Is There Any Hope for Batman v Superman?

Image: http://goo.gl/pw3BaK

Have you ever been worried for a friend? You notice large bags forming underneath their eyes. Their clothes look suspiciously slept-in. You’re pretty sure they’re heading down a dark path but you’re not exactly sure how to bring it up to them.

I’ve had these feelings for some time now about a certain movie coming out just a few lunar cycles from now. I’ve had these thoughts, worries, and concerns. It’s time to release them. Time to ask, exactly what kind of movie this is going to be?

The greatest telltale sign is sitting right there in the name. But to discuss the name is to unravel a perplexing history. Once upon a time, there was a film. Happy and joyous, it contented itself with a simple name but a good one, Man of Steel 2. This conformed quite nicely to the industry standard. Such a name signaled confidence in the mixed but mostly positive results of the first film. But suddenly, you might say mysteriously, a simple name became something more. It was changed to Batman v Superman, a peculiar arrangement which misappropriates the terminology of a stuffy legal case. Would Batman now come to sue Superman in court? And more curiously, Batman had even replaced Superman at the front of the line.

Wouldn’t be the first time ol’ Bats had legal troubles. Image: http://goo.gl/uvEiFo

New questions appeared in rapid succession. Was this a sequel to Man of Steel or was this now a Batman movie? However, even this new name proved inadequate. It became apparent that something was still lacking. Soon the name began to writhe and grow, extending itself to unwieldy lengths. It added a subtitle. Now armed with the sledgehammer of Dawn of Justice, this third name clarified that this glorious gladiatorial spectacular would also serve as a stepping stone to a much large roster, setting up further spin offs, prequels, and team ups.

Now I suppose in the grand scheme of things, it's rather superficial to worry about inevitable name changes or odd punctuation as a measure of quality. That’s akin to judging a book by its cover. But could the name in fact betray a deeper concern? Is it the sign of something more?

As fans lay their heads down, praying for sweet sleep, a nagging thought enters their heads. A sinister question that they cannot shake. Could it be that BatmanVSupermanDawnOfJustice is undergoing some sort of identity crisis? Might it be cracking under the weight on an entire cinematic universe on its shoulders? And is it in danger of becoming the laughingstock of Comic-Cons and message boards for years to come?

Not that we needed any more. Image: http://goo.gl/kuAmDU

In the sleepless hours of the night, these lurking questions steal away any sense of comfort. They challenge us to dig deeper. To search for the faintest bits of truth behind the impenetrable webs and shadows all around us.

Perhaps we may yet examine the facts at hand. And one by one we shall peel back the many confusing contradictory layers. We shall dispel the rumors and confront the lies, ascertain what can be known, and glimpse briefly underneath the surface of this Hollywood behemoth. Because really at the end of the day, we still need to know: what type of a movie is Batman v Superman?

Directorial Direction

Image: http://goo.gl/8tUJgE

If you want to assess the probability that a movie will be of a certain quality, look no further than the ship’s captain. While a film’s director cannot claim full credit or blame for the end result, they undoubtedly wield the greatest influence in any given project. They determine the look and feel of a movie, guide the actors through their scenes, and grapple with the major obstacles that arise during production. You can get a pretty good sense of what a director is capable of by looking at their body of work the projects they choose. While a director can’t control all the variables, especially the script, a good director is a good sign indeed.

In this case, our movie is helmed by a controversial yet quite capable helmsman. Mr. Zachary Edward Snyder holds the keys to a very big kingdom. To say that this movie features two of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet is a bit of an understatement. The Brothers Warner are no fools for handpicking a visionary director with a proven track record. It would also be unwise to overlook to his longtime producing partner, Deborah Snyder, who has worked tirelessly as a producer on all his recent films.

Together the two Snyders have been charged with shepherding these name brand characters into an interconnected cinematic universe. An immense responsibility. Assuming Batman v Superman is a decent-sized hit, Zack Snyder will go on to direct the next two Justice League movies over the next four and half years. But it is fair to ask, is Snyder the correct choice for a project of this scale?

The answer is a complicated one. As a director, Snyder is hardworking, polished, and quite competent. He makes big exciting movies. His 2007 film 300 left a profound influence on the action genre. In 2011, Sucker Punch created unbelievably stunning action pieces that are outliers even for big budget filmmaking. Even Man of Steel brought a fantastical vision of Krypton and viscerally potent battles that were leaps and bounds above anything seen in other superhero films. Snyder intuitively knows how to showcase explosive high stakes action in a way that budget-conscious Marvel films usually shy away from.

But this comes with a flipside. Snyder’s films consistently lean on style and flourish in place of story and character. You rarely feel for the protagonists in any of his films; you can’t connect with them emotionally. At times the sheer audacity of his visual style manages to distract from the cardboard thin characterization, but once the fireworks fade, the lack of story often leaves you feeling hollow.

Case in point. Image: http://goo.gl/Fxd9js

Snyder’s major weakness appears to be his obsession with creating something cool. Although every blockbuster strives in its own way to be cool, Snyder seems to value it above his storytelling. That is problematic. Unless he is paired with top notch writing with crystal clear character work, his movies are likely to gloss over the many subtleties of character motivation and fail to connect with the audience. Unfortunately the archetypal heroes he has to work with on this film do not lend themselves easily to nuanced characterization. It’s difficult to make larger than life characters feel relatable and it doesn’t play well to his natural strengths as a director.

The Question of Tone

Image: https://goo.gl/EFLgmC

One advantage that Batman v Superman has over its competitors is the sense of realism carried over from The Dark Knight trilogy. It is perhaps the greatest asset the film has in a world full of cocky Avengers and downtrodden X-Men. The arrival of a DC Extended Universe presents a real opportunity. It’s a chance to integrate the weird world of comic books where aliens and magic can coexist into a serious and more grounded story. But this is easier said than done.

When Snyder tried to replicate the tone of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy in Man of Steel, fans complained that it was humorless, angsty, and dour. Batman V Superman needs to solve this issue of tone. It must remain wholly serious but also allow room for playfulness and humor to bubble to the surface. Establishing the right blend of tone will be a crucial issue going forward.

So far the biggest red flag is Jesse Eisenberg’s flamboyant portrayal of Lex Luthor in the latest trailer. Using Lex as comic relief is problematic to say the least. Eisenberg is not an especially versatile actor. His particular talents requires the right kind of role in order to flourish. Without it, his boyish smarm is more prone to annoy the audience than provide the much needed levity. In a genre that does not lends itself well to subtlety, finding this balance can be a tricky dance.

I’m angry already. Image: http://goo.gl/lhKtoA

But that’s not the only potential issue. Although Captain America: Civil War will attempt the same trick this May, Batman v Superman is the first real pitting of two heroes against each other. The challenge of this kind of story is keeping the characters sympathetic, even as they self-righteously bash each other’s brains out. Too much scowling from the heroes runs the risk of alienating the audience who is supposedly cheering them on.

Heroes are supposed to help people. If instead the heroes spend the majority of the film picking pointless fights, holding onto grudges, and clinging to their narrow ideologies, an epic brawl isn’t going to cut it. First you have to solve the problem of likeability. Admittedly, the level of nuance needed to make this work is rarely seen in your typical Hollywood blockbuster.

Instead of solving these issues organically, it is more likely that the film will try to overcompensate. We should prepare for inappropriate gags, overly self-referential jokes, and wacky side characters. The latest trailer seems to confirm this. Granted, we are seeing these clips out of context, but still it does not bode well for what appears to be a strange blend of humor, seriousness, heroism, and rage.

A Steely Disposition

Image: https://goo.gl/MswFnU

Another challenge the film faces is its primary lead, Henry Cavill. While the British actor looks and carries himself precisely like a viable Superman (that no doubt is why he was cast) there is an uncomfortable sense of impenetrability to how he plays the character. There is a slight woodenness to his acting that feels off-putting. It is as if he is keeping everybody at a distance, or perhaps concentrating too hard on maintaining his American accent.

Compare Cavill to former Superman actor Brandon Routh and his recent portrayal of Ray Palmer on Arrow. Routh injects a degree of charm and affability in the role. You like the guy. You want to hang out with him. That is something entirely missing from Cavill’s performance.

And it’s not just Superman. He carries the same sense of aloofness in last summer’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. You never get the sense that you are supposed to like the character. Like Jesse Eisenberg, Cavill perhaps needs a script and a director that play specifically to his strengths as an actor. However the story at hand requires a difficult feat: playing Superman from behind a cruel grimace.

Such emotion. Image: https://goo.gl/h3HQve

It is possible that more time with the Clark Kent persona may alleviate some of these problems, but I suspect we will see only a few token scenes of Clark Kent before diving straight into the action. Whereas Marvel built their cinematic universe around the snarky and inherently charismatic Iron Man, DC is stuck with somehow finding a way to connect to audiences with a leader who is essentially alien in nature. Superman is invincible, otherworldly, and alone. Writing for this type of character is never easy. Making him angry and brooding is even harder. We need Superman to feel like Superman and playing him dark actually goes against the character.

Justice For All

Image: http://goo.gl/igd7vV

One of Batman v Superman’s greatest challenges is in balancing the need to set up its extended universe with the more important task of telling a complete and satisfying story. It needs to stand on its own. We’ve all seen way too many attempts of universe-building that didn’t do the more important job of first being a good movie.

Iron Man 2 felt like it was spinning its wheels as it introduced several new members of its Avengers support team. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 worked overtime setting up Sinister Six at the expense of its own story. Age of Ultron pulled off a deft balancing act, juggling a dozen major characters at once, but still felt like five characters too many. Although it's not impossible, it’s not likely that this film is going to feel complete and whole if it gives priority to teasing future storylines. Can Snyder and company avoid the temptation to go down too many rabbit trails? We can’t know for sure.

This film has the immense task of not only creating a compelling confrontation between its title characters, but it also living up to the Dawn of Justice subtitle. Clearly the inclusion of Wonder Woman is the most obvious example of this, but we have to prepare also for cameos from Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg, and whoever else I’m forgetting. Clearly the movie must set up a prototypical Justice League by the end, but that also feels like a dangerous distraction away from the ideological and physical battle that should be front and center. The latest trailer seems to gloss over the conflict and fast-forwards straight to the trinity working together as one.

While cinematic universes are currently trending in Hollywood, they are prohibitively expensive and creatively risky. It is absolutely crucial that Batman v Superman achieves the right balance of telling its own story and offers only a sneak peek at what is to come. Bloat is not something this pivotal entry can afford to have. If casual moviegoers don’t like this movie, they won’t be coming back for the next one.

The Dream Team

Image: http://goo.gl/odfhif

As much as the trailers and posters need to sell this film as a big budget spectacle featuring two world famous heroes, the real test of quality will be the script. If the story is good, none of my above concerns will matter too much. You can overcome a lot of other issues if you have solid character-based narrative. That crucial piece of the puzzle belongs to screenwriter Chris Terrio. He took a draft from David Goyer, presumably copious notes from studio, and input from Snyder, and then had the impossible task of turning all of it into a killer script.

Already there are signs of hope. The script has taken the most glaring issue from Man of Steel, the wholesale destruction of downtown Metropolis, and magically turned it into a compelling character motivation for Batman’s mistrust of Superman. It naturally gives Batman a reason to be mad and it tracks nicely with what fans were mad about anyway. That’s genius if you ask me.

Could it be possible that Terrio’s script has ten more awesome ideas like that in it? Ideas that reveal character and help you relate to what they are thinking and feeling at any given moment? One can always dream.

We don’t have a lot of information about Terrio, but we do have some pertinent facts. He has the ear of director-actor-producer Ben Affleck and that counts for something. Reportedly Terrio getting the gig was the major sticking point for Affleck signing on as Batman (a picture deal spanning multiple Justice League and solo films). And to his great credit, Terrio has one excellent produced screenplay in Argo that went down well both with audiences and the Academy. The last juicy tidbit is that the writer’s screenplay for Batman v Superman has earned him the trust of Warner Brothers. He’s been given a first pass at writing the two upcoming Justice League films. These are all good signs, if not outright proof, that Batman v Superman won’t be a complete disaster.

Image: https://goo.gl/QOH2vn

The other secret weapon is Affleck. While I don’t know the man personally, I assume he is no idiot. He’s been involved in enough lackluster projects (Gigli, Daredevil, Pearl Harbor) to know how to pick the good ones. In his recent work both as a director and actor, he seems to strive for quality (Argo, The Town, Gone Girl). The elusive Christopher Nolan also served in an “advisory capacity” on the film and was apparently involved in the casting of Affleck. By casting an accomplished director in a lead role, the movie gets a second pair of directorial eyes. That could be a significant factor during those crucial character moments that Snyder tends to struggle with.

Adding Terrio and Affleck, a proven team of filmmakers, can only make things better in my book. It’s also important to remember that at one point Warner Brothers moved back the date almost a year to allow more time for the movie to find its footing. That is a good sign for a project that might have otherwise been rushed into production. We’ll never know until the film comes out, but it would be unwise to completely rule out the slight possibility that this is actually going to be a decent movie.

Follow The Money

Image: http://goo.gl/rKfg7z

In closing, it could be pertinent to talk about how Batman v Superman can succeed even in the tragic case that it’s a cruddy film. If in fact Snyder drops the ball and gives us more mayhem than movie, what is the fate of the DC Extended Universe? There’s several potential outcomes, but each of them look pretty good. Batman v Superman can end up a total disappointment and everything can still work out okay.

According to a baseless internet rumor, Batman v Superman may be the most expensive movie ever made. Whether or not that’s true, this movie will be quite costly to produce. It will need to generate hundreds of millions, if not billions, in revenue in order to turn a profit. But what if it doesn’t? What if the two saviors of the DC universe fail to bring in the box office receipts and melt the hearts of audiences everywhere?

All is not lost. Let’s presume for a second that the film opens to awful reviews and a deflated domestic opening weekend. Sure, many people myself included will be sad. But it might not be cause to worry.

Warner Brothers is desperate to make this franchise work. They don’t have a lot of other big properties to bank on at the moment. They’ve had to resurrect both Lord of the Rings in the form of the Hobbit trilogy and Harry Potter as a new Fantastic Beasts trilogy. They are building their Lego universe as quickly as they can and they’ve also forged a long-standing partnership with Chris Nolan. But it’s not enough. The Hangover series is played out. Neither Pan or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. managed to generate new franchises. Godzilla is on hold until Gareth Edwards finishes his Star Wars film. In a world where studios must rely on franchises and already visible properties, they have nothing else that has the powerful marketing hook of the Fast and Furious series or Disney’s library of classics. Warner Brothers needs a Jurassic World, a Star Wars, or a Hunger Games that it can call its own. They don’t have another option. The DC Extended Universe needs to be a huge part of their strategy if they want to stay profitable.

It’s a long road ahead. Image: http://goo.gl/pD5VY1

Even if Batman v Superman underperforms, Warner Brothers will have to keep trying until they get it right. So the worst case scenario is that the lineup of future DC films gets shuffled around a bit as they keep searching for a hit. These characters are easily rebooted and let’s not pretend that Marvel hasn’t done exactly the same thing with the Hulk, Daredevil, and Spider-Man.

If the film suffers domestically, Warner Brothers’ films usually still do pretty well internationally due to the strength of their overseas distribution. As long as they can sell the film to international audiences, Batman v Superman doesn’t have to do The Dark Knight numbers in America to still make money.

Interestingly the film opens in March, a time of the year usually devoid of major tent poles and top tier franchises. There’s only two films that have ever opened over $100 million in this month, The Hunger Games and Alice in Wonderland. Batman v Superman will need to break records and shatter the preconceived notions that superheroes belong in the April-August months. Yet if word of mouth is generally positive, a March premier might allow it the space it needs to generate longer legs than normal. It will be an interesting experiment and likely a successful one.

But what if it bombs and doesn’t make money? What if disaster strikes and we see a DC film that performs more like Green Lantern than The Dark Knight? Well, guess what: it still makes a lot of money.

Just hop back in time and look at Man of Steel. Before opening weekend, Superman had already earned $170 million dollars through its corporate partners. Companies ranging from IHOP to Sears to 711 were in on the deal. That’s the equivalent of free money. Indeed, when it comes to merchandising opportunities, Superman is pretty low hanging fruit. Although product placement is nothing new, the sheer scale of Man of Steel’s revenue was unprecedented. While slapping a hero’s face on a Slurpee cup may not reek of creative integrity, it does pay the bills. And unlike box office receipts, these dollars don’t get split in half with theaters.

I think I can hear “We’re in the Money” playing soulfully in the distance. Image: http://goo.gl/Jf5hMt

If Batman v Superman and its sequels manage to keep up these lucrative licensing deals, these films don’t need to make Avengers-level money to turn a profit. Just like how your favorite emo-alt-punk-rock band needs to sell t-shirts to make a living, the DC Extended Universe will need to diversify their sources of revenue to fund these exorbitantly expensive films. It’s a competitive industry, but Warner Brothers is already showing signs they know to adapt. They don’t have to beat Marvel as long as overall business is good. And in that case, we will continue to get DC Extended Universe films into the foreseeable future.

For many of us, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the heroes that Iron Man and friends never were. It’s not that Marvel has done a bad job. It’s more than there are different kinds of stories to be told, a different sense of style and tone missing from the current Marvel lineup, and fresh opportunities to learn from Marvel’s false starts and sometimes glaring weaknesses. If DC can recreate some of The Dark Knight trilogy’s successes, present compelling new villains, and a qualitatively different experience than the other superhero franchises, we might be in for something special.

Can Batman v Superman pull it off? These are the thoughts tormenting me in deep recesses of my mind. It’s what keeps me awake night after night. I’m worried about my friend. I want them to make good choices. I want to tell them that it’s going to be okay. But if I’m honest, it’ll be an uphill battle.

Like what you’ve read? Be sure to follow Marc Madrigal for more on Storytelling and Media. And as always, be sure to follow Panel & Frame for more emerging voices in Comics, Film, Art, and Literature!