Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) has released into theatres after much buildup and promotion to rather scathing reviews.
Is anyone particularly surprised?
BvS had more work to do than most superhero franchise films, coming off of a much-maligned first film, Man of Steel, while also competing with the films being produced by its cousin, Marvel, that have, thus far, been a steady cash-machine of positive audience and critic scores. BvS needed to re-establish faith in the DC brand in terms of films and answer the question: could DC make a good superhero movie?
It’s not like they haven’t done it before.
DC had an incredible hit on their hands when Christopher Nolan took the reins of the Batman franchise and released his phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy. These are films that actually took home Academy Awards, one of which was even for acting (Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor in The Dark Knight), and that enthralled audiences and critics alike. They were hits, they were masterful examples of their craft — I actually studied The Dark Knight as a part of a Film Adaptations course in university and, let me tell you, it’s a film student’s dream to study. It was brilliant, and I’m sure DC was more than a little eager to get right to it and release more films on their others heroes with the same formula.
Except, there wasn’t exactly a formula.
This is where I think DC (and the studios who hold film distribution rights) has made a crucial error: the Dark Knight trilogy did not have an easily-repeatable formula. They seem to have mistaken the idea that they got three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. What they got, instead, were three Christopher Nolan movies, that just happened to star Batman. They forgot that what they got was an auteur.
In simple terms, the auteur theory holds that the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is considered the “author” of the film. As a result, when you look at a director’s body of film work, you can see the same metaphorical brushstrokes, making their work identifiable — rather like having a signature.
Love it or hate it, auteur theory is something I love to talk about as it pertains to individuals in the film industry, especially directors. Perhaps this is my own education, where I spent a full semester ingratiated within auteur theory, studying the works of Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese. And I think Nolan is certainly an auteur: even if you went into one of his movies without knowing who directed it, you pick up on all the things which clue you in to the fact that you’re watching a Christopher Nolan film. From a noted sparse use of CGI — Interstellar being the one major exception to this rule — to scripts that are dark, philosophical, and verbose, Nolan has a distinct style both in his films’ looks and narrative content. And his Dark Knight trilogy is no exception: it has all the hallmarks of a Christopher Nolan movie, just with Batman as its main character. The auteur was (seemingly) given a great deal of freedom to do what he does best and create a film that was his film as opposed to a Batman film.
It wasn’t an easily-repeatable formula at the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy’s success, and that’s what DC has not seemed to grasp.
I understand DC’s urge to attempt to reproduce Marvel’s current MCU trend: the formula, the machine, as it were. A Marvel film is branded by this point: snappy/snarky dialogue, a solid three-act structure, and a visual aesthetic which is consistent across all films. This is even with them hiring auteur directors like Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Joss Whedon (Avengers). But not only had Marvel already established the look and the feel in Iron Man, but they made sure that it was understood these are “superhero” movies first, everything else second. In effect, the director was virtually unimportant, especially as Marvel has moved on into “Phase 2” and now “Phase 3” of their films. They’re all about the consistent, superhero product. It’s not about the art or trying to do something particularly bold and daring.
Joss Whedon directing Avengers? Hell, he’s already done things like Firefly, Serenity, and Buffy. No brainer he can handle superheroes and extensive CGI. Kenneth Branagh for Thor? Well, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to characters spouting Shakespeare and doing some kind of hardcore sci-fi costume drama, so that makes sense.
Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoy both of these directors’ work, including their work with Marvel. But they don’t come off to me as particularly bold choices in terms of selecting someone to helm a superhero film.
DC gives the impression that they’re at least willing to swing for the fences when it comes to directors.
Before Batman Begins, if you’d told me that Christopher Nolan was going to do a Batman film, I’d have probably thought you were on some sort of extracurricular drug. The guy who brought me Memento and Insomnia is doing Batman? But he did, and he didn’t just do Batman: Christopher Nolan made a Christopher Nolan film that just happened to be set in Gotham, just happened to take place inside of the Batman universe. And a universe more of his own making than anything else.
Tell me you’ve got Zack Snyder lined up for Superman, and you can colour me intrigued. After all, Zack Snyder already had a superhero film under his belt with his adaptation of the critically acclaimed graphic novel, Watchmen, and even then, it didn’t necessarily feel like a superhero movie first; it was an examination of human nature and morality that just happened to feature “superheroes” who flirted with the line between hero and villain more than once. Much of this comes from the source material, and I will also admit that this is not unique to Watchmen, but it was perhaps the fact that Watchmen was not associated with either Marvel or DC that it was able to thrive in this way.
As a director, Zack Snyder is not Christopher Nolan — in fact he’s something akin to a 180-degree switch, especially in terms of visual style. Looking at his films such as 300, Watchmen, et al. Snyder has a deep love of CGI and post-production effects such as colour-filters. His films read more like visual opera: bombastic and over-the-top to paint an impressionist picture as opposed to some kind of realistic still-life. They’re viscerally visual to the point of being “style-over-substance,” and not necessarily in a bad way, but in a manner of fashion that makes Snyder and easily-identifiable director much like Nolan. Snyder is an auteur, and a very different auteur from someone such as Nolan, despite their equal love of darker stories. Hiring a director like Snyder means you’re accepting a certain kind of visual style and aesthetic, one that can easily turn a lot of your potential audience off.
DC definitely got that part right: get yourself an auteur director. But they forgot about the whole “let them do what they do best” part that was the key to the success of the Dark Knight trilogy. Man of Steel was a mess, there’s no denying that fact, and I could write an entire post on all of the film-related flaws I found in that film, but let’s just baseline the conversation with the common understanding that Man of Steel was not good. And while I chalk a lot of that up to a weak script, I also think part of the problem lies in not understanding that Man of Steel should not have been a Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder, but a Zack Snyder film that happened to star Superman.
This may sound like silly linguistic nuance, but it’s important. I walked of Man of Steel feeling muddled and confused: where was the visual opera? What happened to the colour filters and bombastic intensity? In other words: where was Snyder?
In trying to duplicate the Dark Knight trilogy, it seemed that DC had put Snyder into some kind of Nolan-esque mold and, therefore, nullified all of the stylistic elements that make their director not only so recognizable, but that make his films work. No one could have directed 300 the way Snyder did, just like no one could have done The Dark Knight the way Nolan did. But, Man of Steel? Any director could have made that exactly as it was, and that was the most disheartening thing about it. Man of Steel ended up lacking both style and substance, which pretty much put BvS in the losing position before it even got off the ground.
Look, Snyder may not be everyone’s cup of film-tea, but the same can be said for Nolan, and both of them deserved a shot at creating their movie that just happened to star a DC superhero with relative creative freedom.
DC did it once, and I wish they’d do it again.