5. “They Need More Jokes, Like The Marvel Movies!”
I don’t think the tone of the DC movies so far has been what’s doomed them. Nonsensical plot points, scenes that start something and proceed to go nowhere, and pacing that allows them to wallow in their own shit for an hour before suddenly ramping the narrative through a building — that’s what’s turned these things from “movies” into “collections of half-formed ideas barely held together by themes that the characters constantly shout at each other.” And when that complaint was put through the I Need To Get This Down To 140 Characters Or Less Translator, it apparently came out as “Needs more jokes!”
The Marvel movies can be pretty funny. Ant Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and every line from Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War are all humorous without feeling like someone went through the scripts with a red-tipped pen to make sure that these costume parades got some ha ha’s. And that feeling is super important, because it at least gives off the illusion that once we enter the theater, we’re being put into the hands of competent filmmakers who know how to manage a mood, and not the wallets of executive overlords screaming “GET ROBERT DOWNEY JR. FOR A CAMEO, YOU FUCK!” at every opportunity.
But adding lightheartedness to a movie is not a tonal Band-Aid. We already saw that applied to Suicide Squad, and that thing ended up seeming like a tug of war between two totally different Suicide Squads. Batman v. Superman would not have benefited from some sprinkling of whimsy. To create a movie that can handle a mess of jokes, you have to rebuild it as such from the ground up. You might hate a Superman that is a 50/50 split on frowns and punches, but “fixing” him by dribbling random pleasantness from his super-orifices is like finishing an algebra test by including a five-paragraph analysis of the works of Charles Dickens.
Also, we’ve already ragged on DC for copying Marvel’s Expanded Cinematic Universe idea. If DC suddenly decides to start creating the kind of movies that Marvel is making in terms of how funny they are, we’re just going to give DC hell for that too. I don’t want every film that they come out with to have a tone like Batman v. Superman, which can best be described as “slow motion tears fall during slow motion rain drops.” But I also don’t want a series of movies that decapitate their own worth because of a misguided WHAT ABOUT THE FUNNY? campaign.
Suicide Squad was the third movie that DC made in their new universe. Rather than go the route of establishing more legitimate heroes, they decided, four-and-a-half hours into their existence, that audiences would much rather see a collection of B-List villains, with Batman showing up for three 90-second segments. Many said that it was DC’s attempt to replicate Guardians Of The Galaxy, but it feels less like that and more like a comic book Devil’s Rejects. They’re mass murderers and generally the worst people on the planet, but hey, they’re always busting each other’s balls, so they must be alright!
And while this paid off in the box office, the reviews added it to the ever-growing pile of Stuff That DC Has Done Totally Wrong. I rewatched all three of these movies before I wrote this column, and I don’t hate them anymore. There’s stuff that I really like about some of them, but Suicide Squad is painfully grating at its worst. Now That’s What I Call Supervillains, Volume 1 is an incoherent screech into the winds of relevance, but the concept behind it? Sign me up for a dozen more.
The release of Suicide Squad as their third film shows me that DC is willing to take chances that are so unmeasured that they’re borderline blind. And that is infinitely more interesting than the approach of “We’ll release movies about the big-name superheroes first, and when they’re all proven to succeed, we’ll go down the list until we eventually reach Leather Boy: A Netflix Original Series.”
The release of one supervillain-themed disaster does not mean that we need to scrap the concept and focus solely on figuring out how to get more than two people into the audience of a Green Lantern movie. Marvel is creating a stronger and stronger built-in audience. People will go to see these just to check them off the list. DC, with all of its backlash, doesn’t have that yet. Batman does, but DC as a whole does not. And they will always be playing catch-up until they provide an alternative to Marvel. And if that alternative is batshit lunacy, I’m down. As a fan, I really appreciate Marvel’s consistency. But I’m way more interested in Suicide Squad 2: Fuck It, We’re Doing It.
After the release of Man Of Steel and Batman v. Superman, it was clear that the director, Zack Snyder, had some weird inclinations when it came to how classic characters should be portrayed. The immediate reaction to this discovery was “Well, Zack Snyder just doesn’t understand certain characters.” And because these two movies mostly dealt with the internal turmoil and external explosions of a piece of eye laser Americana, this was boiled down to “Zack Snyder hates Superman.”
I get that. In Man Of Steel, Clark Kent spends the first two acts moping around the globe, trying to gain an ounce of purpose. And in the last act, when he discovers that his purpose is “Property Damage,” he beats the villains through every populated building that he can find. This provided an interesting backdrop for Batman v. Superman: That dude is supposed to be the world’s greatest hero, so how is he going to handle having inadvertently killed thousands? And we probably would’ve seen an answer to this question, had Ben Affleck’s rippling trapezius not been in the way.
But Zack Snyder does not hate Superman. And he does not have a loathing for do-gooder superhero characters. In fact, what Zack Snyder does not get is the same thing that we don’t get: How do you make people like Superman again?
I often fall into thinking that understanding characters and presenting them in their truest comic-book-friendly form will equal massive box office numbers, critical success, and probably a handjob in a public restroom. But would turning Superman into an unfailing Boy Scout, or totally leaning into the skid of “He’s a lost god on a planet that he doesn’t have a mutual understanding with” make people dig him? The first trailer for Man Of Steel played before The Dark Knight Rises. In my theater, after the inspiring music and washed-out shots of the kid in the cape, a guy yelled “BATMAN’S BETTER, THOUGH!” and the audience applauded as if he had just discovered the cure for death.
And that’s the public perception of Superman. You can throw as many metaphors or classic-ness at them, but the unanimous response is a piercing “BATMAN’S BETTER, THOUGH!” The reason Batman has been the most popular character of the past three decades, and why we have to struggle to even get people to consider Superman as a valid anything, is that Batman inspires discussion. “What’s the best portrayal of Batman?” “Should he kill?” “Should he not kill?” “Is it right for him to quit being Batman, or does that betray his character?” “During sex, does he let the ‘I’m Batman’ voice slip out a little bit just to show Catwoman that she’s special?”
Superman’s discussion is “Oh, do you like Superman? I don’t.”
Zack Snyder doesn’t go flaccid whenever he sees a red cape. Nor does he look at Superman rescuing a cat out of a tree and think, “Superman wouldn’t do that. Superman would eat that cat.” However, Zack Snyder does understand that the only way we’re going to get people invested in the trials of Clark Kent again is to get people talking about Clark Kent. And regardless of whether you like or dislike his version or Superman, it’s the only way to get people to stop thinking of Superman as the dumb hick cousin of the DC universe.
Christopher Nolan did a lot of cool things with the Batman character. But until The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman slugged it out with Bane, fight scenes that amounted to more than a blur of editing and short strikes were a distant a dream. Thus, in Batman v. Superman, when Batman Brock Lesnar’d his way through a warehouse full of goons, all I could think was “Finally.” And so many reviews had taken dumps on a decade of inadequate hand-to-hand bat combat, so I expected critics and fans to erupt in resounding high fives at the sight of a Batman who could readjust a bad guy’s skeleton from the outside of his body if he wanted to.
We’d clamored for better fight scenes since 1978, when Superman’s greatest physical threat was the tag team of Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. That’s 35 years of “Hey! We want DC characters who can properly throw down!” Don’t just accept the stuff you don’t like when it comes to purely fictional characters. But if I’m Zack Snyder and I’m still the guy who directed stuff like 300, and all I’ve heard since I was 12 is that Superman needs to be able to do all of his Superman stuff, I’m gonna go nuts with it. And if I hear that you didn’t like Batman’s array of elbows and shin kicks, the next criminal that Batman sees is going to be nearly ripped in half, because goddammit, give the people what they ask for.
Batman v. Superman featured a lot of characters showing up for the first time in this universe, like Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Aquaman, Cyborg, Flash, and Jimmy Olsen. (RIP, BUDDY. YOU HAD MORE THAN ONE LINE IN THE ULTIMATE EDITION OF THE FILM, AND NO ONE CAN TAKE THAT AWAY FROM YOU. POUR ONE OUT FOR JIMMY.) And while the introductions to half of them were clumsy, as they were mostly done through Wonder Woman watching security footage on a computer, I don’t think that giving each of them a solo film before Batman v. Superman was the answer to “How many showers can we give this turd?”
We’ve had five Batman solo films, and while they weren’t connected to Batman v. Superman, that doesn’t mean that Batman suddenly becomes a mystery to us. No, we get what Batman’s about. Oh, he’s old now and a little angrier? That’s not a foreign concept that we couldn’t possibly wrap our heads around without another movie of set up. Ben Affleck’s constant grimace is an effective one. It tells us that he’s a little pissed off and tortured, so giving him a solo film to set that depression up is simply doing what five combined films have done repeatedly.
We’re getting a Justice League movie later this year, in which hopefully all of Batman’s super pals will get some proper screen time. But thinking that the whole team should have gotten solo films to better set up a movie entitled BATMAN v. SUPERMAN is the equivalent of wishing you could eat all of the potatoes in the restaurant because it would make your steak taste better. What is making Flash more important beforehand going to do for that movie? Did we really need another guy to stand around and look sad about stuff? If there’s one thing that Batman v, Superman didn’t need, it’s more existential bro angst.