They are some of the biggest juggernauts at the box office right now, the superhero movies from the two largest and most established comic book companies. But, while it seems like Marvel is incapable of making a bad film, churning out crowd pleaser after crowd pleaser, DC (in conjunction with Warner) is releasing mess after mess garnering critical scorn and audience disappointment. With superhero fatigue being a very real thing movie audiences are suffering from today, DC is going to have to learn how to step up their game if they want to keep their share of the big box office gross, and Marvel needs to make sure it doesn’t fall into complacency, as well.
Before starting with the article proper, it needs to be explained what exactly the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes are. The DC Universe really includes only the films Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. The Donner Superman films, the Burton and Nolan Barman films, and anything animated are not included in the current DC Universe, as the film Man of Steel was meant to start a brand new continuity which will branch across all further DC/Warner live action movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe includes only the films made by Marvel Studios (now owned by Disney). Any properties owned by Fox or Sony studios are not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes the X-Men franchise, the Fantastic Four movies, and any Spiderman movie made before Captain America: Civil War. With that clarification, let’s get to it.
Getting the characters right in a comic book movie should be the easiest part of the job, you would think, and also the most important. The superheroes of these universes have been written about for decades, and in a few cases, getting close to a century. They are some of the most recognizable and iconic characters in human history, and their writers have more character lore to work with than has been written about any other fictional characters before. This amount of character lore makes for a huge base for any writer and director to draw from, but it also means the character’s fans can know them as intimately as they know friends and family, and it is of utmost importance to these fans that their favorite characters are treated with respect.
There is nothing wrong with a new take on an iconic character, so long as the foundations that character is built on are respected. There have been many interpretations of Batman and Joker in film over the years, most loved, a few not so much. At the core of the character of Batman is dealing with childhood trauma. In most modern interpretations of the character, it makes for a serious, driven man, who looks to be feared and respected more than loved or admired, and who will do everything he can to not allow the same trauma he’s lived through be inflicted on others. Joker is his mirror image, bright and colorful where Batman is dark, but what’s most important to his character is the absolute glee he takes in making sure others suffer. At Batman’s core is a serious protector and Joker is his maniacal, abusive mirror image.
All of the film Jokers before the current DC Universe took a different take on the character, Jack Nicholson’s was a crime boss, Caesar Romero’s a manic comedian, and Heath Ledger’s a psychotic social engineer, but all understood that at the core of the character was a villain who takes honest joy in others’ suffering. Batman has had a great many more interpretations, the largest failure would have to be George Clooney who just saw (or more likely was just allowed to be) a comic book character and played the part for giggles. Even Adam West’s comic interpretation at least had sanctity of life as a focal point for the character, going so far as to save a flock of ducks at great risk to himself in one of the character’s funnier moments.
Marvel gets this. Iron Man in the comics is not not a wise-cracking, smart-ass, he’s actually normally rather intense and serious. Yet nearly everyone loved Robert Downey Jrs portrayal of Tony Stark, and not only because he wasn’t a well known character. There were many who loved the portrayal purely because of Downey Jr.’s charm, but even the most die-hard and skeptical fans of the character were brought to love this version of Iron Man and that is largely due to the fact that Marvel understands that as long as they portray him as a man struggling with, and creating more, personal demons they have the essence of the character intact and the rest can be more open to interpretation.
Thor and Superman are an interesting contrast to look at between the two film universes, as both are very similar characters at their core. In Thor and Superman, we have to characters who are, at their essence, gods who strive for humility due to lessons taught to them by their fathers. Both learn that despite their immense power, they are not better than humans, and Superman even goes so far as to take on a disguise that, if he weren’t good at his job, would be considered little more than a nebbish by most of his companions. In the Marvel films, we see Thor learn this lesson then act upon it from the last part of his first solo film on. The early Superman films also get this. But Man of Steel and Batman v Superman give us a Superman who revels in his power, seeks to set himself apart from humanity, and is very comfortable with being judge, jury, and executioner. There can be room for interpretation, there can even be a complete break of character so long as it’s for story reasons (such as Thor learning humility rather than starting life understanding power does not make one better), but there is no reason to believe this is the case in Man of Steel nor Batman v Superman since the issue of power not being the sum total of a man is ever addressed, in fact the opposite is often implied.
There are many other examples of this in the DC movies. Batman is a casual killer, Harley Quinn is never a victim, Lex Luthor is a giggling idiot, and so on. It’s strange, but it seems the people making the latest batch of DC films don’t understand their own characters. Perhaps they do, and are just pandering to their audience by giving them what they think they will enjoy, but if that’s the case, then it is the audience they don’t understand. Marvel understands both, and proves it over and over again with each new character they introduce. Every major character, at least.
Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, followed later that year with The Incredible Hulk. One was successful, one wasn’t, but Iron Man was successful enough that Marvel Studios was confident enough to go ahead with their plan of releasing an entire series of films contained in one universe culminating with The Avengers. These films were Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. What these films all have in common is that, with the exception of the first Iron Man, they are now viewed as some of the least of the Marvel films in quality. Marvel understood, however, that these stories were necessary in establishing the series of films they wanted to make. It’s almost as if these five movies were nothing more than the exposition to the stories they really wanted to tell, but as even the most novice of writers knows, exposition is absolutely essential.
What starting with fairly typical action, superhero stories leading up to the first film teaming up characters from separate films allowed Marvel to ultimately do was create stories that didn’t need nearly so much character set up time and backstory to work as these elements had already been taken care of previously. More intricate story lines with many more characters could now effectively be used within a decent time frame. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we didn’t need to be told where S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra came from, we already know. We didn’t need backstory for Black Widow, we’d already seen that. Instead we get to enter straight into the action, and we can use many more characters and plot hooks because we can relegate origin stories and backstories to the only the new elements, in this example’s case Falcon and The Winter Soldier himself, everything else has already been told and would just be a redundancy.
When DC started their universe, they did get this element right with Man of Steel, but after that with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad they attempted to jump forward in the storytelling time line. They give us many characters the audience has never seen in this particular universe before and act as if they are familiar faces we’ve been watching for years. This Batman is older and experienced with a well established modus operandi and reputation, yet this is the first movie he’s been in. The villains in Suicide Squad have been operating for a long time, but this is the first time we as an audience see them, and we have to learn about them through too short and very awkward vignettes early in the film rather than their being allowed to really breathe in their own feature film outings.
Then there are characters that we know feature prominently in the DC Universe but don’t have much time in the films themselves. Joker doesn’t seem like Joker at all in Suicide Squad, but that could be because he only has minutes of screen time. This Joker is more of a mobster than a happy anarchist, but perhaps that’s just the perception we get from his barely more than cameo status in the film. Wonder Woman is the most fun part of the final battle in Batman v Superman, but why was she at Lex’s party? When did she become a spy? Why is she in Metropolis at all for that matter? When characters are just shoed into a film for no reason other than for the film makers to get more box office gross because they put in a name people recognize with no actual character to go along with that name, all you end up with is a messy plotline.
DC seeing all the money to be had from a shared Universe decided to rush into the center of their story line, and it is not working. They did not recognize that, even as iconic as their characters are, they still need a story to go around them. Maybe we don’t need to see Thomas and Martha Wayne being shot yet again or the rocket ship landing in Smallville for the umpteenth time, though ironically, those two incidents we did get to see, but we do at least need to know what brought the characters to the state they are currently in and why this particular take on the character is different than others we’ve seen before. Maybe there’s a reason Lex Luthor acts more like Joker than himself, or why Joker acts more like Two Face or Penguin, but without sufficient story, we are just left puzzling where this character came from.
This is less of a remark on something DC is getting wrong, and more of a something Marvel is getting right as a lesson to DC in the future. Superhero films until the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been established were all more or less the same genre of film, action adventure with a focus on a comic book character. This is why superhero fatigue is settling in with modern audiences as long before the first Iron Man hit the screens we’d already seen this genre of films many, many times. When they were appearing once every couple of years or so, it could still remain fresh, but now with at least 5 being released every single year, and sometimes even more, the formula and the genre have to shaken up.
Marvel got this and started releasing films in their universe that weren’t straight comic book action adventure stories. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we got a spy flick very reminiscent of Cold War era espionage films. Guardians of the Galaxy brought us the Marvel version of space opera. Ant Man gave us the superhero Ocean’s 11 style heist flick, and on their Netflix television shows the bend the genre even more with crime dramas (Daredevil), neo noir (Jessica Jones), and blaxploitation (Luke Cage), with kung fu coming in the near future (Iron Fist). This mix up of genres has kept the superhero stories fresh, and Marvel the least likely to suffer from general apathy toward superhero films prevalent in the public at large.
With only 3 films under their belts, so far, no matter how messy they may be I can’t fault DC for not innovating with genre, yet. They need to establish their universe first, and they are already at fault for trying to do too much, too quickly so this isn’t another mistake that needs to be mixed into their formula. But, looking forward this is something they must recognize. Wonder Woman will take place during World War I, which could be an excellent opportunity for just this sort of genre mixing, and the DC Universe has Batman who is also called The World’s Greatest Detective. It would be wonderful to see him actually earn that title in film for once with a good mystery movie.
While DC is off to a very shaky start, they are only 3 films in, and they do at least have the strength of their more stylized visuals and incredibly iconic characters to work from. Marvel is now pretty much a juggernaut which has yet to make a bad film and will likely not be stopped in the near future unless DC manages to spoil it for them by making people outright hate the genre instead of just wanting perhaps less of it. Learn from Marvel, DC, but don’t necessarily imitate. Marvel understands their characters, they take the time to set up their massive and intricate story line, and they aren’t afraid of shaking things up when need be. You need to do all this as well, DC, and you also need to stand out as your own product, and not just more superhero movies. It’s more difficult coming to the party second, but you do have the resources to make your own universe a thing people want to experience, and not just be a spoiler for Marvel Studios, you just need to use intelligence and patience to do so.