A look beyond the trailers, films, and myth building of the DCEU.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice enters theaters in an era where superhero films no longer feel important because they are films. The Batman and Superman films of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were stories framed by their stars (Christopher Reeve, George Clooney, Christian Bale) or the style of their directors (Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan). They were adaptations, and transparent about this, but the emphasis felt much more about how these adaptations played out within the space of the film itself. To be sure, Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Zack Snyder were a large part of Batman v Superman’s appeal. But! Stars, directors, and the more specifically cinematic characteristics feel increasingly less important to how contemporary audiences view and respond to superhero films. Instead, the filmic qualities have become more equal, if not less important, than how a superhero film contributes to the ongoing experience of a larger creative world.
Marvel, of course, has played a significant part in demonstrating the financial success of connecting multiple creative properties and building their films to be recognized as part of an extended universe. In the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success, the brackets around superhero films seem much more porous and fuzzy. There is an immediate sense, if not an expectation, that superhero films are part of a larger creative network rather than experiences that take place in the cinema alone. The experience of Man of Steel (2013), for example, felt less anchored and restricted to the movie itself. Audiences knew that this was DC’s attempt to kickstart Superman into the same kind of franchise success that Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012) had delivered. The promise of Man of Steel is that audiences will continue to learn, debate, and buy more of the Superman story when the film is over.
If we solely look at the trailers for Batman v Superman, we can see that this is a film that has difficulty negotiating whether it wants to be seen as a standalone film or part of a larger universe. Most of the trailers emphasize the themes of the film: the initial teaser trailer highlights the conflict that comes between powerlessness and incredible power, the Comic-Con trailer emphasizes the ambiguity around the responsibility that accompanies power, and this final trailer focuses on the excitement of seeing unequal forces pitted against each other. This trailer, which was shown on Jimmy Kimmel Live, is incredibly revealing of the distributor’s uncertainty about how to position Batman v Superman. In three minutes, the entire narrative arc of the film is summarized: we get the inciting incidents, the theme stated, the buildup, the fun and games, and worst of all, a third act reveal. Even if the film has saved some of its key plot points and twists, these trailers don’t place much faith in an audience that knows the source material or in an audience that can engage and understand the film as a standalone object. These trailers distribute a wide array of information, but in an era where texts outside the film are increasingly important to an experience of story, they tell us much more than they show us.
What is left for the experience of Batman v Superman after these trailers is not the story, but the experience of watching the spectacle of that story play out on a big screen. I don’t say this as a critique about the emptiness of spectacle. Much like stars and directors, the sensory experience of sound and image that a blockbuster delivers is very much a cinematic pleasure. The situation that we find in the contemporary superhero film is the uneven relationship between story and spectacle that no longer has the same expectations that it did when stories felt more exclusive to the screen (if, perhaps, this was ever the case). What Batman v Superman and its reception will tell us is how audiences respond to a cinematic experience that relies heavily on sensation rather than story.