Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why Batman V Superman is really a battle of Fans V Critics. Spoiler: The fans won.

Last night I recorded an episode for my podcast, Band Geek.  My wife and I were joined by 4 of our friends in my home studio.  Our mission: to give our review of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I knew most of us liked the movie in general, but I was expecting there to be a good deal of debate.  We were down there for 3 hours!  However, this 3 hours wasn't spent arguing casting choices, or discussing what the movie was missing.  Instead, we went through every major plot point and screamed at each other like little girls in excitement.  Just the mere re-telling of the events of this movie gave us all goose bumps and nerd boners.  We were all tired, we wanted to wrap things up, but we couldn't. We were having too much fun re-living the experience of being in that theater.

Back in April of 2015, my buddy Ray told us that they'd be showing the new trailer for Batman V Superman (BvS) in an IMAX theater 45 minutes away in New Jersey. So my friends and I piled in a car and drove out there to watch 1 minute of film on a giant screen. Were there better ways to spend our time? Sure, but this was a lot of fun. To reward us for our geekdom, director Zack Snyder appeared on screen and informed us that everyone in attendance would be rewarded with FREE advanced IMAX screening tickets. What a great way to treat your fans!

When the movie was released last week, Zack made good on his promise. My friends and I, joined by several other mega fans wearing their Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman merch assembled in the IMAX theater 3 days before the movie was released.  We were collectively blown away.  The look on everyone's face was that of supreme satisfaction, like they just ate a giant Thanksgiving dinner.  As we sat there in our seats, unable to move, we all agreed, "they finally got it right.  Marvel people are going to shit all over this."

Before I really go into it, let me explain how I feel about Marvel movies, specifically Marvel studios movies.  I really like them.  My favorites include The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man.  I don't really want to discuss Marvel movies in this post, but since everyone else feels compelled to draw comparisons, I can't avoid it.  Marvel studios movies are great.  They're filled with visual spectacles, lighthearted fun moments, characters cracking jokes at each other and of course Scarlett Johansson in a skin-tight suit flipping her body around thugs as she kung fus the crap out of them. I enjoy all of it.  Marvel's universe building technique has proven incredibly effective, with every movie revealing a small piece of the big picture. I totally dig all of it.  However, while watching the Avengers together on screen, at no point did I ever think, "This is exactly what DC should be doing."  Sure I wanted to see the Justice League assembled on screen, but I didn't want them to do anything lighthearted, and this is at the core of the split between Hollywood and the fans.

If you haven't heard by now, BvS has received some of the worst possible reviews from critics and even nerd culture ambassadors like Kevin Smith aren't thrilled with it.  However, this movie is tremendously successful at the box office and it hasn't even been out for longer than a week. How did this happen?

When I started seeing all the negativity emerge, I couldn't believe it. Did these people see the same movie I saw?  How could anyone give this a 28%? When I started reading what these people were saying I started to doubt my own opinions.  It really soured my whole experience. I left that theater flying high, but when the reviews came out the next day I was completely deflated.  But then I went to twitter and searched #BatmanVSuperman.  What I saw restored my hope. Sure, there were plenty of people with Thor profile pictures who clearly hadn't seen the movie yet tweeting about how awful it was, but the amazing thing was the amount of fans who gathered around this movie and defended it from the onslaught.  Fans V Critics was on.  Sure, critics have their platforms in newspapers and popular websites, but fans have money, and using our money, we've already won this battle.

Poor critical performance can hurt a franchise, but like Superman, Zack Snyder's franchise is bulletproof. While the critics are using their snarky reviews to tear down Man of Steel and BvS, Warner Brothers is going ahead with TEN more DC Universe movies.  That's right...TEN!  Will they all be panned by critics and Marvel fanboys?  Probably. Will they all make bank?  Probably.

Fans V Critics is really a matter of how nerd culture is perceived by Hollywood. When I say Hollywood, I don't mean only filmmakers, but the entire industry including executives, media publications and critics.  Nerd culture is hot right now.  Video games are a huge industry, Star Wars is back in full force, one of the most popular sitcoms is the Big Bang Theory, and I can watch a different superhero show every night of the week.  Hollywood has found serious money in the pockets of nerds.  They've also managed to make some our favorite things mainstream.  People who don't get any of the deeper references can still enjoy an episode of Big Bang Theory, or get a few chuckles out of Guardians of the Galaxy.  I think all of this is great.  And no, I don't think my favorite indie band has "Sold Out."  As far as I'm concerned, the more content in this genre, the better.

So if everyone is going nuts for nerd content, why are we getting a backlash on BvS?

When I read a DC comic, specifically Batman, I'm not transported to a bright and shiny place where lighthearted humor is strategically placed between large action sequences.  I'm in the shit.  Batman: The Animated Series actor Kevin Conroy's voice is in my head conveying that the weight of this bleak and hopeless world is on the shoulders of a man with no meta human abilities. He's cruel, he's brutal and we love it. 

Meanwhile Superman has all of these wonderful abilities, but he's still tortured.  He can't save everyone, people are afraid of what he can do, and he'll never have a normal life with the woman he loves. In recent versions of the comic he becomes so alienated that he simply walks through America looking for meaning in what he does.  Bleak... and we love it.

No disrespect to Lynda Carter, but Wonder Woman is not American in the comics. She doesn't have the accent of a person born in Arizona.  She's from a hidden island which presumably exists somewhere in the Mediterranean.  She has fought Gods and she has fought men. She is a warrior. She punches first and asks questions later.  We love it.

This is the disconnect that we're seeing with BvS. While the non-nerd population thinks all comics fans are reading funny papers, we're actually reading serious stories. We enjoy the mass appeal of the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, but when we turn off the movies we re-read our copies of The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, Identity Crisis, Flashpoint, etc.  None of this is lighthearted reading. In fact, it's borderline depressing...but we love it.

Seeing how popular the Marvel Studios movies are, I think a lot of us assumed we'd never get to see the "real" versions of these DC characters on the big screen.  I don't think we expected Batman to dance around at a crime scene while listening to "Come and Get Your Love," but we always knew we'd be getting some watered down version of the characters.

We were wrong.

With BvS, Zack Snyder showed that he is one of us.  He reads these dark comics and agrees, this is what these characters should be.  Could he have done a lighter version? Sure, but instead he gave the fans exactly what they wanted.

Ben Affleck is perfection as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. I feel like I have to thank Zack Snyder for proving most of us wrong in this department. Watching Ben Affleck move across the screen in his hulking frame and incredible costumes makes me feel like I'm playing the Arkham video games and that's a very good thing.  There's a complaint about Batman killing in this movie.  I admit that this seemed to be an odd choice, but it's not a new choice.  Even though Batman has a famous "no-killing policy," the death toll has been piling up since 1989's Batman movie.  Watch it again and tell me no one dies when he fires machine guns into a parade from the seat of the bat-wing.  In the Nolan trilogy, Batman even talks about his no killing policy, but then kills dozens off people.

While they don't come out and say "Batman kills" in this movie, they do address that in his older years he's become increasingly cruel after 20 years in Gotham and has been pushed over the edge by the catastrophe in Metropolis.  I can nerd-splain away all these issues, saying maybe these people are just unconscious and that batman uses rubber bullets in his vehicular weapons, but it's really not a huge point worth harping on.

Let's talk about one of the biggest attractions of this movie, Wonder Woman! While I was one of the people who thought Gal Gadot might have been a bit too slender to play Wonder Woman. That thought did not once cross my mind while watching this movie.  She owned the part.  I LOVE the accent.  That's how it always should have been.  I can't wait to see her upcoming solo film.

Jeremy Irons was a really cool choice for Alfred.  There's a shift going on in the comics and in the Gotham TV show making Alfred a bit more of a bad-ass and I'm way on board for this.

Henry Cavill remains to be my favorite Superman.  I realize he's very different from some of the classic interpretations but luckily we have 4 Christopher Reeves movies and 4 seasons of Lois & Clark to revisit for that version if you're feeling nostalgic.

Jessie Eisenberg delivered an unorthodox Lex Luthor performance.  I probably would have preferred something closer to the Clancy Brown version of the character, but I found this younger internet-era version to work really well for the movie.

Amy Addams remains to be the one casting choice I'm not totally into.  I think she's a terrific actress, and she's fine in this movie, but it just seems like an odd choice.  I guess I just always want Teri Hatcher to be Lois Lane.

I don't want to go too much into the entire cast, but I also enjoyed the performances of Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane and Holly Hunter.

One major complaint of this movie was its length and pacing.  I agree to a point, but as a lover of classic Japanese films, this was nothing new to me.  One of my favorite films, Samurai Rebellion, is 90% talking. The main character gets pushed and pushed to his limits until the last 10 minutes of the movie where he unleashes a bloody assault on all of his enemies.  I felt BvS had a similar framework, but I would have preferred a few more action sequences to break things up.

Speaking of action sequences, this is by far the best superhero action I've ever seen on screen.  The two standouts for me are the rescue scene which is straight out of the Arkham video games and the DC trinity scene which had the entire theater applauding.  After watching this movie, it's hard to not want a grappling gun of your own.

Another complaint is the use of dream sequences. While I didn't necessarily love these parts, I think it's foolish to judge them at this point.  I have a feeling these scenes are going to connect to future movies in a significant way, especially the "Am I too soon?" dream.

Being a musician I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the score.  Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL have delivered a fittingly epic musical accompaniment to this movie.  I bought the soundtrack right away and have been listening to it non-stop.  My favorites are "The Red Capes are Coming" and "The Wonder Woman Theme."  It's in 7/8!  Awesome!

One term I'm seeing quite a bit is that this movie has a "lack of fun."  I find this sentiment particularly irksome.  The characters in this movie are not having fun.  It's a serious story where people do seriously twisted and psychotic acts.  Again, this isn't Guardians of the Galaxy and it absolutely should not be.  Batman's world is broken.  In the comics, people do horrendously awful things, and I'm not just talking about obscure comics, I mean the big ones.  For example: In Killing Joke, the Joker beats a young woman with crowbar and paralyzes her for life.  This is not fun to read, it's horrifying, but this is a hugely successful comic book.  A lighthearted, fun movie taking place in this world does a disservice to the source material and to the fans who love it.  Even though there are many brutal moments in this movie, it doesn't mean I was appalled or depressed while watching it.  I was having....(wait for it)....FUN.  Why? Because someone cared enough to bring the demented world of DC comics to life without filtering it or watering it down.  I was in awe.

Another thing to consider is that Zack Snyder had an awful lot of setup to do in this movie and I think he handled it rather well.  Especially the way he reveals the other Meta-Humans.  Again, people were cheering at the screen.  I think it's a safe bet to assume that once the Justice League is established, these characters will get a littler more chummy and perhaps we'll see some lighter and friendly banter between them.  But for where we are in the overall story, BvS is exactly what it needs to be.  This universe is dark and hopeless and the only way to fix it is for its heroes to unite.  I can't wait!

Richie Castellano is a professional musician and producer.  He also reads comics, builds lightsabers and hosts a riotcast show called Band Geek.  When he's not being a geek he plays guitar and keyboards in Blue Oyster Cult.

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