I’m a Marvel, I’m a DC: Differing Approaches to the Superhero Film

10 Aug

(I wish to start be dedicating this article to the film goers who lost their lives in Aurora on 20th July 2012. Our thoughts go out to their families and friends)

Superhero movies have made a move over the past ten years from being a laughing stock to serious business. The titan that is The Avengers took over a billion dollars worldwide and the unprecedented move of bringing together separate movie franchises has caused Marvel’s rival DC to scramble around in an attempt to get a similar Justice League of America movie to set the box office alight. However, while superhero movies tend to get lumped together in one subgenre these two juggernauts have radically differing approaches to their storytelling that is reflected in their respective cinematic universes.

photo from here

A quick history lesson: DC started life in 1934 as National Allied Publications before taking the name DC from Detective Comics, the series that introduced Batman to the world. In 2011, all their titles were cancelled and rebooted to start from scratch. Their biggest superheroes are the “Big Three”, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. The Big Three are also members of their big superhero team, The Justice League of America along with The Flash, Green Lantern (remember the Ryan Reynolds movie, that was supposed to be part of a lead up to a JLA movie), Martian Manhunter and Aquaman. This series debuted in 1960, three years before The Avengers were first formed. Speaking of which, Marvel Comics came about in 1939, published in various incarnation until 1961 when Fantastic Four were created and Marvel began to take a new, “realistic” approach to superheroes. Their heroes were shown to act more like people you would meet on the street than The Man of Steel and this approach has suited Marvel right up until the present day.

“Realism” and “Realistic” are odd words to bandy around when discussing stories where radiation gives you super powers rather than making you really, really sick and that mild mannered reporter can hide his secret identity with a pair of glasses because his colleagues at a supposedly respected paper are really just not paying attention. However, in this new age of superhero films that arguably starts with X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), more attention is paid to the men and women behind the masks and the turmoil that comes with secret identities and sacrifices made for the greater good.  Suddenly it wasn’t enough to be able to leap across tall buildings in a single bound, audiences wanted to see the real life ramifications of living a double life.

X-Men works as an allegory for minority groups, the outsiders who are feared by society while Spiderman is the archetypal geeky loner who goes through ‘a change’ during his formative years that hurtles him into adult life. It’s plain to see that Marvel favours linking the mundane to the extraordinary and as The Avengers lead ups showed they were more than willing to throw in some jokes. All in all I find the Marvel movies to have a lighter tone to them than the DC movies.  That doesn’t mean that the Marvel movies gloss over the darker stuff. For example, both Thor and Iron Man 2 deal with themes of conflicts in families and specifically the conflicts that arise from issue of succession. Both protagonists have to deal with their feelings towards their respective fathers and both of these are integral to the plot though with Iron Man 2, it is revealed more gradually.  In fact if you look at the build up to The Avengers, feelings of insecurity run rampant among the potential recruits.

photo from here

In the case of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the everyday identifiable feelings are replaced with intense brooding and the lighter moments are fewer and far between. The realism, however, is undeniable. The supporting casts are filled with broken heroes, beaten down cops trying to do the right thing and a whole city full of people who are trying not to let the corruption swallow them whole. Nolan’s films, all of them not just the Batman films, are characterised by the obsessions of both his protagonists and antagonists. To an extent, every mian character is driven beyond the human by a want or desire, be it revenge, justice or knowledge. While the Marvel films draw in elements of fantasy that don’t dilute the human factor but rather contrast with it to make it more visible, the Nolan films reject fantasy and the human factor comes from the fact that this world is closer to ours, sometimes uncomfortably close. There are still rays of hope but the humour is usually more of the gallows variety.

DC’s other great superhero film of the decade is of course Watchmen, Alan Moore’s unfilm able opus that has not only been called one of the most important graphic novels of all time but one of the most important novels period.  Nolan’s films owe a lot to Watchmen,which took the concept of realism and superheroes and really took it to town. There are no super powers here, only obsession, cynicism and a somewhat bitter ending. Zack Snyder was the one who brought that to the big screen and has now been given the job of reviving the Superman franchise after Bryan Singer’s attempt. Only a short teaser trailer has been released but it shows that the man of steel will have some of the brooding intensity of the caped crusader.

photo from here

It wouldn’t be good however, to make sweeping generalisations. Last year’s Green Lantern had more in common with the Marvel movies than those of DC, seeking to blend humour with action and expose the vulnerability of its hero. While Marvel has found success with this formula, it didn’t work for Green Lantern. Similarly, Marvel’s darker adaptations such as The Punisher, don’t seem to have as much success. It seems to show that for the most part, each has a distinct style and approach that they pull of very well which makes me wonder whether a Justice League movie would actually work because for a team movie I think there has to be more lightness than Nolan’s films offered.

In the end only time, and the box office numbers, will tell.

About the author: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.

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