Or, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice versus Captain America: Civil War, and what we writers can learn from the flop of one and success of the other (any guesses which is which?).
The third Captain America movie met the usual Marvel success, while Batman vs Superman… didn’t. Looking at several reasons why this is can help our novels avoid the DC Disaster. (I will preface this by saying I haven’t seen the extended edition of Batman vs Superman, but from what I’ve heard it doesn’t add that much).
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH FILMS
Captain America: Civil War is the third in a trilogy, the thirteenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fifth appearance of the title character, the sixth appearance of the other main character… the list goes on. Anyone going to see this movie has already invested several hours into these characters. They know going into it that Captain America has been betrayed by people and organizations he trusted. They know Tony Stark made huge mistakes while trying to protect the world and that he wants, on some level, to be done being a superhero. Stark and the Captain have already interacted with each other, and regard themselves as friends. They already have a connection.
Then there’s Batman vs Superman. It has only one movie before it, which focused on one of the title characters (and not even the fans’ favorite). Going into it, viewers know nothing about Batman, where he’s coming from, or why he does what he does (besides the fact, you know, his parents were shot, but I mean besides that). They know that Superman destroyed a bunch of buildings… killed a guy… has a girlfriend… There’s seeds for conflict there. But there’s not enough to convince the viewers to care about the conflict from the start.
What this means: If you’re going to set up a major fight between two prominent characters, make sure to, well, set it up. You can’t just take two powerful characters and make them punch each other. That would make a fun Youtube video, but for readers to care for longer than two minutes, you have to develop some sort of relationship between the characters. It doesn’t need to be a friendship, they don’t even need to know each other, but the characters need to matter to each other.
Another good example of this: The original Star Wars trilogy. Every lightsaber battle happened between people who cared about the other person, positively or negatively. Obi Wan and Vader were teacher/pupil, Vader and Luke had already hurt the others’ friends/space stations the first time they dueled, and by the second duel both knew they were father/son.
The Supporting Cast
Biased version of Civil War: Falcon-is-amazing-and-Spiderman-is-adorable-and-must-be-protected-Bucky-needs-his-plums-what’s-up-with-Black-Widow-what-will-she-do-I’m-Scarlet-Witch (gasps for breath)
UnLess biased version of Civil War: Most of the (large) supporting cast of Civil War was already familiar to moviegoers. Out of the two new characters, one played a really interesting counterbalance to the main plot (when Black Panther chose to give up revenge in the end) and the other at least balanced out the sides (Spiderman was mostly fan service, but he did have some role to play). Scarlet Witch’s not-yet-mastery of her powers worked as an excellent kick-off to the movie. The Falcon was a great companion to Captain America, lightening the tone after the somber bits. War Machine provided a great way to intensify Iron Man’s emotional state. The Winter Soldier’s presence drove most of the fight scenes. The other secondary characters affected the plot less, but they added humor, support, or developed their own story lines.
Batman vs Superman had a less gargantuan supporting cast, but there were still several secondary characters. Lois Lane humanized Superman by being his romantic interest, and made his death more impactful by mourning it. She has the potential to develop as her own character in later films, so this could be the beginning of her arc. Martha Kent gave a reason for Superman to fight Batman, but that was kind of an excuse (more in Motivation). Senator Finch provided a rational voice into the proceedings, but her story began and ended in this film, forestalling the type of connection a recurring character can provide. Alfred was Alfred, which was awesome, but he didn’t have a huge role. Wonder Woman… showed there were other superheroes out there? She evened the fight up a bit, but there were other ways the writers could have done that. Flash’s cameo could have been meaningful, but Batman didn’t do anything about it. It didn’t impact the plot at all, but desperately set up a sequel.
What this means: Secondary characters must serve a purpose. New characters should be more than a new face or a hint at a sequel. Recurring characters need to either further the plot (Scarlet Witch, War Machine) or develop their own arc (Black Widow, Vision). New or old characters can be a balance to your hero or your theme, like Falcon and Black Panther.
Another good example of this: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It has a large cast of characters surfacing and resurfacing throughout the eight hundred page novel. The important ones are introduced early on, though many’s relevance aren’t clear until much later.
I know this isn’t a universal opinion, but I adored Zemo as the villain of Civil War. He changed the pace of Marvel movies; instead of trying to be bigger and badder than the heroes, he chose to manipulate them. His quieter presence made plenty of room for the personal conflict between the heroes, but he still managed to be a noteworthy villain by leaving a permanent mark on the Marvel Universe. Maybe more importantly, he fit with the story.
Lex Luthor, however, confused me. His crazy evilness was more like the Joker than the calculating genius Superman was supposed to fight. More importantly, his deceptive goofiness felt at odds with the rest of the desperately dark Batman vs Superman. The other villain, Doomsday, was a monster, not a character. He had no personal motivation, but was an extension of Luthor.
What this means: Make sure your villain fits your story. If you want a dark story, use a dark villain, not one feeding Jolly Ranchers to senators. If your characters are emotionally unsteady, an emotional manipulator is an excellent option.
Another good example of this: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. The villainous Count Olaf is the exact opposite of what the heroes need; they yearn for a loving guardian, but he wants to gain legal control of them for his own gain. As the series progresses, he becomes a warning of what the protagonists themselves could become.
This is the point that, I think, Civil War got the most right and Batman vs Superman got the most wrong.
The beginning conflict of the Sokovia Accords made perfect sense for both Iron Man and Captain America. Iron Man was still reeling from Age of Ultron and the choice he made to build Ultron. His judgment led to hundreds of civilian casualties. Captain America, however, still suffers from the large scale betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Hydra and the various governing bodies in Avengers and Winter Soldier choosing to destroy large bodies of people, and the small scale betrayal of Iron Man’s in Age of Ultron. His judgement had always led him right. Their stance on relinquishing their choice by signing the Accords was a perfect start to the conflict.
Captain America’s desperation to save Bucky, the Winter Soldier, makes sense. Not only is he his best friend, but with Peggy gone, Bucky is the last link to his old life. Viewers can appreciate Iron Man’s side too. Even though he was wrong, even if he would have calmed down if given time, his rage at the man who killed his mom is completely understandable.
What’s the conflict in Batman vs Superman? Batman thinks Superman should be destroyed because “if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” All I could think of was Captain America saying, “I thought the punishment came after the crime.” (Winter Soldier) I understand there are tons of political commentary in both quotes, but for Batman to take such a controversial, morally gray stance, it has to be addressed. Instead, the story moved on as if that was adequate motivation. And why did Superman fight Batman? That’s right, because the bad guy wanted him to. Yeah, his mom was being threatened, but if he’d just hovered out of Batman’s range and explained the situation, maybe they could have teamed up ten minutes earlier. It was worth a shot. As it was, it seems like the writers wanted a fight between Batman and Superman and made up reasons to make that happen.
What this means: Don’t force your plot to happen. If your characters do something as drastic as fight another ‘good guy,’ or do anything at all, make sure it makes sense for their character, their emotional state, and their reasons.
Another good example of this: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Specifically, Javert’s story line. Although rambling through the middle, his choices always make sense from where he’s coming from.
Iron Man and Captain America fought until the end. They beat on each other until there was no reason to continue. Iron Man failed. Captain America kept his friend safe. Game over.
Batman and Superman punched each other a few times, Superman told him to save his mom, and they were friends. There was all that setup and marketing for their fight, and it turned out to be nothing more than a get-to-know-you brawl (am I the only one that had those as a little kid?).
What this means: If you promise big, deliver big. Don’t let the main point of your story fizzle away in favor of distractions. If you set up a climactic fight, the fight had better go on until the motivations of one side fail and the other wins. I’m all for a change of heart, as long as circumstances and emotional states change enough that the original motivation is lost.
Another example of this: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It builds up for a huge battle, and delivers. As an added perk, it shows that you can have a plot-changing twist at the end (like Doomsday) and still keep the main point of the story.
The cinematography of Batman vs Superman was beautiful, yes. I thought Batman had potential (if he ever stops dreaming), and I’m still holding out hope for Suicide Squad and future DC films. But for a hero vs hero film, Civil War wins, hands down.