It’s astonishing how polarizing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is. Man of Steel was the same way, but it’s a film that somehow doesn’t get the kind of pass so many others in the genre do. There’s some sort of odd stigma associated with these two properties which creates a barrier exclusive to them. Think about it, Batman has seen Adam West, Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale all create unique variations on the character. With them comes loyalty and typically a set of expectations with the next incarnation. Superman has seen Bud Collyer, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Tom Welling, and Patrick Warburton add their nuances to the role. Each new person to don their costumes not only has to add their own gravitas but also infuse elements that worked from the previous performers. Add the comic books to the mix and it’s a Herculean task. Emotions, for better or worse, come heavily into play when these characters surface onscreen.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has worn a bullseye since day one. One of the big strikes against it was the controversial last act of Man of Steel and the damage caused by the battle between Superman and General Zod. Superman purists were enraged and fans who didn’t want the lighter tone the hero is known for covered in the same grime that Christopher Nolan brought to his Batman movies. In all honesty, Zack Snyder faced difficult challenges by sheer fact that not only did the film have to appease fans of the character but also compete in a marketplace dominated by Marvel‘s ascent to the tip of the entertainment spear. As each piece of marketing has surfaced, fans have widely viewed the film through a “glass is half full” mentality, which is a hard obstacle to hurdle.
I was lucky enough to spend time on the set of the movie and was truly astonished by what I saw but since it wasn’t for Fandom, I’ll leave it at that. The fact that audiences aren’t as willing to part with their own preconceptions on how these characters are handled as opposed to the liberties many of Marvel’s properties have gotten is surprising. And that’s coming from a person who is a much bigger Marvel fan than DC. These are complex times indeed.
Remember when the biggest thing to complain about was whether Spider-Man’s web shooters were manmade or organic?
In many ways, the battle has already been won. The film is tracking to do monster business and many forget that the overwhelming majority of people who buy tickets for these films are not hardcore comic book readers. They’re people who live their lives and look to be entertained for a few hours in the theater after a long week of work or school. They aren’t concerned with whether or not Batman uses a gun or if Superman factors in civilian casualties when fighting a villain whose goal is to kill everyone in the world. They want to be entertained and they want to see the needle moved a little further for this genre of films. That battle has been won for Zack Snyder‘s epic. The visceral response to the Batman logo or Superman’s famous costume is as strong as any reactions to images in the pop culture canon.
Zack Snyder is also a filmmaker with a bullseye trained on him, especially since he carries the burden of finally bringing the Justice League to screens. His 300 was a universally praised comic book adaptation and his Watchmen may not have set the world on fire, but is a film that will only become more appreciated as time goes by. It is a very important film in the evolution of the comic book on screen and its only real crime is being released at a time when the world hadn’t caught up to the idea of an R-rated movie about people in costumes. Man of Steel was polarizing, but time may shine fondly on it as well. There is no denying, however, that the man knows the material and is doing everything in his power to make it work.
The sad thing is that the studio seems to be factoring in the cynicism being directed at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the marketing for the film. That’s proof positive of just how much hype and social media can affect perception on an intellectual property. Audiences reacted poorly to what was intended to be the money shot of a trailer where Doomsday makes an appearance and like a flash the character hasn’t been seen since. Ben Affleck as Batman has impressed so widely that the film has almost been marketed as a Batman film featuring Henry Cavill‘s Superman. Even the quotes being spread around the Internet seem to have damage control in mind, which is surprising for a film that looks to be delivering on so many things fans have been asking for since these characters first started appearing on screens.
Why exactly is this such a polarizing film? Why doesn’t it get a pass when so many other films in the genre do? It’s mystifying, especially considering that there have been as many bad movies for Batman and Superman as there have been good. There’s no such thing as sacred material in a world accustomed to reboots, reimaginings, and major tonal shifts within a series.
A few recent examples of how simple comments can ignite a powder keg of controversy:
The folks at Comicbookmovie unleashed a quote from Affleck regarding the beginning of the movie and to film fans it’s a great quote. For people who have a very distinct image of Batman hardwired to their soul, it may be interpreted differently.
“It’s like out of Seven or Aliens or something, which is a really different vibe. My son still watches the Adam West Batman. It’s a far cry from where it started.” – Ben Affleck
Now that’s pretty innocuous. But for people craving the wholesome apple pie vibe of classic Superman films it’s profane. For people wanting the Batman they picture in their mind’s eye, it could seem a betrayal. Frankly, it’s most likely a very small sequence that Affleck refers to and his comments indicate that the scene is probably very tense, drenched in shadow, and features some pretty brutal combat. Where’s the problem, exactly?
Affleck went even deeper when asked about the business side of things. Fans must realize that, before all else, these amazing spectacles we’re treated to on a regular basis are business decisions. They’re very strategically planned products that’re meant to make a profit. To please everyone is impossible, but there are very smart people relying on hard data and many checks and balances that have to be met along the way before a movie this large and important is even greenlit. This isn’t a hopeful shot in the dark, but a sniper’s carefully aimed killshot and its target is the heart of the mainstream.
“Look, in the broad sense, from a long-term portfolio perspective, Warner Bros. has already won. They own this vast underexploited intellectual property that is DC. They’re going to make all these movies regardless. Will every DC movie be great and be successful? No. Would it be good if BvS works for them? Yes, obviously. But if any one of the movies doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean it all goes away. Green Lantern didn’t work, and Green Lantern is going to come back and work for them.” – Ben Affleck
There is nothing wrong with Affleck’s comments, and frankly, they’re refreshing. The past always plays a large role in the future of these kinds of projects. Making up for previous mistakes is a lesson not every major studio learns. It’s no mystery that the thrust of the conflict at the core of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice stems from the single most criticized aspect of the film that preceded it. In many ways the Batman of the film is an avatar for the audiences who felt that the climax of Man of Steel was excessive.
Let’s pretend that Warner Bros. listened to the criticisms and made sure to make good on it. On those criteria alone one would expect a little loyalty and leeway from an audience. Somehow, that’s not the case with this film though it truly does kill one of the main problems the movie faces.
Additionally, Green Lantern wasn’t a hit and that had to sting for the studio. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The film got plenty of things right and it just didn’t connect. Affleck’s perspective is a very sober and true one. There are no right answers. There is no easy way to pull these stories off. It requires everyone’s best effort and more than a little luck.
One last bit from Affleck before we wrap this up:
“Zack spent two years of his life on this movie, and we put in months and months. We are truly, deeply invested in this movie. We want the movie to be good. We want to be proud of it. I want to make a movie that my kids think is cool. It’s not just us punching the corporate clock. You know, you get up at 5 and go to work at 6 in the morning and put on the suit. It’s not particularly fun and sexy to roll around in a rubber suit fighting a stunt guy.” – Ben Affleck
That’s honesty. It’s not an apology before the fact. In an even-keeled world that’s the mantra of an actor who poured himself into a project and is so close to it he truly doesn’t know how the world will experience it. That’s what it’s like at ground level. That shouldn’t polarize. It should invigorate. You want something that doesn’t feel like canned actorspeak but rather the honest truth. Somehow in the world where this giant superhero movie wears a figurative scarlet letter it comes off to many as damage control.
Next week we’ll all know how the film is, but maybe it’s time to let the material speak for itself because so much of the negative energy has been built on a house of cards. No one really knows and life’s too short to ride the pack mentality on something this potentially awesome.