Before addressing the multitude of trolls now scouring internet comment sections for reviews of Batman v Superman, its important that I give some background into my childhood spent with comic books.
A Childhood With Comics
I was once an avid comic book reader. My youth was spent devouring adventures from DC and Marvel superheroes; I fondly remember riding my bike to the local convenience store to see what new books had been added to their newsstand spinney-rack. I generally liked the Marvel Universe more than its DC counterpart, but I was not exclusive to either brand. My thoughts and dreams habitually involved characters from these fictional universes, something my grade school notebooks and writing can attest to.
As I moved on to high school, many of my friends gave up on comics while I became even more enamored with the form. I would spend many an afternoon hanging around our local comic book shop, discussing and debating the convoluted story arcs and crossovers my favorite characters were embarking on. I attended Comic-Con in San Diego, combing long-boxes for hours, in an era before the event turned into an impenetrable pop-culture affair free of any social stigma.
When my fellow comic-compatriots heard rumors of Marvel and DC movies in production, we would ceaselessly ponder the possibilities. Yet, when they actually came to fruition, they were almost universally disappointments. We loved these characters and wanted to see them exposed to a larger audience, but throughout the 80s and 90s, it seemed they would only be revered in our dorky pop-culture ghetto.
By the time comics became blockbuster media franchises, I had outgrown the characters and structure of American superhero books. Rightfully, the allure of music, politics, and girls took precedent over the adventures of the X-Men and Green Lantern Corps. It would be easy to say I just “grew up,” but the reality is that the circular narratives in superhero comics felt derivative and tired by 2000. I had spent too much time and money reading universe-wide crossovers that always resulted in the status quo being restored by their concluding notes. It’s often said in the comic industry that every single comic book is someone’s first, and thus, it should be accessible by dedicated and new readers alike. Unfortunately, it started to feel that every story arc was just a rehash of previous arcs; a remix of ideas with the same characters and locations without any forward movement.
Superhero comic books are an odd literary beast. The major recognizable properties have undertaken thousands of adventures over the last 70 years, yet they scarcely change and grow as characters. The reality is that these characters originated as cheaply produced, disposable entertainment for children. Anyone who read the Golden Age adventures of iconic individuals would likely find them simplistic and juvenile. This isn’t to say comics are not worthy components of our cultural landscape, simply that these iconic fictional figures were not intended to be well-rounded, dynamic characters. Over time, many fine writers have crafted powerful narratives around Batman, Superman and countless other iconic properties, but the characters themselves could never really grow as individuals. They must remain grounded in the core foundations set at their inception so the average consumer can approach the superhero with ease.
This is where the genius lies in the recent explosion in superhero films. By tapping into recognizable characters with large backlogs of escapades to pull from, Marvel and DC have been able to pick and choose the finest narrative arcs for adaptation. With the advent of computer graphics, the cheesy elements that plagued earlier eras of comic films have been obliterated; men in tight spandex have never looked cooler. Each subsequent film based on a comic book property is basically a license to print money, and while I expected the super hero boom to end some time ago, there appears to be no end in sight.
Zack Snyder’s Superman
I wanted to like the last Superman film. This re-boot of a re-boot seemed promising, and I have always had a soft spot for the character. Although the archetype has changed little since the 50s, the concept of a god-like alien living among mankind fascinated me. Writing engaging stories with the character is a challenge. How do you create legitimate conflict and suspense with a figure that possesses such power? How does Superman interact with a team of heroes made merely of men with gadgets and tricks? Creating insecurity with an omnipotent character is a difficult task.
Unfortunately for Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series has cast a long, cowl-shaped shadow over DC’s film franchises. The financial and critical success of those movies is too tempting to not replicate, even if their tone and structure are inappropriate for other iconic properties. I don’t know if The Man of Steel’s dark, brooding tenor was the decision of the director or DC’s producers, but, like many fans of Superman, I was disappointed in the excessively violent film. The critical mass seemed to agree with my overall assessment.
A conspiratorial mindset took hold of the film’s proponents. While Marvel films generally received positive reviews and accolades, films with DC properties were less well reviewed. DC fans started to see a grand collusion against their beloved characters.
I generally hate news stories made up of Twitter comments, but trolling by DC fan boys does provide an interesting in to discussing the role of criticism in our society. Based on the grammar of the comments, I gather many are written by young people who have not yet grasped that the things they like and appreciate may not appeal to others for legitimate, technical reasons. Believing the critical reaction to Batman v Superman is a conspiracy hatched by Marvel is laughably ridiculous.
Criticizing DC’s Internet defenders is too easy; they are likely no different than I was in my youth. I spent hours discussing story arcs at my local comic shop, and if the opportunity existed in the 90s, I would have waxed poetic about the state of comic films online as well. I also detest the whole click-bait culture present at many web magazines that puts a premium on incendiary content to drive up traffic. You don’t have to look very hard to find people saying stupid, sexist, racist and vile things online; writing a whole article condemning a few random trolls is the lowest form of web journalism. Yes, a few dummies made disparaging comments about Ms. Marvel being a Muslim, or having a black actress play Rue in The Hunger Games. Do these people represent a majority or even a large minority? Nope. Essays decrying these trolls, often juveniles who are speaking without thinking to begin with, are nothing more than an attempt to signal the author’s moral virtuosity at the expense of a few kids online. Noticing that trollish behavior exists is hardly a reason for vigorous cultural contemplation.
Having said that, I would like to address the anti-critic tendencies of many “nerd” communities online. I have seen numerous Youtube videos and read countless comments from videogame enthusiasts advocating for gamers to avoid critical reviews and “play the games themselves.” To this crowd, the critics are merely angry personalities, hell-bent on damaging the things they love. I don’t understand this position. A critical review from a writer well versed in what makes a videogame “work” can help make clear to an average consumer if the product is worth investing in. I have bought games, that while having a low overall score, included aspects that I personally look for in a gaming experience. The online play is lag-ridden? I play solo, so that isn’t a problem for me. It has derivative JRPG grinding? I actually enjoy a little classical leveling in my adventures. A good review, even if generally negative, may enlighten me to elements I look for in a gaming experience. Why shouldn’t the critic lay out the broken or unoriginal elements present?
Fans of popular films employ the same line of reasoning when award season rolls around. On an almost annual basis, I hear cries echoing the following proclamation:
“Why wasn’t (insert popular film) up for an Oscar? Clearly, people loved this movie, and I have never even seen any of the movies up for the Best Picture award!”
In some respects, this sentiment presents a recurring conflict in society between the masses and the “elite,” whose opinions are often treated with greater care and respect than the plebeians beneath them. However, a more base psychological and emotional reason for this argument is appropriate: we want the things we like to be respected by others. If an artist and their work speak to our experiences, we want to see that work affirmed by our society at large. I garner that even the most subversive contrarian likely wants affirmation from portions of their community, and wishes to see their work treated with respect.
The older I get, the more I am able to compartmentalize my personal interests versus what has actual cultural value. I see no conflict between my love for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport and the fact that it is far from high art. I have seen the film dozens of times, repeatedly at the expense of movies considered important to our culture. My love for Bloodsport does not necessitate a desire to see it honored as an important piece of our social fabric. Much like I know there are better cheeseburgers than those sold at McDonald’s, I am unapologetic in relishing these processed creations.
I also recognize that critical opinion, when provided by individuals knowledgeable about the art and craft, is more valuable than the insights of an average layman. I have opinions about film, but I am not well studied in the art of making movies. Getting the insight of one well-versed in the field seems to be a necessary step in better understanding what makes a film work.
In closing, I present a rhetorical question to the internet trolls now descending on negative reviews for Batman vs. Superman: if you find the opinions of critics unacceptable, why bother reading them to begin with? What compels you to have their approval? The film may be a mess, but you can still love it. Poor critical reviews don’t wipe it from existence. Go on enjoying it even if film critics do not, but don’t treat the opinion of knowledgeable reviewers as equal to those of fanboys willing to overlook any narrative and cinematic faults in a film with their beloved characters.
Nor should we assume that the critics are always “right.” Critics, upon its release, roundly condemned Black Sabbath’s first record. Unlike many records from its era, it has stood the test of time and influenced an entire genre of followers. The album has been reassessed and recognized for being ahead of its time by subsequent tastemakers. Fans of any art condemned by critics can take some comfort in the fact that time may be kind to their beloved creation, but this should not result in a disregard of clear, thoughtful critique. By excluding high-minded criticism outright, we dumb down the intellectual conversation vital to erecting and maintaining cultural fundamentals.
As unpopular as it may be, I support our cultivated vanguard of critics to firmly stand against the onslaught of mass opinion. Enjoy what you will, but let our society affirm standards unrelated to mere popularity.
(Image: Batman v Superman promotional – WB)