Batman v Superman: A disappointment
Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War were released in theaters about a month and a half apart. Both films were highly anticipated, but at the end of the day, Batman v Superman was seen as a disappointment, while Civil War went on to be a critical and commercial success. Given how both films were released so close to one another and that they are quite similar, in the fact that they both feature superheroes fighting against one another, it's hard to resist lining the two up side by side to make comparisons and contrasts.
The question is this: Why was Batman v Superman seen as an underwhelming mess, while Captain America was seen as, arguably, Marvel's best MCU film to date? Before I dive into this question, let's look at each film individually.
Batman v Superman had early test screenings in New York shortly before it hit theaters. The responses from viewers were extremely positive, generating some more optimism about the film. When it finally came to theaters, critics slammed it into oblivion. It was called bloated and overlong. Some said it was trying to do too much at once, primarily in setting up the future Justice League movies. Other notable criticisms included calling the plot and writing nonsensical. At the box office, the film made a profit, but its intake was much lower than anticipated, taking in just a little over $850 million. With a plethora of harsh reviews and a disappointing box office turnout, Batman v Superman clearly didn't live up to the hype.
Civil War hit theaters just a month and a half after Batman v Superman. The film was heavily advertised beforehand, and when it finally came out, people raved about it. Some called it the best MCU film to date. At the box office, the film grossed just a little over $1.1 billion, marking an impressive financial success.
Now back to the main question: What did Batman v Superman do wrong, but Captain America do right? There's a few aspects to really look at.
1.) The story
Batman v Superman's story; Batman witnesses the destruction of Metropolis, causing him to believe Superman must be destroyed, since the world cannot afford to let the Man of Steel go rogue. On the other hand, Superman learns of Batman marking criminals for life, as well as his hide-in-the-shadows style of crime-fighting. For a reason that doesn't appear truly defined, Superman thus views Batman as a threat. On top of this, Lex Luthor plans to use the remains from Zod's ship to construct a plan to defeat Superman.
Civil War's story; The government wants to regulate the Avengers, but Steve Rogers and Tony Stark feel differently about this. Rogers trusts his own instincts, but Stark supports the notion because of his involvement with the creation of Ultron in Age of Ultron. Due to their failure to agree, a fight later ensues.
Both movies have several plot points occur due to tragic events that took place in previous films (Man of Steel and Age of Ultron, respectively). Batman gets his motivation to stop Superman because of the destruction of Metropolis. Batman is also able to create the kryptonian weapons to fight Superman due to kryptonite being left over from before. Lex Luthor is able to create Doomsday with DNA from General Zod's body (does that sound a little like Nuclear Man from Superman IV?). The destruction of Sokovia and Stark's responsibility in creating Ultron lead to Stark and Rogers growing divided. So why does Batman v Superman receive heat, but Civil War receives applause for their respective stories? With Batman v Superman, the main issue appears to be that the story and how it develops is rather vague. It's not completely clear why Batman and Superman grow to detest one another. We know Batman believes Superman could become unstable at any moment, but what exactly drives Superman to oppose Batman? Perhaps it's the fear that Batman has a better chance than anyone else to acquire the kryptonite as well as having the brains to develop a scheme that will undoubtedly stop Superman (What? Is Lex Luthor supposed to be any better?). Another major point is when Batman is about to kill Superman with the kryptonite spear. Superman chokes out, "Martha" causing Batman to spare him. The reasoning is that Batman realizes that Superman truly does have a human side to him and is not a threat. That's nice and all, but who could've reached that conclusion within the heat of the action?
With Captain America, the motivations of the characters are easier to follow and are more clear-cut. Captain American and Iron Man don't see eye-to-eye on the Sokovia Accords, so a fight is bound to happen. When Iron Man finds out that Bucky Barnes killed his parents, he attacks Captain America and Bucky, in desire of revenge. Compared to Batman v Superman, Civil War's story is more direct and concrete.
2.) The characters
Let's first throw out any comparisons of the characters strictly based on the comic books, because Batman, Superman, Captain America, and Iron Man have been published in comics for decades, and I am solely talking about their appearances in film. Outside of the MCU, Captain America and Iron Man have no significant movies to speak of (the 1990 Captain America movie is considered one of the worst movies ever made). Batman and Superman, on the other hand, have been on-screen for decades.
After the tongue-in-cheek Adam West TV show, Batman returned to his dark origins in the 1989 film Batman, directed by Tim Burton and starred Michael Keaton as the titular hero. Batman would then later be portrayed throughout the 1990's and 2000's by the likes of Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale. Many of Batman's films have gone on to be highly successful, helping to keep the Caped Crusader's name alive and well throughout the years.
Superman also has had commendable success. The first two Superman films starring Christopher Reeve were highly successful, although Superman would not grace the screen again until Superman Returns nearly 20 years later.
Both Batman and Superman have had their failures (Batman & Robin, Superman IV: Quest for Peace), but people continue to watch them and praise them. However, the versions of Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice were under heavy scrutiny. Ben Affleck was making his very first appearance as The Dark Knight. Henry Cavill was making just his second appearance as Superman. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? The Flash? Aquaman? Cyborg? All of them are new, up-to-date versions. Since DC hasn't taken the time yet to truly establish these newer versions, people are going to have a harder time getting around them. People aren't used to seeing Ben Affleck's Batman as a killer. Henry Cavill's Superman is considered mopey and stiff. Little to nothing can be said about Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman and all of the other DC superheroes just mentioned. They will each have their own movie coming out within the next several years, but wouldn't it have been nicer to see these new versions be established beforehand? Wouldn't it make more sense for each of these DC heroes to have their own respective movies, and THEN see Batman and Superman fight? DC must have gotten a little too impatient, since they figured Batman v Superman was going to make a lot of money, no matter when it came out.
Marvel has had their characters already established before Civil War was released. Captain America had 2 stand-alone films beforehand. Iron Man had 3. We've even seen Captain America and Iron Man on-screen together twice in both Avengers movies. Even all of the other Marvel characters like Ant-Man, Bucky Barnes, and Hawkeye have all appeared in films where they've played a relevant role (Spiderman was the lone exception, but he has his own film coming out in a few years). These movies allowed Marvel to convey to us what Chris Evans' Captain America is like, as well as what Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man is like. Civil War did not need to take the time to establish these characters, because that job has already been done. The Russo brothers could put more focus on story, since they have the advantage of assuming audiences go see Civil War already knowing what the MCU superheroes are like.
What we can conclude is that it's reasonable to argue that Batman v Superman had a premature release. DC should've taken the time to establish the most recent versions of its superheroes, and then show us the squabble between Batman and Superman. Civil War had the luxury of not needing to take the time to develop its characters because Marvel did so already in its previous MCU films. If Batman v Superman came out in, say, 2020, after DC did just about all of its lone superhero films (Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman), I strongly believe it would've been a much bigger hit than it actually was.
3.) The tone
Batman v Superman is viewed as rather dark and gritty, while Civil War is seen as more fun and entertaining. One thing is for sure: superheroes excel when it comes to entertaining us, largely because they combine elements of fantasy, action and science fiction. But like any film, we want to also care about the story and characters. Based on the character descriptions I brought up earlier, Batman v Superman has characters that we might have a difficult time getting behind. Batman and Superman aren't seen as fun or likable. Captain America and Iron Man, on the other hand, are fun and likable. Robert Downey Jr.s' Iron Man is frequently sarcastic, and Chris Evans' Captain America knows when to sneak in an appropriate one-liner. For Civil War, we're not only used to the modern version of these superheroes, we perceive them as humorous and capable of providing us for a good time. Because of that, people have an easier time getting behind the story. But for Batman and Superman, viewers may feel detached because the two are darkly no-nonsense. There was a time in the early 2000's when superheroes seemed too gothic and serious, with the likes of Daredevil, Spawn, and Blade. None of those films were well-received, and they all had a tone similar to Batman v Superman. Is that to say superheroes can't be too serious? Look at Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which had a similarly dark tone, but all three films were highly successful, critically and commercially.
With all this in mind, the tone of a superhero film is probably a more minor concern when it comes to determining if the film will be successful or not. None of the MCU films so far have been overly serious, yet they have all been successful. Batman v Superman appears to deem humor and fun as irrelevant, and because of that, viewers struggle to get behind the story and characters, because superheroes, at least in this day and age, are supposed to be fun and entertaining.
I know it sounds more like I've been critiquing Batman v Superman, but given the harsh criticism it has received, it opens itself up for more analysis. Is it safe to say that Batman v Superman is far inferior to Civil War? Probably, because Civil War seems to correct everything that Batman v Superman apparently does wrong. Considering how close their respective release dates were, comparisons cannot be avoided.
Everyone has the right to decide what movies they believe to be good or bad. I'm sure several people believe Batman v Superman was the better film. Several others will say Civil War was better. In a time where superheroes films pop up left and right, future comparisons between Marvel and DC will certainly be made. For now, DC is having a hard time trying to match Marvel's success.
My main conclusion from this analysis is that Batman v Superman was released prematurely. It struggled with its plot and tone because DC hadn't taken the time to develop the most up-to-date versions of their superheroes. Marvel had already done so, which was a key part in Civil War's major success. Regardless, I am sure both of these films will be remembered for years to come.
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