Thanks to my erratic movie-viewing schedule, this weekend I watched both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Deadpool. Now, the obvious movie to compare to Batman v Superman will be Captain America: Civil War, given that both deal with superheroes fighting each other rather than some other, no doubt more threatening menace, and I have no doubt that that film will further illustrate the mistakes DC has made. I think, however, that the great things about Deadpool and the weaknesses of Batman v Superman hold lessons that I hope both DC and Marvel take to heart as they continue to make superhero movies.
*** Spoiler Warning ***
I’ve tried to keep things low on major spoilers, but it’s difficult to discuss films in any useful way without some details some might consider spoilers.
Lesson 1 – Know Your Characters and Source Material
Deadpool the movie knows Deadpool the character. Like all long-running comic book characters written by different people over the years, Deadpool has evolved from his original creation. This current incarnation is the basis of the movie Deadpool rather than his conception by Rob Liefeld in 1991. The filmmakers chose, naturally I would say, to use the current fourth-wall breaking incarnation as the basis of the character in their movie. He is morbid-but-silly, childish while slicing through enemies, and he knows he’s in a movie. While the origin of Deadpool is changed for this movie, these changes are superficial, and the character remains true to the source material.
With Batman v Superman, we have a film that fundamentally misunderstands at least one of its central characters. In the comics, the conflict between Batman and Superman results from different philosophies and from the long relationship between them. While some may consider it cliche, the dichotomy between the two characters — light versus dark, Metropolis versus Gotham, Man of Tomorrow versus the Dark Knight — is essential to their conflict. If Superman and Batman are too close to each other as types of heroes, a new basis for the conflict has to be found (which we’ll touch on later). Batman v Superman understands Batman: he’s an outsider, a vigilante whose methods polite society disagrees with even if they are effective.
The film, however, fails to appropriately differentiate Superman: he’s also an outsider, a vigilante whose methods polite society apparently disagrees with. Viewers are presented only the most cursory glimpse of Superman being Superman, combined with a bit of hand-wringing by Clark Kent over Batman’s comparative brutality. But this lip-service to the icon of Superman is not enough. Superman doesn’t seem to have contemplated his responsibility for the rampant destruction his fight with Zod caused or to have wrestled with his decision to kill Zod. I had no problem with these issues in Man of Steel because I could see how that film set up Superman to eventually become the hero we expect him to be. Instead of fulfilling this promise, however, Batman v Superman skips right over it. In doing so, the film shows a lack of understanding of Superman, and without real philosophical differences or the personal history between them, we are given no substantial reason for their conflict.
This leads us to —
Lesson 2: Keep Your Story Contained
Regardless of what a film studio is going to do in the future, the film we have come to see must hold together as a unit. Deadpool keeps its story focused on the things that matter: the hero (or antihero) and his or her motivations, the villain, and the conflict between the two. It’s the basis of all drama: characters have objectives, obstacles keep them from objectives, and the characters decide how best to overcome the obstacles. Each play, and each scene in a play, can be viewed in this way, whether it’s a personal drama, a murder mystery, a slapstick comedy, or a superhero movie. Given what we’ve seen from Marvel Studios and are now seeing from DC, Deadpool is a remarkably small film. Wade Wilson’s objectives are always clear: get girl, beat cancer to stay with girl, get guy who messed up his face to fix it so he can get girl back, save girl from bad guys. That’s it. Regardless of the “real-world” franchise concerns of the studios, the film we see on the day of has to work — and Deadpool does just that. Connections to the larger fictional world are present — the X-Men, of course, but also these mutant slaves being created for profit — but these connections don’t hijack the film.
Batman v Superman, on the other hand, has too much to do. Think about what the film is tasked with: 1) finish establishing Superman, 2) set-up this world’s Batman, 3) set-up Lex Luthor, 4) set-up Wonder Woman, 4) get Batman and Superman fighting, 5) resolve that fight and have them become allies, 6) introduce Doomsday, 7) get Wonder Woman into that fight while, 8) teasing the other members of the Justice League, and 9) be the catalyst for the formation of the Justice League. As Mr. Plunkett asked of The Phantom Menace, who is the proto-gahn-ist? The answer is, apparently, everyone, but that lack of focus makes the story (the reason comics exist) a mess.
This is, of course, a criticism that can and has been made regarding some of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: that they are not concerned with the real story, but the setting up another story. But saying that the MCU did it and, therefore, it doesn’t deserve criticism is ridiculous. Had this film done a better job focusing on the core conceipt embodied in its title, it might have been successful. Unfortunately, with so much else to do — most of which won’t come to anything for a while — the movie doesn’t tell a satisfying story. Marvel took five movies over four years to do what DC is attempting (and failing) to do in two movies.
Deadpool leaves itself open to a sequel, but isn’t dependent upon the sequel for completeness.
Lesson 3: Establish Secondary Belief
Finally, Deadpool manages to establish a secondary world that I can believe in, while Batman v Superman doesn’t. Both the causes and the effects of this are subtle, but consider this: I have no problem believing that Deadpool can regrow limbs or get stabbed in the head and keep going, but I still can’t believe much of the plot of Batman v Superman. To avoid major spoilers, let’s just say that people know and believe things that they shouldn’t. This is at least partially a result of failures to follow Lessons 1 and 2. If the movie understood the characters better, it would have set things up better, and if it weren’t trying to do so much, it could have provided the background necessary to sell its central conflicts.
What’s so funny about this is that the basic characterizations and events needed are all right there to be used; the filmmakers themselves created the bits. Why does Batman not trust Superman? He’s already a suspicious type — in the comics, Batman’s contingency plans to take out the other Justice League members should the need arise has already been a source of conflict — in fact, the groundwork for this is laid in this movie. And, as seen in the trailers, Batman sees Superman as a harbinger of bad things to come, confirmed by the destruction caused by Superman’s fight with the rebel Kryptonians. He (and others) see this as only the beginning, and humanity must prepare. This suspicion is further grounded on the fact that this version of Superman is not the law-abiding, government-working-with, truth-justices-and-the-American-Way Superman of the past. The film tries to use these are part of the conflict, but the events that push Batman and Superman to open battle ultimately become unbelievable.
As is so often the case, it isn’t the fantastical that we don’t accept in a fantastical film, but those elements closer to our own experience in this world: personal relationships, the government and media, and emotional truth.
I’m hoping that DC’s other entries in this new cinematic universe keep in mind the lessons that Deadpool and other successful comic book movies demonstrate: that plot and character should work together to create a cohesive, satisfying story.