This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
It’s a 2016 movie moment that will probably be quoted and parodied for some time to come: Superman tearing the roof off the Batmobile. Batman standing up, his face illuminated by flame. “Tell me,” Batman asks Superman, “do you bleed? You will…”
On the face of it, this year’s Batman v Superman might seem like the last word in dark, gritty superhero movies. Ben Affleck’s incarnation of Batman is portrayed as a hard-drinking lost soul who channels all his rage and self-hatred into variously beating up or branding Gotham’s criminal element. Henry Cavill’s Superman groans under the yoke of his own super powers, having become something of an outcast since his fight with Zod destroyed half of Metropolis. Much of the film appears to take place in pitch darkness. There are musings about the nature of God, seemingly inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Director Zack Snyder, it seems, went to great lengths to make something grand and momentous with Batman v Superman: not just a spectacle about two old comic book heroes meeting for their first-ever big-screen punch-up, but also something with the tone and sheer volume of an opera by Wagner. You don’t need us to tell you that the majority of mainstream movie critics hated Batman v Superman, as the film’s dismal 29 percent aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes appears to bear out.
That Batman v Superman has nevertheless managed to rake in almost $800 million worldwide might leave you thinking that Warner-DC won’t be losing too much sleep over what critics write, but even those numbers don’t come without a caveat or two: the movie’s precipitous week-to-week drop following its opening buzz; the growing possibility that it won’t crack the magic $1 billion mark before it eventually leaves cinemas and makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray.
We can only guess at what the conversations about Batman v Superman and the nascent DC Extended Universe have been like at Warner over the past few weeks. We’ve heard the reports that Warner is spending millions on reshoots for David Ayer’s forthcoming Suicide Squad, with the money being spent on adding more crowd-pleasing humor. Actor Jai Courtney, who plays Boomerang in the movie, has since denied those reports, while Ayer himself called the stories “silly” on Twitter. But privately, Warner may be wondering whether audiences are beginning to tire of the kind of intensity and murk displayed by Batman v Superman. Have ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ comic book movies reached their natural end? Has the very use of those two words, both by marketing types and film writers, stripped them of any useful meaning?
What is a gritty, realistic superhero movie, anyway?
Movies – especially big, expensive movies – don’t exist in a vacuum. Each is a reaction, whether it’s intended to be or not, to what has come before it. And so it was that, when Tim Burton left the Batman franchise in the early 1990s, director Joel Schumacher brought with him a more flamboyant and colourful approach. Batman and Batman Returns’ long shadows and freakishly wounded villains were replaced by the day-glo purples and greens of Batman Forever. Yet by the time the critically derided Batman & Robin rolled around in 1997, the franchise had begun to look and sound more like an overgrown toy commercial than a movie. It took Christopher Nolan to help swing the pendulum back the other way with 2005’s Batman Begins, a film which successfully fused a hint of Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities with his own interest in crafting a more grounded Dark Knight.
Ask an average cinemagoer to name a “gritty and realistic” superhero movie, and they’d probably name one of the entries in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The elements are all there, particularly in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises: gadgets and vehicles that feel as though they’re grounded in at least a semblance of reality. Storylines inspired by current fears, whether it be the threat of terrorism or the financial crisis. Action that sticks somewhere within the realm of physical believability.
The problem with those terms above, however, is that they could equally be applied to superhero movies outside the Dark Knight trilogy, or even the recent crop of DC movies in general. All the Marvel movies have dealt with the fears of the 21st century, either comically, in the case of Iron Man 3, or with a sly hint of subversiveness, as we saw in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The action in, say, the Spider-Man or X-Men movies can be fantastical and outlandish, but it can also be intimate and, on occasions, intense and mildly shocking. In fact, it was arguably the 2000 X-Men movie, which so effectively depicted its breed of Marvel mutants as outsiders in a world fearful of change, that finally convinced Hollywood that comic book movies were worth taking seriously.
When we read about gritty realism in comic book movies, it’s really shorthand for a much more complicated and broad set of parameters and ideas. On one level, what gritty realism means is a lack of the pop-art gloss that people unfamiliar with comics might associate with the medium – the characters may be fantastical on some level, whether they’re billionaire playboys who secretly funnel their pocket money into building armored cars or whether they’re hammer-wielding gods from another planet – but they exist in a world which looks and feels recognisably like our own. The violence is stylized, yet it has emotional, physical and psychological consequences we can actually relate to and believe in.
I’ll pause here to throw a thought into the ether: Batman v Supermandoesn’t fit the template of a gritty or realistic film. Sure, it has the hallmarks of one – the angry characters, the harsh violence, the philosophising, the pointed references to real-world global traumas. Yet Batman v Superman also takes place in a reality that is so heightened that it bears only a vague resemblance to the world around us. Batman’s a mere mortal who can withstand an extraordinary amount of punishment from Superman’s fists. Both Batman and Superman have so much stamina, in fact, that they’re able to pretty much leap from the film’s title bout to an even bigger and more exhausting boss battle with the spiky Doomsday.
As Batman v Superman hurtles from fight to fight and from plot strand to plot strand, its human core becomes obscured. And even accepting Batman v Superman’s strengths, it’s this, I’d argue, that is its undoing. The Dark Knight trilogy wasn’t successful because it was dark, violent, gritty or realistic, but because each film had a real and understandable human drama at its core. We could believe in the tender relationship between Bruce and Alfred. We understood that Batman was being pushed to his moral limits by the Joker and to his physical limits by Bane.
While Batman v Superman is full of great actors and fine performances – particularly from Jeremy Irons and Ben Affleck as the new Alfred and Bruce – the heroes themselves remain resolutely two-dimensional. Batman is embittered and icy. Even Superman seems distant and wan. Little surprise, then, that when the big fight finally happens, it doesn’t feel like the tragic, operatic duel that Snyder might have been intending. The action has a frenzied immediacy, like being shaken by the shoulders by a shotputter, but the sense of dramatic or emotional consequence seems far off.
In short, Batman v Superman struggles because it has a gritty aesthetic but, for a multitude of reasons, not the emotional and dramatic depth such a film needs to really soar. (Batman v Superman also made the error of conflating drama with deathly seriousness. As countless other films and stories have proved, even the most heartrending of tragedies can also have levity by the truckload.)
So will audiences tire of gritty and realistic movies? Absolutely not. Because all that gritty and realistic mean, when you get down to it, is that we want our stories to have emotional resonance, no matter how big and overblown the fights may get. When superhero movies integrate the real and fantastical effectively, the results speak for themselves: the exploration of intolerance in the best parts of the X-Men franchise; the muted effectiveness of violence against terrorism in The Dark Knight.
It’s when the thoughtful, human bits of movies are drowned out by the sound and fury that the gritty realism fails to ring true.