Same movie, different measures of success - Reviewing Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War

I’m not the first one to make this comparison, but the two big superhero ensemble movies of this year essentially cover the same ground. Both Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, from Warner-DC, and Captain America: Civil War, from Disney-Marvel, see costumed heroes facing off over the issue of culpability and accountability. As tensions rise over a 2-and-a-half hour running time, other heroes are drawn out of the woodwork – particularly powerful royal warriors from reclusive nations. Hell, there are even vengeful ordinary joes in the mix in both cases, performing acts of terrorism to escalate the conflict.

The difference between the two films really lies in how successfully these elements are handled and interwoven. Civil War is the clear winner in this regard.

Batman Vs. Superman certainly has its moments – the opening twenty minutes, the thrill of seeing several iconic panels from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns brought to life, Ben Affleck’s spot-on portrayal of an older, clearly unhinged Batman, and the arrival of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman’s to kick ass Amazonian-style (finally!).

This said, the film feels clunky and convoluted for the most part. A lot could have been trimmed and narratively tightened.

Yet again, Hollywood insists in portraying Lex Luthor (here played by Jesse Eisenberg) as a twitchy madman, instead of sophisticated genius who’s biggest issue with Superman is that the alien’s presence makes all human achievement, no matter how exceptional, redundant.

But this a geek gripe.

The predominant impression I had of the movie is one of grumpy dude bros flexing their muscles and glaring at each other, when their problems would be solved in an instant if they just spoke to one another. But of course, Henry Cavill’s Superman is the least proactive Man of Steel in history, and mostly just stands around looking like a kicked puppy when he isn’t flying away into hiding. And then there’s a bombastic CGI-overload battle at the end of the movie that goes on so long I completely checked out mentally.

I’ve enjoyed director Zack Snyder’s earlier films, but his signature hyper-styling and energy seem to have been leeched from his recent DC efforts. There’s clearly ambition there but it gets lost under the forced gravitas. Plus, there is no one really to root for, hero or human. It’s difficult to become emotionally invested in any character. Appreciation – even of Wonder Woman – is purely at an aesthetic level, because we’re not allowed to identify with, or really “know” the characters.

In Captain America: Civil War, every character’s stance on the issue of superhero regulation ties into their clearly defined personalities. In addition, positions are coherently presented – to the point where it is difficult to really take sides. Everyone’s opinion is valid.

After being horribly disappointed in Age of Ultron, I am very happy to view Civil War as the second Avengers film because that’s exactly what it feels like with its large ensemble cast. This is somewhat of a disadvantage to Captain America (Chris Evans) though, as despite being the title character he doesn’t get to hold focus like he did in The First Avenger and Winter Soldier. Superman has the same problem in his sequel.

Also, another Civil War niggle is that you really need to be up-to-date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe to know who everyone is. Do not expect introductions for Ultron cast additions like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision, for example.

Civil War features many of the same components as Batman Vs. Superman – right down to a super-powered boy scout facing a guilt-driven, armoured billionaire who’s never quite overcome the trauma of his parents’ death. Civil War wins out, I believe, because of how it keeps, and shows, identifiable humanity in the mix.

In Batman Vs. Superman, most emotional charge seems to stem from Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), those perpetual victims of hostage-taking. The film’s inclusion of real-life celebrity interviews and news clips, though fun, feels too slick and calculated to have a “grounding” effect.

The action feels closer to home in Civil War, with its real-world locations, and depiction of urban terrorism that audiences are sadly too familiar with. We aren’t kept at a distance here. In fact, characters like Anthony Mackie’s Falcon (my favourite), and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man come across like viewer inserts – heroes who haven’t lost their ordinary guy-dom. They do things like asking Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the majestic – and supremely pissed off – ruler of African nation Wakanda, if he likes cats, and fanboy in the midst of costumed icons.

The audience is invited into the world of the characters, and we’re allowed to have both fun and tear up a bit, because the film covers the entire emotional spectrum. Life and life freedoms are important in Civil War, while the opposite appears to be true in dark and cynical Batman Vs. Superman. There, notable supporting characters from the DC comics, like Jimmy Olsen and Mercy Graves, don’t even get named before they’re executed.

Sorry, geek griping again…

As for Civil War’s epic face-off, everyone has their moment to shine in the most glorious game of superhero rock-paper-scissors you will ever witness. There is loads of CGI involved, but it doesn’t feel like it. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have an exceptional grasp of how to stage stylish, (literally) hard-hitting fights that don’t lose their coherence as a result of special effects overkill. This achievement is even more impressive when you remember that 12 heroes are being juggled on the screen simultaneously.

Captain America: Winter Soldier remains my favourite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films due to its all-round tautness. Civil War doesn’t have its predecessor’s same narrative punch, but it immediately jumps into the #2 spot on my favourites list due to its deft handling of so many characters and elements. When you realise that there are actually three black men and two women (three if you count Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter) involved in the conflict, your appreciation only grows.

Bonus points too for overcoming Spider-Man fatigue by giving the character fresh energy and a logic-pleasing touch of ADHD.

Marvel and DC undoubtedly have different ambitions, and both companies are at vastly different points in developing their live-action big screen legacy. This said, the DC adapters should really take a few notes from their rivals about winning the hearts of cinemagoers. You just don’t do that through movies as bulky, posturing and relentlessly grim as their heroes.


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