Much like the presence of its alien protagonist, the world is still divided over the existence of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. A week after its highly publicised release the film is still sparking debate, reviews and opinions faster than Kal-El can stop a speeding bullet, and not for the better. The film currently holds a score of 29% on Rotten Tomatoes and 44 on Metacritic. A quick browse of social media and review sites shows a probable estimate of 70/30 swinging against the film. But what exactly went wrong?
In a golden age of superhero movies and TV shows feeding an audience with an ongoing appetite for these stories, what fatal missteps did WB President Greg Silverman, Director Zach Snyder and writer Chris Terrio take in order to be met with such disdain and outcry? The answer, we think, can be attributed to a very simple formula: Story first, set up second. A formula that WB/DC seem to have gotten completely backwards.
Marvel Studios 2015 release Avengers: Age of Ultron may not have been as well critically received as it’s 2012 predecessor but was nonetheless a financial and box office success. Sure it had a packed story and juggled a lot of characters but did it so with competence, heart, fun, and a knowledgeable respect for the source material; however it does contain two bad apples in an otherwise sumptuous fruit bowl that demonstrate our theory perfectly. The worst two scenes in the movie are the scene in which Thor has a vision in some weird, unexplained pond; the other is his hallucination of Asgard. Why don’t these scenes work? Because they are blatant and overt set ups to future Marvel movies (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War) that were utterly irrelevant to the story being told. That’s what BVS is: two and half hours of Thor splashing in a dirty pond. With added Kryptonite.
Back in mid 2014 when WB announced a full slate of DC movies through until 2020 with only one prior release that was already a mixed bag, (2013’s Man of Steel) alarm bells were immediately ringing. It’s pretty clear they had no plan, no clear long term goal in place and were desperate to jump on the Marvel freight train. WB are rushing their DC Cinematic Universe, hastily assembling pieces they have no idea what to do with in what order and the actual fact is, there’s really no need for them to do so.
There’s currently a prevailing theory that audiences are vastly approaching superhero fatigue, but with films like the recent Deadpool, which has the highest R-rated opening is US history, that theory is actually proven false. As long as studios are offering audiences something different and fresh then they will keep returning, and this is where Marvel Studios soar, they continue to offer an eclectic mix of genres merely masked as ‘superhero’ movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a 70’s political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy a space opera, Ant-Man a heist movie and so on.
Whereas Marvel Studios is overseen by one man, Kevin Feige, who understands the source material and above all else that story and character must come first, with all the connective tissue being little extras but only if a natural fit to the story being told; WB is run by a committee whose primary goal, understandably is to catch up, follow a trend and make money. A similar mistake was made at Sony when their Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried to blow out an extended universe of its own in one film and instead ended up playing like a two hour advert for the Spider-verse, resulting in Sony’s deal with Marvel to reboot Spidey into the MCU and the rebooted web-slingers inaugural appearance in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.
The DC universe doesn’t need to be hurriedly built, as it has a different tone, its own set of characters and stories that can be told and therefore will always offer something audiences can’t find in a Marvel Studios movie. Instead WB have chosen to reverse the key formula: Set up first, story second. There’s a good movie in BVS somewhere, honestly, but it’s invisible amongst a forced dream sequence that’s sole purpose is to hint at Darkseid, show us the Flash, and set up Justice League; or the email containing low-res teaser trailers to set up the Justice League; or the completely redundant inclusion of Wonder Woman, to set up the Justice League. We get it, you’re making a Justice League movie.
A brief glimpse of Wonder Woman’s civilian identity at the party would have been enough, the barest hint of her existence in the world, a tantalising glimpse would have been enough to entice audiences back. Instead a good forty minutes of story clarity and character development was sacrificed for overwhelming info-dumps that have confused and put off DC novices. Again, Marvel have proven that by the gradual peppering and sprinkling of new information both hard-core fans and new-comers will stay for the whole journey. If Darkseid is WB’s end-game, then remember that audiences didn’t even get a glimpse of Marvel equivalent Thanos until six films in, even then it was just a smile to camera. That smile has kept/will keep audiences coming and the bucks rolling in for another 4-6 years at least.
One character at a time, one simple story at a time, it works. If it’s kept fresh it will continue to work for any studio. BvS may have had the biggest superhero box office opening ever, but the numbers are already dropping and WB may have just sabotaged their universe and made it completely inaccessible before they’ve even built it….