Batman v Superman reveals an unmistakable superhero malaise

Tight-lipped men in tights are no longer the box-office draw they were – instead, the recent big hits have been cheeky riffs off the tropes and clichés of the genre

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Before Warner Bros. gets too carried away with the record-breaking box office take of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice over the weekend, the studio might want to take a breath. The grim, galumphing behemoth has earned an admittedly impressive US$424 million since Thursday, US$254 million of its US$424 million box office in overseas markets. But many observers estimate that Batman v Superman, which had a combined production and marketing budget of about US$400 million, will need to earn at least US$1 billion in order to break even, after cinemas take their cut. Over the weekend, Batman v Superman earned an okay-not-great B CinemaScore based on audience polls. (The much-reviled Green Lantern and the quickly forgotten Catwoman earned similar marks.)

Film review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an opportunity missed

Even if word of mouth on the movie isn’t quite as damning as its poor reviews, chances are that business will drop off precipitously this week, making it hard to go too far past that magic US$1 billion.

For those keeping score at home, Batman v Superman was announced with great fanfare by its director, Zack Snyder, at ComicCon a few years ago, bringing DC Comics fans to near-fainting levels of excitement. But what Snyder didn’t predict – and apparently wasn’t nimble enough to respond to – was how much the superhero ecosystem would change while he was fitting Ben Affleck into a brand new Batsuit.

Batman v Superman was nominally Warner Bros’ chance to get into the comic-book franchise game, which Disney has parlayed so brilliantly with its Marvel-based Avengers series. Boasting some adroit, ingenious filmmakers (Joss Whedon, Anthony and Joe Russo) and some truly inspired casting (Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth), the Avengers movies are the gold standard of spinning individual properties into intra-universe gold.

Warner was so successful with Chris Nolan’s Batman movies that setting up the Caped Crusader for similar cross-pollination was a vertically integrated no-brainer. But even before Batman v Superman had started, they’d boxed themselves into a corner even he couldn’t fly out of. Nolan and his star, Christian Bale, were widely credited with lending soul and gravitas to the brooding, broken Bruce Wayne, who presided over a billion-dollar company by day and turned grim-faced vigilante by night.

By the time of the final instalment of the Nolan trilogy, though, the self-seriousness was starting to wear thin. The Dark Knight Rises earned a more than respectable US$1 billion at the box office, but less of that came from American viewers than for its predecessor. Two years later, the hit comic book adaptation wasn’t a downbeat meditation on grief and the burdens of power, but Guardians of the Galaxy , a gleefully irreverent riff on superhero tropes.

This year’s version of the Guardians zag is Deadpool , a similarly cheeky, if far more cynical, exercise in self-referential japery. When Batman v Superman lurched into cinemas with its unsmiling stars, paranoid vibe, weak-tea colour scheme and by-the-numbers action scenes, audiences could be forgiven for experiencing cultural whiplash: weren’t we just laughing at Ryan Reynolds taking the mickey out of all of this stuff?

In counting on Snyder to usher in a new era of shared-universe glory, Warner Bros might have made a fatal error: at a time when everything is “execution dependent” – a term once reserved for quirky one-off comedies and sophisticated dramas with no built-in audiences – the person behind the camera needs to have unerring instincts for fan service plus an impeccable sense of story, aesthetics, tone and performance.

J.J. Abrams skillfully threaded that needle with Star Wars: The Force Awakens , nicely teeing up that threadbare franchise for the brilliant director Rian Johnson to send it into genuinely novel and reinvigorating territory. In the right hands, Affleck and Henry Cavill could still make convincing caped confreres, and Eisenberg might even be able to dial his performance back to a recognisably human level of malevolence.

The question raised by the success of such movies as Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool is whether they prove what many of us have been saying for years: the typical, monotonously glum genre that Hollywood has worked over like so much carrion is, finally, exhausted beyond resuscitation. Although markets outside America are still eager to see comic book spectacles, an unmistakable malaise has hit the US when it comes to tight-lipped men in tights, marshalling their angst to do once more what a man’s gotta do.

Which explains a bona fide phenomenon that Batman v Superman might be credited with creating: according to a Fandango poll, most of the viewers who were excited to see the film this past weekend were most hyped about one character – the same one who received the only spontaneous outburst of applause at a preview screening a few days before. It should come as no surprise that the person best equipped to save superheroes for Hollywood is none other than Wonder Woman.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now

The Washington Post