Will Call: Superhero showdown
Having tackled Tarantino and opined the Oscars, I would be remiss if I neglected to touch on the pre-eminent genre of modern cinema: superhero movies.
I should disclose right off the bat that I’m not really the target audience here. The only comics I picked up as a kid were Asterix and Tintin, and I’ve seen very little evidence that big budgets make better movies.
Lavish sets, costumes and effects can be icing on the cake for an already strong film, but too often action flicks forget the cake. Thus, I attend them much as I eat icing straight from the jar— occasionally, surreptitiously and without much expectation.
It also tends to be a chance to see a movie socially with a group of people who might not otherwise have been interested. In fact, my decision to see DC’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was predicated mostly on a visiting friend and a desire to see how bad it could really be. After that, I was more or less obliged to see Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” in order to draw the inevitable comparisons.
Based on the critical response, you’d expect this to be as unfair a matchup as, well, a godlike alien and a rich guy in a costume. However, just as comic book geeks back Batman, I’m going to assert that, at least for me, this competition is a wash.
Both films get their premise from a question that DC director Zack Snyder has already explored once: How can well-meaning vigilantes be held accountable for the consequences of their actions? This creates a rift between characters we’re used to seeing on the same team that ultimately culminates in open conflict while the villain who masterminded the whole things cackles. We go in knowing that the breakup is only temporary. Anything else would undermine the franchise, although some lingering tension might help explain why the whole team isn’t along on future solo movies.
The only real difference, then, is style and expectation.
I think what gave “Civil War” the edge is its familiarity. Although DC’s characters are more recognizable, Marvel’s quickly make up the difference with the added bonus of (mostly) consistent casting. This is not Robert Downey Jr or Chris Evans’ first, second or even third rodeo. Even folks who haven’t seen their films have been exposed almost a decade of trailers and talk show appearances.
Add to that the familiar upbeat, fast-paced Marvel style which I suspect mirrors the comics themselves, and the audience knows exactly what they’re getting. Whether it’s directed by Whedon or the Russo brothers, you’re in for banter-laced action, quirky interludes and plenty of humor to wash down the character development. Despite what strikes me as an overabundance of characters, each gets a moment to shine. It works well in isolation, but with repetition it’s likely to blur and chafe.
“Dawn of Justice,” meanwhile, is stuck in the shadow of a previous incarnation. While I find many of Christopher Nolan’s pseudo intellectual blockbusters overhyped, I have to admit that “The Dark Knight” is a darn near perfect entry in its genre. Even the other films in the trilogy failed to live up to its cinematography, pacing, balance, captivating villain and thoughtful themes. But somehow it became the baseline for judging DC films, as if “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” weren’t there to pull down the average.
It’s true, “Justice” probably takes itself more seriously than a film relying on a naming coincidence as a major plot point probably should. Still, as a casual and cynical viewer, there was plenty to appreciate. Despite many doubts, Ben Affleck is believable and even engaging in his role, and I’m prepared to forgive Henry Cavill for not being Christopher Reeve. It also appears that some of the effects budget was actually applied outside the action sequences. Snyder’s distinctive visual style gives it an immersive feel and even provides a few moments of truly striking cinematography.
Ultimately, I think both franchises have things to learn. DC is clearly playing catchup while Marvel is resting too comfortably on its laurels. Both films are entirely missable, but if you decide to go, leave your expectations at home and you might just enjoy yourself.
Will Grandbois may have a bias on account of having a Superman shirt and a Robin costume as a child. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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