If you, like me, have been obsessively reading the reactions to Batman v Superman and the internet firestorm that it has already set off this week (and today is only just now the official release date!), then you’re aware of the critical response as well as certain fans’ responses to the critical response. There are two common refrains coming from the branch of fans in an attempt to circle the wagons in the face of the brutally scathing reviews the film has earned so far:
- “Critics are biased/hate DC/are being paid by Disney to write bad reviews”
- “Fuck the critics; this was a movie for FANS!”
Neil’s already done an excellent job of addressing the first point, so I’d like to focus on the second.
I’m currently writing this from the Albuquerque airport (shout-out to the unreliable free WiFi; you’re a peach), waiting to board my flight back to LA, and I’m still pondering the mess I saw last night. Here’s the thing: I went into the movie with expectations that had been lowered because of reviews and, weirdly, more predisposed to being sympathetic toward the film and liking it more thanks to those reviews. I tried to watch it from both a hardcore fan’s perspective and from a non-fan’s perspective simultaneously, and I walked out of the theater understanding how a hardcore fan might love it. For those that did, I can honestly say I’m thrilled for them. They’ve been waiting a long, long time to see their Holy Trinity on the big screen together and it must have been magical, the same way it was for hardcore Marvel fans to see the Avengers suit up together for the first time back in 2012. On the other hand, I also know plenty of hardcore, knowledgeable DC fans who walked out of the theater heartbroken and disappointed, including the two I had with me.
But whether or not it worked for all preexisting fans is irrelevant. Aside from wondering why these fans assume that we movie critics aren’t fans of, you know, the media we cover every day (answer: logic is hard), the larger problem with the “This movie is for fans” argument is that it’s not the hardcore fanbase this movie needed to win over, but the broader audience. And that’s where Batman v Superman’s disjointed, incoherent mess of a plot becomes problematic. If you’re a fan who just read that and are already preparing to fire back an angry retort defending the film’s narrative in the comments, I urge you to take a deep breath and set aside your inner fanboy for a moment. Put yourself into the shoes of a casual moviegoer who has no real connection the DC universe or deep knowledge of the comics. If that doesn’t temper your perspective, then you were always going to read this article only to argue anyway, and I’m now officially ignoring you and speaking directly to the readers who can coexist rationally with their bias. Hello, all, thanks for joining me on this editorial adventure.
Don’t get me wrong. There are, and always will be casual moviegoers who just want to see Batman busting heads, Superman blasting things with his heat vision, and Wonder Woman going full Amazonian, narrative and logic be damned, and that’s fine. I’m not judging anyone for it; we all need some violent catharsis from time to time. But there will also be many, many fans – a lot of that broader audience, as a matter of fact – who will be left confused by the logical leaps and the gaps in the narrative, because there were many. The movie expects you to fill in the considerable blanks for yourself as quickly as the characters on screen are inexplicably doing it. For a fan who has a solid working knowledge of the DC universe, it’s not that hard. But for everyone else, all I can say is, well…I sure hope you’re one of the people who just wanted to see Batman punching shit. I’m not saying movies should hold an audience’s collective hand, but there’s a big difference between spoon-feeding an audience and not caring at all whether or not it keeps up.
I suspect that somewhere on the cutting room floor was a more coherent version of the movie that was just too long, but sadly, that’s not the one we got. That’s not all on Zack Snyder, either. Watching Batman v Superman made it clear that Warner Bros. gave Snyder a list of things to tease for the future of the DC Extended Universe, and the film was hamstrung by too many notes being shoehorned into a 2 1/2 hour movie, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony crammed into the space of a pop song. Last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron suffered from the same problem, and critics pointed it out then, too. I have to give Snyder and WB credit in attempting to rectify the criticisms levied at Man of Steel by hardcore fans, but they went too far in overcorrecting the problem. Man of Steel ignored those fans entirely; Batman v Superman catered to them.
The thing is, a movie that is meant to be the hub movie, the setup to a vast universe – and an expensive one, at that – needs to appeal to both groups. A comic book film is never going to please everyone; that’s impossible. Yet there’s a way to stay true to the characters and please longtime fans without alienating the rest of a larger audience who will be lost by all the inside jokes and references.
Look, Batman v Superman was never not going to make a ton of money. First time the Big 3 are on screen together in a live-action movie? C’mon. That check practically writes itself. But, much like with Man of Steel, it’s not the question of the money, but the audience perception that will affect the future longevity of DC’s cinematic universe. It’s the same of any cinematic universe that asks a viewer to invest a lot of time and money to fully understand it, even with stories that make sense. Imagine a Midwestern mom watching Batman v Superman with three kids under the age of 12 and trying to explain to them what’s happening and why certain scenes mattered; it’s impossible. It’s the reality that the fans beating the “only for fans” drum don’t seem to get: Just like them, those hardcore fans, that Midwestern mom paid the same money to see to the same movie, too. But they very likely got something far less satisfying out of it.
Eventually, you will lose more casual moviegoers when they’re not as invested in your characters or immersed in your world, when they choose to spend their hard-earned money on a safer bet, on a universe they understand, whether it’s Marvel, or Fox’s X-Men/Deadpool universe, or Star Wars, or any number of ongoing franchises. “Fool me once, shame on you,” as the saying goes, “fool me twice, shame on me.” The failure of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man 2 have shown that a comic book movie with known characters and a big budget doesn’t automatically mean the franchise will be successful if the movies leave audiences angry, or worse, indifferent. Eventually, it will affect the bottom line.
Those who are claiming that Disney is paying off critics to write bad reviews and that Marvel wanted this film to fail can wave their tinfoil hats around as hard as they want, because they’re still wrong. Make no mistake; Marvel is paying close attention to the response to Batman v Superman, but not for the reasons conspiracy theorists proudly posit to one another in their Reddit forums. Batman v Superman being poorly-received by the general audience is exactly what Marvel doesn’t want. Don’t you think they’re watching the response to a comic book film about two popular superheroes fighting one another in light of their own upcoming comic book film about two popular superheroes fighting one another with a nervous eye? That they’re paying close attention to determine how to frame the last bit of Captain America: Civil War’s marketing campaign for a general audience that doesn’t understand that this franchise belongs to Marvel and that franchise belongs to DC but only sees it as one big mass of superhero movies? Because it’s that audience that will say, “You know what, I already spent my money on one movie like that in March; I’m not going to waste my time and money on another movie like it again.” Once again, fans are never not going to see these movies, but hardcore fans are not the ones that ultimately make or break a franchise’s longevity. A franchise’s longevity is determined by how many times it can take a person who isn’t a hardcore fan and turn them into one that will keep paying to see movies set in that universe again and again.
I still have hope that Zack Snyder & co. can course correct by the time we get to Justice League: Part One. I truly do. It will be his third shot at making a film that manages to find a balance in all things, and at this point, he desperately needs to. Because the DCEU being this divisive, this polarizing, doesn’t just spell trouble for DC itself, but for the genre as a whole. Fans and general audiences deserve the chance to see another great cinematic universe that will only strengthen the genre. Not ultimately end it.