Recently, while doing research for an article, I ran across an old piece asking "Is Iron Man 3 the most controversial comic book movie yet?"
"Aww," I thought to myself. "How quaint!"
In the time since Iron Man 3 delivered furious fanboys frustrated by the fraudulent Mandarin, we've seen Man of Steel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Fantastic Four, each bringing more fury, more online screaming matches, and more naked aggression than the one before it.
Back then, I wrote, "It seems that whenever a director tries to get too precious with comic book movies--and to make a film that will garner mainstream critical acclaim as an objectively good stand-alone movie outside of the context of superhero films or the universe of the Marvel movies--there's a segment of the audience that's unable to 'get' what the filmmaker is trying to do, and another segment of the audience who demands it's the best comic book movie of the year, whether or not it's actually any fun." The fact that Zack Snyder just had this happen on a colossal scale, trying to be "relevant" with Batman V Superman and then splitting audiences between "it's genius" and "it's incomprehensible" makes me feel a little bit psychic.
So...what are the most "divisive" comic book movies of all time?
There are a few things to consider, there.
First off: to be divisive, for the sake of this conversation, my editor has insisted that the film not be generally agreed-upon as terrible. That leaves something like Fant4stic off the list, even though casting a Johnny Storm of color set off a firestorm of internet controversy and commentary.
(Full disclosure: I liked Fant4stic more than most.)
There also had to be more than one complaint. "Bruce lets Ra's al Ghul die at the end of Batman Begins" isn't enough to put the movie on the list, even if people are still complaining about it a decade later.
So as Marvel gears up to pit hero against hero in Captain America: Civil War, what were the movies that split the comics community, the fans, the critics, or our readers? Read on...
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
It's unlikely there will ever be another movie quite like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
DC's first true ensemble film, it brought together Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time -- and from the very start of production it was clear that the movie was never going to please everyone.
That was thrown into sharp relief when it came out; early fan screenings yielded ecstatic results, while the movie's Rotten Tomatoes rating sank like a stone as soon as the review embargo lifted. When all was said and done, there's about a 40-point swing between the percentage of critics who wrote favorable reviews on the film, and the percentage of the audience who liked it.
Meanwhile, the film is #3 all time if you look at its ratings from ComicBook.com readers in our movie database. It's common for new realeases to be artificially-inflated as enthusiastic audiences get out of the theaters and rave, but because we had a contest tied to setting up an account and rating the film, there are nearly ten thousand reader ratings, one of our biggest sample sizes.
It's worth noting here that there are plenty of comics fans and non-critics who didn't like this film, either, citing a confusing plot, excessive violence, and a controversial take on Lex Luthor. But in general it seems to be that the audience likes it much more than the media do.
The disparity between the film's reviews and its audience response has been significant enough to get conspiracy theorists going that the blogosphere was engaged in some kind of (Marvel-funded?) smear campaign against the film -- which while paranoid and a little silly is not entirely without merit -- if only because there were a lot of critics and bloggers that went in ready to trash the movie. Why? Well...prevnext
MAN OF STEEL
Much of the controversy surrounding Batman V Superman was built on the shoulders of Man of Steel outrage.
So, yeah, while it's absurd to claim that Disney/Marvel is paying critics or bloggers to hate on Batman V Superman, that film absolutely went to the proverbial batter's box with two strikes against it.
Why? Well, Man of Steel was incredibly divisive. It was Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes when it was released, but over time its score has sunk by ten points from its opening weekend.
Immediately after they started to promote the film, its third act "destruction porn" and muted color palette had some fans on the defensive. Jonathan Kent's fear for his son's well being trumped potential moral lessons about power and responsibility, sending some comics purists through the roof -- and then came the ending.
When Superman killed General Zod in the film's final moments, a percentage of the audience simply couldn't abide it. Veteran comics writer and Superman fan Mark Waid blogged that he shouted at the screen and wanted to storm out.
The film went on to become the highest-grossing Superman movie ever made and earn a sequel, which turned out to be Batman V Superman, announced at Comic Con shortly after Man of Steel was released. And in the run up to that movie, the blogosphere started to become less divided on Man of Steel, with more and more "tastemakers" comfortable saying that the film was a "failure," and a defensive fanbase reflexively lashing out at critics.prevnext
IRON MAN 3
Yeah, this one still counts.
In trying so hard to make a compelling stand-alone film, Shane Black made something that ultimately didn't speak to a significant portion of the Marvel fan base. And that meant "Iron Man and his Li'l Buddy" complaints a-plenty.
The biggest affront in the minds of fans, though, was that they reinvented Iron Man's arch-nemesis The Mandarin as a beard for the film's real mastermind: a powerful, brilliant, magical character was reduced to an out-of-work actor pretending to be a terrorist to pull focus away from the real bad guys. It was a clever piece of misdirection from the perspective of a filmmaker who wanted to shake comic book fans out of their comfort zone, but that maneuver didn't go over so well with everybody. Here's a sampling of Google results for The Mandarin:
It also did something that Batman V Superman has been (fairly) criticized for -- but on a much larger scale. While Zack Snyder wasted Jimmy Olsen by making him a disposable character killed in a scene to further Lois's subplot, Iron Man 3 took a half-dozen or more Marvel supervillains and demoted them to Extremis soldiers, all of whom blew up throughout the course of the film. Now if that rumored Iron Man 4 does take shape, they can no more use of Coldblood and Firepower than future Superman movies can Jimmy.prevnext
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
This one...hardly counts.
Yeah, it was disappointing, but it didn't generate the same amount of agitation and fan arguing when it came out as the rest of the material on the list.
But we wanted to acknowledge that, like Man of Steel, this movie's reputation has depreciated quickly, and a lot of the discourse around it has become toxic as a result.
While in the case of Man of Steel, most of that seemed to be a case of fridge logic and fans/critics who just decided it wasn't as good as it first appeared, in the case of Age of Ultron part of the reason it seems to have become a punching bag is that Joss Whedon himself acknowledged how flawed it was.
It also came in with impossible expectations; Avengers earned a billion dollars and was wildly popular with audiences and critics, still arguably the standard-bearer for comic book movies. Age of Ultron would have had to be a certifiable classic in order to live up to what people wanted, and it wasn't. The same thing happened to The Dark Knight Rises, a movie with flaws that have been blown out of proportion due to its inability to stack up, critically or commercially, to The Dark Knight (and, to a lesser extent, The Avengers).
Admittedly, though, even taken on its own merits, it's not a movie that's without fault. Removing the burden of expectations and the Monday morning quarterbacking by critics and fans who heard Whedon's complaints and you've still got a movie that had fans alternately excited for the Hulkbuster fight and complaining about another boring villain and a needless death of a Marvel superhero in the third act.prevnext
Seriously? This guy again?
Yes, all three of the DC properties on this list are Zack Snyder's.
Why did he edge out Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises for the title? Well...because this one's a reversal of what happened with most of the films on the list. After being bludgeoned early on, Watchmen has become one of those movies where people will tell you "you know, I don't think it's as bad as it gets credit for."
This movie took some liberties with the source material, angering hardcore comics fans. Its pacing and cinematography at other times felt too slavish to the comic book source material, angering movie critics and cinema snobs. It "looked" too much like a Zack Snyder movie, giving ammunition to his many critics. It was too long, too slow, too stylized, too...whatever.
And then, a couple of years after it came out, those criticisms were all still there but in general the audience seems to have found its affection for Watchmen, which is brought up affectionately in conversations about things like the box-office success of R-rated Deadpool and criticisms of Snyder's other superhero offerings.
Since so many of the movies on this list started out strong and depreciated, looking at one that faced its demons early and has gotten "better" with age felt like an important inclusion.prev