Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" Does the Warring Super Hero Thing Better Than "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Both Dawn of Justice and Civil War promise super hero smack downs.
It's pretty hard not to compare Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not only did they come out within weeks of each other, but they both feature a super hero throw down built around a disagreement over civilian casualties during world saving battles. Furthermore, they both focus on normally squeaky clean, super-powered American icons acting as renegades while traditionally darker billionaires with major tech advancements try to stop them. The big difference is that Civil War features coherent conflict rooted in long-term character development, while Dawn of Justice is an uneven mish-mash of incomprehensible plot turns and motivations, with some nonsensical foreshadowing thrown in.

Before going any further, I should probably list my reviewer baggage in the interest of transparency. Going into these films, I expected to like Civil War more than Dawn of Justice. That’s basically because I have long admired Marvel’s gutsy move to do a slow build with their cinematic universe, while I suspected D/C was rushing theirs in an effort to get to that big Avengers-type money as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t mean I hate D/C. I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, liked Man of Steel quite a bit, love Ben Affleck, and appreciate the cinematic grandiosity director Zack Snyder is trying to bring to this whole thing. It also doesn’t mean I’m totally in the tank for all things Marvel. They rely far too heavily on macguffins, generally lack compelling villains and tend to prioritize synergistic plotting over artistic identity. Sure they gleefully embrace a lot of genres and develop good characters, but there’s a reason many of their directors have been culled from the television world. Unlike in traditional cinema where individualism and idiosyncrasy is praised, TV values a director’s ability to blend and make his or her episode(s) feel like one piece in a larger puzzle. So too does Marvel.

Given the length of this piece, I think it's best not to go over the plots of the films. If you need a plot refresher, head over to Wikipedia, because otherwise I'm just diving right in to analysis.

The biggest appeal of both these films is the fact that they’re packed with super heroes fighting against each other. You can tell that much simply by looking at the posters, which feature heroes on opposite sides staring at each other intently. And action-wise, both films are pretty great. The central fight of Civil War is amazingly fun, and while nothing in Dawn of Justice is quite up to that level, it totally owns the Batman (Affleck) fights, showcasing both the fluid choreography of the Nolan films and all those wonderful toys of the Tim Burton ones.

Promising a big melee like that is a fun, but dangerous proposition for a film, one that can lead to great action, but muddled narratives. Overcrowding in comic book movies rarely works because it requires too much juggling and doesn’t allow for enough development. Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin are great examples, of this, and to an extent, so are the mostly good X-Men movies, which consistently marginalize huge chunks of the team in favor of Wolverine, Magneto and Xavier.

Cap's team operates as rouge agents once the Sarkovia accords are passed.
There’s no doubt Civil War is far more crowded than Dawn of Justice, but while it has four times as many super heroes, it does a better job of servicing their stories. Spider-man (Tom Holland) and Ant-man (Paul Rudd) are ringers for each side (and provided the highlights of the blowout fight), but everybody else has strong motivations rooted in actual character development. Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, the soul and stealth MVP of the MCU) get particularly strong material to play. The same can’t be said of Dawn of Justice, which relegates Superman (Henry Cavill) to a bit player in favor of doing what’s basically a Batman movie on drugs.

Discounting Dawn of Justice’s “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” cameos from Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), each film actually introduces two new super heroes, one of whom (Batman, Black Panther) is far more central to the story than the other (Spider-man, Wonder Woman).

Batman and Black Panther have similar revenge arcs, and both actors make strong impressions. However, although Batman is basically the main character of Dawn of Justice, he’s very one note, and structuring his about-face around the fact that both he and Superman have mothers named Martha is pretty goddamn stupid. Meanwhile, Black Panther isn’t asked to carry the load of his film, and yet he still feels more dimensional and his turnaround tracks better dramatically.

The inclusion of Spider-man and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in these films is inorganic and reeks of corporate desire to sell toys and advance the universe engines at play. Wonder Woman is kept intentionally mysterious, so Spider-man ends up feeling like more of a character. He’s also a hell of a lot more fun, which helps mitigate issues surrounding his inclusion.

But really, inserting characters into these stories as setups for future films doesn’t bother me all that much. To some degree, these movies are always going to do that, so you just have to hope they can also stand on their own as well. Spider-man and Wonder Woman function fine, and the D/C cameos found in the videos Wonder Woman watches are appropriate teases.

However, sometimes these things go a bit too far, and I’d venture to say Dawn of Justice oversteps when it has Flash come from the future to warn Batman in a dream sequence. I assume Superman will become evil, maybe due to red kryptonite, and this message will tie in with The Justice League somehow, but, as a piece of this movie, it’s just confusing and feels like wasted minutes. In fact, all the Batman dreams feel that way. If all that time dedicated to dream sequences was spent on further developing characters, the film would’ve benefited greatly.

In stories like this, it’s a fait accompli that the main bad guy is going to be sidelined. That’s because narratively speaking, the main bad guy isn’t the main adversary; the other super hero serves that function until the third act at which time the super heroes basically hug and realize they need to join forces to stop the actual bad guy.

To it's credit, Dawn of Justice definitely looks cool.
I fully expected this dynamic going into these movies, but, once again, it’s pretty surprising just how similar the set-ups are. Neither Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) nor Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) are some side threat looking to take over the world; instead both are just interested in coercing super heroes into killing each other.

Their reasoning is what separates the two. Zemo was a Sarvokian special ops type whose family was killed during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie implies he’s trying to gather a collection of super soldiers for a nefarious purpose, but that’s just a red herring. All he wants is to get revenge on the Avengers, and his whole plan is built around exposing the fact that Bucky Barnes killed Tony Stark’s parents to accomplish that task. The plotting’s not airtight – it’s left unclear how Zemo knew such information existed or how he knew Captain America would react the way he does, but it’s simple and it works.

Meanwhile, Luthor’s motivations are far more complicated. He’s basically a megalomaniacal millionaire driven mad by a grab-bag of shit, including thirst for supremacy, the very existence of metahumans, and daddy issues. If I think hard enough about it, I’d guess his daddy issues caused him to become a cut-throat social climber/innovator, which brought about a sort of hot-shit god complex that was completely obliterated by the existence of meta-humans, chiefly Superman. But that requires a lot of work on my part, while asking very little of the screenplay.

Truth be told, that’s really not a bad arc, and could totally play if given the proper development. But when you’re fitting all your world-building into the margins, it just doesn’t work because it doesn’t have the time too. If you’re going to have a sidelined bad guy, better to have one with streamlined motivations, instead of ambitious overreaching that leads to a crazed Luthor inexplicably gaining access to the information within the Krytonian ship and, even more ridiculously transforming the corpse of Zod (Michael Shannon) into Doomsday.

But that's generally the whole deal with Dawn of Justice, which looks great and gets some things right, but continuously borders on ridiculousness. And it's so far beyond the Doomsday crap, the Martha thing (god, the Martha thing), and the Flash dream sequence. It's also the fact that Batman is gullible as hell, or that he nonsensically abandons his kryptonite spear, or that Superman's super hearing super sucks (not only can he not hone in on his kidnapped mother's location the way he does routinely with Lois (Amy Adams), but he can't even hear a bomb that's like 10 yards away from him).
This meme that references Step Brothers is the perfect takedown of
a major plot point in Dawn of Justice.
Many of Dawn of Justice’s problems are born of D/C’s insistence in taking short-cuts toward a team-up movie instead of laying the proper foundation over a series of films like Marvel did. I can imagine a world in which D/C Comics wasn’t taking short-cuts to The Justice League, but instead decided to make a legit Man of Steel sequel that took place during the 18 months skipped between the two movies, allowing for some development of the Clark and Lois dynamic, as well as the Luthor’s obsession and a hint about his search into metahumans (say for instance, a post-credit sequence indicating he found footage of Wonder Woman).

They could’ve then followed that up with their Wonder Woman movie, which could’ve ended with a post-credit sequence showing Wonder Woman discovering Luthor has her picture. This would’ve effectively laid the seeds for her whole story thread in Dawn of Justice, while also grounding her and Luthor as actual characters worth giving a shit about, not to mention lending further shading (and thus further shit giving) to Lois, Clark and they’re relationship. Then, you could let Dawn of Justice play out as a Batman introduction, while setting up The Justice League.

But no. Instead they decided to bum rush Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and metahuman concept into one movie all because they wanted their own Avengers without waiting through years of buildup. As a result, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is hit-and-miss entertainment, especially compared to the well-oiled, emotionally involving Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War A-, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, B-

For added fun, here's my personal rankings from all these franchises.

Marvel Cinematic Universe
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger A
  2. Iron Man A
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy A- (review)
  4. Captain America: Civil War A-
  5. The Avengers B+ (review)
  6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier B+
  7. Thor B+
  8. Ant-Man B+ (review)
  9. Iron Man 3 B+ (review)
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron B
  11. Thor: The Dark Ages B-
  12. The Incredible Hulk B-
  13. Iron Man 2 C+

Batman Films
  1. The Dark Knight A+
  2. Batman Begins A
  3. Batman Returns A
  4. The Dark Knight Rises A- (review)
  5. Batman B+
  6. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  7. Batman Forever C+
  8. Batman and Robin D+

Superman Films
  1. Superman A-
  2. Superman II B+
  3. Man of Steel B+ (review)
  4. Superman Returns B-
  5. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  6. Superman III D
  7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace haven’t seen it