Now that Batman vs. Superman: Dong of Justice and Captain America: Civil War have both passed, it’s time to look back on the experience and ask what we learned.
(Ok, yes, we learned that when Zach Snyder says he’s making such-and-such a movie, what he really means is he’s remaking a combination of Sucker Punch and Watchmen, but I meant less specific than that.)
I think what we learned is that Superhero movies don’t need origins anymore.
Think about it. How many superhero movies have we had over the last decade or so? Trick question: whatever number you said, it was more than that (and that’s not even to mention the TV shows). Superheroes have never had a moment of greater cultural penetration than right now. What does that mean?
It means that we don’t need to spend a whole movie explaining that great power comes with great responsibility, or wondering what your purpose is on this strange planet with its yellow sun, or running around Canada naked. The entire audience knows you’re going to put on a cape and fight crime—they knew that going in. At this point, insisting on showing two hours of “Is he going to become the character whose name is the title of the movie or not?” is boring at best, a little insulting at worst.
To quote Rifftrax: “Must we see her mix the drink? Show her holding the mixed drink, and I’ll infer that she mixed it earlier.”
Compare Batman v Superman to the movie it was clearly meant to rival, Captain America: Civil War. In Civil War, we have two very different but both beloved characters that we’ve followed for seven movies now. We know what makes them tick; we’ve seen them butt heads, but we’ve also seen them put aside that head butting to work together and respect each other.
When they show us Iron Man saying “Superheroes are dangerous, we need some kind of control,” that makes sense, because every one of his solo movies is about him having to get himself under control. When they show us Captain America defying orders and going rogue because of a moral objection, that makes sense, because he does that in every movie he’s been in. Even before anyone saw the film, the setup worked; and because they knew we already knew the characters, they completely skipped the unnecessary introductions.
Superman v. Batman, on the other hand, has to be an origin story for the Justice League. That’s all fine and good—but for some reason, it also seems to want to be an origin story for Batman (because if anyone needs another origin movie, it’s obviously Batman), so it spends most of its time on redoing setup that either doesn’t need to be done or has already been done. It doesn’t have multiple movies of character establishment to build on, so it has to beat the audience over the head with the idea that This Fight Is So Important You Guys, and it spends so much time doing that that it has barely any time left for the actual fight, which is what we came to see and what it’s been hyping in the first place!
Time spent showing us the origin is time not spent showing us the superhero. If you don’t want to show us the hero, why are you making a movie about them?
And the point is that they didn’t have to do it that way. Everyone knows who Superman is. Everyone knows who Batman is. And I mean literally everyone: if there are any elderly Japanese soldiers on tiny Pacific islets that haven’t yet heard that World War 2 is over, even THEY would be able to tell you that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in an alley so he decided to dress like a Dracula Ninja to Punch Crime.
If you want to make a Justice League movie, then the only thing you need to do to set that up is to have someone say “We are the Justice League” right before a shot of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and maybe Red Tornado or Dr Fate or whoever else. On the other hand, if you want to make a movie where Batman and Superman fight, then just have the fight happen; don’t use the majority of your movie explaining who these characters are.
We already know who they are. That’s why we went to the movie.
Look at how some of the best superhero movies have handled the origin problem. Spider-Man 2 had Tobey Maguire save someone and get pooped on by life for it. That’s all you need to establish the character for someone who didn’t see the first film. X-Men 2 had a mutant kid looking at a display about evolution and discrimination in a… Social Problems Museum? I guess? and then stick out his mutant tongue at someone. That’s all you need to establish the situation. Even Avengers just took a few seconds of each character’s first scene to give you a moment of “This is what this guy is about, here’s what you need to know about him,” and then went on with the rest of the movie.
And yes, I realize each of those was not the first installment in a franchise, and was building on a previous movie. But even if they hadn’t been, would anything more have been necessary?
Think about Ant Man. Even though it was kind of an origin story, it did exactly the same kind of thing: “Here’s this guy, here are his powers, now let’s move on,” alluding to a previous adventure in the same continuity THAT WE NEVER SAW. And it was totally fine! We inferred that Hank Pym discovered the Science Magic that runs the suit and that he invented an Ear Thing to talk to ants. We inferred that Janet Van Dyne convinced him to go a-heroing. We saw Hank Pym hand Scott Lang a mixed drink, and inferred that he mixed it earlier.
I’m not saying we never needed origins—I’m saying we don’t anymore. We already have them! You don’t need to go out and get us more, we haven’t finished the origin we already have! This new origin is just going to go bad in the fridge!
If whoever is responsible for the bad decision to keep turning things into unnecessary origin stories—producers, marketing guys, directors—doesn’t get that, we’re only going to see more Dawns of Justice. Or, saints preserve us, more Green Lanterns.
-The Guy Who Wrote This.