Is it ever appropriate to critique a film for what it could have or should have been, as opposed to what it is? In most film criticism circles, the answer is generally no. A good critic has to judge the film based on what it sets out to do - even if it fails by conventional standards - not what you want from it. You wouldn't criticize a hangout movie like Dazed and Confused for not having a plot, or disparage Furious 7 for not being an Oscar contender. Those films wanted different things than you.
But do we always have to follow this rule?
I ask because I recently saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS from this point on) and I think it’s one of those films that permits us to judge it for what it wasn’t. Let me explain.
By all metrics, the film is a failure. I won't use this space to detail all the ways it flounders since a quick perusal of Rotten Tomatoes will give you plenty to chew on. But I will say this: a film need not be objectively good to be enjoyable. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just such a film. Like Star Wars, BvS fails as a narrative, but Star Wars offers us a good time at the theater; BvS doesn't. It's an emotional and psychological slog. It's mercilessly short on fun yet it runs a punishing two and a half hours. It is, in many ways, an anti-film: concerned only with imagery while caring nothing for story, plot, or character. It is both boorish and boring.
So it's a bit disturbing then to realize the film's director, Zack Snyder, seems to have made exactly the film he wanted. Back when Snyder was hired to direct Man of Steel, it was an open secret that DC’s strategy to make their characters stand out from Marvel’s was to make them deadly serious (Warner Bros even handed down a "no jokes" mandate). Superman in particular was given the gritty treatment to appeal to modern audiences: less 1950's greatest generation optimism, more 21st century angst. In the Christopher Reeve movies, Superman would have rescued Lois Lane from a terrorist by disarming him and flying him to jail. In Snyder's movies, Superman is more likely to sneer and punch the bad guy through seven concrete walls. In BvS he's a bully, a mope, and a selfish jerk. On a recent podcast, someone said this was a Superman for people who think a Superman with glowing red eyes is cool, which is a perfect summation of how dramatically Snyder fails the character.
So the film sucks and gets Superman all wrong. But if we take as a given that this is the film Snyder wanted to make, that he's happy with his creative choices, that doesn't mean we can criticize the film for not being something else, right? My gut feeling here is that we can actually. And I think the answer lies in the fact that not all intentions are equally valid. There's a difference, after all, between an earnest effort that just goes off the rails and a cynical attempt to cash in on something that's already a proven success. The former is usually the result of a lack of experience and knowledge, both of which can be taught. The latter is borne from hubris and has no interest other than making money.
How DC made such an arrogant choice can be traced by a straight line. DC was floundering after the box office drubbing (and critical poison) from their ill-fated Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern. Their only successful franchise - Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy - had wrapped and their follow-up, Man of Steel, hadn't set the world on fire. Needing to somehow catch up to Marvel's "House of Ideas," DC decided, "Hey, if Marvel can make a ton of money with The Avengers, then we need to make a team-up movie too! Let's just shunt Batman into the Man of Steel sequel and set up a larger shared universe!" It was a choice made not from a place of confidence, but out of a need to catch up to the competition.
But as any MBA will tell you, if you rush a product to market before it's ready, solely to siphon money away from your competitors, your product is likely to fail. What DC ended up with was a naked cash grab designed to sell toys and get audiences primed for the impending Justice League movies, but with no charm, no logical connections between scenes, characterizations of Batman and Superman that betrayed 80 years of storytelling history, and a basic failure in filmmaking proficiency.
In other words, the movie lacks integrity. And the existence or lack of integrity is what makes it okay for us to accept a film on its own terms or allows us to critique it for not being something else.
1) If your film and its characters aren't emotionally honest, that is, their actions don't make sense based on what you know of them, it lacks integrity. Emotional honesty speaks to how characters interact with each other and inform the choices they make in the narrative. That's how we, as the audience, are able to relate to them, even if their specific circumstances don't mirror our own.
2) If your film aims to offend but without thinking critically about why it's doing that, it lacks integrity. Being offensive isn't inherently good or bad; what you do with that offensiveness is what matters. Are you just poking the audience in the eye, trying to get a rise out of them? Or are you interested in using your film to discuss why something is offensive and provide an explanation or another view point?
3) If your film betrays story and character for "cool" moments, it lacks integrity. Do your characters stop to pose? Is your frame immaculate but filled with nothing of substance? is your film structured around action set-pieces, or do those set-pieces naturally arise out of and inform the character's journey?
4) If your film is designed solely to sell the audience merchandise or a sequel, it lacks integrity. Despite what studios think, audiences can smell it when you're setting up something that's not going to be paid off until one or two films later... and we HATE it. Every superhero film that's done that (Iron Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2, BvS) does poorly either critically, with audiences, and oftentimes both. If you can't make me like the characters in this film, what makes you think I'm going to shell out $12 to see them in the next one, and the one after that?
5) If your film can’t be bothered to treat the audience with intelligence, it lacks integrity. I've long said that the American public has the most sophisticated palate for entertainment in the world, and I think the failure of BvS is a clear example of that. We know when we’re watching something that isn’t ready for primetime, like a script needing another pass, or the VFX company needing more time to render the digital effects, or an actor needing another take to nail down the performance. On top of it’s many other sins BvS is also made in a slapdash way, as if the studio said “who cares if it’s good? The only thing people care about is Batman wailing on Superman!”
Batman v. Superman is a bad film, but that’s not enough of a reason to judge it for what it didn’t do. We can judge it for what it isn't because it lacks integrity, and make no mistake, BvS lacks integrity because it's guilty of nearly all the transgressions I just mentioned. BvS could have been a great film while still meeting all of Warner Bros' ancillary demands. Instead, it may have just sunk DC's superhero film slate. If the film had any integrity, it may have still failed, but at least it could do it with its head held high.