I watch a lot of movies, if I have a couple of hours free I’ll usually watch a movie than regular TV; although I’ll admit that Netflix has changed my habits there quite a bit, but then many of the shows that they are releasing – House of Cards, Daredevil, Jessica Jones – en masse are essentially just a longer movie chopped up into episodes.
This weekend I went to the cinema to see Batman vs Superman, a big blockbuster special effects superhero thing. I also watched Slow West (on Netflix), an independently budgetted movie which won some awards at the Canne Film Festival (I think).
The difference, outside of budgets, special effects, storyline, setting et al, was striking. Strip both movies back to their essence, and they are both simple stories with only a handful of key characters.
In Slow West we follow the journey of a young man from Scotland as he travels into the American mid-west in the late 1800s to find his true love, who fled there after a tragic event.
In Batman vs Superman we follow the journey of an old man as he travels to meet his ultimate enemy in Superman who has himself been through a tragic event. We also follow the journey of a young man as he starts out on his own journey to discover what it means to be Superman.
The scale may differ – in Slow West one man dies, in the Superman event thousands die – but the premise is the same.
Alas at this point things start to differ and that’s largely down to how each film was directed.
In Slow West, thanks to some excellent pacing, acting and direction, we become finely tuned to the hopes and dreams of the few main characters; we learn about their pasts as the story progresses, we go through trials and tribulations with them, share their pain, their desires and, when the end comes, we are as complicit in it as they are.
In Batman vs Superman we struggle to tune in to the few main characters as we jump from set piece to set piece, each marking a trial and tribulation but from which we get no output or payback, so we don’t buy in. We get close to understanding the ageing Batman, but not close enough. Similarly we can see that Superman is struggling with his own world view but, again, we aren’t really allowed more than a reference to hang our empathy on.
It does feel a little like it was directed by checklist, rather than by emotion – “Show that Superman is conflicted, check. Show that Batman is determined, check” and on and on. Ultimately, I don’t really care about any of them.
Looking at other superhero movies (from Marvel) we are allowed enough time to learn without being directed, and we empathise enough to care about the characters. Marvel cleverly allowed the main characters their own movies so to bring us on the journey, so by the time Avengers Assemble rolled around we already care enough about the characters, we have a connection. They are doing the same again before each Avengers movie.
And maybe that’s where Batman vs Superman went wrong (ok, ONE OF the areas it went wrong). It was too soon. In the ‘Justice League’ universe, we’ve had one Superman movie – itself a turgid affair that was more about spending special effect budgets than creating any sense of wonder and compassion for the man in the red cape – and then we are straight into an ensemble piece featuring their two big heavyweight characters – Batman and Superman – and then everyone’s favourite Amazonian Goddess joins the fray (not to mention the three other characters we see hints of as well). She will get her own movie as well but maybe they should’ve done that one first?
Slow West was quiet at times, it used humour smartly to reduce tension, and allowed the characters to be vunerable and human. It was a subtle movie that walked you through the story and the set pieces, when they arrived, were well paced and never seemed forced. It’s a single movie, not part of a larger universe, but the same rules apply. Let us learn about the characters in isolation before you through them altogether.
To that end, and again I think Marvel have this figured out. You aren’t just filming a single movie, each movie in the universe you are recreating has to be sympathetic both of and to the others, and the character arc is just as important over three or four movies as it is within one. Why show us Wonder Woman now when we don’t know how she fits or what her motivation is? (aside from ‘she likes to fight and ‘do the right thing’).
There is one moment in Batman vs Superman (featured in the trailers as well) that hinted at the potential this series could have. A reconciled Batman and Superman stand behind a recently arrived Wonder Woman as they prepare to launch into battle. Superman turns to Batman and asks ‘is she with you?’ to which a perplexed Batman replies ‘No, I thought she was with you’.
It’s a tiny moment and the kind of thing the Marvel universe has nailed. Amid all the melee, throw in a couple of lines to let the audience pause… alas the Justice League universe looks like it will continue to focus on special effects, large set pieces and little in the way of levity.
I read the Batman vs Superman series many years ago and it was a favourite at the time. The dark world of an aged Batman confronting an ageless Superman, the comic book included many throwaway lines. The movie has ignored these, much to its loss.
So, if you get a chance stay in, fire up Netflix and watch Slow West, a wonderfully dark, odd, and beautiful movie, then come back and tell me what you thought of that ending!