‘Worldbuilding’ Is the New Bad Word in Movies

The easy thing to do after watching the dumpster fire that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was to go online and write a blog post calling it a dumpster fire. I’ve done my best to avoid that (though not so much with my social media accounts …) and now have let the idea of that film percolate in my mind for a few days.

But wait, Jasper, Batman v Superman was good!

No, sorry, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t. You may *like* BvS, but you may also have really bad taste.

So? It entertained me!

Yeah, I know, and that’s kind of the problem. Let me explain.

The head of Warner Bros. says that the amount of money earned by BvS shows a huge disconnect between movie critics and fans. That’s like saying the huge lines for a restaurant opening defy the fact that the food they will soon eat tastes like cardboard. A film’s opening box office has NOTHING to do with a film’s quality. Absolutely nothing. What it *does* say is (a) fans are excited about Batman, Superman and, yes, Wonder Woman, (b) movie critics’ opinions aren’t really that important most of the time, and (c) Warner Bros. has a hell of a marketing department.

The financial numbers here are indeed impressive. It was the seventh highest domestic opening ever. The international money was gaga crazy. But looking through the numbers, it’s also apparent that the opening numbers were a successful strategy employed by the Warner Bros. marketing and distribution teams, who ensured that the movie opened across the globe on the same day. Numbers people touted the $50+ million the film earned in box office darling China. But that’s only a third of what Age of Ultron pulled in during its Chinese opening, which was north of $150 million. Had Age of Ultron opened in China on the same day it opened everywhere else, BvS’s opening numbers, while still impressive, wouldn’t be the record holder it is today.

But Age of Ultron was a sequel to the Avengers! This was a sequel to Man of Steel! It’s more like Iron Man 2 then.

No it’s not. When Iron Man 2 came out, the idea of a shared cinematic universe wasn’t something that fans were prepared for. There were only two other Marvel movies that had come out, and one was the incredibly dull Incredible Hulk. Fans went out to see Iron Man 2 based solely on the fact that they loved Iron Man (which holds an incredible 91% on Rotten Tomatoes’ popcorn score rating – more on that later). Fan reaction to IM2, though, wasn’t great. In fact, it was pretty poor and the film was blamed for trying to stuff too many characters and too much worldbuilding into a single film. Sound familiar?

BvS, on the other hand, has DC’s two most popular characters battling it out. Both have had numerous films made about them and earn a ton of money in licensing already (though much less than Spider-Man). Plus Wonder Woman. Plus, there were news reports about five times a day leading up to the movie explaining how this was the movie to launch all movies. The entire Justice League might not be together, but how much more would adding Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg really add to a movie? No, DC put their heavy hitters into BvS. Iron Man 2 had … War Machine. Also, there was Nick Fury, who was really just Sam Jackson with an eye patch, and Black Widow who … well, nobody knew her at the time. My point is that Batman v Superman isn’t a newish player in a newish trend of filmmaking (cinematic universes), it’s an amalgamation of well-loved properties in a now-nearly-decade-old trend of filmmaking.

But! We can learn a lot from the comparison to Iron Man 2 since you bring it up.

Iron Man 2 was touted – just as BvS was – as a ‘worldbuilding’ movie. What is a ‘worldbuilding’ movie? It’s a film meant to set up a universe from which other movies can spin out of. Iron Man 2 introduced SHIELD. Amazing Spider-Man 2, similarly billed as a worldbuilder, introduced the potential for more villains and a seedy, shady man in a hat. Batman v Superman introduced, well, you know by now. What do these three worldbuilders have in common? Nobody likes them that much.

I do!

You are in the minority, my friend. Remember that 91% popcorn score Iron Man earned? Compare that to Iron Man 2‘s 72%. Nearly 1 out of 5 people that liked Iron Man didn’t like Iron Man 2. And that’s not all. Rotten Tomatoes says that a 72% popcorn score means that 72% of users rated a movie at 3 1/2 stars or higher. 3 1/2 out of 5? I think a lot of people would say that’s a pretty mediocre score. The point is that 91% of people thought Iron Man was at least mediocre, while only 72% of people would say the same about Iron Man 2. Amazing Spider-Man 2 scored only a 65%. And Batman v Superman? Currently, it holds a 72%, tied with IM2.

Don’t think that’s low? Consider this: only one other Marvel Cinematic Universe film falls below BvS’s 73%. Can you guess it? Yep, Incredible Hulk. Amazing Spider Man part one? Higher. Thor 2? Higher. Man of Steel? Higher.

Another way of reviewing how much people liked a film is to consider the Cinemascore, which captures a grade from people right after they viewed a movie. Here, Batman v Superman got a B. A B sounds good, until you learn that Green Lantern, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Catwoman all scored Bs. Iron Man 2? An A. Amazing Spider-Man 2? B+. Man of Steel? A-. Incredible Hulk? A-. It’s readily apparent that BvS just doesn’t stack up well to other films in its class. This, despite a reported $400 million in production costs and a need to make $800 million just to break even.

The good news is that BvS managed to avoid a Fantastic Four-like flop and that bodes well for the future of DC’s entertainment universe. BvS will make its $800 million, I’d predict, and so there will be more DC movies coming. Remember that before Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out, Sony had planned a universe of Spidey movies. (There were even rumors of an Aunt May movie. Ugh.) ASM2 made pretty good money but the whole Spideyverse was killed. In the days leading up to BvS, I wondered if that might happen here.

Hopefully, DC and Warner Bros. take the Marvel route (again) and do what Marvel did – retool instead of reboot. After Iron Man 2, films focused less on ‘worldbuilding’ and more on being good individual films. Jon Favreau got the boot from the director’s chair (unfortunate, because he’s a fun guy and good director) and maybe Zack Snyder may need to produce more films than he directs. But except for the overly-stuffed Age of Ultron, Marvel has been content with telling smaller stories while still giving you big budget thrills.

That brings me back to the dilemma I initially planned on writing about: the fact that you’re entertained by Batman v Superman. As a visual spectacle? It’s great. The cast? Awesome (although I’m not a Lex Luthor fan here). Yet as everyone and their mom has pointed out, the plot makes absolutely no sense. It really makes even less and less sense the more you think about it and the plot holes keep adding up.

Why should you care? Because filmmakers can do better. When movie studios tell you they are going to be making a film with a focus on ‘worldbuilding’, start complaining. Worldbuilding has become an industry buzzword meaning “we’re going to beat this horse til its dead.” By creating a huge universe of films with similar characters, the end goal is to get you hooked into seeing every single one of those films no matter how bad they are simply because one of your favorite characters will be in it for a few seconds (see Suicide Squad). Worldbuilding and cinematic universes are just a marketing tool disguised as geek nirvana.

But it can be done better. Take Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a great, fun film with a great cast and yet it wasn’t billed as a ‘worldbuilder’. That’s despite the fact that the film introduced a galactic police force, numerous alien species, the Collector, ancient beings, powerful forces and a humanoid tree. When movies are done right, they build their own worlds. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Star Trek all do this right. Heck, one of my favorite worldbuilding films to do it right recently was the under-seen John Wick (which is thankfully getting a sequel).

If you had fun watching Batman v Superman, think of how much more fun you could’ve had if it was better. If Clark and Lois’ relationship was fleshed out more. If the Doomsday plot was saved for its own movie(s). If the battle between the two heroes lasted longer than eight minutes. If the resolution of said fight involved something more substantial. By not asking these critical questions of the film and just saying, “I liked it cuz it was entertaining,” we are limiting the demand for better, more awesome films. More Guardians. More Winter Soldiers. More Avengers.

So it’s okay to like things about Batman v Superman. It’s okay to not hate it. It’s okay to say the critics are dumb and “overthink it.” But in your own way, demand more on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, wherever. Ask for better entertainment, for all our sakes.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Our Score: C+

Rotten Tomatoes: 28% | IMDB: 7.4 | Metacritic: 44


Hey! We’re going to talk even more Batman v Superman on our podcast, Geek & Stein! Stay tuned to our website or head on over to our YouTube channel (filled with dumb videos) for more!


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