The battle between Marvel and DC Comics movies this spring wasn't a fair fight. On paper.
“Captain America: Civil War” opened to enthusiastic reviews and fanboy love. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” got pelted by critics while fans moaned over what might have been.
Not so fast.
James Frazier of CriticSpeak.com says “BvS” is the superior superhero film. Why? Let HiT’s latest edition of Critic v Critic tell the tale:
Christian Toto: I remember appreciating aspects of “Batman v Superman” but having a curious thought as I stood up following the film’s end credits. I didn’t want to rush out and see it again. The movie didn’t give me much joy, not the kind most superhero stories do. Now, I don’t mind dark and gritty super stories. Netflix’s “Daredevil” is my current TV-like obsession, and the Man Without Fear is filled with death, blood and mayhem.
Yet “BvS” lacked that joyous spark you find even in the grittier tales today. It was grim, to be sure, but I could feel the future franchise gears starting to turn. There was little humor, the kind that makes even dramatic features pop with a sense of humanity.
“Captain America: Civil War” offers some serious stakes, and more than one superbeing is left forever changed by the carnage. It still struck me as uplifting and light, and I couldn’t wait to see it again after I left the theater. That’s the sensation I first felt reading comic books as a child. And even though Marvel movies touch on serious themes like the War on Terror (“The Winter Soldier”) and bigotry (the “X-Men” films) they also speak to my inner geek in wonderful ways.
James Frazier: I’ll build my rhetorical foundation by starting with an admission; I didn’t hate “Captain America: Civil War.” Not only did I not hate it, I didn’t dislike it, either, and enjoyed much of it.
The action scenes were exciting and well choreographed, the performances were comfortably assured, and all the other details one expects any MCU film to get exactly right.
But it was also something familiar, another piece of red meat that attracts audiences but fails to take the series any place interesting. Sure, we got some fun fights, but the story ultimately felt like an excuse for that instantly-famous superhero battle royale.
Come the credits (and those irritating credit cookies that keep me in the theater when I’m ready to leave), not much had really changed. No one had died, the series Big Baddie (Thanos) hadn’t even been discussed, and even the rival heroes had already begun to kiss and make up.
Creatively “Batman v Superman” went in the other direction. Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. gave us a universe-building tentpole film that took risks. Characters were given fresh spins and pushed in new and unexpected directions. The cinematography was lush and beautiful, even as it signaled doom and gloom.
Yes, even though a child could guess that the eponymous heroes would eventually unite, their confrontation was imbued with real weight and tension. The battle even has a clear victory, something “Civil War” skirts. The hero fight in “Batman v Superman” had my full attention, while the one in “Civil War” was entertaining but as suspenseful as a pro-wrestling match.
Toto: Different is wonderful, refreshing even. “BvS” felt both calculated and dour, hardly the kind of popcorn fare we cling to these days. I applaud pushing familiar characters in new directions, but in doing so you simply have to keep the hero’s DNA in mind. That’s missing with Snyder’s story.
Batman isn’t just weary … he’s a thin-skinned menace. And I’m not even sure who Superman is any more. And that’s a shame, since Henry Cavill could do something great with the character. He’s simply not given the chance.
Frankly, I don’t mind my superhero movies forgetting to upset Hollywood’s status quo. I want action, adventure, laughs, a whiff of romance now and then and a story that doesn’t insult me. “Civil War” did all of the above.
And those Bat-plot holes? Just who the heck is Lex Luthor anyway? Is that really how the Bat v Superman fight gets settled? Do we really want another good guy vs. CGI monstrosity finale?
I do confess the “kiss and make up” resolution in “Civil War” felt a mite forced! But I’d watch Cap again in a heartbeat. Can’t say the same for BvS.
Frazier: I can’t argue that “BvS” isn’t dour. But it was exactly that quality, an ominous severity, that hooked me from the start. Snyder had spoke about wanting to turn the superhero genre on its head, but with “BvS” he hit a happy medium. It was gloomy and cynical while maintaining a sense of awe about its characters.
Think the introduction to Batman. We first see him through the eyes of two Gotham City police officers, both of whom are terrified as they move to confront the legendary vigilante.
When they do spot him, he moves more like monster than man, escaping from the scene after brutalizing a sex trafficker. There have been countless takes on Batman, but this was the first time I can remember truly discovering an incarnation of the character.
On that note, though, I’ll cede that the “Civil War” introduction of Spider-Man was a high point. It was interesting to see critics deride “BvS” as having too much content focused on advertising future films, but give Spider-Man’s introduction a total pass.
I won’t say much to defend the much-maligned plot, but I’ll say that I found it coherent enough. It serves to maneuver the leads into fighting position, while also giving them strong motivations to throw down. In “Civil War,” the fighting seemed largely unnecessary, the superhero equivalent of a bar brawl over Captain America voting GOP and Iron Man going Democrat.
In a way, I’m as much making an argument against the MCU itself as I am “Civil War.” At this point, “BvS” has promised us something different from Marvel’s offerings, and that’s a lot of why I’m so jazzed about it.
Toto: I think what both the Marvel movies and Christopher Nolan Bat features did was bring superheros into the real world. Yes, they still dressed funny. But they seemed oddly credible in flesh and blood.
Nolan’s Batman arguably marked the high point for that balancing act. Snyder’s films simply go too far. You can’t wholly reinterpret Batman as Snyder did. Nolan made Bruce Wayne real. Snyder made him unrecognizable.
And yes … both films exist to promote products and set up future movies. “Civil War” simply made that effort more digestible.
I do think critics are generally more amenable to Marvel movies. Why? Hard to say. I think they can’t forgive Snyder for “Sucker Punch.” Can’t say I blame them.
Are you confident that future Snyder-made films will build on “BvS?” I left the theater worried about the future DC installments, not giddy with excitement at what’s to follow.
Frazier: I’m not so much confident that the DC/Snyderverse will get better as I am eager to see what happens next. Love it, hate it, or something in-between, the DC series is offering something much different from what we can expect from Disney or even Fox’s “X-Men” flicks.
Really, my inner-7th grader is beyond thrilled with these movies, and that’s not a backhanded compliment. Hollywood has finally figured out that not only are these intellectual properties brimming with both creative and financial potential, but they can work best when in made in conjunction. And think, if one didn’t like “BvS” (and that seems to be the dominant response), then the series, especially with news of behind-the-scenes shakeups at WB, are likely to get even better.
Whatever the case with what comes next, I’ll be watching both titles when they hit video. It’s my theory that appreciation for “BvS” will grow as people watch with a different set of expectations, but time will tell.
Please follow James Frazier at @jfrazier57