The following article includes SPOILERS for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
“The movie is, in fact, a triumph of imagination over both the difficulties of technology and the inhibitions of money. Superman wasn’t easy to bring to the screen, but the filmmakers kept at it until they had it right.” – Roger Ebert, reviewing the original Superman in 1978
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is finally in theaters. After seemingly an eternity of buildup (Warner Bros. has been trying to make this movie for so long that there was footage of a still-living Christopher Reeve making fun of the idea in a news special), the biggest prospective superhero crossover ever has arrived onscreen with an entirely new Batman, the first live-action feature film Wonder Woman, a bucket full of teasers for Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg and the promise of Justice League and a DC Extended Universe. And, after all that, the reactions are… well, “mixed” would be one way of putting it.
U.S. moviegoers, egged on by a near-incessant marketing campaign (only Fox’s “surprise” megahit, Deadpool, managed to blanket more of the planet in advertising) rewarded the film with record-setting presales that helped drive a super-sized opening night box-office. But once there was actual word of mouth to compete with the studio hype machine, the narrative shifted a touch: The audience-polling service Cinemascore calculated average reactions to a flat “B,” the same grade as the widely-derided Green Lantern movie, and the box-office took a record-setting plunge over the course of only two days. Of course, that’s far from tagging the film as a “bomb” or even a disappointment; and it does have a healthy core of defenders, ranging from those who’ve shrugged it off as “not all that bad” to devotees so ferocious in their support so as to concoct elaborate conspiracy theory about Disney/Marvel bribing critics to write negative reviews.
Less nuance, however, exists within the press itself. Professional critics have mostly blasted the film; and even those who’ve landed on the positive side typically did so while acknowledging serious flaws. Rotten Tomatoes has thus far clocked the movie at 29% – only six points above director Zack Snyder’s career-worst (in terms of reviews) blockbuster, Sucker Punch.
Surprisingly, those negative reviews have in many ways become a bigger story than the release of the film itself. Big-budget comic book movies (particularly in the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) these days are built to generate post-release discourse, but it’s typically about content in the film itself – and Batman V Superman is no different. In fact, one of the most consistent criticisms of the overall production is that it’s less a movie in its own right than it is a protracted trailer for Justice League and its attendant spin-offs. It leaves plenty for fans to chew on: What happened to Robin (and which one, at that?) When Superman comes back, will it be as four different guys and then a fifth “real” guy like in the comics? Where did Cyborg’s dad get a Mother-Box? Why is Aquaman visibly holding his breath underwater? Instead of exploring these questions, however, the post-movie discourse has been dominated by the question of who is “right” about Batman V Superman and its worth as a superhero movie.
Of course, high-grossing movies getting poor reviews is nothing new; the Transformers movies, The Twilight Saga, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. were all huge hits despite very poor reviews. Typically, however, this discrepancy passes without much notice – critics say “nay,” fans say “yay!” and the studio takes its money and goes home. But here, not only did genuine outrage give way to sustained fuming, the studio actually got in on the action – with the film’s official Twitter account spreading triumphant “The Fans Have Spoken!” memes and the stars of in-the-pipeline DC films like Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) throwing similar shade on social media. And since very few film outlets can afford to not talk about the biggest film story of the moment, this creates a media feedback loop and a fresh narrative: Critics V Superheroes.
As populist effigies go, the aloof, out-of-touch critic who who dismisses popular entertainment in favor of high-minded so-called “art” that only they understand (or care about) is pretty evergreen – mostly because, like any good myth, it has one foot in reality. The business of entertainment reporting and cultural-criticism are such that critics are required to experience hundreds of films (or books, or games, or whatever other discipline) throughout the year, and thus grow more quickly tired of clichés and more sensitive to technical flaws.
Plus, sometimes critics really do get it wrong. It took the “establishment” film press around 3-4 sequels to notice that the Fast & Furious franchise was delivering on diversity and (nominally) progressive post-traditional family-dynamics like few other mainstream films had dared, but global audiences had been rewarding it for that all along. Conversely, the perceived “elitism” of critics makes it easy for some to imagine them as powerful enough (or thinking themselves so) to use their platform to advance a nefarious agenda rather than critique from objectivity (whatever that means anymore(. That’s the premise of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (which Zack Snyder himself is angling to adapt into a new feature film) where the villain is an architecture critic who uses his influence to ruin the careers of artists in order to advance his own political/cultural worldview, and also of Ratatouille, where Anton Ego takes malevolent pride in destroying Gasteau in part because he objected to the chef’s populist “Anyone can cook!” message.
So, the newly re-popularized image of the cranky, arrogant critic looking down on a massively-popular (or, at least, massively-watched) superhero epic and its fans with sneering disdain arrives with plenty of precedent and cultural baggage. What it doesn’t arrive with, however, is evidence.
Big-budget, crowd-pleasing blockbusters getting mixed to negative reviews was the rule throughout the 1990s (think Independence Day, Armageddon, etc.) but the rules have shifted dramatically since the 21st century brought with it the rise of so-called “geek culture” to pop-prominence on both ends of the Hollywood machine. Thanks in no small part to the cultural-reshaping of the internet age, noteworthy film discussion over the last decade and a half has been driven by a newly-established generation of writers and reporters who often hail from either the populist world of “New Journalism”, the niche realm of comics/scifi/genre fandom, or both – and often find themselves covering films and filmmakers from similar backgrounds.
In 1997, Warner Bros. blamed upstart blogger Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News for ruining Batman & Robin’s box-office by publishing “spy reports” from the set. Three years later, a subsidiary of that same studio was inviting Knowles and other web critics to visit the set of Lord of The Rings in New Zealand. In 2016, a mainstream audience once cited as the reason superhero fans couldn’t hope to see their favorite properties treated with respect now responds enthusiastically to films like Guardians of The Galaxy, while critics hand out generally favorable reviews to the same. Times have certainly changed.
In fact, what makes Batman V Superman’s vicious flaying from critics worth noting in the first place is that it feels like the first time in forever that it’s happened. From the early-2000s to the modern day, the “rule” has been a critical press, a moviegoing audience, and each subset of fans being so generally in sync with regards to so-called “fanboy” movies (superhero productions in particular) that they might as well be drift compatible. With rare exception, the Marvel Cinematic Universe productions consistently draw above-average to excellent reviews, as have the X-Men movies from First Class onward (with the exception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Even Deadpool – packed to the gills with toilet humor and the kind of “politically incorrect” comedy – was greeted with reviews every bit as enthusiastic as the fan-support that willed it into existence in the first place.
Meanwhile, the comic-inspired features that have drawn poor press notices tend to be the same ones that fans (and casual moviegoers) reject as well. Critics made Fox’s most recent Fantastic Four attempt the worst-reviewed Marvel-based movie ever. They largely panned Green Lantern and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with rather little disagreement from their respective fanbases. Even the “iffy” critical response to Man of Steel – which Warner Bros. had been touting as a potential billion-dollar franchise-starter – being so closely mirrored in its tepid reception by audiences is what drove the studio to delay a direct sequel and call on Batman for backup in the first place.
While on the subject of Batman, let’s not forget that we’re only two Batman movies (and one new Bruce Wayne) removed from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight being so universally hailed across the board by critics, audiences and film scholars alike that it’s lack of a Oscar nomination in 2009 was regarded an egregious oversight – so much so that the Academy changed the rules for how Best Picture was nominated in order to prevent such a “mistake” from happening again. When hardworking “serious” movie stars finally claim their Best Actor prizes, the conversation more often than not now shifts to which Marvel or DC uniform they’ll be stepping into for a big-paycheck victory lap (“Does Leonardo DiCaprio strike you more as an Adam Warlock or a Booster Gold?”); as though “prestige” filmmaking is now a development farm for the superhero big leagues.
For all the pride that superhero fandom once took in its own “outsider” status, critics and comic fans have been largely in lockstep for long enough now Dawn of Justice getting an overwhelming thumbs down feels like the denial of a validation some fans had come to feel entitled to.
None of this is to suggest that any (or all) of the critics are “right” about Batman V Superman, or that fans should somehow reconsider their own opinions simply because the reviews have been bad. The question of why views of this particular feature diverged so spectacularly is an interesting one: Was the film really too dark? Did it betray the founding principles of the characters as profoundly as some claimed? One imagines that some of this might be clarified by the eventual reactions to Captain America: Civil War, another darker-than-typical superhero story centered on good guys turning on each other… or perhaps not. Could it really be that the boogeyman of “superhero fatigue” finally set in after all, and critics were simply waiting to take it out on a production that lacked the near-decade of goodwill the Marvel features have built up? Or is Batman V Superman just a bad movie?
These are valid questions, and a healthy part of engaging with the broader culture around film appreciation. But wheeling out (or succumbing to) the tired chestnut of film critics’ advancing a blanket dismissal (or worse, “conspiring” against) of this or that genre isn’t just an argumentative dead-end; it’s an erasure of just how far the superhero genre has come in terms of earning praise outside of its own niche. In the relatively brief stretch of time between Blade and today, comic book adaptations have gone from being just another action subgenre to the critical (and box-office) gold standard of action-movies, period. To assert otherwise because a plurality of critics finally landed on one they didn’t like ignores this history, cheapens the discussion and unfairly marginalizes the majority of critics who’ve approached this era of genre film with an open mind.
The iconic final scenes of Ratatouille ultimately weren’t about Anton Ego realizing that being a critic was evil – they were about him having lost touch with the reason he’d become a critic in the first place, and finding his way back to it through the transporting power of Remy’s deceptively simple “peasant dish.” Film criticism in 2016 is overflowing with critics who’ve been similarly transported by the best of the superhero genre – but that doesn’t mean they’re obliged to enjoy every plate.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is now playing in U.S. theaters. Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 23, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19, 2020.