I feel like there are ways to make this post’s title more cumbersome than it already is. Then again, I have my doubts that the Blogger dashboard would allow that; it’d either reject my attempts via a character limit, or trigger the bomb embedded in my brain stem. Not 100% how that got there (or how I know about it), but it’s something I’ve learned to live with.
But let’s not dilly-dally any longer. There’s something that’s been on my mind, even beyond the question of “Why is Captain America: Civil War better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?” Granted that’s a legitimate question, and one I’ll try to answer in this post, but it’s important to go over all of the circumstances. This is one of those cases where, in order to go forward, you have to go backward.
So before we do anything else, let’s talk about Man of Steel.
Always we will fight as one
Till the battle’s won
With evil on the run
We never -- oh wait, since I’m about to talk about Man of Steel, I guess I need to switch to a Hans Zimmer-approved theme song. Yeah, I guess I’d better do that now.
Oh, and SPOILERS. Cover your ears now.
This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, but I think Man of Steel is a terrible movie. I’m not really saying that as a Superman fan, since I’ve got extremely limited experience with comic books (and even then, my “collection” skews heavily toward Marvel). Still, I like the idea of Superman, and generally think he’s cooler than Batman. Imagine my surprise, then, when the 2013 foray into the Super-mythos was such a disaster -- a half-baked philosophy lesson and a mindless slug-fest rolled into a two and a half-hour block of time I’ll never get back. (Christ, that tornado scene.)
I’ve drawn my line in the sand on the movie, as have others. But one of the key talking points with Man of Steel is the destruction caused by Supes’ final battle with Zod. Metropolis ended up in shambles, countless people lost their lives, and the “hero” was powerless to stop it -- partly because he was responsible for a good chunk of it. I guess the idea was to show what it would be like if Superman was real, but that seems like a heartbreaking interpretation, doesn’t it? The embodiment of truth and justice will accidentally slaughter you if you’re around when he’s at work. Have fun with that.
I wonder if Man of Steel broke superhero movies. Not in the sense that “no one can ever do superhero movies again”; I mean that the innocence, charm, and spirit has been jeopardized by the efforts of Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, and the rest of the DC movie mainstays. (I’m tempted to list Christopher Nolan, but I’m under the impression that he’s shying away from the superhero scene thanks to his service with The Dark Knight Trilogy.) Batman v. Superman couldn’t just be about two superheroes meeting; it HAD to stare the destruction of Metropolis in the face. It had to deal with the in-universe ramifications, as well as tend to the audience outcry, scorn, and ridicule here on terra firma. That’s not a good situation to be in. Where do you take your franchise when you essentially start with a cataclysmic (if avoidable) event? How do you reconcile it in future outings?
I’m not really convinced that BvS laid those complaints to rest. Metropolis is basically good as new in 18 months, Superman is hailed as a savior (except when he isn’t…except when he is), and the film crew sidestepped any future complaints by offhandedly saying “don’t worry, this is an abandoned island” and such. Did they really tackle the issue? Did they even understand it? It would’ve been a different story if they showed Superman actively trying to clean up the mess he helped cause, or establishing rapport with the average citizen, or doing anything to help his case. But this is the movie where, just when he’s about to characterize himself at a congressional hearing, there’s a big dumb explosion instead. Riveting.
Weirdly, it seems like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is both ahead of the curve and playing the me-too game. Various solo movies built up to The Avengers, but the movies that followed dealt with -- you guessed it -- the aftermath of the battle of New York. Tony Stark’s got PTSD and suffers from anxiety attacks! Cap uncovers SHIELD’s (and HYDRA’s) plans to ensure peace from then on with a flying superweapon! Thor has to play ambassador between the nine realms in the wake of his brother’s criminal efforts! Now we’ve had Age of Ultron, and (Ant-Man aside), we have to spend a movie going over the real-world implications of that. I know that there are kids in the audiences of Marvel movies, but are they seriously hyped up by the prospect of bureaucratic institutions?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m saying that superhero movies should be pure escapist fantasy, and that they should never deal with headier themes -- especially if the events in their universes make them a top priority. It’d be weird if the Marvel movies didn’t address the impact of its major battles, seeing as how they tend to build off of one another. It’d be downright irresponsible for the DC movies to not go over Metropolis. It’s not the most enviable situation, but it’s an understandable one. Besides, there’s always the golden rule: you can do whatever you want, as long as you do it well.
Guess who gets it. Guess who doesn’t.
It’s insane. Two different movies from two different studios encompassing two different comic book universes managed to cover the same themes -- the aftermath of big battles and the question of how to regulate those with extraordinary power in an ordinary world -- with the similar premise of “famous heroes fight each other”, similar ad campaigns, and similar posters. And not only are both movies riding the coattails of major, devastating battles, but they also came out in the same year…within just over a month of each other.
This is the part where I’d say “great minds think alike”, but there’s a clear victor here. At this stage, BvS is a laughing stock, and a black mark on a studio with an already-spotty record. Civil War has won over fans and critics alike, and is on the way to some pretty high earnings in the box office. People have already begun swearing off Zack Snyder and his crew, including a preemptive refusal to watch the inevitable Justice League movie. Meanwhile, the Marvel camp has viewers begging for the Black Panther movie, and the second Spider-Man reboot, on top of noise for a new Iron Man movie, a solo Black Widow movie, and the arrival of the third Avengers movie -- even if it’s only going to be part 1.
Is it because of pure Marvel bias? Probably not, given that the X-Men movies are still doing fairly well (even though they’re Marvel properties, but whatever). And to be honest, I think that competition is a good thing. Marvel’s held it down for years with a consistent slate of films, but having variety and new ideas born from rivals in the genre can only prove beneficial in the long run. That’s more important to me than Marvel “winning”, or DC “winning”. But now we can’t have that, because Warner Bros shot themselves in the foot with a shotgun. And then lit themselves on fire. And did a swan dive into a vat of acid.
Civil War is, as far as I’m concerned, a vastly superior movie to BvS. And now I’ll explain why.
1) The talent!!
All right, look. I’m not the type to point fingers at the specific people behind a production, and that’s not about to change anytime soon. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t resisting the urge, though. Others have already taken shots at Zack Snyder, and they have every reason to do so. There really is a lot of blame to be laid at the feet of a movie director; Snyder didn’t make the movie all on his lonesome, but he’s the face of said movie and the champion of the company behind it.
I didn’t really have a problem with him beforehand. I saw 300 a while back, and I was fine with it. I saw Watchmen, too, and it was OK with me. Granted I saw those movies years ago, so I don’t remember them with picture-perfect quality, and I can’t say that either one left a lasting impression on me, but they’re fine. Good enough. I didn’t regret watching them. It’s hard for me to say that Snyder doesn’t have talent, because clearly he does. It’s just that his talents, tool set, and sensibilities aren’t suited for the past few DC movies, or Superman in general.
BvS opts to have cool images and cool moments -- things that, taken on their own, would look really cool in the pages of a comic book. But maybe that’s part of the problem with Snyder. It’s not about telling a cool story, or showing off cool characters; it’s about a bunch of cool moments, and images that’ll leave people aghast. That problem gets magnified in BvS, with visuals and moments and an overall style that’s exhausting at best and aggravating at worst. And by “at worst” I mean “often”.
Coupled with Goyer, you’ve got the same problems that plagued Man of Steel (and The Dark Knight Rises, to a lesser extent). The words and visuals alike keep reaching for high concepts and artistic flair, but they -- the movies and the minds behind them -- don’t have a grasp on the basics. How can you possibly introduce religious symbolism when you can’t even give a character some clear motivations? And in the case of WB, why would you pin the hopes of your fledgling universe on a crew -- and an individual in particular -- whose storytelling chops (without a comic as a guideline) include such masterpieces like Sucker Punch?
Basically, Civil War just had to do two things: show up and not suck. Thankfully, it did more than that, and I suppose we have the Russo brothers to thank for that -- for some reason. I’m not well-versed in their track record, but a cursory search tells me that these are the guys responsible for…Arrested Development? And Community? I mean, yeah, they’ve done other stuff too, but what the shit? How do you go from spearheading television comedies to being given the keys to a series of blockbuster action movies?
So I guess there are three possibilities. The first and most likely is that even if the Russos are directors, they’re still supported by a strong crew of writers, editors, and the like. (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are the two screenwriters behind the movie, and they’ve got a lengthy list of Marvel films to their name.) The second is that the brothers’ comedic sensibilities let them view their movies with just the right perspective to wring the most out of the story; it takes more than a few funny jokes to make a good comedy, after all. The third is that the brothers are just a couple of geniuses who turn everything they touch into gold.
But come on. What are the chances of that?
2) The freedom!!
Can we always pare down the conversation to DC = grimdark and Marvel = jokes? Should we? No, we probably shouldn’t. Remember, even the much-lauded Dark Knight Trilogy had its share of jokes. And meanwhile, what have we got in Civil War? Terrorist attacks, collateral damage, the struggle of security versus liberty, torture, brainwashing, irrevocable bodily harm, and a few dozen more notches on the body count. Oh, but Iron Man joked about hot Aunt May, so I guess it’s a pure comedy, then.
Like I said, it takes more than a few funny jokes to make a good comedy. Those certainly help, of course, but you can do so much more. Comedies can have drama, push an audience to tears, or feature some fist-pumping action. Maybe not in every instance, but there are some valid examples out there. Again, the golden rule is that you can do whatever you want, as long as you do it well. It’s fine to commit to a certain idea or theme or style, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re boxed into that role.
Yet here we are, with the fruit of DC’s rumored, supposed “no jokes policy” fully borne. And okay, I don’t need a movie -- superhero or otherwise -- to tag a punchline to the end of every scene. That’d get tiresome after a while, and it’d be repetitive enough to drive a stake into any movie’s heart. But the core problem with BvS isn’t that it lacks jokes; the problem is that it lacks humanity.
Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are supposed to be embodiments of ideals, and heroes who stand taller than the average skyscraper; even so, they exist for the sole purpose of protecting the innocent and stopping evil cold. But BvS Batman is too busy hunting after one guy because reasons, Superman acts like helping anyone besides Lois Lane is a bother, and Wonder Woman gave up her duty almost a century ago because some men were bad once, so now nobody is worthy of her help ever again. WHAT A HERO.
The end of BvS implies that the heroes are all going to straighten up and fly right, but it’s too little, too late. The past two movies in the DC Cinematic Universe have shown us a bunch of people who would rather serve themselves, give worthless philosophy lessons, or mindlessly destroy anything on their path to victory. And what’s really killing is that it didn’t have to be this way. Man of Steel set a bad precedent, but BvS could’ve been the course correction that would shut down the naysayers. Instead, it either kept all of those problems or made them worse. It’s like they said “WELP. This is what people expect of us now, so let’s go ahead and steer right the hell off this cliff!”
Then you look at what Marvel’s doing, and it’s like a complete reversal. There’s a consistent tone and nature to the movies, yes, but they still have a fair amount of freedom to go to different places. They may hang under the same umbrella, but Iron Man 3 is a far cry from Thor: The Dark World, which in turn is a far cry from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And all three of those movies are a far cry from Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies are consistent, but they’re not complete copypastas we have to deal with every six months or so. That’s definitely going to be the case from here on, with Black Panther’s origin story set up already, and Spider-Man presumably not needing one by virtue of an impending second reboot.
Civil War opts to change things up by exploring new ground (for the Marvel God Engine, at least). Captain America faces his darkest hour, not because of the villains he faces, but because he lost his first love -- the woman whose life he missed in almost its entirety. Iron Man’s life is falling apart, even if it’s supported by billions of dollars; he’s ill-equipped to escape or confront the guilt he’s saddled with, and it seems as if every move he makes is the wrong one -- least of all because his main squeeze effectively walked out on him. Tragedy, sacrifice, inner turmoil, and the weight of the world all threaten to bring each of the heroes to their knees. Even Spidey’s got some heavy stuff to deal with, knowing that if he doesn’t swing into the fray, he might as well be spitting on Uncle Ben’s grave.
There are some big, heady ideas in Civil War, and nobody in-universe or out of it has to bend over backwards to explore them. Why? Because the movie is naturally geared toward exploring a wide range of states -- themes, aspects, tones, storytelling elements, and more. It doesn’t have to be a binary divide between “DARK AND GRITTY” and “DUMB FUN”. If you have the skill and wit to manage, then there are no limits. There are no absolutes.
Marvel has understood that for years now. DC hasn’t. But if we’re being 100% honest here, that doesn’t really matter. And here’s why.
3) The heroes!!
It sounds like I’m going out of my way to defend Marvel, and it’s hard for me to say “No, I’m totally unbiased here.” One company has consistently given me exactly what I wanted out of superhero movies for years -- and they’ve been giving me superhero movies, period. The other company can’t even be arsed to put out a consistent product without relying on crutches like Batman or Nolan (and even then…). I won’t pretend that the MCU is some unassailable embodiment of perfection; as a branch of Disney, it thrives on delivering as much money as possible as regularly as possible. Being able to make entertaining movies is just a happy coincidence, especially since they seem to have tapped the perfect formula for getting asses in seats.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t feel like I’m a sucker in a long con. Maybe that’s part of the plan here, and I’m so doped up on Shield Slashes that I’m too stupid to notice. On the other hand, what have I been promised in the past three Captain America movies? Captain America. And guess what? I got exactly that, and then some. As a guy who owns a whopping one comic starring the Star-Spangled Man, it’s awesome to see one of my favorite superheroes take center stage in a production that takes him as seriously as the fans do.
That’s the clincher. Civil War managed to do with twelve heroes what BvS couldn’t do with three: celebrate them.
It might seem ill-fitting to use the word “celebrate” when the entire premise of Civil War (and BvS to some extent) is to show the shattering bonds of the heroes America loves and the clash of ideals that tears them apart. But think about it: we still end up seeing these characters make their cases. We see them take stands whenever and wherever they can. We see the best and worst of them, from guys who might as well be third-stringers to the respective faces of the MCU. We see them be awesome, be terrifying, be cruel, be comedic, be bold, be weak…the list goes on and on.
And they’re doing it on their terms. You don’t need to have read a hundred issues of Black Panther’s comics to know who Black Panther is, because the movie gives you a damn good idea of what he’s all about. You get a sense of the character, and that character, and those characters over there. Even Agent 13 ends up being a thing, instead of just background noise or a winking nod to the uber-fans in the audience.
Meanwhile, what have you got in BvS? There’s a Batman that kills and uses guns, even though those are some of the most fundamental rules you’re not supposed to break when writing Batman (at least as far as the public consciousness is concerned). There’s a Superman with all the charm of a cinder block, someone who manages to be terrible at what he does and willing to sleep-walk his way through savior duties to get back to a person the movies keep pretending is important. There’s a Wonder Woman who gets more screen time devoted to her wearing slinky dresses and acting like Catwoman/Selina Kyle than bothering to stop any of the conflicts in the movie -- and it’s all in service of her trying to get one of her photos back, so she can keep living a life of luxury while innocent people suffer.
Okay, sure. If you want to offer up a new interpretation of characters that are 70 or 80 years old, then fine. Go ahead and give your spin. But it’s got to make sense, it’s got to have substance, and it’s got to be good. DC, WB, and Snyder are all playing catch-up here, so they couldn’t afford to make any huge mistakes. So why, oh why, would they choose to fill the cast with unlikable characters in an unlikable world with an unlikable (not to mention incomprehensible) storyline? If you want to make a darker, more realistic Superman, then fine. I’m sure it’s been done before. Show love and respect for one of the most famous characters -- let alone superheroes -- in history by paying tribute to him in your movie.
Here’s a pro tip: when the Supergirl TV show is better at creating the “symbol of hope” you’ve been preaching about for the past three years -- while limiting its version of Superman to shadowy cameos and the occasional text message -- you’d best realize that your shit is thoroughly getting kicked in.
With BvS, Snyder, WB, and DC basically threw it all away. And naturally, Marvel picked it up. It didn’t have to be such a one-sided victory, but here we are regardless. One movie was a guaranteed hit, while the other was practically destined to fail. Hell, even my mom -- someone who I suspect doesn’t even know there is a difference between Marvel and DC -- knew beforehand that BvS would be a mess. That’s some high-level botchery, and it’s made even worse when such a shoddy product has proven all the naysayers right. Well, that, and it seems to have made even staunch supporters want to jump ship.
It didn’t have to be this way. But it is. We’re in a binary situation where DC = bad and Marvel = good. It’s a shame, because I legitimately want good DC movies. I don’t care if they’re dark; I just want them to be good, and so far they haven’t been since Nolan packed it up (and even then…). I don’t want this one-sided battle, but DC can’t even play the underdog in this story because it keeps stabbing itself in the knees.
So I guess if one must be a fanboy, it’s best to be a Marvel fanboy. I learned that firsthand.
When I saw Civil War, there was a family on my right. I didn’t exactly spend a half hour meticulously scanning them, but I could at least tell that they had a kid in the party -- no older than six, and even that’s a generous upper limit. I’m pretty sure I heard him announce that he would take a nap while the Avengers talked about the Sokovia Accords, but he was back in the game when “QUEENS” covered the screen, and it was time to visit the Parkers. “That’s Spider-Man,” he announced when the evidence started piling up -- the onesie chief among them. For him, that was enough. And really, maybe that should be enough for everyone.
I’ve put more thought than I should into Civil War, as proven by the fact that this is the third (technically fourth) consecutive post I’ve done for the movie. Do I expect everyone to read that far into the story and characters? No. Should they? No. There are some complexities, but it’s still ultimately a simple movie with a simple goal: it wants to show you some heroes being heroes. That’s all. No pretensions, no delusions of grandeur, no ulterior motives. The MCU’s enduring success makes it a perpetual moneymaker, but what’s it in service of? Tricking the audience, again and again? Dulling the senses with sound and fury? I don’t think so. It’s just giving the people what they want. What they need.
People need to believe in heroes. Civil War has them in spades, and is good as a result. It’s that simple.
And that, ultimately, is why I’m putting it right around HERE on my SmartChart™:
Now then. Let’s see what happens with Doctor Strange.
Thanks for reading my 700th post. Somebody blow into a noisemaker to celebrate.