written by Kate Danvers
This year saw the release of two big superhero films where their primary selling point was a battle between beloved superheroes. Any comic book fan will tell you this is nothing new – heroes fight all the time. It’s an exhausted trope in the medium, so much so that “and then the heroes fight” has become a joke. When it’s done right, it can make for an interesting conflict between sympathetic characters while maintaining their heroic status. When it’s done poorly, one or both heroes have to be reduced to villain status and someone is going to need a retcon or a mindwipe to make them even remotely likable again.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, trying to let my thoughts and first impressions really settle on Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice before I did a proper comparison. I even considered watching X-Men: Apocalypse and doing a three-way comparison, but I decided against that for a few reasons. Adding X-Men would have been a bit too much and I’d be trying to justify it by saying that Storm, Psylocke, and Angel are some of Apocalypse’s horsemen. A lot of times Apocalypse brainwashes his horsemen – and I think a brainwashed hero fight is a different sort of story. Even if they aren’t brainwashed there’s still a clear “good” and “evil” side to the conflict. It’s not heroes having a disagreement that escalates into a fight, it’s heroes working for the bad guy for “reasons”. Civil War gives you heroes on opposing sides who are both and neither morally in the right, and BvS…well, it tries.
Tonally, the two films are very different, but thematically they’re very similar even apart from the “heroes fighting” theme. Both are spinning off of the consequences of their previous films – specifically the collateral damage caused by incidents involving powered individuals. BvS, for its part, deals not just with blaming the only one still standing when the dust settles (Superman), but also society’s inability to distinguish between Superman and Zod. Some see both as invaders from another world trying to impose their will on Earth. There are those who see Superman as a threat, some who see him as just a person trying to do good with the powers he was born with, and some who see him as a god. These are themes we’ve seen in Superman stories before, and if BvS had done them well, I would be the first person to praise the film for it, but it really didn’t do the topics justice. We get asked about the deeper meaning regarding where superpowered individuals fit in our society, we’re shown the damage that can happen to people who get caught up in such conflicts, and we even see the Man of Steel himself questioning his own role on his adopted planet. Unfortunately, the film never goes far enough to really answer or even discuss the questions it raises. It’s as though the director and the writer feel that simply asking the questions makes the film deep rather than exploring possible answers, and by the third act, they just decide to pretend those questions were never asked.
On the other side, Captain America: Civil War shows the devastation left behind from numerous Avengers battles and shows a world of people who are really tired of being left to pick up the pieces. The line between enemy and savior is even further blurred when you take into consideration that Tony Stark was instrumental in Ultron’s creation. When the Avengers are discussing the Registration Act, it’s Vision who notes that incidents have been on the rise since the Avengers first appeared. It doesn’t necessarily mean that conflicts are escalating as a response to the Avengers, but a frightened public isn’t going to see that. They don’t see Avengers existing because greater threats exist – they see two great threats duking it out on their front lawn. The Sokovian Accords don’t automatically make the world safer and they don’t mean threats like Loki, Thanos, or Ultron are just going to vanish into thin air, but they do mean oversight and accountability. It gives a lost, helpless world a measure of control. It’s not going to fix the numerous deaths that resulted from superpowered conflicts around the world, but it tells the governments of the world and their citizens “we’re doing what we can.” The question is raised and an answer is given – but it’s an answer not everyone likes, so it’s a driving point of the conflict.
Maybe the biggest misstep of BvS in setting up its conflict and its themes is it doesn’t have enough time. It’s movie number two in the franchise. Yes, there have been other Batman films and other Superman films but they’re not currently canon, and those were different Batmen and Supermen. This isn’t Christian Bale’s Batman going up against Christopher Reeve’s Superman; these are two relatively unknown entities. Sure, you can say they’re based on characters who have been around for decades, but we barely know their histories in this timeline – and I would argue that this Superman and this Batman are barely recognizable from versions that came before.
Leading up to Civil War, the Marvel films have had four films to establish Captain America and five to establish Iron Man. Going into the film, I knew who would logically be on which side of the conflict and why. If you rolled it back to the first two Iron Man films, Tony Stark probably would have sided with Steve Rogers against U.N. oversight, but this isn’t the “privatized world peace” Tony from Iron Man 2. This is a Tony who feels a lot of guilt for his part in creating Ultron. Even if you haven’t seen every other film in the franchise and this is your first Marvel film, Civil War does an excellent job of showing you where Tony and Steve’s heads are. We see Tony’s life falling apart, we see the guilt he feels over past incidents, and we see him confronted by a grieving mother who lost a son in Sokovia. On the other side, we have Steve, who has seen what corrupted government organizations are capable of, who no longer recognizes the country he loves, and who worries whether the United Nations will send the Avengers where they need to be or if they’ll use them as weapons in conflicts in which they shouldn’t participate.
in BvS, we’ve got a Clark Kent whose origin is so botched that he’s still searching for meaning in his life long after becoming a superhero, who doesn’t outright tell people “I’m not a god, I’m just a guy trying to do good,” and who really has no reason to fight Batman other than he doesn’t like his violent methods. Methods, by the way, which cause only a minuscule fraction of the property damage Superman did in Man of Steel. We’ve got a Bruce Wayne who is angrier and more violent than most previous versions because of…something involving Robin? Robin is dead? Joker killed him? Wayne Manor burned down? We’re never told. When I bring this up, someone inevitably says that it’s something which had to be cut from the final film, but it will be in the Ultimate Edition coming to Blu-ray. The problem with that is no one but the die-hard fans are going to buy the Ultimate Edition. For that matter, the theatrical release is supposed to sell people on the Blu-ray. If I didn’t like the theatrical version, why would I watch an extended version? To fill in plot holes that never should have made it to the theater? You could also say that BvS doesn’t have the benefit of a franchise’s worth of films to set up its main conflict. That’s true. We don’t have an entire Batman trilogy to get to know Batfleck or two films and two previous crossovers to get to know Cavill’s Superman. That’s not something that we should give BvS a pass for, and I’m certainly not going to. DC, Warner Bros., and Zack Snyder chose to make this the second film of their new franchise. Whatever mistakes were made in prior character development are all on them.
Enough with the setup, let’s get down to the awesome knock-down drag out fights between the titans. Batman wants to kill Superman before he can cause another disaster like Metropolis. Superman wants to shut Batman down, but the immediate reason to fight him is because Lex Luthor will kill Clark’s mom if he doesn’t. Captain America and his team of Avengers want to keep Bucky safe while they track down the real criminal behind the bombing of the U.N. conference, whereas Iron Man and his team are up all night to get Bucky. Civil War has an amazing fight scene at an airport between the two teams of Avengers which is exactly what you want in a superhero fight. You’ve got colorful and unique heroes all using their various abilities in flashy ways. It’s a memorable fight with some jaw-dropping moments. It’s brightly lit and shot in a way that you can tell who is doing what and what each are capable of. Hell, it’s Spider-Man’s debut fight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and he gets plenty of screen time to showcase his abilities and fighting style. You also have heroes who are very reluctant to fight each other. Whether they’re old allies, friends, or people meeting for the first time who admire the other person’s heart. Nobody is “the bad guy” here. No one is out for blood…well, with the exception of Black Panther, but he thinks Bucky killed his dad – good enough reason for me.
In contrast, Batman and Superman’s battle isn’t very long. It only feels like five minutes, maybe ten, tops. It takes place in a rainstorm at night in a poorly-lit part of the city. Does it play to each hero’s strength? Well…no? You’ve got Batman, a staunchly anti-gun hero who relies on gadgets and hand-to-hand fighting using remote machine guns and a restrictive armored suit. Superman, a gentle peace-loving hero who often keeps his great strength in check to avoid hurting weaker opponents, bringing the full brunt of his strength against a mortal man and even shoving him through walls and ceilings. During the aforementioned remote machine gun part, Superman forgets he can fly and just repeatedly walks into Batman’s traps. When Batman gets Superman down on the ground (conveniently in the building where he left his main weapon), he pulls out a Kryptonite spear to finish him off. These aren’t Batman things. Batman doesn’t use spears. Batman doesn’t kill opponents. No, I don’t care what issue you want to cite where Batman killed a guy – that is not his normal behavior. The well-established and widely accepted version of Batman is that he doesn’t use guns and he does not kill. At this point the two “heroes” (if you can even call them that) are barely recognizable from their long-standing comic counterparts. This isn’t two heroes having a misunderstanding and being forced to fight on opposite sides. These are two idiots trying to kill each other for no reason other than the fact they’re both terrible heroes. They’re not even reluctantly fighting, they’re both out for blood. Yes, yes, Superman went into the fight trying to convince Batman to help him find his mother – or so he says – but that’s thrown away as soon as Batman starts setting off traps. Superman even starts throwing punches that should probably kill Batman, because when Batman actually blocks a hit from the Kryptonite-weakened Superman, Superman looks surprised. Yes, a look of “that punch should have broken his arm and caved in his skull. WTF?”
The conflicts I mentioned aren’t the only ones in the films, and they’re not the final conflicts, but they’re the most related to their film’s title. The final battles are Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman vs. Doomsday and Captain America and Bucky vs. Iron Man. Both of these final conflicts earn the respective criticism and praise I gave the earlier fights, but both are also instigated by the real villains of the films: Helmut Zemo and Lex Luthor. Zemo wants to destabilize the Avengers to the point where they tear each other apart, destroying the team. He’s a grieving father and husband who lost his family in the Sokovia incident and he’s lashing out at the one thing he can – the Avengers. He knows he’s committed horrible acts to achieve this goal and for that, he’s basically damned himself, but he’s taking the Avengers with him. Luthor…fuck if I know. I have no idea what Lex Luthor’s motivation is. He wants to kill Superman “just because”. There’s something about the devils coming from the sky, but that’s the sort of metaphor you use when you’re trying to sell your reason for wanting to kill someone, not your motivation behind it. The film’s other villain has a clearly defined motivation. You have a mindless killing machine with an insatiable bloodlust and a complete disregard for collateral damage. Superman’s reason for wanting to kill is clear…sorry, did I say “Superman”? I meant Doomsday. Huh, that’s a weird Freudian slip that I committed to writing and no one caught in the editing process.
That’s probably where BvS‘s finale falls short. You have a feral beast hellbent on destruction who can’t be understood or reasoned with. Jokes about his motivations being the clearest in the film, Doomsday isn’t a particularly good threat for the finale. I realize you can’t have the heroes in a physical fight with Lex Luthor and can’t end the film on the Batman and Superman fight, but Doomsday’s sudden appearance in the finale and his role as Luthor’s “fire and forget” weapon is really hollow. Not to mention Luthor is trying to rid the world of one “monster” by creating a far greater one.
Civil War has a final conflict which feels both satisfying, and also like one which no one really wants. Steve and Tony are supposed to be friends, not bitter enemies. Tony feels betrayed by his friend for withholding information about the Winter Soldier killing his parents, and he wants to kill Bucky despite reason telling him the real Bucky had nothing to do with it, all because “he killed my mom!” It’s a smaller-scale fight than the one in BvS and even the one earlier in Civil War, but it has far more impact than either of those conflicts. No one dies, no one heroically sacrifices themselves, no one goes to jail, no one grows to giant size and fucks up an airport or demolishes a huge chunk of the city, but none of that is needed. What makes the final battle epic is the emotion in it and knowing who these men are and why they’re fighting. That’s something that is sorely missing in Batman v Superman as a whole.
I could go into other ways the films differ, mostly in structure and writing, but the gist of all of this is that as both comic book adaptations and as films in their own right, Captain America: Civil War outdoes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I would have loved for BvS to have been of equal or greater quality than Civil War because I love all of these characters and I want both to have successful film franchises. I’ve even got my fingers crossed that Wonder Woman and Justice League turn out to be better films. But they won’t be if they follow the same path that Man of Steel and BvS have walked before them. I hate even comparing the two franchises like this because Marvel and DC have always done things differently as comic book companies. However, when DC is clearly trying to build a film franchise to rival Marvel’s own, it may be wise to look at why Marvel’s been so successful. If DC isn’t comfortable doing that, then maybe they need to look at what makes their television shows on the CW such huge successes. What they’re doing with their film franchises now just isn’t working.
Kate can be found on Twitter at @WearyKatie.