Although they’ve been around for almost a century, superheroes never quite managed to be taken seriously anywhere outside their birthplace medium – comic books. Save for a few shiny exceptions, all film and television adaptations were handled with poor cinematic value and an often jarring and campy attitude, targeted mostly towards kids. It’s only in the early 2000s that superheroes started to break into mainstream Hollywood, with a handful of remarkable films that concerned children and adults alike.
Today in a post-Dark-Knight-Trilogy era, we can safely articulate that we live in the time of the superhero. The genre flourishes each and every year with excellent films, engaging TV series and stunning animations. Additionally, the outburst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – clearly the game-changer here – detonated the shared universe frenzy. Standalone superhero films are hopelessly outdated. Hell, nowadays you even get cinematic universes for franchises such as King Kong/Godzilla, Universal Monsters and the Hasbro movie adaptations. This is what audiences want. This is what studios kill for. This is the zeitgeist of modern Hollywood.
In this context it was urgent for Warner Bros to quickly step into this billion dollar game with their DC properties and their own version of a cinematic universe. After failing to persuade Christopher Nolan to further wade into Dark Knight’s antics and expand his mythos with a wide range of characters and storylines at his disposal, they went on fully entrusting the risky venture to extreme stylist Zack Snyder. Their first offering of a shared universe, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (Man of Steel was never intended as a universe kickstarter) was received with a phenomenal awkwardness. Critics hated it, fans were split apart and the studio didn’t know how to deal with it.
For all that went wrong though, BvS features qualities that can prove it to be a future cult classic. These qualities can be traced in its reception and consumption, in its anatomy as a genre piece, in its political economy and how it affected major studio decisions, as well as in its cultural status. And what makes a cult film, you may ask. Well, here’s the ultimate definition taken from the cult film bible, Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik’s The Cult Film Reader:
A cult film is a film with an active and lively communal following. Highly committed and rebellious in its appreciation, its audience regularly finds itself at odds with the prevailing cultural mores, displaying a preference for strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics.
Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling, often using intertextual references, gore, leaving loose ends or creating a sense of nostalgia. They frequently have troublesome production histories, colored by accidents, failures, legends and mysteries that involve their stars and directors, and in spite of often-limited accessibility, they have a continuous market value and a long-lasting public presence.
So, let’s break down an exciting modern Hollywood misstep and place it on the map of cult films where it rightfully belongs.
Batman V Superman? More like fan V critic. Or fan V studio. Or even fan V fan. BvS’s controversy is the stuff of Hollywood legend (that could make a movie of its own). The film’s initial announcement at the San Diego Comic Con in 2013 was met with an ecstatic reaction from audiences, since the rendezvous of those two iconic characters was every geek’s wet dream for decades. However, the first tokens of discontent started to surface when the studio made public the casting of Ben Affleck – infamous for portraying Daredevil in 2003’s atrocious adaptation – as Batman. While many spontaneously reacted to this decision with condemnation and mockery, for the moment this was nothing more than your average fanboy whining (pretty similar to the opposition of casting Michael Keaton in Burton’s 1989 version).
The production fully backed their casting choices and started an enormous marketing campaign in order to vigorously promote their DC Extended Universe debut and maybe steal some of Marvel’s soaring momentum. In this process, fans took issue with several creative decisions such as the tone of the film, which looked too dark for a superhero movie, the trailers that looked overstuffed and spoiled too much, and even the full title itself, making fun of its pomposity (which sounded like an Far Right political party) and the unnecessary removal of the “S” from the versus initials (which annoyed this guy’s OCD). Despite all that, many where eager to see the final film, bound by hope, curiosity or an irresistible urge to have their opinions of how bad it will suck validated. And it wasn’t until its worldwide release in March 2016 that BvS was fully backlashed.
The critics slated the film with overwhelmingly degrading reviews. Gathering a bone-crushing 27% rating at Rotten Tomatoes (lower than Affleck’s Daredevil flick), BvS reportedly failed in almost all of its aspects: its storytelling techniques, its complicated plotlines, its seemingly serious themes, its nonsensical dream sequences, its hollow characters, its over-stylized action scenes, etc. The negative climate around it quickly snowballed all over the States and Europe and its record-breaking opening was followed by a record-breaking drop of 71% in ticket sales on the second week. The image of an apologetic Snyder humming “I don’t know how else to do it” and “it is what it is” and a doleful Affleck almost crying when a reporter in a London cast and crew promotional interview that coincided with its release informed them on the mixed response it was getting, was downright heartbreaking.
Sad as it may be, unlike art-house and indie films, critical acclaim is not necessarily associated with cult cinema. On the same interview, Henry Cavil acknowledged the fact that it’s not the critics’ opinion, but the audience’s that really matters in the end. Besides, badness is heavily tied to a film’s cult status. And it wasn’t just the comic-book-uninitiated babbling critics bashing the film. Many fans deeply accustomed to the DC properties criticized Snyder for badly mishandling their beloved heroes. Even nerd king Kevin Smith argued that it’s humorless and lacks of heart, an opinion he rallied to change upon his second viewing.
Of course, not everyone hated it. Despite its blunders, many viewers seemed to have enjoyed the film and its adult oriented take on superhero mythology. Even more so, BvS instantly gained a large group of loyal fans who consciously or unconsciously recruited themselves to defend it by any means necessary. Spending hours fighting in social media, they openly declared war towards all haters, accused critics for being bribed by Disney, cursed Marvel for destroying the superhero film with their light tone and silly gags, slammed fans for being too dumb to understand it and even sent death threats to BvS naysayers.
Many of these fans, taking pleasure in their acquired insider’s knowledge of DC comics, interpreted the vast opinion chasm between them and the impugners as cognition deficiency and therefore shortage of cultural capital of the latter. That’s the essence of cinephilia, i.e. the eclectic exercise of movie-watching that distinguishes oneself from the mainstream. This level of commitment, this rebellious attitude and the notion that BvS devotees are system underdogs tangled in a shadowy conspiracy to overthrown their object of reverence is not only a study item of social behavior and indicator of fandom psychology, but a distinctive element of cult cinema.
BvS and Deadpool were released really close to each other. Deadpool was evidently a far better movie, but people seemed to be more involved in the BvS controversy and kept fiercely arguing about it even months after its release. However flawed in its execution it was, the film triggered an extensive discussion around it, with cinema buffs, comic book geeks, superhero fans, admirers and criticizers, sitting together and debating on and on about the good, the bad and the ugly of the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world. Through live conversations, analytic articles, social media comments and YouTube podcasts, that genuine concern quickly evolved into a lively community, an active evaluation, a cult following.
A popular view amongst fans is that there’s actually a decent movie hidden somewhere in there. Firstly, the generally accepted strong elements of BvS, such as Snyder’s visuals, Tatopoulos’ production design and – to many haters’ surprise – Affleck’s performance, who was widely celebrated as the best on-screen Batman to date, were embraced by almost everyone.
Then came the well-known wrongdoings: the lack of humor, the confusing rhythm, the huge plotholes, the barren character development, their vague motives, etc. Disappointment over several creative decisions arose as well, such as the casting of Jesse Eisenberg instead of Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor, the clumsy introduction of the meta-humans and the unnecessary inclusion of Doomsday.
Fans were passionately breaking down the film, realizing the ups and downs, the dos and don’ts. Cases started to build too, boasting theories on how it could improve under different circumstances, different studio guidelines, a different screenwriting approach, a different directorial vision. All these practices boosted the cult status of the film and assisted everyone, fans and studios alike, to have a better understanding of what makes a good movie. And oh boy, did the studio listen.
“The building blocks are there for a great different set of superhero movies. Good actors and actresses and even directors. Zack Snyder is just not the guy that should be in charge of the biggest and most important films in the franchise. Especially with his track record now.”
That’s the sum of an ongoing petition with more than 17,000 supporters, launched with the sole purpose of booting Zack Snyder off of the DCEU. It is evident nowadays that fandom is not to be underestimated. In fact, it has taken such enormous dimensions that it’s fully capable of alienating filmmakers (what happened with Joss Whedon and his Marvel departure after Avengers: Age of Ultron), destroy carriers (what happened with Josh Trank and his post-Fantastic Four behavior and statements) and form entire studio policies (what is happening with the MCU). Accordingly, in a bold display of influential force, fans pointed out loudly that there are things they disliked about BvS. Fearful of the future of their extravagant investment in the DCEU, the studio’s reaction was extraordinarily immediate.
When it was established shortly after its release that the theatrical cut was a shorter version of the film, and that the special screening that took place some weeks before and received cheerful reviews was actually the three-hour cut Snyder initially intended to present, Warner Bros. beetled off to announce an upcoming director’s cut Blu-ray edition, temporarily soothing fans.
When they were accused of building a downbeat and humorless universe, they dashed to state that the next films will be funnier and released a couple of playful Suicide Squad -DCEU’s very next installment- trailers under roaming reports that the film’s extensive reshoots were due to add more jokes. They even rearranged their whole creative division, establishing DC Films and putting Geoff Johns in charge, a similar strategy to Marvel Studios and its visionary Kevin Feige.
A few weeks ago, a big number of film reporters were invited to the ongoing production of the Justice League feature. They were shown film footage, sets pieces, props and costumes, interviewed the cast and crew, saw the filming of a scene, witnessed the on-stage energy and, in a definite showcase of confidence from DC Films, were allowed to freely talk about all of this in their reports.
With these actions the studio managed to reverse the ill vibes around the DCEU and gradually won many of the fans back. The Ultimate Edition, which is already out, is getting a lot of positive feedback, too, as Snyder’s intentions are somewhat being appreciated and the film is actively being re-evaluated. Literally all reports from the set of JL describe an incredibly creative atmosphere and a long-desired chemistry between the actors and their characters. Denouncing fans are now anticipating to see their team-up, even with Snyder on the helm. DC is at last assured of their personnel and certain of their creative directions. This reshaping of a whole studio policy by a film’s cult following is probably unprecedented in modern Hollywood.
Over the years, Zack Snyder has on one hand been praised as a pure cinematic auteur and a smug filmmaker on the other, a phony whose movies are gloating exercises of style over substance. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s a fact that Snyder’s visual aesthetic has heavily influenced Hollywood filmmaking in the past decade. With the exception of his debut (and most grounded and undervalued movie) Dawn of the Dead, his filmography is a rollercoaster of meticulously stylized scenes that largely work with the logic of a music video. And although he tried a different, more organic and down-to-earth approach in Man of Steel, he went full Zack Snyder mode on this one.
In terms of tone and style, BvS is diametrically opposite to Marvel movies. MCU’s colorful characters and their catchy one-liners have no place in Snyder’s dark and gritty DCEU (seriously, just google “dark and gritty” and the first results will be BvS screens). The ultra slow-motioned, desaturated visuals, the gloomy feel, the gothic iconography accompanied by a majestic score, provide the film with a grand, operatic feel.
The narrative construction of the film is uneven, largely composed of extended and seemingly disjointed dream sequences and scrappy plotlines – somewhat smoothened in the Ultimate Cut – that confused a huge part of the audience. Its adult tone is highly unusual for superhero films, the protagonists are deeply flawed and troubling, their morals are ambiguous (the murdering Batman dampened many fans) and comic relief is completely absent. This is clearly not the superhero flick to take your kid to.
All these are transgression elements that exceed superhero genre conventions and distinguish BvS from the dominant blockbuster canon, strengthening its cult status.
Another major component in determining a film as cult is its capability to provide linkages with the world of cinema, literature, media, science and culture in general, with either hidden or emphasized homages. A film’s intertextuality offers enjoyment to those who share the prerequisite cultural capital to comprehend the reference and at the same time places it in its contemporary cultural background. Furthermore, its ability to produce colloquialisms and genuine “nuke the fridge” moments is important in earning its place in current pop culture.
Literally hundreds of DC Easter Eggs can be found in the film, expanding to all its history, from its origins and Golden Age period, to the darker and more deconstructive 80s – Snyder transferred complete scenes and dialogues Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – to more recent storylines like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Flashpoint. One of the most memorable is the quote by Clark Kent’s boss Perry White – “It’s not 1938,” a comment on lost journalistic principles and also a pretty straightforward reference to Superman’s debut year in Action Comics #1 (the cover of which was remade in a photo clipped on Wallace Keefe’s wall).
There are several movie connections as well. Luthor’s prisoner number is also the name of a Star Wars stormtrooper, a reference somewhat expected since BvS and The Force Awakens shared some nice pokes while on production (a picture of a black-cloaked lightsaber-weilding Sith-Superman being the most memorable). In the opening scene, the Waynes are coming out of a theater after seeing 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, a film that draws parallels between its mustached crusader who fights for justice and the Dark Knight, who also adopts Zorro’s marking people technique in this one.
Furthermore, on the coming soon billboard you can see the poster of 1981’s Excalibur, where Lancelot and Arthur were manipulated by Morgan le Fay much like Superman and Batman were by Lex Luthor, before overcoming their differences and fighting together a greater evil, while comparisons on the films’ final battles and the use of spears can also be made (interestingly, Batman and Superman once travelled back to King Arthur’s Camelot in the comics). Wizard of Oz is also referenced a couple of times, with Perry’s joke “clicks his heels three times and goes back to Kansas” and Luthor saying “emerald city” while gazing his acquired kryptonite. Lastly, Doomsday climbing the Metropolis tower while being attacked by helicopters is unmistakably reminiscent to the famous King Kong finale on Empire State Building.
Mythological and religious themes are strongly present in the film, too, either by Luthor referencing the Ancient Greek story of Prometheus and his punishment from Zeus, almost completely out of context, or by making the inevitable comparisons between Superman and God through imagery, dialogue and character development. Much like Man of Steel, Superman is being presented as a Messianic figure and his uncertainty on his mission as the savior of mankind, his death to save it, as well as his imminent return in next DCEU installments, reminds us of Jesus’ self-doubt before his crucifixion, his ultimate sacrifice and resurrection. Observant viewers might have also noticed the image of an angel wearing blue robe and red cape (the colors of Superman), on a stained glass in the Wayne family tomb.
Finally, BvS does a decent job placing itself in its “time,” with a parade of brief appearances by notable TV personas like Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Nancy Grace, Dana Bash and Jon Steward (in the director’s cut). Famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who had regularly commented upon superhero physics in his pop-culture-brimming shows, also does a cameo here, evaluating Superman’s presence on Earth and how it affected our sense of priority in the universe.
As far as colloquialisms go, Sadfleck, Granny’s Peach Tea and the Martha catalyst are enough to please any mockers and scoffers out there. BvS fan fiction parodied its silliest elements. The early black and white promo photograph of Ben Affleck’s first look as Batman became a meme sensation. Cutout in various depressive backgrounds, “Sad Batman” spread throughout social networks making fun of the film’s sullen look. In continuation of Sad Batman came Sad Affleck – or simply Sadfleck – when someone edited a clip from the aforementioned interview of the BvS cast, contrasting extracts from the first bashing reviews to Affleck’s zoomed catatonic facial expression, accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” (which afterwards climbed high on 2016’s Billboard of Hot Rock Songs). The notorious Martha scene, although good indented, was so poorly executed that it also became another fan gag machine.
However, it’s when Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor – a caricature worthy of a cult status itself – placed a jar of his urine in front of Holy Hunter’s Senator Finch, seconds before the Capitol explosion, that will be memorized as BvS’s low point and probably the most outrageous scene in a superhero film.
Juxtaposed to Cult Film Reader’s definition, BvS was followed by an active and lively support by an extremely committed community who outgrew the dominant reception of the film and fought for it as though enlistees. It transgressed genre conventions and coherent storytelling and made good use of its cultural background with many intertextual references. Its riotous reception resulted major studio rearrangements simply indicated the power of the current fandom.
Initially blasted from general direction, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is constantly being re-evaluated and can be safely labeled as cult. It managed to be highly noted and kept concerning audiences, devotees and polemicists, who after repeated viewings, seconds reading, analytical breakdowns and endless arguments, opened an extended and extremely useful discussion on the values of modern Hollywood filmmaking.