1 Character Depth
Captain America: Civil War, for as outstanding a movie as it was (and believe you me, it is a fine film), was at it’s heart a four quadrant, superhero movie. As such it had many masters to serve. The reality of this movie, and I really hope I am not giving too much away (one would think anyone reading this article has already seen it), is that nobody dies. And as a viewer, I never thought that anybody would. Never. Even when Captain America and the Winter Soldier had Iron Man over a barrel in the bunker, I always knew that Tony Stark would live to snark another day. And as a viewer, I was never bothered by this. In Batman v. Superman, for as flawed as it was in certain aspects of its execution, it really strove to push the characters within this universe forward. It wanted us to understand why Bruce Wayne was the way he was. Seeing him as a young man, seeing his reaction to Superman battling General Zod, all played into why he was so well rounded. This was taken to epic levels as well in Christian Bale’s portrayal. One really gets a sense with the DC films, be it the characters in Watchmen, Green Lantern, Red, etc…That any one of these three dimensional specimens could be blown off the screen. Sure, the films just mentioned may be flawed (this will be discussed later), the depth of the characters cannot be denied. Taking this one step further, while the characters of Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Witch, and Pepper Potts are all superbly played, if you were going into a battle vs. the Joker or any other supervillain who would you want backing you up…Them or Wonder Woman? Case closed.
If it isn’t the posters or the films themselves, Marvel titles all have a certain look. It is crisp, clean and nothing has been left to chance. In fact, in a lot of ways these films feel a lot like family films only there’s a lot of action and explosions. Make no mistake, Marvel makes very good films. The problem is that they lack any tangible grit. This is where DC has them beat by miles. The Christopher Nolan films give us a very conflicted Dark Knight. He inhabits a world that is so steeped in darkness, one wonders if young kids should even be allowed to see the films. Perhaps that’s why Superman Returns and even Batman v. Superman have underperformed. Movies aren’t only expensive to make, they’re expensive to attend these days! Think about it, you take a family of four to the movies and (not including concessions) you’re spending $50-$60 some days. Asking people to pay that kinda freight is a tall order, especially when you can just turn on the news and get it for free. Whether its following a group of aging hitmen in Red, or seeing institutions toppled in V For Vendetta, this is some pretty raw stuff. Where Marvel characters have amazing superpowers to all but ensure that they will never shuffle the mortal coil, many of the DC Characters are so close to being actual humans that it raises the stakes entirely. Say what you will about Batman v. Superman, that film was dirty. There were times that it seemed like Zach Snyder intentionally “smoked out” certain scenes. As if the idea of vigilantism was so murky, so fuzzy with it’s pros and cons, one couldn’t help but be in a haze. To say nothing of the pristine and debauched look of V For Vendetta or Jonah Hex’s crimson soaked rustic vibe.
3 Not Being Afraid of Humanity’s Dark Side
One need look no further than both Ben Affleck and Christian Bale’s somber portrayals of The Dark Knight to see this next point. However, this somberness looms over most DC projects, most palpably in the Zach Snyder designed Watchmen. That film opens with the death of the Comedian and goes downhill (fast) from there. Even in the films denouement, the transcendent feeling we get from Zach Snyder’s vision is that there’s absolutely no way it can last. Again, Superman Returns was as optimistic as director Bryan Singer could possibly have made it. Still, it was overshadowed by Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) ultimate vision for the way he saw society. Take a guess, it wasn’t pleasant. The same could equally be said for Jason Eisenberg’s portrayal in Batman v. Superman. Here, we see a character who seemingly has all the advantages. Yet, the one thing he can’t get passed is the way the myth of Superman is perceived. One gets the impression that if Batman were the only game in town, Lex Luthor might not have challenged him. Then again…The reality of the situation is that Marvel has a clear cut agenda. They see the big picture. Their films are meant to be cohesive. They are McMovies. They can be bought, sold, marketed in fast food restaurants and made palatable to the widest possible audiences. Marvel knows this and it has no problem with what it is. DC’s current failing is its schizophrenia. It wants to be what Marvel is yet the darkness within its properties, the very thing that helps set it apart, the thing that should be ultimately embraced, sadly holds it back. Harvey Keitel often talks about embracing darkness to find the light. DC has all the darkness it needs, maybe it shouldn’t really care about the light?
4 Director Freedom
Again, Batman V. Superman, despite all its flaws, despite the fact that characters like the Flash and Darkseid make cryptic appearances that few but the most knowledgeable comic folk will get, is clearly Zach Snyder’s movie. The same could be said for Man of Steel, Superman Returns, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, etc. The Marvel films by contrast just don’t challenge viewers in this way. Sure, the movies themselves are better, they are more coherent and (for now) ultimately more satisfying to moviegoers, but the visions behind them just aren’t up on the screen the way they are in the DC Films. Christopher Nolan really set the stage for this. No matter what you think of his three films as a whole, there was a singular vision there that seemed to be 100% backed by Warner Bros. The truth is that Marvel, with Disney as its corporate parent, just can’t be as glib. They can’t afford to take the kinds of chances that Warner Bros. can. The reason? Most likely it has to do with the darkness of the material as previously mentioned, the grit inherent in the properties and the depth the characters bring by virtue of their histories and mythos. Make no mistake, Shane Black, Joss Whedon and the other Marvel Directors are quite good at what they do, sadly, their efforts to maybe be a little more subversive were hamstrung working on Marvel franchises.
5 Better Villains
Thanos is about as bad it gets for an superhero group to tackle. Aside from superhuman strength and durability, he can perform telekinesis, telepathy, and can turn objects into wholly different objects. He can fight and he also happens to be a genius. If Thanos wasn’t a bad-ass he wouldn’t be the main bad guy in Marvel’s upcoming Avenger: Infinity War films. At the same time… look at him. He looks like a reject from the cast of Warcraft! I am sure he is going to reap holy hell on planet earth. However, given Marvel’s penchant for avoiding real gloom and doom (see the above points if you haven’t already), and not only do we know that none of the main Avengers are going to die but it’s almost hard to really be scared of Thanos on a kinetic level. The same could arguably be said about the Winter Soldier, Loki, or any of the Iron Man and Spider-Man villains. Now, contrast this with how viewers were captivated by the Joker (both Heath Ledger’s portrayal and the comic triumph from Jack Nicholson), how they were truly scared of Bane, how the new General Zod gave us shivers the way Terrence Stamp’s version of the character had. Take a movie like the Watchmen, the villains in that film weren’t merely bad but, rather, that film was a war of ideology. It took the very fabric of society as we know and turned it on its head. Look, the stakes are high in both Marvel and DC films. The difference in their bad guys? Our DC heroes seem like they might perish when they face theirs, while we know that the door swings both ways in the Marvel Universe.
So how’d we do? Did you hit some points regarding the DC Films that are giving you cause to rethink them? Do you think Marvel does these five things just as good if not better than DC? Should this list have been longer? Not written at all?