Sidemeat – 46th Slice
Marvel versus DC – Civl War vs. Batman v Superman
As the MCU kicks off the beginning of “Phase 3” with Captain America: Civil War, DC continues to lay the groundwork for its own series with Batman v Superman, a partial sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, the first entry in the DC Extended Universe (DC’s MCU equivalent). Ironically enough, it’s been a season of superheroes versus superheroes…who ends up on top?
I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the ubiquity of comic book movies these days. I mean, I like the idea of all these heroes and villains as much as the next guy, but the actual comics always felt a little too convoluted to fully catch my attention, and yet the movies feel severely dumbed down. I know that recent efforts have generally been lauded by both movie critics and comic book fans, but they just don’t feel like great films to me, not to mention I have a tough time really getting into the heads of the characters, at least not enough to really care about them.
I suppose that MCU’s recent offerings have been better than the first wave of superhero movies (you know, stuff like Green Lantern, Hellboy, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, etc.), but I’m not totally sold. Nonetheless, I’ve seen several of them – all 3 Iron Man‘s, both Avengers, and the first Thor, though I haven’t bothered to check out any of the rapidly growing TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and several others on the horizon). Most recently I caught the third installment of the Captain America subset of films, Captain America: Civil War. I’ll admit that I probably missed some of the finer points by not having seen the first Captain America nor Winter Soldier beforehand, though Civil War seemed to be billed much more like an “Avengers 2.5” rather than a piece of Captain America’s story, which may be a fault of the marketing department. After all, I can almost guarantee that I wouldn’t waste money on a ticket to see “Captain America 3” knowing I hadn’t yet seen the other two. And yet the advertising campaigns seem to purposefully de-emphasize Civil War as a Captain America film.
The verdict? Honestly I was a little lost. The basic premise is easy enough to follow, it’s keeping track of all the damn characters and the reason(s) for their involvement that gets so damn confusing. An absurd amount of focus is put on the Winter Solider, who may quite possibly be one of the most boring characters on screen, while those with much greater potential, like the Vision, or Scarlet Witch, are largely glossed over. All the promo material makes it look like 5 vs. 5, but by the time the climactic battle begins, it’s really 6 on 6: Team Iron Man with Iron Man, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther, War Machine, and a brand spankin’ new Spider-man, and Team Cap, with Captain America, Hawkeye, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch. Spider-man has gotten quite the treatment over the last 10 or 15 years, and although he’s little more than a bit-character in Civil War, the actor (and writers) make his presence known. We don’t get to see much of him except how he fights, but finally we’ve got an on-screen Spidey who looks and acts like a teenager! I think one of the unique facets of Spider-man that’s nearly always glossed over is the fact the he is just a kid with problems like pimples and chemistry homework.
Established heroes like Black Widow and Hawkeye are given relatively little screen time and newcomers like Black Panther and Scarlet Witch seem to just appear, disappear, and reappear (conveniently) as events unfold. For the most part, what we have is Iron Man acting as the voice of reason against the marginally homoerotic Captain America / Winter Soldier renegade buddy-cop hour (or two). All these characters are floating around and yet the plot is painfully thin and it’s hard to see the significance in having so many heroes in on the brawl. Worse yet are the barrage of witticisms that the heroes throw at each other whilst kicking each other’s asses, eroding whatever seriousness might’ve been present to begin with. The film does a very poor job of convincing us that all these characters need to be onscreen at once, and an even poorer job of making us care since we’re never really given the opportunity to actually give a shit about most of them. From a little research I do know that the “Civil War” was a significant conflict between heroes in the comics, but Civil War feels more like fan service than anything – how many characters can you recognize!?
Much of the film eschews flashy action sequences in favor of exposition and what the filmmakers would have audiences believe is “drama.” However, when the epic 6 on 6 battle at the airport begins, the sheer scale of the encounter almost makes up for the narrative shortcomings…almost. The special effects are top notch – everything from Ant-Man’s skrinkage and arrow-riding to Cap’s gravity-defying shield to Stark’s high-tech armor is presented flawlessly and magnificently. The problem? I feel a little like I’m trapped in a Michael Bay Transformers sequel. There’s a lot going on all at once with multiple quick cuts and other editing tricks to drive the action, preventing us from really absorbing the entire scene in a single viewing.
All in all I appreciate the stab at seriousness and the MCU’s efforts in general to create artistically viable film versions of its greatest comic book stories. I’m not enough of a comic book nut to comment on how accurate or inaccurate the films are comparatively, but as a film lover, I think the rampant serialization is actually hurting the MCU more than helping it. I’m even more concerned that as time goes on writers will be trying harder and harder to payoff on past setups and setup new payoffs, ultimately diluting the artistic aspirations of the film. Marvel may be more well-entrenched in public consciousness at this point, but they’ve inadvertently given DC one hell of an advantage: the chance to learn from Marvel’s mistakes! It’ll be a year or two before we have a solid picture of where DC is headed, but the fact that their intellectual material isn’t chopped up among half a dozen companies will undoubtedly work in their favor as well.
Moving on, how does Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hold up…? From a standard popcorn-munching standpoint it isn’t as easy to watch as Civil War, but the movie also feels more serious…it feels like we’re getting a really meaty glance into what the “DC world” looks like. It also feels like we’re jumping into a world that already exists, rather than witnessing its origin as in the early Iron Man flicks. BvS follows Man of Steel, but it isn’t exactly a sequel. For the record, I think Man of Steel was a pretty awesome movie, and at the very least my favorite interpretation of Superman thus far. I know die hards will stick with the Donner films, but the fact remains that those films are from a different time and it’s almost impossible to make direct comparisons. Man of Steel wasn’t immediately impressive when I first saw it, but as I rewatched it and began to think about the previous Supermans, I began to see the brilliance shine through. I don’t want to get too stuck on Man of Steel, but do want to point out that here we were given a flawed and very human Superman. He was faced with some tough decisions and manages to come off as noble and heroic without being hokey and unrealistic. The pacing is a little off (or maybe we’re just getting a little fed up with origin stories…) but once the film kicks into high gear it never lets up. The action sequences are phenomenal and we finally have a worthy villain in Shannon’s portrayal of Zod.
I could go on for several more paragraphs about how well done Man of Steel is, but the point I want to get across is that it was an excellent superhero film that was built to look and feel like an actual film, not dissimilar from what Nolan did with his trilogy. Was it perfect? No. Its length and structure were probably a little overly ambitious, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Going into BvS I was eager to see how DC would push the story further.
Remember how I spent so much time bitching about all the characters bouncing in and out of Civil War? Well BvS experience its own version of this problem…if you go look at any toy section of a Target or Walmart and try to get an idea of what BvS is based on the toys for sale, you’ll assume that both Batman and Superman go through several costume changes, Lex Luthor has a giant green suit of armor, and that Wonder Woman and Aquaman are featured in at least some sort of semi-important capacity. Then you actually see the movie, and well, there’s only one significant costume change (Batman’s “Armored” Suit), Lex Luthor has nothing resembling a mechanical exosuit, Wonder Woman is essentially thrown into story randomly, and Aquaman is onscreen for approximately 17 seconds. Oh, and Doomsday is totally ignored.
I don’t know why the merchandising is so far off from the film’s actual content, but it certainly confused me at first (though it’s not really the movie’s fault). But in a way it speaks to some of the film’s weaknesses, namely its intent to setup future movies in the franchise. Wonder Woman’s place in the story is nigh inexplicable – she’s just sort of there and ready to help. Granted the performance was well done and I think DC may finally be able to bring one of the most stereotyped female superheroes into the 21st Century.
Lex Luthor on the other hand, who is far more essential (almost obligatory) to any post-origin Superman story, is reinvented and retooled to a fault. Luthor was always a bit of a nut in both Hackman and Spacey’s portrayal of him, though some comics paint him as a calm and composed individual with a degree of charisma and charm that helps him succeed in the “real world.” BvS gives us a sort of mad scientist version of Lex, with little in the way of a clear explanation as to his hatred of Superman. Furthermore, Eisenberg was just wrong wrong wrong for the role anyway. His somewhat diminutive stature, the long stringy hair, his grad-school age range…plus all the babbling and mildly schizophrenic tendencies that the writers threw in – all of this contributed to a sort of “petulant child” persona which wasn’t very fun to watch. Yeah, the guy was smart, but he was also whiny, weaselly, entitled, and brattish. I don’t think we needed another Hackman or Spacey in the role (cringe) but a more mature, commanding, even slightly menacing version would’ve been preferable. The audience ought to have been awestruck by Luthor’s genius, blinded by his charm, and a little frightened by his ambition. Instead, I think most of us were just waiting for him to get the hell off screen.
Cavill already did a superb job as both Clark Kent, Kal-el, and Superman in Man of Steel, and for the most part he’s able to channel all of that into another fine performance, even if the script makes it a little less obvious. That being said, let’s get to the biggest bombshell of BvS…
That’s right, there’s no avoiding it. Ben Affleck himself is Bruce Wayne / The Bat, and with all sorts of multi-picture deals flying around right now it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. The internet was up in arms at the announcement, and for the most part, I agreed. I couldn’t imagine the star of Dogma or Good Will Hunting or Armageddon donning the Batsuit. But I’ll just go ahead and say it: he actually wasn’t that bad, and I think he might have a shot at making an older Batman work if he can keep himself out of insipid romantic comedies for the duration. The bottom half of his face doesn’t look so good in the Bat-cowl, but eh, it could be a lot worse. A lot. I actually think that one of the biggest problems of previous portrayals of Batman has been the actor/director/writer’s inability to capture the essence of Bruce Wayne himself, and that’s where Snyder and Affleck mostly succeed. Keaton’s Wayne was aloof, Kilmer’s was about as engaging as an Idaho spud, and Clooney was just a playboy. Bale was much better and at least brought some depth to the character, though he didn’t really sell the “Bruce Wayne” side of his character until The Dark Knight Rises, which (rightfully so) was more about Bruce Wayne as the Batman than Batman himself. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but Snyder and Affleck manage to coax something very human out of Affleck’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne.
I will admit that the change is jolting at first. It isn’t until DC starts filling in some of the details about this version of Batman that we really begin to make some sense of the character. A lot of moviegoers didn’t catch the subtle references, or were at the very least confused about their inclusion. What we’re introduced to in BvS is an older, hardened version of The Batman, not a spry twentysomething. This is a Bruce Wayne who has spent roughly the past 20 years protecting Gotham from one menace after another, including the Joker (a couple of quick references are made, indicating that Batman has squared off with Joker sometime in the not-so-recent past). Understanding this is crucial to “getting” Affleck’s portrayal of Batman as well as understanding why he feels the need to take on Superman. Thus far we’ve only seen versions of Batman who encounter “the weird” for the first time. This time DC eschews another freakin’ origin story (thank god) and decides to jump in with a Batman who’s already seen and done it all.
Overall, I think Affleck does a decent job of giving us a more subdued and indeed more detective-like version of the Dark Knight. His job as Gotham’s protector for the last 2 decades has left him weary, distrustful, maybe even a little jaded at times, giving us a level of nuance we haven’t generally seen in the character. (Most of the time we’re just presented with the moral dilemma of killing vs. not killing in some form or another.)
So all of that means that BvS is pretty awesome, right? Well no, not quite. Snyder (the director) was too ambitious in his approach – the movie is big and loud and awesome looking, but it lacks coherence. Part of it comes from the crew trying desperately to establish DC’s shared universe, and I’m not talking about the quick clips of Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg, I’m talking about Wonder Woman’s entire presence and Wayne’s bizarre time travel / dream encounter with the Flash. (Did you catch that? I actually didn’t realize what the hell was happening in that scene until I saw the movie a second time!) I think that trimming off some of this fat would’ve helped, but there are some other hurdles as well.
Most noticeable of all, the movie had a really choppy flow. The first half feels like a series of nearly unrelated vignettes that only start to make some sense after we pass the 1 hour mark. There is a lot of boring chit-chat in that first hour or so which does little to suck the viewer in. The script stays ambivalent enough about the conflict to keep us squarely neutral on the issue, and by the time the big fight is imminent, we just want to yell at Superman and Batman for being so damn stupid.
Another aspect I take issue with is the casting of Jeremy Irons as Alfred. I know it’s 2016, and I don’t expect another Michael Gough version of the famous butler, but Irons plays a dirty and almost unsavory version of the gentlemanly character, who’s role in the movie has more to do with Lucius Fox than Alfred. He doesn’t spend much time on screen with Affleck, but even based on their limited interaction the two lack the sufficient surrogate-father-Alfred-Master-Wayne bond that we’re all familiar with. Maybe this will improve over time…or maybe the DC Extended Universe will relegate Alfred to a much smaller role than previous Batman films.
Snyder sort of misses the mark with the whole “Batman versus Superman” concept. He builds it up nicely – we have a Superman and a Batman that are at opposite ends of their respective crime-fighting careers, and who, based on what each has seen, have ample reason to distrust the other. But like I said, the build up is choppy and there’s a lot of wasted potential in both Affleck and Cavill. From the title we’re supposed to gather that the main plot point is indeed the showdown between the two heroes, so other plot points, such as Luthor’s growing hatred, the discovery of kryptonite, and the existence of General Zod’s body are relegated to second tier status. However, by the time the showdown rolls around, it’s 100% obvious that the battle between Batman and Superman is not the focal point of the film and that all this “secondary stuff” has actually been the “important stuff” the whole time, leaving the “Batman versus Superman” part as a more incidental occurrence. I believe that this approach was entirely incorrect and only serves to splinter the movie into a heavy handed but largely insignificant portion playing off of each hero’s natural distrust of the other, and then a much more significant portion where the nuance and detail is mostly rushed.
That doesn’t mean the film is a total wash though, I just think that the emphasis was incorrectly skewed. The actual battle between Batman and Superman is a good deal more awesome than I thought it would be, and I’m glad the writers at least attempt to explain how a mere human like Batman can even begin to stand up to a super-being like Superman. It isn’t quite as technically impressive as Superman’s face-off against the surviving Kryptonians in Man of Steel but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.
Of course the ultimate narrative and cinematic payoff of BvS is the creation of and battle against Doomsday, which is a pretty damn big deal, considering Luthor and Zod are the only Superman villains ever to appear in a live action film. The climax is awesome as it should be, Wonder Woman and all. And the big shocker is that Superman ultimately dies, but I don’t think any of us are really fooled by it, especially just 2 movies in.
So if we’re talking 6 or 8 friends looking to kill a couple of hours on a Saturday night, Civil War is probably the more reasonable choice. The story is linear, there’s plenty of “clever” dialog to chuckle at, 3 or 4 doses of solid action-oriented eye-candy, and that sort of digestible, mainstream combination of ethos, pathos, and logos that seems to keep the masses happy. Conversely, Batman v Superman is humorless, one or two misplaced scenes shy of a narrative disaster, and only manages to sustain a somewhat murky connection to the audience. However, BvS did a much better job of establishing its setting. Going from Man of Steel into BvS I really felt like I was getting to know this world, something that the MCU has yet to achieve – its world doesn’t yet seem clearly delineated from ours. Although characterization was a little light in both films, at least with BvS we weren’t inundated with several new faces as well as old faces with questionable levels of significance. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the 50-ish year old Bruce Wayne with the thirtysomething Clark Kent, whereas with Civil War, well, would it really make much of a difference if Ant-Man or Black Panther or Vision or Hawkeye was stricken from the final cut…?
What I think it boils down to – for me anyway – is that Batman v Superman leaves me much more eager for another installment in DC’s Extended Universe, much more so than another MCU release. Still, with so many colorful villains out there, I am a little bummed that the best that Spring/Summer 2016 had to offer was heroes fighting heroes – another unfortunate side effect of setting up future entries. I won’t say I’ve given up on the MCU yet, but they really need to change up their formula some and stop endlessly focusing on the relationships between their heroes and instead characterize them through their interactions with their adversaries. DC may be headed down the same path for all I know, and even though Luthor was a little less impressive than he should’ve been, they’re off to a strong start with the conflict shown between Superman and Zod in the first film.
So what’s the future hold? It may be a while before we get a clear picture of where these companies are going next; MCU is set to introduce the world to Dr. Strange in November while DC drops Suicide Squad (kind of looking forward to Leto’s stab at the Joker…and Harley is H-O-fucking-T) at the end of the summer, and we’ll probably have to wait until “Avengers 3” (kicking off the “Infinity Gauntlet” arc) and “Justice League Part One” before we see any more major shifts. One thing seems fairly certain though – the MCU will be rotating out its first “generation” of actors before too long and bringing in a new group of faces…will this make a difference? Maybe – I never could swallow Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark….hell, he’ll always be Wayne Gale to me!
Written by The Cubist
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