[Contains major spoilers for Man of Steel, Superman Returns, Hulk, Iron Man 3, Falling Down, and The Town]
Marvel V. DC: Dawn of Movie Rivalry
Rivalries within American culture have become binary in nature, and this is even more true in the Digital Age. A small amount of nuance is afforded our opinions in the gap between upvote and downvote, as few as are found between these concepts’ constituent bits of ones and zeroes. The free and open marketplace of ideas, information, and entertainment has evolved to polarize people into separated camps, committing loyalty to “a side” as a sort of shorthand to be able to digest it all.
Often these binary camps become the most polarized and divided, and the original intention of the comparison is lost. The Left versus The Right becomes such a passionate argument of identity that consideration of policy and effect becomes secondary. Coke versus Pepsi is so strongly felt that the competing cola will be eschewed if it is all that is offered. iOS versus Android has become core to some people’s identities. But among these binary rivalries, few are quite as bitter and volatile as the rift between Marvel Comics fans and DC Comics fans. It comes as little surprise that the rivalry has translated into the attitudes of the fans of their silver-screen adaptations.
Certainly that rivalry is not a new one. As we watch DC Comics and Warner Bros. putting together a “cinematic universe” to play catch-up with Marvel Studios and Disney, remember that the House The Mouse Built secured this latest leading-position in the game of studio leapfrog after WB single-handedly made exploring comic book heroes a viable cinema wellspring of materials—by debuting their older heroes in what are now, unavoidably, older movies.
It was DC heroes who brought the genre to the silver screen, way back in the day, in Saturday Afternoon serials that existed well before Marvel was even an idea. During my lifetime, though, it was Christopher Reeve as Superman in the original 1978 movie that made us believe, as children, that the kind of adventures we had been reading in comics could be brought to life on film. Without the original now-campy Superman, one wonders if Thor would still be slumming it in then-campy Marvel TV cameos.
Yes, dammit, I have a soft spot for DC. I watched these characters usher in a new age, and even as I saw the first incarnation of “super-hero films” wither under the hunger of producers like Salkind with shrapnel like Supergirl, or Golan and Globus with the godawful lumbering corpse of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, or whoever put out that really forgettable Superboy TV series, I held out hope the magic could be found again.
I was there, in high school, when director Tim Burton made it all cool again in 1989 with Batman. I watched as he topped it in 1992 with Batman Returns. Then I winced, visibly, when director Joel Schumacher brought the house of collectible trading cards down again… just as I cheered, again visibly, when director Christopher Nolan again restored the cool with the success of The Dark Knight Trilogy starting in 2005.
I’m not sure why I seemed to read more DC comics as a kid. I remember expressing more of a preference in characters, Superman, The Flash, Spider-Man, Bat-Man, The Hulk, among many others. My enthusiasm in titles could be somewhat sporadic and scattershot, but all companies were welcome to partake. Mostly, a good cover sold me, as I recall. I do try to remain independent of these binary-fan-camp constraints.
In the end, I grew up reading Marvel, DC, Archie Comics, some EC comics, plenty of Gold Key reprints, and more. So I wasn’t a resentful DC fan when Marvel launched their Cinematic universe. I’ve loved these movies as well, and the only reason I had any grudge about the way Marvel Studios launched their cinematic universe was that I rather preferred Ang Lee’s treatment of Hulk for Universal back in 2003, for its pathos and clever utilization of the TV series backstory, in spite of its “comic book panel” transition-editing missteps.
I suppose I bring all this up in preface to my… eventual… point, because I sometimes sense that the latest round of DC hero films have perhaps fallen victim to that sort of “binary camp” mode of thinking. And since Marvel Studios movies debuted the fleshed-out reality of a connected cinematic universe, and Zack Snyder’s efforts with the DC Universe have been hurrying up to close the gap, they’ve been the subject of unusual criticism and scrutiny, by the basis of comparison. I’d say this is as true of Warner Bros. studio management as it is of the audience, but that’s just conjecture.
I’m happily putting some of the acrimony towards the DC Cinematic Universe at the foot of comic book fandom rivalry. There are some fans of Marvel that want nothing more for the DC comic films to fail miserably, but I would posit that to be a fairly small number. Larger in number would be the more stringent fans of comics in general, who feel that deviation from the original material is a violation of trust that must be met with disdain. To these fans, Marvel Studios’ approach, characters, and creative lineage, is more faithful to the original source. Though Marvel movies do catch their share of heat for any deviation, to be sure–see Sean O’Connell’s article on CinemaBlend: Iron Man 3 Ruined The Mandarin, And Real Fans Should Be Pissed, and the director’s Uproxx interview from earlier this year on the subject: Shane Black On ‘The Nice Guys,’ Mel Gibson, And Why A Female ‘Iron Man 3’ Villain’s Gender Changed.
Certainly not every criticism of the DCCU is unfair or mean-spirited. The latest effort in the new Cinematic Universe, 2016’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, received some fair criticism. If you ask me it was two potentially good movies mashed together into one alright movie… but that can wait for another article. This article is about Zack Snyder’s first effort in the integrated DC Hero Movie Universe, 2013’s Man of Steel. Man of Steel took on a double-duty in its own way: launching said Cinematic Universe (according to press releases), and rebooting the Superman series of movies, all the way back to origin story, after the previous movie in the series had failed to impress.