On Criticism, Comics, and Film Snobbery: Why fanboys may be destroying American cinema

imageI got a lot of gruff over the weekend by a couple of people due to negative comments regarding “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice”. I hated this film. I feel like it doesn’t work on most levels. The narrative is convoluted without any real sense of directional focus. There are many of what I call “logical leaps” in the picture, meaning that there are characters that behave in completely irrational ways and behave in manners without any justifiable reason other than to serve the plot. I found most of the acting extremely wooden and the performances uninspired. I felt that there were at least three ridiculous deux ex machinas (plot devices that appear out of nowhere to justify nonsensical or contrived storytelling). I felt that Zach Synder did virtually everything wrong here and was I extremely disappointed at how much of a mess he made of a potentially entertaining film franchise. I find that my view was in line with many. The current critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is a 30%. While this percentage is totally meaningless, it does drive home the idea that most people that professionally watch movies for a living hated this picture.

The biggest gripe I am hearing is that the film was “made for the fans, not the critics.” I hate this argument. The statement bears little weight. Why can’t critics be fans? Why can’t fans think critically? What about the general audience that is neither?

All film criticism is subjective- as all art criticism should be. Critics are relevant not in the sense that their opinion is “more valid” than others, but that it is generally better informed. When I was actively reviewing I watched an average of 100-200¬†films a year from all genres, decades, and countries. In my lifetime I have seen easily 3,000 films. It isn’t that my opinion is any better or worse than anyone else’s, but I feel that my experience does give me a certain depth of understanding in this field that may be lost to others. That does not make me an “elitist.” It just makes me a guy that has seen a lot more movies than the average person.

Yet, more than ever, critics are seen as pretentious and elitist, only favoring award show bait, art house films, foreign movies with names you cannot pronounce, and films with “social and/or political relevance.” This generalization is the very definition of ad-homenium, attacking the person and not the argument or opinon. Not only is this stereotype offensive, it is unfounded. Critics are the ultimate fanboys, not just of any genre but of motion pictures as a whole. We are dorks. We obsess and geek out over films much, much more than a casual movie-goer. We simply do not limit ourselves to certain genres. Critics do not like bashing movies, nor do we look for movies to bash. This was one of the main reasons for my work in “A Movie A Week.” I have no interest in telling people about movies they should not see. I want to promote the films that I love with others in an attempt to share something that I had a powerful reaction to. Call it my “love language.” I want you to feel as exhilarated, thrilled, moved, contemplative, and entertained as I was in the moment I watched the movie the first time. We share things we love with those we care about. There is nothing elitist about that.

It is important to note that film reviews are always relative, not absolute. When you ask someone if “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is any good you are not asking them if it is better than “Schindler’s List” or “Gone with the Wind,” you are asking them how it compares to the other Star Wars films. Comic book film reviews should always take this into consideration. When I dislike a comic book movie it is not because I think it pales in comparison to “The Godfather” it is because it pales in comparison to “The Dark Knight” or “The Avengers.” There is a common suspicion that critics unfairly judge films on some sort of linear hierarchy in which only the absolute “highest forms of art” are celebrated. One of my favorite films is “The Room”, another is “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” As a critic I reserve the right to like (or dislike) any film that I want. I can make statements and back them up, but all statements are only valid in the lens in which you read them. For example, Yes- “12 Years a Slave” is a better movie than “Harold and Kumar,” but that doesn’t mean that I prefer the former on a Saturday afternoon when I have nothing going on and want to watch something.

When I say that I think that “Batman v. Superman” is a horrible movie, I am coming from a place of disappointment, not hatred. I felt the film was a train wreck. I wasn’t expecting “Citizen Kane.” I was expecting a component movie. This is not one.

“This is a movie made for comic fans,” some tell me. I think about this for a moment, and consider that it is a valid opinion. Maybe I am missing something. I did read comics lightly when I was younger, as well as on and off throughout my adulthood. I never read any particular comic religiously week to week, but did routinely enjoy graphic novels as well as trade paperbacks compiling the issues of that story arc. In my early adulthood, I was really into literature and felt that the graphic novel was severely under appreciated. I have read many of the seminal works of the medium but am in no way an expert. So perhaps I do not know what I am talking about, since I am not a real “comic book fan.”

This problem begets another question, however. Who is an actual comic book fan? I mean, if this movie is made for “the fans” what do those fans look like?

I did some digging and found some relatively interesting figures.

According to Guinness, the highest selling comic book of all time is “X-Men” Vol.2, Issue 1. It sold a record breaking 8.1 million copies.

8.1 million copies. That is the most copies any individual comic book ever sold in history. There are 318 million people in the United States. That means that the highest selling comic of all time only sold to 2.5 percent of the American public.

I then looked at comic book sales figures for 2015. The comic book industry sold 525 million dollars worth of comics in 2015. That looks like a big number until you realize that this is spread over hundreds (if not thousands) of titles across multiple publishers. The total box office for all movies in North America for 2015 was about 11 billion. For the world- 38 billion. The amount of people that actually read comic books are minuscule compared to the amount of people that go to the movies. In fact, they are so minuscule that only approximately 5% of all movie goers would be considered “comic book fans” based on the numbers. I think we may have a love for superheroes in this country- but the majority of us still could care less about the comics that feature them.

Movies exist entirely within the closed world they show us on the screen. They should not require any outside knowledge of the source material to work. This is the litmus test for all films that are adapted from previously published material. Comic book fans have a habit of being upset when movies stray from source material or make their own characterizations of their heroes, but films exist outside of those universe’s independently. When I watch Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” I have to realize that this Batman does not exist in the same universe as those in the comics, or the other films for that matter. Most people know Batman’s origin story but that trilogy still shows it, not because the filmmaker does not think we know it already, but because they have to show it to establish the universe in which the film’s hero takes place. This is why character development is important in the movies. Yeah, you may know Batman’s origin story, but for a movie to work it has to pretend that no one else does.

This is my biggest complaint about “Batman vs. Superman.” This movie assumes that you are well-versed in the universe so much that it completely forgets to serve those that are unfamiliar. For example, in the film Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is hellbent on destroying Superman. Why?

“Because he is Lex Luthor” is not a suitable answer, because this would require me to have understanding of that character outside of the universe the film is presenting him in. The movie has to explain why Lex Luthor hates Superman, but doesn’t under the assumption that “you know already” or because “he is the villain, stupid.”

Placating to the fans works when it is tongue and cheek or delivers a payoff, but these days it seems to be an excuse for sloppy writing. Another example in this picture (MILD SPOILER) features a scene in which Luthor bribes a government official for access to the alien ship featured in “Man of Steel” as well as General Zod’s body. Why does he need this? To make Doomsday, of course. But how did Lex know that taking Zod’s body to the spaceship would create a massive alien creature capable of killing Superman? He couldn’t have. “Well, Lex is a genius” one friend told me. Lex may be a genius in the comics, but this movie never establishes him as one. It assumes that you know who he is, so that these logical jumps in narrative that are convuluted and non-sensical become justified due to the fans ability to “fill in the gaps” in the story. But most viewers (as the percentages above show) are not true fans that have actually read the material in the first place? This is why this movie doesn’t work. It doesn’t develop characters, enrich them with personal quirks, or establish their motives because the filmmakers are lazy and assume you “already know all of that stuff.” I have never heard a lesser excuse to justify sloppy writing and character development.

As much as I love a great superhero movie, I regret to say that I am becoming tired with this genre. More than ever, we have become a society of consumerist movie-goers, sticking only to our franchises, our sequels, and comic book adaptations of stuff we are already familiar with. Films are sold to us years before they even come out. Hell, Marvel and DC have both released their lineup of films until 2020. And we will go, like sheep being herded into a large dark barn. One of the worst parts of “Batman vs. Superman” involves a scene towards the end where Batman sees some videos of other members of the soon-to-be Justice League. He sees videos of The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, and Wonder-Woman. In the confines of this established movie universe, we have no idea who they are, what their powers are, how they got them, their intentions, or anything else. We just see small snippets on a screen. I thought this was lame. Then I realized that the videos also had little logos in the bottom left corner. The video for The Flash had the flash “lightening bolt” insignia on it. The Wonder Woman video had her logo, so did Aquaman’s. How did the villain in this picture not only know that these heroes existed, but also know the branding they will eventually put on suits that they haven’t even created yet? How does a character that has not been introduced, explained, or explored have a brand, logo and all?

Because this is America. How else do they plan on selling this stuff?