Why Marvel films are the sugar rush and DC films are the meat

I’m excited about the new Batman film. I’ve written elsewhere that I hope it lives up to the standard of its Nolan predecessors and offers a more substantive alternative to the excited-puppy thrills of the Marvel series. This isn’t a popular opinion. Marvel is seldom seen as anything other than a huge universe which caters to every appetite which everyone can find a home in. If you hate Captain America for running around deflecting bullets with an antiquated Spartan shield, then Guardians of the Galaxy will surely make you chuckle. So the argument goes.

But still, as wide-ranging as the characters and plots are and as rightly praised Marvel Studios is for creating such a successful comic-based film franchise, the movies lack depth. They always seem a bit too self-deprecating, a bit too self-aware, but not so much as to make it purely comedic and it’s probably this which makes them family and fan favourites alike.

Don’t get me wrong, thematic efforts are made. But it’s precisely because the films are so diverse that makes them unable to crack the glass ceiling of celebrated moral complexity. They simply can’t mature, not while the rules are different for each film: while Captain America dabbles in the political chicanery of The Winter Solder, there’s the Guardians of the Galaxy roaming around with a talking tree and racoon. While Iron Man grapples with post-traumatic stress syndrome in Iron Man 3 and Jessica Jones includes explicit sexual undertones, there’s a James Spader robot destroying the world and an Ant-Man. It just doesn’t fit right and you never get a developed moral compass beyond ‘good guys, bad guys and sometimes the good guys need to make difficult decisions but we know they’re still good but let’s pretend they’re not…for a bit.’

So if the explosive, sombrely excited trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are anything to go, Warner Bros. is trying to cash in on the ensemble hero success of The Avengers while keeping a deadpan face as caped crusaders race to save the day.

Warner Bros and their DC Comics screen heroes have always been darker than their Marvel counterparts. More prolific readers of graphic novels will be able to offer a plethora of reasons why, but it generally boils down to a more selective and memorable roll call of DC characters. Marvel might be more industrious with its character pantheon, but (with the exception of The X-Men, Spiderman and Wolverine) they have no titans in the public zeitgeist to rival Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s often said that if you found an Amazon tribe that had never seen outsiders before, the three symbols that they would recognise are the American flag, the Coca-Cola brand and the Superman ‘S’.

There is something inherently mythological about Batman and Superman. The film Unbreakable, a worthy comic book/superhero film in its own right with Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson, attempts to explain that superheroes created the mythology of countless civilisations because they possessed abilities but they were never the outgoing costumed types. Yet, when you look at what is nearly the first hundred years of these characters it’s impossible not to wonder if, in a thousand years, future generations and historians will label these characters as our contemporary mythological heroes, no different to Hercules or Athena, precisely because they are so embedded and worshipped in the public consciousness.

Perhaps it’s the sanguine, joyless burden of responsibility that has made the characters famous but also the reason that they’ve never reached the mass hysteria indulgence of Marvel films. Tim Burton’s Batman or the obscenely pious Superman Returns came across as ridiculously serious and never believable. The former is credited as defenestrating the camp 1960s Adam West version but it never came close to creating the generational joie de vivre that Marvel has tapped into over the last eight years.

The Christopher Nolan series, widely hailed as some of the best superhero films of all, was a real-world adaptation of Bruce Wayne and Batman, rather the other way around (The Dark Knight Rises was a payoff to the fans who enjoyed the Wayne-arc; it was 45 minutes before the Batman costume even appeared). In this respect our more human, arguably psychotic Bruce Wayne was moulded by contemporary realism and was never a literal adaptation of its comic source material.

What the latest trailer has demonstrated is that Warner Bros. is the counterpoint to the sugar sweetness of the Marvel Studios franchise. The costumed, rather than armoured, Ben Affleck Batman seems to be a nod and conscious choice to move the film away from the rigid, albeit hugely successful, brutal realism of the last decade and back into the escapism of big screen entertainment. This is going to be serious, but it’s going to be kick-ass, in a world that treats these characters as a given and thus more can be done with them without shock and awe.

The key to this is borrowing from the success of Marvel and introducing a live-action ensemble that unites these characters. It’s never been done before, most likely because their stories have typically been of such an epic singularity and well-known variety that it’s made sense for studios not to take risks and instead just to give the public what they expect. Batman. The Joker. Superman. Lex Luthor. Repeat.

Because Marvel’s characters (certainly those owned by Marvel Studios and not Fox) have been smaller and less well-known, they’ve gotten to the ensemble phase quicker. Iron Man was a break-out film, but the single character sequels were weaker. The Avengers helmed by Joss Whedon was one of the largest box-office films of all time. Iron Man 3 was weak, as was Thor: The Dark World, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier inaugurated the promise of character-arc film series that prominently featured other characters, something normally reserved for the ensemble films.

DC characters have developed more slowly precisely because they are so large and interesting in the mind of many people. Superman and Batman are modern myths and they hold an almost perennial religious, moral and legal interpretation that never quite grows old. This is probably why origin stories have been done to death whereas Marvel characters seem to appear, get a titular explanation, and off they pop to do their thing.

As the trailer demonstrates, the success of Marvel has encouraged Warner Bros., after nearly 45 years (if we take 1978’s Superman as the beginning of the on-screen DC Universe) to move onto the next phase of cross-character films and the establishment of a shared universe. But for all this, there is a rationale behind the seeming neglect. Warner Bros. has no experience and no record of producing an ensemble film of this scale, not least when it is meant to lead into a Justice League series running concurrently to solo Batman and Wonder Woman outings. It’s a gamble for a studio so used to making their money from individual series and, if for whatever reason, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice like Man of Steel before it, doesn’t generate a cash flow the studio hopes for, it might be a very short dawn.

The result should, in theory, be less about sugar highs and rather a meatier, more substantive DC universe that is believable, enjoyable but reflects the maturity of the characters in the source material. A grisly, world-weary Bruce Wayne and a 5,000-year-old Wonder Woman are perhaps emblematic of just how long it’s taken Warner Bros. to get here. It’s also perhaps telling of our times that the school-boy exemplar of decency, liberty and flying condescension is about to have his ass handed to him.

Welcome to 2016.

Batman v Superman will be released in March.

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