This summer, two mighty forces, fighting for the same cause but with radically different outlooks, went head-to-head on the largest stage imaginable.
Of course those forces are the movie studios of Marvel and DC, and the cause they are fighting for is separating us from our money.
Maneuvering heroes into fighting each other has long been a staple of comic book writers, probably because it is very effective at selling comic books. It's what 10-year-old kids reading comics want to talk about anyway ("Hulk would just punch Thor through a building!" "Thor would just fly away, dummy!"). Plus, it means an issue where there can be lots of action without the need to create a new supervillain for the heroes to fight. Everybody wins!
Seeing these two films so close together really made it clear that there is a right way and a wrong way to set up a super hero battle. Well, a right way and lots of wrong ways, but Zach Snyder will have plenty of chances to explore those in later films.
The foundation of a superhero battle movie is the issue the superheroes disagree about, and to be fair, both films made a good faith effort at this. In Captain America: Civil War, that issue is whether superhumans like the Avengers should be accountable to a civilian political body. We have spent enough time with Tony Stark in the course of multiple films to know that he has a flexible view about rules and whether they apply to him, so it makes certain amount of sense that he would urge the Avengers to agree to the Sokovia Accords; after all, if the U.N. ever ordered him to do something he disagreed with, he would just ignore them and do what he thought was right anyway. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, believes strongly in order, law, and honor, and will not sign a treaty he feels he cannot be bound by. Given what happened to S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it's understandable that he has some hesitation about what constitutes legitimate authority anymore.
In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justine, there is also a real disagreement, set up by the fact that Superman acted like a total dick in Man of Steel and sort of nonchalantly allowed tens of thousands of people to die. Zach Snyder, faced with an opportunity to use those lemons to make lemonade, decided he just really liked lemons, so why not have more of those? More is better!
In the lead up to the big confrontation, Captain America gave us a charming scene between Tony Stark and young Peter Parker. Batman v Superman gave us Batman beating the hell out of a tire for some reason. I guess he thought the key to beating Superman in a fight was going to be upper body strength.
Both movies have big action set pieces, set in conveniently evacuated transportation hubs, which allows for maximum collateral damage with a minimum of inconvenient civilian casualties. Captain America sets up a whirlwind battle between a dozen heroes in which they all had something meaningful to do, while keeping the stakes high, being clear about each side's objective, and mixing in enough humor to make the whole thing fun. Batman's plan to outright murder Superman comes to screeching halt when he realizes that <gasp> Superman has mother too! I guess that hadn't occurred to him before. Luckily Batman then redeems himself by coming up with a brilliant plan to save Superman's mother: cleverly use brute force to fight dozens of henchmen while hoping the bad guy in the next room pointing a weapon at the hostage forgets how to use a trigger.
I was actually disappointed by the ends of both films. In the case of Captain America, I appreciated the idea that this ordinary guy, who knew he was powerless against the likes of the Avengers, maneuvered them into fighting each other. But once he reveals his plan it turns out not to make a whole lot of sense, and the final dual between Tony, Steve and Bucky was the only part of the movie where I felt like the heroes were fighting for no other reason than the fact that the script said they needed to. The part of Batman v Superman where I felt that way was all of Batman v Superman. And when Lex Luthor reveals his plan to... wait, what was his plan exactly? Make the world safe from Superman by unleashing something far, far worse? Lex seems like the kind of guy who would get rid of the rats in his basement by filling his house with a pack of starving, rabid wolves.
Both of these films existed to bring in viewers and set up sequels, and they both made enough money that the future of both franchises is secure. I look forward to what's next from the Russo brothers, who have shown a confident hand in making super hero movies that are fun, dramatic, and character-driven. I look forward to someone gently taking the reins of story from Zach Snyder and making him a director of photography. No doubt the guy can compose a striking image, but his films end up feeling like elaborately staged fan fiction. I think Ben Affleck might be motivated enough to make some demands before the next film.