Marvel and DC are preparing to duke it out for a place in your hearts in a 21st century revival of the superhero movie genre. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, Marvel is responsible for characters like X-Men, Spiderman, and Wolverine while DC’s most famous are Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Both have an expansive pantheon of characters and stories, and both are taking remarkably different strategies with their current franchises.
Marvel’s strategy, to create an internally consistent universe in which each of the characters can interact with each other, is really coming together this summer. The last two Iron Man movies have been quite successful, largely because of Robert Downey Jr.’s smarmy portrayal of the titular role. This summer, they’ll be adding Captain America and Thor to their world, and they’ll be purposefully interweaving these two characters and Iron Man by means of less-than-subtle allusions to previous and future films across these and future franchises. These three characters and more will then share the big screen in an adaption of Marvel’s superhero team the Avengers, which will be directed by Joss Whedon of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.
DC’s strategy is markedly different. Its big contemporary success is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. His re-imagining of the Dark Knight is arguably the best thing done in mainstream superhero movies to date. It is certainly the most financially successful, having exceeded a billion dollars in revenue, with the closest runner ups hundreds of millions of dollars behind. With the profound success of Batman, Warner Brothers has asked its Producer/Director to play an advisory role in their re-imagining of Superman, which will be directed by Zach Snyder; but Nolan’s Batman and Synder’s Superman will not inhabit the same world. They will not crossover, and, according to the studio and the filmmakers, they will never meet and shake hands. Even where DC is discussing a potential Justice League movie, a superhero team roughly equivalent to Marvel’s Avengers, we’re hearing that the Batman and the Superman in such a movie would stand alone. They would not be Nolan’s Batman, or Synder’s Superman, but a new take on each character appropriate for a movie in which they cohabit.
Herein lies the gulf: Marvel is trying to interweave some of their key characters into an internally consistent world, whereas DC is comfortable allowing each of their characters to stand alone, and even be simultaneously re-imagined by different directors. The former is a fanboy’s paradise, but the latter allows for better storytelling.
The problem is about suspension of disbelief, and letting the story, rather than consistency, dictate the world.
In the Marvel world, for example, we’ve already got Iron Man. We suspend our disbelief about technology, genius and the limits of private wealth to believe that one man could single-handedly design, build, and operate a super-powered flying suit of armor. It works. It’s cool.
This summer, we’ll have Thor, a Norse god banished from his heavenly realm to Earth where he becomes a hero, directed by the Shakespeare-loving Kenneth Bragnaugh. That’s not half bad, and in a story about Norse gods, I feel confident that I could suspend my disbelief and get involved in this supernatural world.
In Iron Man we’re getting movies exploring themes about a man reforming himself, trying to balance this massive ego with a competing desire to do good; it’s about a man who may well be an alcoholic with a super-powered military weapon. Not the subtlest of themes, but they’ve done entertaining things with them. If Thor is a good movie, I presume we will see a host of very different themes— themes that are more readily explored in a world populated with Norse gods who are, themselves, the embodiments of dark, primal archetypes.
But if you mix these two characters together, could I suspend my disbelief about both at once, and even if I could, does the addition of a supernatural Norse god to a story about Iron Man actually add anything? When you mix them, you get a theme clash. A story about a superhero whose power derives from magic and a superhero whose power derives from technology thrown into the same world could have interesting themes. You could take up a kind of naturalism versus supernaturalism, or the ingenuity of man over the unexplainable super-power of a god. But it sort of stalls, with the grinding sound of a teenager learning to drive stick, against the themes you might explore (and in this case already have explored) in movies about either of those characters on their own. We get Iron Man, Interrupted. It only gets worse when more characters are added.
Worse, the potential for fanboy absurdity is heightened by the choice of Joss Whedon as the director to bring all of these characters together. I know that this guy has a loyal, die-hard fan base, but he’s not the man to hand halfway-decently developed characters to develop further. From previous Whedon films we can expect what he has given us before: half daytime soap opera and half people looking really cool while they blow things up, but it seems to me that what really sells the superhero genre to a wider base is substance and some attempt at a meaningful story. See the one billion dollar profit of The Dark Knight. Sure, we expect action from Iron Man, but when the ego versus morality theme is explored in a half-way decent manner, it’s a pleasant surprise that makes us remember the movie and come back for more when it’s time for a sequel.
From what we can gather from rumors, though, Joss Whedon’s movie is essentially: “What if Iron Man, Thor and Captain America team up with Josh Renner and Scarlett Johanson to fight the Hulk and a group of green-faced alien invaders called the Skrulls?!?!?!”
If you find yourself replying, “Awwwwwwesome!” then you might be a fanboy. I can imagine people walking out of the movie:
“Oh man, what about the part where Iron Man was mind-controlled by the Skrull Commander and he fired a missile at Thor, and Thor smashed it with his hammer?!”
“Phtt. There’s no way Captain America could stand up in a fist-fight to the Hulk. That was so lame. They covered this in The Incredible Hulk number 892!”
“Oh Em Gee (OMG) did you see that outfit?! I can’t wait for them to give ScarJo her own Black Widow movie!”
Imagine if Marvel decides to tie the solo movies for these characters in with their “team up” movie. What if they start throwing magic into Iron Man just because they can, or alluding to things that happened three movies ago in a different character’s storyline? It’s going to be as bad as Batman and Robin. People who don’t care about that shit are going to be sitting in the movie theater asking, “What is happening?” and behind them, someone will whisper, “It was in Thor 2, don’t you remember the Asgaardian golden duck of power?”
It’s going to suck for everyone who isn’t a fanboy. It’ll probably sell some tickets, but it’s not going to compete with DC. When Nolan has finished with Batman, we’re getting indications that the franchise will be passed on to another director who will take the character in a new direction. Perhaps we’ll get an exploration of Batman that is darker, or perhaps one that is more over-the-top. Perhaps we’ll see a world in which Batman hunts supernatural and super-powered villains, taking the emphasis away from the madmen of his rouge’s gallery. Hopefully we’ll see a new look and feel. Nolan’s Batman will stand alone, and whoever comes next will have their own opportunity to make something that stands alone. Think of it as graphic novel trilogies or one-shots, rather than a serialization that becomes increasingly unbelievable and incoherent as you add episodes, writers and revisions. We get to explore the many potential themes around Batman, instead of trying to mash them all together into the same world.
This makes more sense from a damage-control perspective as well. Snyder is currently re-imagining Superman. Maybe it will be good, maybe it won’t. If it’s not good, you just give the job to someone else and see how they can imagine Superman. You’re not bound to interweave the fuck-ups with the good stuff, and the good stuff doesn’t need to pigeon-hole later revisions of the characters. The stories are free to stand and breathe on their own; they can be changed, explored and developed down different tracks.
When and if DC decide to bring their characters together in a superhero “team-up” movie, it’s much smarter for that movie, too, to stand alone. The Batman in the Justice League doesn’t have to be as hyper-realistic as Nolan’s Batman, but his lack of realism doesn’t have to go back and infect future interpretations of him. The Superman in the Justice League can have a heavily developed friendship with Batman, but that doesn’t mean we have to play it up or even mention it in movies that are just about Superman. This kind of cross-over work, in even a three hour movie, is distracting and irrelevant at the very least, and DC’s being very wise in its decision to avoid it.
By avoiding tie-ins and crossovers, DC is really going to show us how this genre can come into its own. At their best, these superheroes have the seeds of an iconic exploration of contemporary culture, a sort of modern Mount Olympus populated with gods and monsters that distill questions of sanity, power, justice, and morality into potent archetypes. The Greeks weren’t afraid to remake their stories, and neither should we be. The “remake” has been slammed as being unoriginal, but what makes an archetype interesting is its power to represent different things and evoke different emotions in various stories and settings that are not concerned with internal consistency. And that’s what makes sense if this genre is going to make good movies. I like the popcorn, the beautiful men and women in spandex blowing things up, and the epic music, but we need something more if these movies are going to be relevant not just to the fanboys, but to the rest of us.