I left the theater confused by the poor reviews from critics and by the negative reactions from some fans. I went home and perused the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes trying to figure out what I got from the film that others did not. The first thing that I noticed was the fact that there is no consensus on what is wrong with the film. Is Lex Luthor too over the top or is he a highlight of the movie? Is there too much action or too little? There seems to be very little agreement on the actual mechanical problems with the film as a whole. And if everyone is not seeing the same problems then perhaps they were missing the real problem altogether.
The most consistent criticisms were not in fact criticisms, but observations made in a derogatory tone. Reviewers call the film serious and dark, which is an absolutely accurate description of the film’s tone. However, many films have these qualities and they are not all doomed to a life of ill repute for their trouble. In the reviews these comments are often linked to the assertion that the film is boring and plodding. The idea that these traits are interrelated seemed nonsensical to me, but for some reason reviewers seemed to link the film’s seriousness and darkness to boredom. I still felt as though I was missing something.
Looking at the particulars of these comments it seems that the issue is, to a certain extent, tonal. In general, superhero films tend to steer away from some of the more fantastical elements of the comic books upon which they’re based. For instance, Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is excessively exploited for dramatic material in films and television, but his weakness to magic has never come up in adaptions despite being a valid part of the comic book canon. The X-Men don’t get involved in alien wars in their movies and until we get Doctor Strange later this year, we have yet to see a spell caster as a superhero.
At this point I started thinking about the term “comic book movie.” In reviews this term doesn’t just mean that the film is an adaption of a comic book, it implies tone and content as well. Movies that are described as such tend to move more in a science fantasy direction. Something like The Avengers, which is the story of a Norse god using an ancient artifact to open a sky portal to facilitate an alien invasion. At the opposite end of the superhero movie spectrum is The Dark Knight, which approaches its story as more of a crime film than hard sci-fi. The Dark Knight is also often described as less “comic booky.” Measured against these two examples, Batman v Superman is very much a “comic book movie”. It has alien monsters, prophetic dreams, and the implication that time travel will crop up later in the series. In a dream sequence we even see Parademons, the foot soldiers of the alien god Darkseid.
The fantastical nature of the film alone in no way explains the film’s unpopularity. After all, Marvel has pushed into the more fantastical aspects of their superhero canon to great success. Thor leans into its fantasy elements and Guardians of Galaxy has more weird aliens than JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. Clearly this is not where the disconnect lies. I think there is another side to superhero films that are labelled as having more of a “comic book vibe”. Films that get this descriptor tend to be tonally lighter and more easily digestible. In essence, a “comic book movie” takes itself less seriously. Going back to the comparison of The Avengers and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight is more self-serious and moralizing whereas The Avengers is thematically lighter and tonally funnier. This is where Batman v Superman fails. It splits that dichotomy in half. While it is fantastical and bordering on science fantasy, it is also dark, self-serious and moralizing, in some ways perhaps even more so than The Dark Knight.
The most successful modern superhero films all seem to fit neatly into their place within this dichotomy. The Dark Knight Trilogy is on one end. A little closer to fantasy are the X-Men movies, but even these have abandoned their source material’s more overt sci-fi elements in order to focus on a more thoughtful civil rights metaphor. Further in the other direction are the Marvel Studios films with their lighter tone and less preoccupation with human social politics. Even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe this continuum is respected. The films with a more political slant, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have all-human casts of characters and do away with their more fantastical elements, whereas the more fantastical films like Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy lack the more relevant themes thus allowing the audience to take them a little less seriously.
Ultimately I suspect that that is what this is about: the more fantastical sci-fi and fantasy elements the film asks the audience to accept, the less willing the audience will be to take the film seriously. This is the unexplained element in the overwhelming poor reviews and in the assertions that the film's darkness and seriousness are negatives. Looking ahead at the unreleased Captain America: Civil War you can see that Marvel, in approaching similar themes of the morality of superheroes, has pushed aside its non-human heroes and villains and even seems to be avoiding the fantastical infinity stone MacGuffins that are such a significant part of that particular cinematic universe. This is all in contrast with actual comic books, which not only tend to be more fantastical than the films, but run a broad tonal range- from light and fun to deeply serious and politically and morally relevant.
This all, of course, harkens back to the misguided notion that comic books are inherently childish and silly, a lowbrow form of literature unworthy of higher themes. Even now as they are at a peak of acceptance in the mainstream, a superhero film that asks the audience to accept a fantasy world of aliens and magic, while simultaneously using that world as a backdrop for an operatic epic about the morality of power is roundly rejected. The film’s flaws are blown out of proportion by confounded reviewers who want to see charming movie stars make quips in brightly colored costumes while they punch aliens. The reviews for Batman v Superman lack consensus and are unsure of themselves because no self-respecting reviewer would admit to themselves that they didn’t like the film because it overturned their expectations and asked more of them in terms of engagement than they were willing to give. But after careful consideration and reading many negative reviews I am convinced that that is the reality of what happened here. Batman v Superman stood as an invitation to expand our idea of what a movie starring superheroes could be allowed to do, but it seems that in the end it was an invitation many were unwilling to accept.
Cody Pestana is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.