Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Hero-vs.-Hero Movies: How Do They Compare?

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Are the comparisons between Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War valid?  Both movies came out the same year—they were both originally scheduled for the same weekend!  Both movies feature the major heroes of their respective comic book universes going at it.  Even the motivations are similar in some cases.  So can—or should—fans compare these two movies to each other?

Personally, I don’t see any issue with comparing movies to each other as long as it is understood that how the movies stack up against each other is independent of each movie’s individual merits.  In other words, I can compare Batman v. Superman to Civil War all I want, but at the end of the day I need to also be able to watch each movie by itself and examine how it does as a movie without the comparison.  If you’re looking for how each movie succeeds on its own merits, check out my reviews (BvS and Civil War).

The value of the comparison becomes all the more true when you are talking about two movies which share so much in common and which are released so close together.

Let me just get this out of the way now:  I know that I am comparing a DC movie to a Marvel movie.  I know that I am doing this on a blog called “Mostly MCU Reviews.”  I know that sort of makes me a “Marvel fanboy.”  That doesn’t mean that I am going into this wanting to rip DC apart; I actually was really hoping that Batman v. Superman would be an amazing movie and pave the way for more amazing movies in the future.  If I sound like I’m favoring Civil War over Batman v. Superman, it’s (mostly) because Civil War did everything right that Batman v. Superman should have done.

Note:  There are spoilers beyond this point!

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Concept:  Hero vs. Hero

Both movies work off of the same basic concept:  heroes wind up on opposite sides based on a major polarizing event.  In the case of BvS, the polarizing event is Superman’s utter destruction of Metropolis while fighting against Zod and his Kryptonian army.  Batman believes that Superman poses a threat to humanity because he is so much more powerful than humanity and seems to have come out of nowhere.  This is actually an interesting motivation for Batman to go after Superman, particularly when we know Superman to be easily the most powerful man on any planet he happens to be on!  Superman’s motivation for going after Batman is equally powerful:  Batman has become a bit unhinged over the decade since he lost Robin: using guns, killing criminals outright, and even branding them with his mark (which is a death sentence in prison).  For the “big blue Boy Scout,” this is unacceptable:  Batman thinks of himself as above the law in his one-man war against crime (hang on… the DCEU Batman is sounding an awful lot like the Punisher!).  Based on this, both characters have an ideological reason to fight each other.

However, that’s not the actual motivation for their fight.  Instead, the only reason Superman actually fights Batman is because Luthor abducted his mother.  Batman’s brutality has nothing to do with it anymore.  Batman still thinks that he’s saving the human race from an alien menace, but he comes across more like the dumb dog in a Tom and Jerry cartoon who gets manipulated into doing something stupid—the only reason Batman is actually on the warpath is because Luthor manipulated him.  Superman is clearly in the “right” in this fight because he is fighting to save his mother.  Ultimately, their respective motivations are not commensurate, so their characters are not commensurate.

Compare this to the motivations in Captain America: Civil War.  Iron Man believes himself and his team to be in the right for several reasons.  First, there is Tony Stark’s guilt over the many civilian casualties he’s caused.  Second, he believes that the Avengers need to be held accountable; if they aren’t, then they’re no better than the people they’re trying to stop.  Third, he thinks that signing the Accords together now is the best way for them to stay together as a team without being torn apart and forced to give in later anyways.  Put into this perspective, you can really see why he is acting the way he does—and even sympathize with him.

For his part, Captain America fears the loss of choice which the Accords represent.  He fears that the Accords could be used to force the Avengers to intervene in a situation where they would be in the wrong (in their view).  Alternatively, they could be kept sidelined for political reasons in a situation where they should have intervened.  The incident which actually causes their fight in the movie is one such situation:  Captain America knows of a situation which must be handled quickly before it gets out of hand, and does not want to wait until the politicians have sorted the situation out before doing something about it.

For the first hero-vs.-hero conflict of Civil War, both sides have comparable ideological motivations for their actions.  Neither side is particularly in the wrong or in the right.

In the second hero-vs.-hero conflict of Civil War, both sides’ motivations are completely different and completely personal.  Iron Man is motivated by revenge because the Winter Soldier killed his parents.  Captain America is motivated partly by justice (Bucky wasn’t legally responsible for his actions while brainwashed), but even more by the desire to protect his friend.  This time around Iron Man is clearly acting out of passion rather than a belief that his ideology is morally right.  However, the passion is quite well demonstrated both in this movie and in previous ones.  Iron Man comes across as being in the wrong, but the two characters’ motivations are comparable again.

In terms of concept and hero motivations, Civil War did everything right that BvS missed the mark on.

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Villain:  Luthor and Zemo

Both movies also feature comparable villains in that both Lex Luthor and Helmut Zemo are schemers and behind-the-scenes manipulators.  Both villains have personal reasons for setting the heroes against each other.  However, what sets their motivations apart is the general vs. specific nature of their motivation.  For his part, Luthor is upset with Superman because he is a godlike being, and God did not save his mother (… I think).  This has very little to do with Superman himself.  Conversely, Zemo was a member of the Sokovian Special Forces whose family was all killed in the Ultron incident, which he blames on the Avengers (with good cause).

Luthor’s plan for turning Batman and Superman against each other is somewhat convoluted.  He intercepts checks to one of Bruce Wayne’s employees who was paralyzed in Metropolis, turning this man into a bitter Superman-hater.  Luthor then gives him the opportunity to become a suicide bomber and destroy the U.S. Capitol building—which is blamed on Superman.  This sets Batman (whom Luthor knows to be Bruce Wayne somehow) on the warpath to kill Superman, using kryptonite which Luthor allowed Batman to steal from him.  Meanwhile, Luthor abducted both Lois Lane and Martha Kent as incentive for Superman to kill Batman.  And when that doesn’t work, Luthor uses the Kryptonian ship, Zod’s body, and his own blood to create Doomsday, which can possibly kill Superman.

Zemo’s plan is also somewhat on the convoluted side.  He bombs a U.N. meeting and frames the Winter Soldier for it, which incentivizes everyone to capture Bucky.  Once Bucky is in U.N. custody, Zemo impersonates the psychiatrist brought in to evaluate him and uses the opportunity to reactivate Bucky’s programming, find out about Hydra’s super-soldier program, and set him loose on the U.N.  This sets the Avengers (and the world) against Bucky, which Captain America continues to defend him and finds out the truth:  Zemo wants to reactivate the other five Hydra super-soldiers.  Captain America goes to stop him, but is opposed by Iron Man’s Avengers.  The heroes tear themselves apart, and Captain America and Bucky go to Siberia to stop Zemo.  Zemo then arranged for the psychiatrist’s murder to be discovered, just in time for Iron Man to find out the truth and rush off to Siberia to help Cap and Bucky.  By revealing that the Winter Soldier killed Howard and Maria Stark, Zemo set Iron Man against the Winter Soldier (and Captain America) yet again.

I think what sets Zemo’s plan apart from Luthor’s is that he doubles down on pushing the heroes to fight each other.  Luthor’s plan backfires on him when Doomsday unites the heroes instead of turning them against each other; Zemo’s plan hardens the battle lines between the two main heroes.

Also, nothing in this move really makes me buy Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor as enough of a mastermind to be able to figure out Batman’s and Superman’s secret identities and arrange things to where they would fight.

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The Fight Sequences

Obviously, one of the most important elements of a comic book superhero movie is the action, so how do these two movies compare?

The first (major) fight sequence in Batman v. Superman pits the two heroes against each other in what is actually a really cool fight.  Both heroes get an opportunity to put their respective abilities on display, and both heroes have a legitimate opportunity to win.  However, the ending is pretty weird:  Superman says “Martha,” and Batman decides they need to be best friends—there had to be a better way for it to end without one of them dead.  The second fight sees Wonder Woman join the two other heroes to fight Doomsday, which is also a really impressive fight scene, if for no other reason than we see DC’s “Trinity” on screen together in live-action for the first time.  Each hero gets a moment to shine.  If I had to complain about one thing in this movie, however, it would be the inclusion of this second fight scene, against Doomsday.  In a movie called “Batman v. Superman,” I really think that the biggest fight should be between Batman and Superman.

Civil War also has two main fight scenes.  The first one, which takes place at a Leipzig Airport, pits all the heroes against each other in an incredibly-shot sequence.  Every hero gets an opportunity to do something unique and awesome.  And at the end, the fight concludes in a very natural way, as Captain America’s team realizes that in order to win the war, a few of them will need to lose the battle and be captured while delaying Iron Man’s team.  Captain America and Bucky are the only two who escape from the airport, and while they are escaping we see real consequences of the fight when War Machine gets shot out of the sky by friendly fire, leaving him paralyzed.  The second fight is extremely personal as Iron Man turns on Captain America and Bucky, acting on pure passion upon discovering that the Winter Soldier killed his parents.  This fight is absolutely brutal as neither side holds back.  All three combatants get an opportunity to shine in this fight.  In the end, everyone survives, but no one leaves unscathed.

Between the two movies, I like the fight sequences in both a lot, and it’s kind of hard to compare them.  In BvS the heroes don’t really know each other; in Civil War we’ve seen them fight together and we’ve seen how close of friends they are.  The fight between Captain America and Iron Man was far more emotional than any of the fights in BvS, but they were extremely close friends before all of this.  The Doomsday fight wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to see in BvS, but it did exactly what it was supposed to do:  bring the heroes together.  Ultimately, the fights were trying to do different things, so there’s little to compare between them.


Both of these movies were trying to do something similar in pitting heroes against each other.  There are many other similarities between the movies, but I think the three that I highlighted are the most important to compare—at least in terms of why Civil War succeeds and BvS doesn’t.  And of the three, the biggest difference between the two movies lies in the characters’ motivations.  While Captain America: Civil War gives the heroes compelling and comparable reasons for their conflict, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice does not do the heroes’ conflict justice, particularly in terms of their motivations.  And this is why I think that Civil War succeeds over Batman v. Superman.

Which movie did you like better?  What other comparisons do you see between the two movies?  Did you buy Luthor as a compelling villain?  Let me know in the comments!

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