I’ve been writing about film for a long time. To quote Nicki Minaj; I’ve been hot since flip phones. In another couple of years I’ll be at the point where I can describe the span of time I’ve spent reviewing and writing about movies as ‘decades’. When you’ve been doing anything that long, you notice recurring themes. Readers will call you out on being inconsistent with your opinions, personal bias, and will copy/paste your contradictions faster than you can say ‘President Donald Trump’.
As much time as columnists spend talking about films, it’s rare to actually talk about the thought process behind the work. If you’re any good, people will probably be able to gain insight into your perspective from your body of work. Though sometimes I feel the need to try to explain some differentiating factors when discussing a movie.
Recently in a column about the possibility of Mel Gibson directing Suicide Squad 2, I wrote the following description of DC’s comic book debacles of 2016:
“Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad might be the most terribly assembled blockbusters ever released. The fact that they were both excreted from the same studio and landed with the kind of loud, wet thud that accompanies fresh piles of shit within months of each other is miracle of malignancy.”
Harsh but fair. Whether or not you liked either of the movies, I think the argument that both films were exceptionally messy and somewhat disappointing is fair. A reader challenged my opinion on this matter by pointing out the fact that I had previously written about how much I personally enjoyed Batman v Superman in a review for the Ultimate Edition where I wrote:
“As someone who enjoyed the original, the Ultimate Version is an absolute blast. Muddied plot points are clarified. Scenes are expanded. Characters are given more moments to develop. I’ll stand by my original assessment that Zack Snyder’s movie is unconventional and takes great liberties with some our most iconic heroes, but it’s a far more interesting superhero film.”
How can those two thoughts simultaneously exist from a writer? I’m sure that thought crosses many readers’ minds. Let me try to explain.
There are things that I like and things that are ‘good’. What you like is about personal preference. ‘Good’ is something descriptive that is applied to things using a melange of mostly objective and minimally subjective criteria.
What makes a good movie? Ask 100 people that question and you’ll probably get at least 50 different answers. But let’s break it down to its simplest terms. A good movie is well written, well-directed, featuring memorable performances. It meets or exceeds its creative goals while being accomplished in the technical categories including good visuals. A good score can or musical choices can also be part of a good movie but often times audiences are forgiving a film with a less than stellar score.
Basically, a good movie has certain inarguable factors. You might not have liked Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (which I didn’t), but you’d be hard pressed to argue that the movie wasn’t good by the aforementioned standards. Even if you thought the writing was heavy-handed or the film went off the rails every so often, it was a movie that told an original story, cast with talented actors, and featured some amazing visuals and sequences. And you may be thinking “But I didn’t like it; how could it be ‘good’?” Simply put, just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s any good.
The best example I could come up with is John Woo’s 1997 blockbuster Face/Off. It’s one of my favorite movies. In fact, if you said “Anghus; what’s your favorite movie performance” I would immediately reply “Nic Cage in Face/Off“. For me, it’s the most mesmerizing, crazy, over the top piece of scenery chewing every committed to celluloid. But if you asked me “What is the best performance ever?”, Nic Cage in Face/Off wouldn’t even be a consideration. Sure, I love every batshit crazy, scenery chewing moment. I could spend hours discussing how much I enjoy the weird choices and over the top delivery. It doesn’t mean Cage’s performance is anywhere in the orbit of ‘good’.
Separating what we like from what is objectively good is difficult, especially in a day and age where people seem to believe their personal opinion sets the standards for quality. Let’s use one of 2016’s most talked about films. Arrival. A movie that was loved both by audiences and critics. Personally, I found the movie to be a little flat and didn’t love every choice Denis Villeneuve made. However, it was still a good movie. Good performances, strong choices, thought-provoking ideas. Just because I was ambivalent about the final product doesn’t mean I would be dumb enough to call Arrival a ‘bad’ movie.
So we come back to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A movie that still fascinated me and is very much similar to my appreciation of Nic Cage in Face/Off. It’s a film full of strange, often baffling choices. A movie with so many interesting visuals but never manages to weave them together into something coherent. I can’t remember a film with so many glaring omissions in the narrative. We’re supposed to like Superman, but we never have a single scene of him being likable. An older, more bitter Batman has been beaten down by the cruel realities of loss, yet the audience is never privileged to those moments. Snyder opens the movie with the loss of Batman’s parents, but it feels like this Batman has had far more recent tragedies responsible for his new sadistic streak. There’s the strange, disconnected context-free dream sequence. The movie is so unconventional that it transcends the typical comic book blockbuster. That’s why I like Batman v Superman.
But my inner critical voice knows that what I’m watching isn’t ‘good’. Snyder makes so many rookie storytelling errors that it’s so easy to understand why most fans struggled to find anything likable about the movie. Especially the theatrical version which was a clusterfuck of confusion and characterization.
And yet, I’ve watched the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman a half-dozen times. It’s arguably one of the most compelling pieces of big budget cinema ever released mostly because of Snyder’s inability to understand character or connected storytelling. The film is what a blockbuster looks like when you have a director obsessed with moments and visuals and yet can’t seem to find a way to convey any emotion within them. I was recently watching a YouTube video over at the Your Movie Sucks channel discussing the work of Lars Von Trier. Someone who is often cited when discussing the engaging and striking use of visuals. For all of the credit Snyder gets for his visual style, he lacks the ability to use them to convey emotion in a way Von Trier has mastered.
My point is: Yes, I like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I wouldn’t waste a minute of time trying to convince someone it’s a good movie.