In the Ring II: Marvel vs DC

In All, Books and Comics, Movies by David

Kyu: Welcome, readers to the second edition of In the Ring. Last time, Atomika and I took on the Oscar-nominated The Big Short. This week, of course, we’re talking super heroes. This debate will be held in live chat instead of via prepared statements, so expect things to be a little more off the cuff and a little less rigorous–the way Lincoln and Douglass would have G-chatted.

Amy: Douglass would have probably used AIM and asked for everyone’s MySpace deets.

Kyu: Our specific topic is Amy’s position that DC super heroes are naturally less suited to cinematic adaptation than Marvel super heroes. I will be taking the position that she is wrong and a dumbface. Let’s get to it.

Amy: A point in your favor, my face can be pretty dumb.

Kyu: To start, did I accurate summarize your position?

Amy: Close enough, sure. At least the major brands, Superman, Batman. Also, and maybe most importantly, an interconnected universe of films.

Kyu: Alright. Go ahead and lay out your reasoning and we’ll jump in.

Amy: Okay.

When DC announced its grand scheme to shamelessly try to copy Marvel’s MCU while also riding its coattails, I’m not sure how well the executives in charge of that decision considered the challenges that lay before them; challenges that the competition might largely avoid due to key differences in the two stables.

Namely, DC characters, individually, have a more difficult time approaching the realism most super hero books strive for in today’s cinema marketplace. And when expanded to include several of them in a larger collective framework, the difficulty multiplies almost exponentially.

While the key brands Marvel has chosen to build their flagship from (the Avengers characters, mostly) all have a certain level of required suspended disbelief, they all fit fairly harmoniously into a world where their coexistence makes sense. DC heroes, on the other hand, are trapped in outdated and outmoded hallmarks of their brand, and take an extremely generous amount of willful allowance of handwaving to make their world work.


Amy: Damn. Strong rebuttal.

Kyu: I have only begun to rebut.

Honestly it’s hard to know where to start, there’s so much wrong here.

But I guess there are three main points to consider. First, that DC characters are hard to place in a realistic framework, especially in concert with one another. Second, that Marvel succeeds at this because its characters do not share this problem. Third, that DC characters are trapped in the past and require a lot of handwaving in order to work.

Amy: Yes.  Excellent.

Kyu: Before I get into the main points, it seems to me that each of these carry within them one equally wrong and unsupported assumption. First, that cinema requires realism. Second, that Marvel succeeds in making good movies. Third, that Marvel characters are not also trapped in the past and require massive amounts of handwaving.

So let me I guess throw out a basic argument for each of these, and you can Choose Your Own Debate Adventure as to which you feel like tackling first.

Amy: Cool.

Kyu: 1A) The easy refutation of this point is the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, which essentially perfected the idea of a realistic super hero in popular cinema. Things had been trending that way since Bryan Singer’s revolutionary X-Men, but Nolan’s use of noir and crime themes within the series, as well as his commitment to scripts with procedural details and carefully tied-together storytelling, made for some pretty realistic movies off of a character who at one point in his past fought werewolves.

1B) The Tim Burton Batman, on the other hand, demonstrates that realism is not a requirement for enjoyable, popular cinema. (I’m going to try not to lean too hard on Batman in this debate, but he is my area of expertise.)

Amy: PhD in Batmanology, I’m guessing?

Kyu: And Batmanonomy!

Amy: Snap!

Kyu: 2A) Marvel’s characters absolutely share the problem of difficulties in making a narratively cohesive universe. I don’t want to get too in depth here until you talk more about precisely what you think DC’s issues are, though. But I bet Marvel shares them.

2B) Marvel suxxors, at least when it comes to their cinematic universe. Sure, they’re financially successful, but so is the DCU. Talking creatively, most of the Marvel output has ranged from depressingly mediocre to Thor fucking 2, a movie so awful it made a teleportation-through-multiple-worlds fistfight boring and unfun. If their patented light-hearted, breezy tone is what good realism looks like, count me out.

3A) DC’s characters aren’t just characters, they’re timeless modern myths, recognizable and familiar to children the world over for decades. They’re still relevant to people today because they deal broadly with questions of family, power, and virtue, and because they’ve taken many different forms under many different authors. The Batman of today is very far from Golden Age Batman, and the same goes for Superman and I’m sure the DC characters I’m less familiar with. Far from being trapped, they’re some of the most malleable characters we have, and in the hands of good authors, can and do retain their power to entertain and illuminate.

3B) On the other hand, Marvel’s characters were all born out of the ’60s and ’70s culture wars, and as such are about as out of touch and trapped in the past as a current day veteran of the American Civil War. Iron Man is a billionaire hero designed to tweak the hippies, which might have been fun back then but is ruinous today in a time when we need to stop lionizing dickish, oppressive CEOs like Steve Jobs. Or look at the Fantastic Four, so trapped in a time of rah-rah scientific enthusiasm that they explode on the cinematic launchpad time and again.

So, ask yourself, how do YOU want to be wrong today?

Amy: Well, I never saw a losing argument I could back away from, so let’s just start with the top, eh, bub?

Kyu: Sure thing.

Amy: Article 1: Realism – This is where I feel DC has the most difficult time in translating its brands into cinematic viability.  Does a film about super heroes need to be cinema verité? Lord, no. But it does require a certain threshold of verisimilitude, an ability to cohesively work within its own world by a set of rules the audience can understand without having to worry too much about them.  This doesn’t stop fantastical worlds from being fantastical; endless pages and feet of celluloid have chronicled tales that pull this feat off with little trouble. Do I need to believe a man can fly? Not necessarily, but I do need to believe that in his world, he can fly.

So yes, your two polar end examples actually serve to help me articulate my point–you can be extremely grounded or extremely fantastical and still feel “real” by staying within the tone and style and rules of the world you’ve created.

The problem with both of those examples, however, is their shared subject: The Batman.

Kyu: If you’re about to malign Batman, we might have to settle this with a duel.

Amy: No, I’m cool! I promise!

Why does DC have such better results with the Bat while so much trouble with everything else? I argue that its because the character requires less to be successful.

He’s an outlandish character, but just enough this side of plausible to let the audience give him a pass.  He’s just a guy. A well-funded, crazy, super-genius guy, but still just a guy.  But more importantly, he has always existed (until this past week) within a cinematic vacuum.

Kyu: And he is arguably still the best part of Synder’s Batman v Superman.

Amy: No doubt. I agree wholeheartedly.

We can believe in a Batman, because that’s just about all the mental gymnastics we have to allow ourselves.  He doesn’t fly, he isn’t from space, he doesn’t have a terribly weird collection of mythology that is generally considered indispensable to his character.

He’s just Batman. Or The Batman.

Kyu: Or The Goddamn Batman.

Amy: Oh yes, always.

However, now that Batman has to live in a world of Kryptonians and Amazonians and Eisenbergians, he seems… well… quaint. Don’t you agree?

Kyu: I do! Debate over!

No wait, that was the last one.

No, you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: you look at great, successful Batman movies and ask why Man of Steel sucks; I look at great, successful Batman movies and ask why they thought Zack Snyder could pull this off.

Amy: A fair question we’re all now asking.

Kyu: In a sense my counterargument to this entire concept of DC characters versus Marvel characters is that, fundamentally, a film’s starting material is much less important to it than the talent behind it.

I don’t see a difference between Batman, a realistic character (who still has a bunch of ninja shit in his backstory) and Superman, a fantasy character (who still grew up on a farm and lives in a city like a normal person). I see a difference between Nolan, a great filmmaker, and Snyder, a shitty filmmaker who wouldn’t know narrative consistency if it was covered in blood and moving in slow motion.

Amy: Do you not see the same difficulty I do in melding Batman’s gritty street-level chocolate with Superman’s space alien peanut butter? It’s not exactly the same as putting Iron Man and Captain America in the same film together.

Kyu: It’s no different than putting Iron Man and Thor in the same film together. Thor is also a super strong, alien-minded god-like being from another plane of existence far beyond our own (which just happens to be a society of Norse mythology cosplayers).

Amy: True, but Thor is also very much an alien, and only comes to play with the Avengers when the stakes are high. Otherwise, he’s back in Space Norway doing Space Norwegian stuff. Superman is from Kansas.

Kyu: I find it telling you use the metaphor of chocolate and peanut butter for two substances that you think don’t combine well.

Amy: Now, now. Too far.

Kyu: Hey, you brought it up, not me.

Amy: I think Batman and Superman go wonderfully together.  Just maybe not in live-action movies.

And really, my point isn’t that they don’t go together, but rather they don’t go together as easily as some of Marvel’s figures do.

Kyu: But whatever you want to say about Batman v Superman, we did, in fact, get a believable cinematic fight between these two characters. And conversations between these two characters. They existed together on screen and felt natural.

Amy: You know, I can’t disagree there.  The last 20 minutes were the only watchable parts of the film for me. Minus the funerals.

Kyu: Well, we can totally switch gears if you want and talk about how ridiculously nonsensical Marvel’s world is.

Amy: Well, maybe it’s that level of nonsensical breeziness that lets that world work. BvS is very sturm und drang about two guys in underoos fighting a random space monster… and it feels far more ridiculous than Ant-Man‘s ending where a giant Thomas the Tank Engine flies through the roof of a house.

Kyu: Aw, you spoiled the only one I haven’t seen yet.

Amy: Oh, sorry. :<

Kyu: I read a great article recently about kind of the problem with Marvel’s world.

Here’s the money quote:

It’s no accident that the most ubiquitous, overwhelming sci-fi sub-genre around is the one that has the least to do with the future: superheroes. Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that we don’t need to wait for technological marvels, but can experience them right here, right now. More, we can do so, magically, without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all.
Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world’s technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.

While dreary and stupid, Synder’s Superman films at least have a good explanation for why Superman’s arrival hasn’t changed the world–his Superman is a frightened, weary, lazy dullard who just wants to save small handfuls of people on his own time without the world knowing or giving him guff about it.

But every single character in Marvel brings its own form of science-fiction or fantasy that, if handled realistically and consistently, would enact massive changes in its universe.

The equivalent of 9/11 and aliens landing for the first time happens simultaneously in The Avengers and nothing really changes.

Add to that Tony’s massive new energy source, a super soldier program that we’re told died with one scientist 50 years ago (imagine a world where, without Heisenberg, science never cracked the atom–it’s absurd), the whole Guardians of the Galaxy society, etc.

If the Marvelverse is more consistent, it’s at the expense of being interesting or real.

Amy: Well, it’s frequently referenced thereafter, but Iron Man 3‘s plot largely involves Tony’s PTSD after the events of the first Avengers. I think the issue here is that most of the films take place from the POV of people who already experienced these happenings at a ground level, so we don’t examine that world as much as we should.

And judging by the trailers, Civil War seems to be delving deep into the “just what the fuck is going on here” side of the MCU.

Kyu: Sure, but just like the fact that their casting of leads is maybe soon about to be not 100% straight white male, the fact that it might be changing doesn’t excuse its lack in the previous 10 movies.

Amy: I can cop to that. I mean, it gets referenced and examined, just not with much gravitas. Tony’s response to the New York attack is basically everything Age of Ultron is about.

However, to bring up something you once told me about my dislike for The Dark Knight Rises: you can’t judge a film by what you wish it was.

Kyu: Well, this is an argument about characters, and it seems to me that Marvel’s characters lend themselves just as easily as DC’s to inconsistency, or the handwaving required to get past inconsistency. At least DC’s universe is committed to looking at the big picture.

Amy: Is it?

Kyu: You can call BvS a lot of things, but “small” isn’t one of them. Or “tightly focused on characterization,” for that matter.

Amy: Ha, true.

Kyu: In its zeal to compress Marvel’s phases into, like, two movies, it kind of has to look at a much wider world–two super heros in two cities, more metahumans on the way, etc.

Amy: It’s hard for me to see much of that size as anything more than advertising for other movies they’re pitching.

Especially given the off-hand way they go about it. BvS does little more than say, “Hey, lookit these guys! They exist!” Thankfully Lex Luthor gave them logos we would recognize.

Kyu: Well, it’s a bad movie. But the very idea of putting Batman and Superman together classically improves both characters in terms of scope, leading each to question the assumptions of the other.

We do see a little of this in BvS–Batman sees the Man of Steel incident and realizes that there are things bigger and wider than his little anti-crime spree, and shifts his ideas to encompass a more global mindset.

Amy: I agree there. There’s a lot of really great narrative potential in pitting Batman against Supes. Like I read someone saying the other day, they should have just made The Dark Knight Returns.

Kyu: Sure. Therefore there’s nothing inherently wrong with these characters.

Amy: I never said there was. I just think it’s a harder trick to make it work right.

And Warners definitely isn’t the studio to make it happen.

Kyu: I think when you can say “This would have worked if they had just straight up adapted this comic book,” you have to recognize that the problem here has nothing to do with the source material.

Indeed, given Snyder’s Watchmen, I think Snyder’s TDKR would have been pretty good. He’s a decent filmmaker if you hold his hand the whole time.

Amy: Agreed. Watchmen and 300 both at least are serviceable, since all the story work was already done for him.

But alas, Snyder not only had to tell the story of BvS, but also open the door for the entire DCU, which is something TDKR wouldn’t have done. And that’s part of what makes that world tricky.

The core of DC’s stable is just plain bonkers, with characters that don’t make a whole of sense and stories that start from outlandish and only get more so.

It can be done, I will say.

GotG, Star Wars, all these films make the outlandish work just fine.

But those worlds are hermetically sealed, for the most part, whereas the DCU has fit in a rich guy in a batsuit as well as a evil alien overlord with a bugman army. (The Knightmare sequence was one of the weirdest, worst things I’ve ever seen.)

Pictured: some crazy ass bullshit.

Kyu: If you change “batsuit” to “metal suit” you have described the MCU.

Amy: Maybe. But “metal suit rich guy who works for the government” is an easier stretch than “bat suit rich guy has his own crime-deterrent empire and also he fights clowns.”

Kyu: Iron Man doesn’t work for the government, he has his own terrorist-deterrent empire. And he fights people with flame powers.

Amy: Okay, WITH the government in a quasi-antagonistic relationship.

Kyu: Look, I want to go back to Watchmen here, because I think it’s actually a key point.

Amy: Okay, sure. I’m actually a fan.

Kyu: Me too.

Amy: I even own the 4-hour cut.

Kyu: Here’s a film that specifically, even if it’s within one movie, is mashing together a bunch of different super hero character types. You have a ground-level “person in costume” type in Silk Spectre, a Batman-ish rich guy in Nite Owl, and a psychotic detective type in Rorschach. Then there’s Veidt, who is portrayed literally as the world’s smartest man. And then Dr. Manhattan, who if anything is more powerful than Superman because he can pretty much directly rewrite reality, and also experience all of time simultaneously.

So you have a really, really overpowered alien-minded hero, a completely ordinary masked vigilante, and a whole bunch of comic hero types in between. And yet that film makes them feel perfectly consistent and even realistic, by sci-fi standards. And it does this in part by making tiny changes that shave off some of the weirder shit that Moore put in his comic in order to talk about goofy comics, like the squid.

So what that shows is that even if you have weird or nonsense characters, you can adapt them to the screen in a way that’s smart without even too much effort. This is the same as Nolan deciding not to do Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy in his movies, or changing Ra’s al Ghul from someone with literal immortality to someone with metaphorical immortality.

This is not hard. Warners is just bad at it.

Amy: You’ll get no argument from me there.

But it seems like when someone tells a story that ties all that in so well, you get something amazing, like Watchmen (the book). And in Watchman‘s favor, it didn’t have to sort through 70 years of fan service.

Granted, Warners doesn’t either. But they choose to. When I feel, if they’re going for a more grounded Nolan-esque take, you gotta do what Nolan did.

Kyu: Warner’s idea of “fan service” was shooting Jimmy Olsen in the head.

Amy: Yep. Snyder (or WB, who knows) wants a weird cake-and-eat-it-too scenario. They want a weird, silly world cast gravely in the dark with angry people scowling about nothing in particular. It’s hard to have this argument without constantly coming back to “wow, Snyder is really, really shitty.”

Kyu: True, but that inevitable conclusion is in my favor.

Had they given this franchise to George Miller, like they were planning to at one point, we’d be having a very different conversation.

Honestly, the cinematic vision I have for DC isn’t that much different from Watchmen, or even the MCU in a way.

Amy: Lay it on me.

Kyu: I like the idea of a universe built from disparate tones and genres that have to come together.

The Dark Knight Rises is just silly enough that it would have fit pretty good alongside a decent Superman film, and the contrast between Batman’s mostly dourness and Superman’s good-hearted optimism would have made for a compelling film that would have used its story to reconcile two different but complimentary tones and points of view.

I don’t need a movie that’s completely unified, and I think asking for one is kind of besides the point of this grand narrative experiment that Marvel is running and DC is failing to replicate.

What I want is something that embraces bold ideas while taking itself and the audience seriously, that tells strong stories with good characters. And I don’t think there’s anything about DC’s material that’s holding them back, just like I don’t really blame my problems with the MCU on their characters (not even the Fantastic Four, which is really tempting). It’s a question of who is doing it, are they making good decisions, and do they have the freedom to do it right?

Amy: As with any production, that’s what you hope for. However, without the firm guidance of a guru like Kevin Feige, can WB trust anyone to know how to tell the best version of their universe? It’s a path fraught with peril.

Jimmy Olsen turned into a turtle boy:

Lois Lane became a black lady once:

I’m not suggesting these are do-or-die stories, but I do think that both Lois and Jimmy are albatrosses around the neck of telling a good Superman story. Because they don’t make a lot of narrative sense without significant reworking from their source material, but if you leave them out, you’re gonna hear about it from the fans.

Kyu: No filmmaker is excused from intelligently, significantly if need be, reworking their starting material for a new medium.

Amy: I agree, but do you think many of the fans do? Or that WB does?

Kyu: I’m starting to think that fan outrage is utterly meaningless from a box office perspective, given that even after Man of Steel everyone still showed up for BvS.

Amy: Perhaps. But at what point does that stop being the version of the character people are lining up to see?

Kyu: I think people will show up over and over again out of hope that the characters they love will finally get the cinematic treatment they deserve; and if nothing else, I think that speaks strongly to the inherent possibilities of these characters.

Amy: Just for giggles, if I were making a Superman movie, there’s a really good chance it wouldn’t have Lois or Jimmy at all, and I don’t know if people would be happy about that.

Kyu: Honestly, these movies might as well not have Lois, given how pointless she is.

Amy: But the bullets! The special bullets!

Kyu: No, you’re right. It was super important that she found out that Luthor was behind the scheme, because of, uh… did anything ever come of that?

Amy: No, that subplot was my favorite. Two hours of jerking off.

Kyu: But I think you could make a Superman movie where Lois grounds him.

Amy: The problem with Superman is that he has grounding points everywhere. Lois, his mom, his dad, Pete, Jimmy, Lana. Bruce, sometimes.

Kyu: Pete? Who the hell is Pete?

Amy: Pete! Pete Ross! Superman’s Best Pal! Snyder’s Pete Ross was the manager at IHOP that bullied Clark as a child. Of course.

“Did someone say my name, which is Pete Ross?”

Kyu: I have literally no knowledge of this character and I’m going to assume you made him up just to fuck with me.

Amy: See? So many redundant characters.

Kyu: Right, which is why a smart filmmaker cuts them out.

Look, we’re not in strong disagreement about the world as it is. We both think Batman v Superman sucks, we both believe that Warners and Snyder are shepherding their little universe down the road to movie hell. You don’t seem to have any hope for the future of the DCU, and if we’re being honest, I don’t either.

If we truly disagree, then it’s about a hypothetical world where the right people are given the freedom to make the right decisions about adapting these characters.

Maybe in that world Superman still fits badly into a universe that also contains Batman and Lois Lane and a weird fish man and a time traveling teenager.

Maybe not.

But either way, that’s not the world we live in. More’s the pity.

Amy: Superman is a simple character, from a simple time. Perhaps that’s difficult to make work in a modern context, and perhaps to hammer him into our world and square that circle requires remaking him into something else. Of all the comic book heroes, he’s the one that’s changed the least over the longest period of time. I think that means something, something about him being immutable and an icon for people to point to when they need a person of unimpeachable moral character.

Making that all work in a world with space monsters and Batmen and bugmen and murderous clowns is not ever going to be easy, but I think it’s worth the effort. Superman seems to mean something to us all, something we feel worth revisiting time and again, lamenting when he isn’t “right” with us.

This may not be our Superman in Snyder’s world, but we know who our Superman is, and we’ll keep looking.


In the sky.


That’s it for this edition of In the Ring. Thanks for reading!