SPOILERS ahead for both movies.
Unless you have been struck blind, deaf, dumb, and dead, you should be aware that 2016 has become the year of superhero battle blockbusters. In March we had Warner Bros’ massive introduction to their Justice League universe with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It only took a month and a half for Marvel to respond when Captain America: Civil War released just this weekend. 2016 has become an odd intersection between two companies with two different superhero universes suddenly arriving at the same place while passing in opposite directions.
Warner Bros and Disney are aiming for very different kind of superhero battle royales. Batman v Superman was grim, gritty, and unpleasant from the outset. Captain America: Civil War continued to be bright and humorous. It had time to throw Spider-Man into the movie for no reason other than Spider-Man is just a lot of fun to be around. Until, of course, the Civil War ends in tragedy. BvS is trying to work off the baggage of Man of Steel‘s horrific tone deaf ending while introducing us to the Justice League. Where Civil War is trying to work a loyal audience used to movies about heroes eating shawarma together to watch darker, more dramatic turns in their cinematic universe. You cannot just go from 9/11 imagery to Aquaman chilling in space with the other heroes, and you cannot just go from movies like Ant-Man to galaxy-ending threats like the upcoming Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet. Both universes needed a movie in the middle, and thus what we got.
But despite the differences in tone and style, secretly Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War are the same movie. BvS and Civil War have the same plots, same themes, same goals, and even virtually the same running times. Both movies wound up asking the same question: how do heroes react to innocent people being killed in their previous fights? And they end up with largely similar answers to those questions. Replace Batman with Iron Man, Captain America with Superman, and throw in a scheming supervillain like Lex Luthor or Baron Zemo, and not a lot would change.
Let’s review: Both movies open with the heroes fighting African terrorism. Then the unintentional collateral damage of those opening fights leads to public outcry against the superheroes and demands for government accountability. Government officials intervene, hoping to reign in the superheroes, and are then targeted by the main villain who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Both movies feature world leaders being killed in major explosions in political capitals orchestrated by the villain. The films both come to their emotional climaxes with the heroes ready to kill each other. Both reach major turning points following a revelation about a superhero’s mother. The main villains both work to resurrect stronger villains, and when those stronger villains are killed, they are led off to jail.
But where both movies are very similar, they actually conclude with opposite results. BvS is trying to build a Justice League, Civil War is trying to destroy the Avengers. The way this is accomplished in each film is with a single crucial structural decision. Both movies have two separate kinds of action climaxes. There is the “fun” climax, which features teams of superheroes fighting in massive special effects extravaganzas, willfully ignoring the laws of physics. Then there is the “dramatic” climax, where the positivity stops and the heroes are out only to murder each other with their bloodied fists. The placement of these climaxes is the key differences in the plots of the movies.
In Civil War, the fun moment would be the battle in the airport, where a dozen superheroes all gang up on each other in a wild blast of comic book nonsense. But it comes just as the battle lines are finally drawn, it’s one last fan service fling of Spider-Man webbing and a giant Ant-Man before the dramatic turn is reached. This fun climax juxtaposes a hilarious scene with a weirdly hot Aunt May played by Marisa Tomei and a scene with War Machine being inadvertently hit by one of Vision’s blasts, crippling him and seemingly ending his superhero career. As joyfully ludicrous as this fight was, the jokes and quips of the first two acts end, to be replaced by the bitterness and division of the conclusion.
In the case of BvS, the “dramatic” fight is the marquee action scene that got the fans in their seat: the Batman vs Superman. It’s an angry miserable grind of two furious men killing each other. Lex Luthor redundantly kidnaps Superman’s mother to force him to fight Batman. The title bout is more of a bitter torture scene, where Batman throws everything, including the kitchen sink, at Superman’s face, hoping to ruin Henry Cavill’s chiseled features. Batman is very close to killing the Man of Steel just before a fortuitous coincidence (that they both have moms named “Martha”) convinces him that Superman is not his enemy, which is the seed used to build the Justice League.
In Civil War, the situation is more complex. Tony Stark has finally realized that he has been manipulated this whole time by Helmut Zemo and gone to help Captain America and the Winter Soldier. It seems the not-quite-Baron Zemo has been working this whole to accomplish the same thing Lex Luthor wants, to resurrect fallen supervillains. However, Zemo’s revenge is not to take the form of an unbeatable monster that can unify the heroes, he actually goes out of his way to kill the super soldiers before they can be awoken. All he needs to do to complete his vengeance is to show a clip. The dramatic twist is that the Winter Soldier murdered Tony Stark’s parents. Iron Man’s mom is murdered on Mother’s Day weekend – unsurprisingly he is not pleased. Where a revelation about a mother in BvS creates the Justice League, this revelation destroys the Avengers, with Iron Man ready to kill Bucky no matter what it takes. The movie ends with every hero pushed to their limits, all defeated in some way, friendships seemingly broken beyond repair.
BvS ends on a high note with the fight against Lex Luthor’s pet monster, Doomsday. Here we have a rocking introduction to Wonder Woman is an attempt at fan service action following a very dour and unpleasant two and a half hours. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all team up to fight a big stupid alien monster as Batman v Superman finally lets loose and has some fun with itself. (Yeah, Superman dies, but who cares? He’ll be back.) Of course, Zack Snyder cannot really help himself but once again destroy all of Metropolis. That city might just outpace Godzilla’s stomping grounds, Tokyo as the most ravaged city in film history if Warner Bros continues this way. But at least it’s big dumb Dragonball Z-style action.
Ultimately one movie is a depressing slog with some glimmer of hope, while the other is another Marvel action comedy concluding in a bummer ending.
..But who wore it better?
Both Civil War and Batman v Superman are complex and messy. Each are trying to accomplish too many things at once while struggling to maintain a singular tone, and end up with stories which upon careful examination rely upon villains with impossible levels of planning and scheming to make sense. But where Civil War, despite many weaknesses, builds a largely competent structure of superhero storytelling, Batman v Superman is very close to a train wreck in comparison. Warner Bros’ understood the controversial problems of Man of Steel. But while addressing some surface complaints about that movie, made a sequel just like it. The pacing issues, editing problems, and poorly-developed characters of Man of Steel all made it into the sequel and were only magnified further.
There’s a bigger problem here for Warner Bros: you cannot feel much for a Batman you just met fighting a Superman you do not yet love. But as for Tony Stark fighting Steve Rogers? We’ve known them for what feels like a lifetime already. Seeing that relationship tear apart is simply bound to be more dramatically interesting. Warner Bros still has a lot of catch-up to do, and it isn’t helped when Marvel can churn out superior remakes to their major blockbusters in less than fifty days.