It’s not just Batman and Superman who’ve been duking it out of late. The huge returns for their derided hero-mash have given rise to another titanic battle: audiences v critics.
The critics were largely (but by no means completely) unanimous in their bilious dislike for Zack Snyder’s Justice League prequel – critical aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 29% – a mere three points shy of the universally loathed Superman III’s lowly average – However, roll your eyes a little to the right and you’ll see an audience approval score of 70% (as of writing). Such a vast discrepancy between the public taste and the critical cognoscenti is virtually unheard of, and the implications are worrying.
It’s possible that my fuming apathy was a result of the criminally capricious trailer campaign that had been drip-feeding fake road signs to its audience for the best part of a year. An army of soldiers, loyal to a potentially egomaniacal and out-of-control Superman? Fascinating, yes? Well, no actually, that was just a dream sequence; one of three equally pointless scenes that would not have affected the movie at all by not being there. Similarly Batman’s trench-coated journey into a scorched earth hellhole and his subsequent unmasking. Dream sequence. Like in Dallas.
Then there was the second trailer that took the entire movie and edited it into a two minute anti-Redux edition, sequentially too so that you knew that by the end, Batman and Superman will have patched things up, become allies and would be joined by Wonder Woman to defeat Doomsday. What you didn’t know was how or why, and having seen the film I’m still none the wiser.
The omens were actually favourable. The excellent opening, showing Superman’s accidental destruction of Metropolis from Bruce Wayne’s point of view hinted that lessons had been learned from the Man of Steel fallout. It had generally been accepted that Snyder’s first crack at Superman was oddly po-faced and lacked warmth or humour, and that the seventeen-hour long (or so it felt) building-toppling carnage at the end felt like the moment when city-wide CGI devastation had arrived at its post-Transformers tipping point and would never trouble us again. The filmmakers would love it to have been a comment on 9/11 but it wasn’t; it was as Simon Pegg said, ‘just us seeing buildings falling down.’ The fact that potentially hundreds of thousands of people would have perished in this super-blitz is curiously underplayed and makes the erection of a large statue in Superman’s honour seem perverse.
The appropriation of this derided blockbuster moment as a vital, motivation-powering plot mechanism for the sequel seemed inspired and suggested that notes had been taken at the Man of Steel press screenings. Indeed, we may even have been hoodwinked into not seeing a bigger, poetically complicated picture. Actually, nobody learned anything.
Snyder undeterred, made an even colder (almost completely laugh-free) follow-up which concludes with an elongated computer-generated video-game sequence involving lots of buildings being kicked over, but then what do you expect from someone who has Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen (not even named in the film) shot in the head in the desert because “We don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?” Fun?
The critics have had their say, but the fans have rallied round Batman v Superman and have been protective and intense in their defence. A lot of the more vociferous defenders have been hardcore DC fans, pleased at the way Snyder tipped his hat to them, directly referencing hallowed source novels like The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman, and at the proliferation of Easter Eggs, including the release of a deleted scene that infers the impending arrival of Justice League über-baddie Darkseid.
Trouble is, such things mean next to nothing to the uninitiated and unlike a comic-book (which is consumed as entertainment in a specifically individual manner to an informed client base), a movie has to succeed as a coherent story that makes sense to a universal audience. Anyone going in cold to see Batman v Superman would find themselves repeatedly scratching their heads. Why was Lex Luthor evil? He had no motivation to be so, unlike Gene Hackman’s land-obsessed version for whom Superman was a roadblock in the way of his nefarious plans. It is simply assumed by now that everyone knows that Lex Luthor is a villain so…he just is.
Likewise, I know that she was Wonder Woman, you, dear cineliterate HeyUGuys reader, know that she was Wonder Woman, but for the casual viewer, she was an attractive woman who hasn’t aged since the second world war (no explanation given) and who turns out to have super-powers. Her entire role in this film is a teaser trailer for her own movie (out next year). This might be manna from heaven to comic book fans but it is confusing and resolutely cynical to cinemagoers who simply like good movies and good storytelling.
Some might argue that honouring the mythology is the key thing (my uni friend always referred dismissively to Tim Burton’s Batman as ‘what, the one where the Joker kills his parents and Joe Chill doesn’t?’) I’d argue that balance of tone is the most important tightrope that comic book movies have to walk across, and so many of them don’t make it all the way to the other side.
Take Richard Donner’s Superman. Donner was the first director to take superheroes seriously and treated the material with respect. His film had an operatic grandeur from the start. The Krypton scenes still so simple; unique but unforgettably designed (as opposed to Man of Steel’s boring CGI cover version Krypton which could have been borrowed from The Chronicles of Riddick). The central section in Smallville was a Norman Rockwell painting version of 1950s America that could so easily have been overplayed for cheap laughs, but which was played pure and true and gives us the essence of what makes Superman who he is.
The night-flight above Metropolis, hand in hand with Lois Lane is probably the most genuinely romantic moment in any superhero movie; up there with the inverted kiss from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. No irony, no winking, no camp. Then, there’s the scene-stealing Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. Would that Batman v Superman had even one line as good as ‘Do you know the number 200 is so vitally descriptive to both you and me? It’s your weight and my IQ,’ or ‘My attorney will be in touch about the damage to the door.’
All of this is perfectly judged spectacle is tied together by Christopher Reeve’s wonderful performance: stoic, unbendingly decent and good, but also curious, funny and not averse to falling in love like a teenager. Poor old Henry Cavill by contrast seems to have been given one instruction by his director – “You’re Superman but you don’t like it.”
So many of the most ardent comic book fans are, like me, in their early forties and our mutual fascination with seeing superheroes in action was most likely kick-started by watching Superman as kids. We fell in love with it, with all the characters, so much so that by the time the most illogically stupid ending in cinema appears, we didn’t care a jot. They had us at “Swell.”
Who has fallen in love with Batman v Superman? Who might we expect to still be in love with it in ten years’ time? Twenty? Anyone? It’s pretty hard to fall in love with anything (or anybody) so cold, so ungenerous, so reluctant to amuse and so wildly full of its own self-importance.
Perhaps this is why David Ayer has been summoned back to add some emergency comedy to this summer’s Suicide Squad to make it less like BvS and more like Deadpool. In another case of wilful trailer-misdirection, the acclaimed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer (according to inside sources) contained all five of Suicide Squad’s actual jokes. It’s an encouraging sign that an incessant tone of gloom and doom might now be seen less as a goal than as something that needs remedying.
However, what should give everyone cause for concern is the possibility that Batman v Superman’s record-breaking box office performance could tell Warner Bros. all they need to know – namely, don’t change a thing. After all, in Hollywood when money talks, everybody listens. Coherence, good storytelling, warmth, humour, plausible non-synthetic character motivation? “We just made a billion dollars without any of those things. Who needs ‘em.”