In my previous article, I looked at the first dozen years of the modern comic book movie genre, from 2000 and its origins with X-Men to 2012 with the releases of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Now let’s conclude this journey as we are just days away from the last ditch effort known officially as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and which I will simplify as Batman. After all, that’s how the marketing wants us to see it.
When we left off, we had just entered 2013. Marvel Studios is celebrating by releasing its two biggest placeholder films since The Incredible Hulk – Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. But who cares? The Avengers is one of the highest grossing films of all time, and the DC Cinematic Universe is essentially non-existent. Technically, the DC Cinematic Universe wasn’t even born until June 14, 2013 – the day Man of Steel hit theaters (and more than five years from when Iron Man first flew onto screens).
Man of Steel, well, it was way more divisive (that’s probably the nicest way to put it) than I think anyone expected. For sake of honesty, I appreciated what it was trying to do, although I fully recognize its flaws. Its many, many flaws. Sure, the movie was visually spectacular, and I found its approach to the Superman mythos unique. It’s a Superman who is untested and untrained, forced to become the world’s greatest hero almost immediately after discovering his true birthright. The entire world is paranoid of him, and he’s been raised to be paranoid of the entire world. It’s a pretty heavy concept that had far more emotional and intellectual strength than all the nonsense they shoved into the final battle. (Did we really need Terraforming Machines and the Codex plotline? Couldn’t one suffice? They could have probably gone even simpler with ‘Zod wants to rule Earth’ like in Superman II. People still love that movie, and Superman callously murders Zod at the end of that one also.)
The biggest problem in the movie was Superman himself. Having him contend with a more realistic, paranoid world was a nice and more believable contrast to the Christopher Reeve movies (and other incarnations) where he appears on the scene and everyone immediately loves him. However, the movie failed in understanding why Superman is beloved – because he’s a genuinely good guy. As hokey as it is, Superman should represent the best and most noble in us all. Kindness, decency, truth, justice, and the American way at its most idealistic and hopeful. Instead, we got a guy who was as distrustful and dour as the world he is supposed to protect. I guess it works thematically – Superman is a product of the world into which he was abandoned – but for people who even have the vaguest understanding of Superman, it’s clear why Christopher Reeve (and 1978’s Superman: The Movie) is still the benchmark for the Man of Steel. Henry Cavill can be likable, as he proved in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (my review here) and various interviews during this media blitz; unfortunately, he can’t utilize this quality of his in a character who should be genuinely likable above all else.
Critically, the film fared on the negative side of mixed. It received a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 6.2/10 average rating) compared to Iron Man 3‘s 79% + 7/10 and Thor: The Dark World‘s 66% + 6.2/10. Commercially, it pulled in $297 million domestically and $668 million worldwide. Nothing to sneeze at, but Warner Brothers was clearly hoping for a billion dollar grosser like numerous other movies had achieved, including the last two Dark Knight movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3. It didn’t even hit the domestic benchmark set by the first Iron Man movie ($318 million / $585 million worldwide). And the Internet just despised it.
A lot of “first movie” problems can be fixed with sequels, but one thing that might be difficult to overcome is when the main character and featured player of your aspiring megafranchise is almost universally loathed – and not in the “love to hate” way. A little over a month later at ComicCon, director Zack Snyder announced that the follow-up to Man of Steel would be Batman v. Superman slated for summer 2015 (later March 2016). After all, if DC has one ace up its sleeve when it comes to its roster of characters, it’s The Dark Knight. The truth about whether the inclusion of Batman was a panic move is probably lost to time and public relations spins, but it began what has ended up being a three year journey. The most important one WB/DC will ever take. Throughout the year, we also learned about very controversial casting decisions such as Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (who I was not and am not against), as well as the choice of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, which wasn’t as controversial since most people hadn’t formed any opinion on her.
2014 – Marvel comes out with arguably its two best movies: Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. DC releases a really early teaser trailer at ComicCon (that effectively establishes the tone and the look of the movie), plus we receive a lot of information about its plans for the Extended Universe, which I won’t get into here (though I did get into here and here and which doesn’t matter anyway since it’ll probably be shifted and altered a lot over the next four years). We don’t just see Wonder Woman for the first time in live action since Lynda Carter (not including the unaired pilot starring Adrianne Palicki, who would later become an Agent of SHIELD), we also learn that the film would also contain cameos from essentially the entire Justice League because DC really couldn’t put an actual Justice League movie off much longer – Part 1 is currently set for 2017. (We also discovered that Dwayne Johnson, who had been promoting his involvement in the DC universe longer and more enthusiastically than pretty much anyone wouldn’t get a chance to strap on his tights for another 5 years with Shazam in 2019 – assuming it actually gets made.)
2015 – The original release date for Batman v. Superman comes and goes, but we finally get our first real look at Batman v. Superman with the ComicCon trailer. To this day, it remains the best piece of marketing put out from this movie, yet it was still overshadowed by the Suicide Squad First Look released the same day. The ComicCon trailer was remarkable in a way most of the other marketing for this movie hasn’t been. Splitting the focus between Superman and his inner conflict and Batman facing “the fever, the rage that turns good men … cruel” (plus the really cool use of the grappling gun at ~2:55) gave us insight into each character while Lex Luthor’s narration successfully established him as the puppet master.
Since then, the marketing has been less than inspiring. Sure we’ve gotten some neat moments like the fight sequence that looks like it came out of the Arkham games and… I guess that’s it. I suppose the side-by-side-by-side shot of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman was cool, but unfortunately it was in service to the terrible Doomsday appearance. Showing (and possibly even including) Doomsday has probably been the biggest misstep in the entire experiment. He looks very silly, and it hurt what the movie was presenting itself as. Yes, we knew Batman would fight Superman in a battle that now seems like it will go on for hours. Yes, we know Batman and Superman would fight Lex Luthor. But the advertising did a good enough job to make it seem as though the conflict was more ideological and personal between the three characters. Now they also have to fight this stupid goblin looking thing whose only purpose is crush-kill-destroy? No wonder they’ve been trying to bury the character since his ill-fated reveal.
The marketing has failed on other levels. It has done a horrible job at establishing that the weird red haired guy is Lex Luthor for those not in the know. More notably, it has virtually eliminated Superman from his own movie. Instead of footage that shows Superman in a more human, compassionate light, we just see him being mean to Batman, who we are predisposed to like Because Batman. There also seems to be an overall dearth of material. Unlike The Force Awakens, which played it purposely coy and quiet (to great effect) by not releasing much material and keeping a lot of itself under wraps, Batman v. Superman‘s lack of variety comes across more as an actual lack of variety rather than a pointed effort to surprise us at the theater. How many times can they reuse the “gladiator match” and “psychopath” speeches? It’s been almost 3 years since the movie was first announced, and all I really take from the three trailers and numerous TV ads is this movie has a lot of fire. So much fire.
There’s one week left before Batman v. Superman and interest in this movie seems dwindling, but three years is a lot of time to hope to retain our excitement. Obviously we don’t want to be completely spoiled, but hopefully this movie has more than fire, rain, darkness, and Congressional hearings. This is the last chance for DC to really pull off a Justice League movie before another decade passes them by, genre enthusiasm wanes (no pun intended), and audiences grow tired of the genre. Maybe Man of Steel wasn’t the best foundation to start with, but Warner Brothers has clearly thrown a lot of money and effort into developing this as the true megafranchise starter. Hopefully the studio learned from past mistakes and are using this movie to actually create/reboot characters into ones we want to follow over the next who knows how many years. Or maybe it was too late from the word go. For everything Warner Brothers has done to sell this movie, Marvel/Disney won the marketing battle with a single word – “underoos.”