In one corner we have the bleak tale of two titans duking it out for the sake of justice. Far, far away, in a corner in a different arena, we have the latest Disney-thriller (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and topically poignant family movie to grace American theaters. One holds a staggering 99% on RottenTomatoes and the other has handily achieved one of the highest grossing opening weekends. Both, right now, stand at the forefront of popular culture’s attention and sit at the top of the box office.
Unless your eyes haven’t glanced up at the title, you know we’re dealing with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zootopia, both movies still in theaters that have been exceptionally successful. I want to compare these movies and see what they do right and what they do wrong:
Let’s begin with Dawn of Justice, the second installment in DC’s attempt to compete with Marvel. If you’ve visited RottenTomatoes’ website anytime recently, you will have undoubtedly seen the new superhero movie’s abysmal critical score (fluctuating somewhere between 29 and 30%) at the top of the box office list, having grossed an astounding $170 million on its opening weekend.
It is no secret that the movie has it’s shortcomings. For starters, it had plenty of plot holes, though I assure you I could point out at least one plot hole in whatever your favorite movie is (unless your favorite movie happens to be My Dinner with Andre). The scenes for the first hour were clearly arranged by a buckshot. It was violent (but not as deadly as its predecessor). It’s awkward dialogue was dotted with lofty language. It was confusing. It jammed unnecessary sequel set-ups into an already bloated runtime. Jesse Eisenberg, though the most textured character in the movie, came off as discordant with the rest of the cast. And even though they squeezed some jokes into the last act (at the expense of characterization), Batman v Superman had a teenage angst uncharacteristic of superhero movies and, largely, undesired.
But, those things don’t demand a movie fail. Plenty of America’s favorite movies have similar problems, and DC’s Dawn of Justice even has some good elements to it. Some of its supporting characters are at least fun to watch (Lex Luthor, Perry White), and most audiences put aside their prejudice in order to enjoy the objectively talented Ben Affleck. I would even add, despite being in the minority, that Cavill gave the most emotionally versatile performance in an otherwise emotionless movie. The aesthetics for the film are fantastic (despite fading near the end), as is to be expected by the visually minded Zack Snyder. Probably the best segment of the whole ordeal is the titular duel, which is engaging, intense, and fun. And I know I included it as a flaw, but the dark tone also acts as an asset! While it may not be what audiences expect, a darker take on superheroes can make for an interesting film.
Alas, none of that could redeem the movie on account of three simple things: character development/motivation, narrative propulsion, and an overall sense of clutter. As I said, I think Superman shows the broadest range of humanity in the film, yet even that is timid and there still remains much contradiction around his character. On the other hand, Batman’s motivation is properly set-up, but we never get to know him as a person. Apart from them, there is almost zero characterization and motivation established in the movie; the story lacks a singular thread to propel the plot and the audience’s interest; and the movie is, to put it strongly, incoherent and inconsequential.
In contrast we have the Disney masterpiece, Zootopia. Like any masterpiece, Zootopia has its flaws (except Back to the Future—Back to the Future has no flaws). There are, again, plot holes in the film, little elements of the story that don’t add up. The metaphor offered between animals and humanity breaks down fairly quickly as noted by the one dissenting critic on RT. And any movie that is synthesized by multiple writers and directors, I have an instinctual objection to.
But Zootopia does so much right! The technology behind the animation has allowed for a stunning picture, and all of the exotic locales makes the film truly breathtaking. The movie was funny—I mean, really funny. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t think so (and if you didn’t think so, consider us no longer friends). Zootopia also has a message, albeit a familiar one, behind its story. It’s worth noting that the movie’s themes seem to touch on feminism, racism, homophobia—some conclusions I would agree with, others I’d disagree with—but at least there is clearly thought and intention behind the family film.
Most importantly the movie has characters. It has real, developed, motivated characters. We get what Judy Hopps wants in life, and by understanding the motivation of Nick Wilde, we get why they interact like they do and how the plot is gently moving forward.
Simply put, Zootopia knows how to tell a story. It is nice to have something pretty in front of you—that’s a part of art, there’s no doubt about it. It’s also nice to have humor and dramatic themes. But what matters most of the time in the medium of movies, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, is the art of storytelling. Characters we can empathize with, stories we can follow and stories that keep us propelled (no matter what they’re about). That’s what Disney consistently shows us it knows how to do.