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EDITORIAL: The Ethos Swap of Marvel Movies and DC Movies

Have you noticed how Marvel and DC have switched tactics when it comes to making their movies? I shall elucidate.

The Infinity GauntletIn my formative comic book collecting years (which began with The Infinity Gauntlet in 1991, and lasted until 1996, when I left the state for college) I was most certainly a bonafide Marvel geek. Oh sure, I was suckered into buying all the hottest ’90s titles from Image Comics, trying desperately to convince myself that stuff like Wild C.A.T.s was cool (although I still have a definite affinity for Sam Keith’s The Maxx), but for the most part, the central superhero canon was Marvel and Marvel alone. Marvel and their central business rival DC Comics have been locked in a death struggle for decades, each taking turns barely nosing the other out in terms of comic book sales. I, however, was clearly on one side. I have bought exactly one (1) DC comic book in my day, and it was, oddly enough, The Resurrection of Superman. I missed out on the Death of Superman bandwagon, so I would be darned if I’d miss the (as it turns out) far less popular follow-up.

I have nothing against DC Comics or DC superheroes. Indeed, I love all the Batman movies to date (yes, even the bad ones) and I feel that Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman remains the best superhero film of all time; it’s The Beatles of superhero movies. But when it comes to the comics, DC was outside of my purview. Thanks to the movies, though, I feel that I know the myths and characters of DC with at least a passing familiarity. Although I have to admit that the name “Booster Gold” makes me snicker.

I have had several fun academic (and, of course, conclusion-free) discussions with other comic book collecting peers on the differences between the two comic book giants; the Marvel vs. DC debate is an endless one. Here are the conclusions that those discussions have led to: Marvel – in a general sense – is about street-level human beings who have superpowers (and, hence, crime-fighting responsibilities) thrust upon them. It’s about the real-life angst of real-life people dealing with extraordinary fantasy circumstances. It was Marvel that gave us scenes of Spider-Man visiting a therapist, or the Fantastic Four dealing with newfound celebrity. DC on the other hand, was more about perfect Adonises. Gods among men. People who were born great. Superman is essentially indestructible. The Flash is perhaps the fastest thing to ever exist. DC practically invented superhero-dom, so it makes sense that their heroes should be the most powerful beings in the universe. Batman notwithstanding, of course.

The Dark Knight

In short: Marvel made relatable humans, and DC made aspirational deities. Yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions on both sides, but I think the statement can prove to be generally true.

So if Marvel is about the down-to-Earth, and DC is about the lofty, why have their respective “Cinematic Universes” taken the opposite approaches?

Think about it for a second. Even though the Marvel movies have been bright and fun, their heroes aren’t really dealing with real-life angst so much anymore. Sure, you occasionally have a Spider-Man 2, which features a scene of the hero’s costume running in the wash, but the so-called MCU features heroes that fight over-the-top magical monsters, aliens, and secret Nazis. The heroes – superpowered or otherwise – seem more indestructible than ever, capable of anything. The occasional notes of relatable human drama are present, but they vanish whenever a character like Thor appears on screen. We’re living in a universe with a literal deity. Paying bills and pleasing your loved ones, fixing your house, getting married, looking after your kids in between superhero-ing… these things are no longer concerns for characters like the Avengers.

In the cinematic universe, Marvel has transformed into the bright, clean, indestructible deities of DC.

Thor

DC, on the other hand, has been fostering a cinematic universe that is based almost entirely on angst. In the most recent Batman feature film, Batman was looked at more practically than he had ever been. What would it take to create a Batman? What are the everyday technical struggles to create a Batman? And, most memorably, what is the psychological toll on the person who elects to do something as crazy as be a Batman? The recent Batman films have been downbeat, dark, and complex. These are films that delve into the real, personal psychology of the superhero in a way that the Marvel movies do not.

One step further, that same angst was applied to Superman in the controversial Man of Steel. Superman was no longer a morally forthright Boy Scout who came to easy conclusions about helping people. This was a man who was torn between his need to help and his need to keep his identity secret. He was conflicted. Challenged. In my twisted mind (perhaps inspired solely by the Donner film; I understand there are other versions of the hero in the decades of comics), Superman always lived – not to put too fine a point on it – a Christian life of constant giving. He was messianic in a way. In Man of Steel, however, his costume was muted, his reality given more thudding weight, and his actions consequences. He was sussing out his identity throughout. This was the psychological examination of Superman.

Spider-Man

In DC’s cinematic universe, everything has weight and thought and down-to-Earth struggle. The Adonises are struggling, real-life human beings.

I wonder why this ethos swap occurred. Sure, Marvel comics were always comparatively bright and fun, but I always felt the bizarre fantasy elements were always leavened by a relatable human struggle. The X-Men stood for whatever minority you wanted them to, for instance. And Spider-Man was a blue-collar working guy who only moonlit as a superhero. DC was always about the impossibly perfect undoing the impossibly evil. There was something older and more classical about them. They didn’t so much resemble pulp heroes as distant echoes of heroes like Gilgamesh.

I have no editorial on this other than to observe that a swap has indeed occurred; both of these approaches are legitimate, and both have made for at least a few great entertainments. I’m certain Nerdist’s readers can (and will) contribute dozens of examples of precedent in both comic book universes that undermine my observation, but I feel that my views are sound. The real has become lofty, and the lofty real.

I think this may stem from the way we react to heroism in a general psychological sense. When we love something, we tend to vaunt it, boost it, elevate it to celebrity status. We turn a beloved thing into a hero. But, just as strong, is our need to tear down, to deconstruct, to analyze. When we have a hero for too long, we begin to ask why we have that hero to begin with. It’s in our nature. And, as such, we begin to tear down the hero we have built. We’re in a constant state of both building and destroying when it comes to our idols.

For Marvel, it seems we have built them up, and for DC, we have torn them down.

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5 comments

  • I have had the same thought the commenter “isodore” has had in regards to adapting these characters more to TV series than films. TV would allow more space to cover the relatability, complexity, and depth in addition to the fantastical. This medium would have more time to flesh out the characters and storylines than movies can. I mean damn, the serialized format of comics fits more with television than film.
    The author of this article said, “The X-Men stood for whatever minority you wanted them to.” While that is partially correct, the X-Comics have also always been a metaphor for anyone who is different : whether by their sexual orientation, their religious preference, or people who are punks, goths, and metalheads. Basically anyone who is considered a “freak” and not part of the norm. 
    I have been an intensely devoted fan of the X-Comics since the late ’80s to today, and so I have knowledge of what I’m talking about.

    Interesting article and observation.

  • Wow. I’d never really thought of it this way, but you are on the money’
    I’ve never understood the whole DC vs Marvel thing. I’ve read and loved them both all my life.
    I started reading comics in the early 60s, when Batman and Robin were traveling in time and going to outer space. Superman spent more time pranking Lois to keep her from learning his secret identity than he did fighting bad guys. 
    Then Marvel came along with Spider-Man’s real-world problems and The Thing and The Hulk, whose powers were more of a curse than a blessing. 
    The irony is that Marvel and DC drove me away from comics by trying to write them for guys my age. 
    Sue Dibney gets charbroiled? Captain America gives up? 
    Yeah, I was done. 

  • I would say this comes from a couple sources.  One, is that there is a general consensus, right or wrong, that movies need a level of spectacle and raised stakes such that the daily trials of being a normal person would clash.  Plus there isn’t much time left after all the big story elements to have some of these smaller moments.  You have already complained movies are getting overlong as it is, so I think cinema is just the wrong medium for that kind of storytelling.  If these characters had a bit more space to breathe like on a Television series, they could more plausibly utilize this strength of Marvel’s ethos.  I think the Netflix series Marvel is producing now would be where those elements will come together.With DC I think we are mostly seeing the effects of Nolan/Batman on a very small subset of characters.  DC has really only tapped Batman and Superman.  I think DC likes to pretend that Green Lantern and Jonah Hex never happened, just like the rest of us.  But, the current incarnation of the DC universe comes directly from the dour world of DC’s most angst-ridden, non-super, hero.  Warner Bros. is trying to replicate what worked on one character with another.  The problem with Man of Steel as a film is that they tried to shoehorn Superman into Batman’s shoes, and it rang false for many of us.  The angst in these films is big.  It isn’t the daily grind of being a person, and being a hero.  It is entirely the pain of large consequences, life and death, all that hero’s journey stuff.

  • I wouldn’t say the ethos has really been flipped. Cap and Iron Man have both dealt with emotional/psychological stuff in their stand-alone flicks. Even Thor has had to deal with the betrayal and (supposed) death of his brother, near-death of his father, real death of his mother, as well as loss of identity and separation from home, to say nothing of the hints of what might be coming. The Avengers may not have dealt with these as deeply, but I think the focus of that movie was more about the spectacle of it. There is only so much time.
    Nolan’s Batman dealt with some real life stuff, sure, but I feel like it was dealt with in true DC fashion that puts it above human experience. Your knees are damaged to the point of being unusable? Here’s a leg brace that will let you kick through concrete now, rather than simply making it serviceable.
    Superman is a bit angsty, but he has to hide the unfortunate truth that he’s Superman. That is not something that any of us can relate to, nor can we get away with skewering an asshole’s vehicle with telephone poles when he gives us a hard time.
    I would say the respective ethos’ are in tact, except it seems that attempting to bring Batman and Superman down to earth have resulted in creating another layer of distance, the actions required to resolve those situations are still beyond our ability to empathize with.

  • I’m not a big follower of comics so my perspective may be limited, but I agree with your comments about the movies; how Marvel recently seems to be more about the fun and adventure of being a superhero, and DC about the struggle and the hardships of being one.
    It would be interesting to observe how the change in focus reflects in the context of the universes and their established lore. The three Christopher Nolan movies on Batman fit specially well because the character has been established as lacking superpowers and existing in a plausible world. Thor fits the Marvel Cinematic universe because he’a literally a god. 
    It is the characters that fall somewhere in the middle that are maybe more problematic. I’m a big fan of Donner’s Superman, and I prefer his cheerful take of an almost all powerful alien to Snyder’s grimy interpretation (also MAN OF STEEL kind of falls apart in the third act).