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Too Big To Fail: What ‘Batman v Superman’ Tells Us About Blockbuster Culture

Too Big To Fail: What 'Batman v Superman' Tells Us About Blockbuster Culture

In probably the single best essay that anyone wrote about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Eric Hynes of Reverse Shot suggested that ours is the “era of do-not-fuck-it-up.” Accurately capturing the sense that J.J. Abrams‘ job in shaping the rebirth of potentially the most lucrative franchise of all time was almost more custodial than creative, and the underlying relief that characterized many of the film’s reviews, it felt like a good summation of the state of the blockbuster landscape in the mid-2010s. With studio strategy increasingly involving staking ever-larger amounts of money on ever-fewer films, the tentpole filmmaker’s first ambition can no longer be simply to create a great film. In fact, the filmmaker’s responsibility is no longer primarily to the film being made at all, but rather to the wider universe that it occupies, the bigger picture it serves, the master plan of which it is but one small, commodified part. 

That universe encompasses everything from the source “canon,” to the cherished childhood memories of fans, to the as-yet-unmade potential future installments. All Abrams had to do (and this is not to make it sound like an easy task) was not-fuck-it-up, and he succeeded admirably, with the film now nestling contentedly in the hearts of a whole new generation of “Star Wars” fans and in third place in the all-time worldwide highest-grossing pantheon. But this past weekend’s record-breaking success of “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” suggests that the era of don’t-fuck-it-up is already over. We are now entering the age of too-big-to-fail.

Because without putting too fine a point on it, Zack Snyder did fuck it up. Whatever it was that dawned this morning, it was not box-office justice: At $166.1 million domestic for the Easter weekend, Warner Brothers and DC‘s ‘Batman v Superman’ has broken all records for a March opening, and scored the sixth-highest opening-weekend numbers ever (behind ‘The Force Awakens,’ “Jurassic World,” and three Marvel films, if you’re interested). And yet it is is a two-and-a-half-hour dunderheaded donkey bray of a film — overlong, incoherent, boring (here’s our review). It is noisy, inelegant and, as is the fashion these days, so crushingly self-serious (even the title font seems to think it’s Ibsen) that I almost feel sorry for it. Its bajillion storylines make no sense in themselves or in relation to each other and to their characters’ mystifying motivations. **SPOILER Even the climactic battle promised by the title, which is itself based on perhaps the most primal of childhood “who’d win in a fight?” scenarios, is resolved by a coincidence so confoundingly childish that is almost thrilling to watch Snyder, Ben Affleck, Henry CavillAmy Adams, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL try to invest it with Appropriately Immense Gravitas: “Wait, your Momz haz same name as MY Momz? Let’s be BFFs 4eva.”  SPOILER ENDS**

It’s possible that the very ineptness of Snyder’s approach, and the very many levels on which he did fuck it up, might be partially working in the movie’s favor as regards its reception. It’s hard to get angry, for example, at the shoddy non-canon treatment of Jimmy Olsen if you don’t even know that it’s happening. (The identity of the CIA spy/photographer who gets unceremoniously shot in the beginning of the film as Olsen is only revealed by the end credits, as he is never mentioned by name in the film, and no one seems to miss him at all). And Snyder’s response when questioned on that particular point is very telling: “We don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

“Having fun” is pointedly not what ‘Batman v Superman’ does anywhere, but especially not in the consequence- and impact-free execution of a character who could have had some potential use in the future. Here again, Snyder breaks the cardinal rule of the don’t-fuck-it-up mindset and for absolutely no meaningful reason at all, least of all “fun.” But Snyder and the whole Warner Brothers/DC team have basically made a religion of stating as fact things that are actually opposite, especially in relation to “fun,” “enjoyment,” and “self-awareness” — concepts with which the film I saw, which is as enjoyable in the moment as a dose of lockjaw, isn’t even on waving terms.

Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice-president said, “It’s just fun…it doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s just an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.” Then there’s the Zack Snyder press conference I wish I could stop quoting, but I think one could continue to parse its ironies till Judgment Day: “Tone, to me, is the number one aspect of a film that I’m really interested in. We take it heart-attack serious, but at the same time there’s a self-awareness to the movie that I think you have to have, in order for the movie to resonate on any kind of second level beyond just ‘Oh look, these two superheroes are fighting and that’s cool.’” Even other members of the extended DC Universe got in on the act — Jason Momoa, star of the upcoming “Aquaman” who is glimpsed briefly in the film, thumbed his nose at the critical reception on Instagram and exhorted audiences to “Just go have fun watch enjoy. Proud of WB and DC.”

The pre-emptive defensiveness on display here comes largely in response to the film’s poor reviews (it is currently at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes). And it’s telling, too, that they tend to revolve around how much “fun” the film is and how that narrative has taken hold, at least partially, by successfully pitching those critics who disliked the film as out of touch or overly, snobbishly serious about a movie whose only humble ambition is to entertain. This is the tack often taken with so-called “critic-proof” films like “Transformers,” but I’d argue that ‘Batman v Superman’ jettisons its right to play the “you’re overthinking it” card by being so inescapably self-important. It’s a bit rich to accuse critics of taking too seriously a film that probably boasted more theological allusions and Christian symbolism than was occurring during the nation’s many Easter Masses.

Of course, in advance of opening night, this was all due to the almost palpable nervousness emanating from the WB camp — even if the production budget was not one single dollar more than the $250 million official figure (and rumors put it $100-$120 million north of that), ‘Batman v Superman’ is still one of the most expensive films of all time. Add on the now fairly standard $150 million for worldwide marketing costs (and again, that figure is rumored to be much higher, as part of the strategy was an inescapable advertising blitzkrieg) and pundits suggest that the film will not start being profitable for WB until it crosses the $800-million-worldwide line. In any case, a haul of less than a billion for this mega-mashup would be regarded as a disappointment. So is this big opening weekend the huge vindication it seems to be?

Certainly many commentators are rushing to claim that it is — many, bizarrely, pitching the figures as proof that critics “got it wrong.” Here’s a choice moment from a particularly off-base Variety essay on the subject: “The results are a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics,” while even the title of TheWrap’s “Batman v. Superman: Who Was Right, Critics or Paying Public?” gives you some suggestion of how apparently the film’s box-office gain is the critical industry’s unequivocal loss. In this paradigm, the unwieldy, lumbering, colossally expensive and overmarketed Goliath is recast as the plucky underdog David. And critics, hilariously, are somehow painted en masse as the film’s snivelling antagonist — a monolithic axis of Evil, whose systemic corruption is such that almost charmingly naive conspiracy theories about Marvel being behind every single “splat” rating can gain traction. But even aside from all that, and beyond the many, many other false suppositions that the above articles are founded on (about the nature of criticism and the critic’s putative role as box-office predictor/influencer, and/or consumer advocate, all of which we’ll explore in more depth tomorrow) there are a couple of problems with this kind of snap judgement.   

Firstly, the numbers are huge, it’s true, but ‘Batman v Superman’ also posted the biggest-ever Friday-Sunday drop in attendance (55%) for a superhero movie — yes, including “Fantastic Four.” (Here’s the excellent Forbes article that goes deep into that). Traditionally, that would imply that it might not have much staying power, especially as “opening day grosses are far more closely related to marketing spend than they are to audience affection,” and as we already know, ‘Batman v Superman’ boasted a marketing spend that could well be among the most expensive ever. So while there is some truth to the conclusion that “Reviews don’t matter. The Batsuit and Superman’s cape are made of teflon” as Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore said, it’s a truth that is largely concentrated on a film’s opening weekend. After that, after those influenced by buzz and adspend, and the film’s pre-existing fervent fanbase have already gone, that’s when you start to get more casual moviegoers actually ponying up the bulk of a film’s take — and that’s when those reviews, as part of the wider word-of-mouth phenomenon, actually do start to matter.

And outside of the reviews, which we already know are poor, word of mouth, insofar as we can measure such a thing, is not that great. “Batman v Superman’ has a B Cinemascore, which may seem fairly healthy at first glance, but that’s before you realize that it’s a lower score than any Marvel film has ever achieved — indeed, DC’s megaton rival has only ever scored lower than an A grade on one film, and “Thor” got a B+. Not only that, but audiences also awarded widely ridiculed flops “Catwoman” and “Green Lantern” B grades, and that is not good company for DC’s flagship team-up, the first film in an ambitious expanded universe project, to be in.

But you know, it almost doesn’t matter. ‘Batman v Superman’ is part of a new breed of mega-blockbuster that simply must succeed — even if that means massaging the numbers, shifting the goalposts or redefining what success actually is. In that context, the triumphalist crowing over its opening-weekend figures, which in their unexamined state are impressive indeed, is to be expected, and is probably just the first of many landmarks and milestones that will be touted by the film’s defenders as evidence that the mean old critics, who are somehow imagined to be invested in a film they panned not making money at the box office, “got it wrong,” and are out of touch with the tastes and desires of the decent, hardworking moviegoing public. 

In fact, the truth is much bleaker than that: ‘Batman v Superman’ will be a success outside of whether critics or audiences like it. It will be a success for reasons that have nothing to do with the film, which at this point is almost a nuisance irrelevance at the heart of this hubbub. There is simply too much Hollywood capital invested in ‘Batman v Superman’ as a product, not just in terms of DC and Warner Brothers but in terms of the way the whole industry approaches the blockbuster machine that is its main cash cow. Like with the banks in 2008, if ‘Batman v Superman’ were unequivocally to fail, it could take the whole blockbuster industry with it, and so it feels like the industry at large is invested in deeming it a success. 

It’s just one reason why it is proving so much more interesting to talk about afterward than it is to actually watch. Because though it’s a terrible film, “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” suggests that WB, DC, Zack Snyder and co. do actually deserve some congratulations. With it, they have finally managed to make a film that is of itself perfectly irrelevant to the discussion that surrounds it, and whose actual merit, audience reaction and inherent qualities have absolutely no bearing on its “success.” Perhaps it’s the perfect blockbuster. 

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