow of the film.

Characterisation

Secondly, characterisation... and it isn't all bad by a long shot, if a bit hit and miss. Affleck is a very effective Bruce Wayne and brings a well balanced mix of charm, aloofness and single-minded focus. Even the critics have been kind to him. Jeremy Irons take on Batman’s offsider Alfred is also fresh and enjoyable, and when we first see Wonder Woman in full costume at the business end of the movie, she steals the show. Those are the positives.

In the negatives, let’s start with Lois and Clark. We get that theirs is a great love affair based on what we've seen in other movies, and comics, and TV shows and graphic novels, but there’s bugger all evidence of it here. They move from mutual admiration in Man of Steel to an anxious and sombre relationship here that seems weighty and concerned for the world around them but where is the love in THIS film?

Then there’s Lex Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg is enjoyably enigmatic in the role, but it’s NOT Lex Luthor. It’s like someone offered him the role, and he said I’d rather play The Joker, and they said you can’t, and he said that’s ok, I’ll take Lex Luthor… and play him like the Joker. So he provides a great performance, but it’s not Lex. 

Lex is many things but he is always in control. A better guide to the personable but sociopathic and manipulative Lex can be found in Dexter, or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, or Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards (or for that matter, Spacey’s Lex Luthor in Superman returns). This probably isn’t a problem for non-fans but for fans, it’s a square peg in a round hole and just doesn’t fit.

And just on the subject of fans, they also struggle with a Batman who is willing to kill and has no problems spinning a machine gun-firing lunatic around a room (thus effectively shooting other bad guys). 

Jesse Eisenberg was great... but was he Lex Luthor?

Jesse Eisenberg was great... but was he Lex Luthor?

Light and shade

Thirdly is the films lack of light and shade. Actually, there’s an abundance of shade, so just the lack of light. Aside from one funny line between Superman and Batman when Wonder Woman shows up at the big boss fight near the end of the film (which I won’t spoil, but it’s in the trailers) there aren’t any moments to alleviate the tension before renewing the drama.

If Marvel has shown DC anything it’s that superhero movies DON’T have to be grim (see Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-man, Deadpool etc).  Yes, Batman is grim, but do you really need Superman and Wonder Woman to be all scowls and grimaces too? They aren’t that way in most of the source material (comics).

Even in a serious work, a few light moments actually HELP heighten the more dramatic bits (see Les Miserables for instance). Such moments possibly fell victim to the film's other needs, such as setting up multiple back stories for future films which had already pushed the running time to 150 minutes.

A climactic scene from Frank Miller's critically acclaimed graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which provided some of the inspiration for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Photo copyright : DC Comics.

A climactic scene from Frank Miller's critically acclaimed graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which provided some of the inspiration for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Photo copyright : DC Comics.

What's wrong with the critics 

So it's not a perfect film. Far from it.

In fact, it's a frustrating film that even your average movie-going punter could offer a few ideas about that could sort out it's flaws. 

Try to achieve less.

Don't overlay the needs of the future franchise IF that is to the detriment of this film.

Give us a few laughs and light moments and give us a few more reasons to care for the characters.

And that's the thing. The flaws aren't/weren't insurmountable and don't scar the film to the degree many critics have implied. It's not woeful, it's not dreadful, it's not devastating and it's not a tragic failure. The film is enjoyable to watch and does many things very well (ok, overlong CGI fights notwithstanding).

In fact, many of the flaws of this film were already present in Man of Steel (too dark, overblown fight scenes, too much CGI) and it WASN'T hammered by the critics. Ironically, despite it's failings, this is probably a better work than Man of Steel.

For whatever reason, the critics have got out their black textas and thesauruses with relish to rubbish the film which is simultaneously not as good as it could or should have been, but then again not too bad.

Perhaps the reason the critics have cranked the dial up to 10 on the critic-o-meters en masse relates to two things external to the film itself... expectations and comparions.

The expectation was that this would be Da Bomb... the launch of a DC franchise that would rival the Marvel one. Many said it couldn't be done, including many critics, and they were right.

Ben Affleck and director Zack Snyder on set during the filming of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Photo courtesy collider.com.

Ben Affleck and director Zack Snyder on set during the filming of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Photo courtesy collider.com.

Perhaps that has fed their venom.

Perhaps they are angry it's doing so well and they feel the need to stand on the road with their Stop/Go sign warning people away.

And perhaps, like the special "cranky" judge on a dancing or singing show, they want to give a score of 1 to make a point. 

If you are making comparisons, you can't fault the incredible job of inter-connected world building that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has been cleverly plotted in detail from the outset and when you stand back, it forms one large comprehensive canvas.

Batman v Superman ISN'T that. DC didn't design their universe prior to Man of Steel and in some respects are playing catch up. And in some respects that damaged this film. But damaged here means made it less than it could have been, not made it rubbish.

In any event, the critic's job is to focus on this film and NOT concentrate on ways it falls short of other movies, or their expectations, or for that matter how well it sets up the DC movies to follow.

So ignore the critics. Ignore me. If you haven't seen it yet, see for yourself.

It's not a bad film and what comes next will look after itself.

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