Having seen both Batman vs Superman and Captain America: Civil War, I felt it was time to talk about the differences between the cinematic approaches made by the two biggest comic book dynasties around.
The most glaring difference (without having seen Suicide Squad) is that DC’s films are much more dark and serious in tone than Marvel’s efforts. It’s as if DC saw Marvel’s success and wanted to emulate without cloning, and that was the best way they could think of doing it. I think it goes a little deeper than that.
DC’s Batman comics have been dark and serious for a while, and Superman has also gotten grittier, but both still have more humour in one issue than Batman vs Superman. These stories are working in comic book form because humour, even wry humour, adds another dimension to the characters. Without that the characters would be two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and that’s how they appeared on the silver screen.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s comics have also changed in some ways. Comparing the first Secret Wars to the latest event, just in the way the stories were told, shows a shift in language: the depiction of the heroes back then had them all sounding much like Thor – Heroic, loquacious, and serious. Today’s Marvel comics, while still action packed, show more well formed characters in that they are people who talk like we do. The comics show all sides, dark and gritty as well as light and fun. They’re more three-dimensional. Marvel have managed to translate this well in their films.
DC’s films tell a story, but one filled with mostly angst-ridden characters who seem to think that all there is in the world is the serious business of fighting crime. Even the people they love pull away from them in tragic pose to try to kick them out of their personal well of angst, but all it does is drive them deeper. It’s almost Twilight-esque (and anyone who knows me knows that is the worst insult I can give a film). Only their villains show any hint of humour, and yes, even that’s dark. They wear their pain on their faces all the time, such that even the rare moments of levity have the weight of pain behind them. It’s the same mistake that Sony made with the first Spider-man trilogy: they took away his wit and replaced it with duty.
Marvel films, while telling a story, present characters. They humanise their heroes. Civil War is so much better than Dawn of Justice because it’s not two relative strangers going head-to-head, it’s two friends. That’s what Zack Snyder forgot in his cursory read of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. In that comic, Superman and Batman were friends, but estranged. They had a long history, which made their estrangement complex and beautifully nuanced to anyone who had read even a smattering of the many crossovers the two giants have had. All of that was abandoned for a wafer-thin reason to show almost exactly the same fight from the comic in the film. DC, in their rush to catch up with Marvel, tried to do in one film what took Marvel six, and ended up with a mess. It’s that legacy that also helps Marvel stay ahead – The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already rich with texture. If The Avengers had been made with none of the previous five films for context, it would have been a mess as well, but it would have still been fun to watch.
This led me to a realisation:
DC wants you to care about the events of their films, while Marvel wants you to care about the characters.
I say this because I found myself having a hard time caring in the last few minutes of Batman vs Superman. I should have cared. I should have felt something for a character that did what he did, but after all the angst, it just seemed a little uncomfortable. I’m skirting around spoilers here, and I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll expand on this with anyone who messages me on Google+. My emotional response to the confrontations in the two films highlighted this difference between the approaches taken with these two films, and it is because of that difference that Marvel will continue to get better reviews than DC.
The problem for DC now is that, if they listen to their critics and go in a more Marvel-like direction with their efforts, then they will have still lost. They will only ever be remembered in cinema history as the other superhero franchise. They need to make people care about the characters in the films, but not by copying Marvel’s formula, and the first thing they need to do to achieve that is to get rid of Zack Snyder. They need someone running the show that understands the characters, and isn’t solely interested in elaborate set pieces. They won’t do this, however, because of the money they made from Batman vs Superman. The initial bubble in ticket sales for that movie inflated it’s gross, and that’s all Warner Brothers and DC care about right now, so it’s not likely that they will change a thing.
Zack Snyder has done what I previously thought impossible: He made a worse Batman film than Batman and Robin. It’s sad, because Ben Affleck did a good job with the material he was given, and while Batman vs Superman has some good points about it, it’s flaws are only magnified when compared to Captain America: Civil War. Maybe the folks over at DC should have a closer look at the universe that Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl are building on TV and take their cues from there.