This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 7, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What makes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a better film than Captain America: Civil War?
“When all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda, “The Election of 1800” from Hamilton
I don’t think you’ve given me a question this troubling since the very start of this column when you accused Martian Manhunter of being the worst member of the Justice League. We managed to survive that potential disaster, but here we are 33 columns later on the precipice of something potentially far worse. Because I now have to explain why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is better than Captain America: Civil War.
Sorry for repeating the question. I’m still just trying to let that sink in.
A lot of my shock on this one comes from the fact that I enjoyed the latter movie much more than the former. I went to see Captain America: Civil War in theaters multiple times with different groups of people. I have the beautiful looking pint glasses from Mondo. I squealed each time Spider-Man and Black Panther were introduced. That movie going experience was a lot of fun.
The moment the credits rolled on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I silently stood up and walked out of the theatre leaving my fiancee and brother-in-law behind. Then I tweeted a GIF of a dumpster on fire while taking a piss and called it a day.
So why is it that the second film is better than the first? Well, I guess that’s what I’m here to tell you.
In order to answer that question, we have to start by examining what is actually being asked. There are no objective truths, only evaluations, to be made here, so there’s no easy formula for discovering which is the better film. I want to knock out a few possible solutions before diving into what I think is the “right” one.
We could jump to something like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes to see which was better reviewed, but that’s a terrible idea. Art is not something that can be neatly summarized in a binary or judged by consensus. It’s a terrible approach to the subject and those sites do nothing but lower the cultural conversation.
We could do a step-by-step analysis of different aspects of filmmaking, creating a rubric on which to grade the film. In terms of acting, I’d have to call it a push. There are a lot of good and surprising performances in both films (and yes, Jesse Eisenberg is great in Batman v Superman); casting has never been a fault for either studio. In terms of editing, Civil War wins by a long shot. There is a ton happening, but it is never confusing, whereas Batman v Superman is an absolute trainwreck of shots mashed up together in some indeterminable fashion. In terms of talk about mothers, Batman v Superman has that one in the bag. Who can remember Steve Roger’s mom’s name, much less references it regularly? It’s Sara, by the way. But this sort of grading scale is pretty much only useful for teachers trying to manufacture grades for dozens of students. It’s a silly way to critically examine art once you have a solid grasp of a medium.
We could debate the place of these films within their distinct franchises, and the impact they will have on them going forward. This could include talk of box office (a win for Civil War) and potential spin-offs (a win for Batman v Superman), as well as how they will affect what happens to both studios moving forward. While this is an interesting conversation to have regarding economics, it’s a terrible way to discuss art. Money does not speak to value, and confusing those two is one of the most depressing aspects of the conversation surrounding these sort of tentpole movies currently.
All of these are bad ideas. So how should we evaluate these films?
I would say the best way to compare these two is by their content. What does each film want to say? How does it craft its message? Can you see the inputs and ideas of the creative forces working on the film? How do you understand the artist better through their creation? Why does this film matter?
I’ll be interested to hear what others think of those questions in the comments below, but I think that both of us really like them as a way to determine a piece of art’s merit. And that is what we are talking about when discussing these two films. We’re not talking popularity or enjoyment or specific elements of craft, we’re talking about art.
What does Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have to say?
The film continues Snyder’s obsession with Catholic imagery and mythology from Man of Steel. It focuses on Superman as a son gifted to the world in order to save it, sacrificing himself at the end of the film, and completing his Christ arc. Along the way Snyder adds disciples and converts, along with those who would hate and fear what Superman represents. Batman plays the role of disciple, acting like Peter the Rock and founding a church (the Justice League). His mother Martha falls short only in not assuming a Pieta pose as she watches her son give himself to save the world and lives on to mourn him. All that is left at the end of the film is the resurrection, which is still hinted at.
Snyder’s worldview is consistent with previous films (and comics adaptations) like both 300 and Watchmen. It shows the world as an ugly, awful place. The murder of the Waynes is gratuitous and even Superman’s best actions can be perceived as chaotic or cruel. There is an endless tide of misery bearing down on the heads of those who would seek to do what is right and twisting them as a result. Only in the final minutes of the film is a glimmer of light shown (along with some trembling earth). This view of the modern world as a terrible place that coexists only with a distant hopeful future is certainly something summoned from Snyder’s own views. This perspective is reinforced by purposeful parallels to the film Excalibur (a poster of which can be seen during the murder of the Waynes). It is a film that clearly influences Snyder’s storytelling and that provides a better understanding of what he is attempting to say.
In this regard the rampant 9/11 imagery created in Man of Steel and resurrected at the start of Batman v Supermanmakes much more sense. Snyder is responding to the modern geopolitical landscape from a very American perspective. He perceives and shows almost irreconcilable divisions between voters and terrible, world-ending problems generated by the wealthy and powerful. All of these problems originate from a moment when towers fell and questions of military power became incredibly important once again.
The movie is also clearly a product of the mind of Zack Snyder. Both his familiar visual aesthetics and hang ups are all on display. There’s the over-rendered color palette of a heightened reality where the grit is grittier and sunshine shinier. He utilizes slow motion and pauses in action to achieve a unique glorification of violence and sexuality. Internal emotions are rendered as grandiose melodrama, and trauma is made to be the singular starting point for greatness. Snyder is also sure to fetishize a woman who can definitely kick his ass. From start to finish, Batman v Superman is a Zack Snyder film.
There are undoubtedly ideas being explored and revealed in this film. Are these ideas insightful or new? Are they well presented? Are they interesting as shown? Across the board I would say the answer is no, but they do build a thematic core for the film, which isn’t nothing.
What does Captain America: Civil War have to say?
The previous installments in the franchise spoke to concepts of the greatest generation (in The First Avenger) and surveillance states (in The Winter Soldier). I would argue the first was much more successful than the second, really nailing a tone and idea that the latter could not carry through with as forcefully. No matter how successful they are in their execution or argumentation, it’s fair to say that both of these films are clearly about something.
I don’t think Captain America: Civil War is about anything, though. At the start of the film it alludes to being about the consequences of actions from powerful actors. There’s certainly a potent analogy to be made between the violent actions of American superheroes on foreign soil and that of American military forces. If anyone wants to make the argument that this film is about that, they may feel free to do so in the comments, but that’s a tough road to hoe. The superheroes are shown in an uncritical light in this regard where those challenging them and their actions are shown to be short-sighted jerkwads. Actual comparisons between the two concepts are limited and shorn from the film before it is even halfway through its runtime.
Any ideas that may have existed in the script are barely ghosts in the final film. The focus of the movie is on a disagreement between superheroes that is only given the superficial appearance of being serious until the final battle. The airport battle still allows everyone to be friendly and is packed with jokes. It’s not until Iron Man is trying to murder Bucky that anything seems to matter, but even that is thrown away with Captain America’s letter to Iron Man in the film’s final scene. And all of this is really just about the characters and plot on the screen.
At the end of the day Captain America: Civil War is nothing more than entertainment. I find it to be a highly effective entertainment, but as a piece of art it is a hollow shell of a grand monument easily shattered by the slightest amount of pressure. The plot and characters exist for their own sake and used in ways that will allow the audience to consume them repeatedly while in theaters and again when they return next year. You may enjoy Captain America: Civil War, I certainly do, but after the experience is done you are not left with anything but the adrenaline and laughs which fade as quickly as a fart.
None of this makes Batman v Superman any less of a mess. Snyder and his cohorts did not do a good job of executing their ideas or even conveying a central, understandable thesis. It is not a film that I would encourage anyone to be proud of, besides some of the actors who turn in excellent performances. That these are the two biggest superhero movies of 2016 and this is all they could deliver together is a sad statement on the genre’s ability to deliver anything meaningful to modern filmic discourse.
However, it does show the vast gap in levels of ambition, courage, and sincerity. One of these films tried to be something more than a formula. One of these films challenged its audience in interesting ways. One of these films reflects the creative vision of an auteur. One of these films has identifiable motifs and recurring themes. Only one of these films even attempted to say something and present itself as an actual piece of art.
When all is said and all is done, Batman v Superman has beliefs, Captain America has none.