DC and Marvel are prepared to battle it out in movie theaters during coming years, with Man of Steel paving the way for Justice League against Marvel’s Avengers. It’s not hard to see that each studio has, to this point, taken a very different approach to adapting their comic book heroes, but with Iron Man 3 delivering humor over the more serious comic book source material, we’ve come to wonder: how serious is too serious for superhero movies? And where have the studios planted their flags on the matter?
Rather than simply distinguishing between ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ entries in Marvel and DC’s offerings, we believe the differences go much deeper than tone or believability, and make up two extremely distinct approaches to not only adapting comic book characters, but laying the foundations of a shared movie universe.
Although some claim otherwise, we’re not entirely convinced that writers on each studio’s side approach the issue of adapting comic book heroes by first deciding whether their movie will be depressing, or hilarious. Even so, comic book films to date can be filed into two rough categories, and how ‘funny’ a story or character can be is just the tip of the iceberg.
Read on for our extensive breakdown, or jump to any one section via the links below. You can also VOTE IN OUR POLL found on the last page of the article:
- The Marvel Approach (This Page)
- Marvel: Fantasy Fun over Seriousness
- The DC Approach (so far)
- DC: Characters over Escapism
The Marvel Approach
Let’s start with Marvel: a world where fantasy is the norm, and fantastic things happen, albeit with serious implications. Iron Man actually had quite a serious plot to begin with – terrorist kidnapping, the death of a close friend, and a call to defend those who had been victimized. However, by the film’s finale (Tony facing off against his mechanized-suit-wearing friend and partner), it was clear that Jon Favreau had chosen to cast off drama in favor of adventure.
Iron Man 2 picked up right where its predecessor left off, skipping over the serious in favor of maintaining tone. Whether it was a drunken Tony fighting his best friend – set to some thumping club music and played for laughs – or the infection slowly killing Tony being cured by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a heartbeat, the overall message was clear: Tony doesn’t have to deal with issues the way real people do. And that, dear reader, is what’s known as ‘escapism.’
Sure, fans complained at the time that Favreau had once again ignored the landmark “Demon in a Bottle” comic story (following Stark’s descent into alcoholism) for a quicker, shallower take on the idea of chemical dependence and self-destruction. But with hindsight, it’s easy to see that the world of Iron Man 2 wasn’t one designed to accurately portray – or pay respect to – addiction.
Sure, addiction was hinted at in the film, along with Tony’s father’s own dependence on alcohol, glimpsed in a brief home video. Since Tony’s world wasn’t meant to be seen as the real one in any meaningful way, dealing with such a heavy-hitting issue would have broken the escapism, and seemed out of place among the film’s more “comic booky” tone.
In many ways, consistency is more important for success than the specific story or degree of believability decided upon; it doesn’t matter how serious a comic book movie the director chooses to make, so long as they stick to the decision (*cough*Green Lantern*cough*).
That’s why adapting any comic book story into a film, let alone an annualized franchise is so difficult. Any comic fan knows that for the most part, comic books don’t offer an accurate reflection of reality – not superhero books, anyway. There are commonalities, but with parallel universes, magic in surplus, and invading armies bent on exterminating the human race a monthly occurrence, the superhero genre is fiction through and through.
Marvel: The Fantastical Over The Serious
Serious things happen within comic books (deemed ‘serious’ on the comics’ own terms), and metaphorical conflicts are designed to reflect those in the real world, but to enjoy the average comic book suspension of disbelief is a necessity before even starting.
When it comes to adapting, then, writers and film-makers are faced with a choice: if consistency is needed for a successful adaptation, then either every ounce of the comic book reality can be lifted (keeping the fantastic and unrelatable world intact), or sacrifice the fantastic, unrelatable themes for the sake of the more serious and realistic elements.
One isn’t automatically better or more ‘faithful’ than the other, so we’re not picking sides. But Marvel made their decision clear from the start: adapt all of their comic book worlds’ many facets, villains, and magic to film, granting them the ability to keep characters intact, establish an overall tone, and build franchises that operate on the same terms.
Yet that decision comes with a price; consistency is key, after all. The absence of the “Demon in a Bottle” story line is one example of a very heavy-hitting and serious story not jiving with the more jovial or heightened tone of the film series, and Iron Man 3 is a far more recent case in point. Namely, the decision to twist the “Extremis” comic book arc by Warren Ellis from an exploration of technophobia into the means for creating an army of super-soldiers.
The changes are blasphemous to Marvel comic book fans for obvious reasons – but the truth is, what made “Extremis” so memorable is its uncompromising look at Tony’s drive to become more than just a man, and unite his armor with his own body. Brimming with introspection on the nature of genetic manipulation and technology, no matter how you cut it, that is some seriously heavy storytelling.
Storytelling that, given the rest of the Iron Man series’ tone and attitude, would seem completely unprecedented. Fans can debate how the story could have worked if faithfully adapted, and may have a flawless approach in mind – but mass audiences don’t associate the ‘Iron Man’ name with the same intense and cerebral themes that comic fans might.
In the end, it might be a worthwhile sacrifice: the Marvel films’ fiction steers clear of truly grounded and troubling issues and trauma, and the heightened reality lets aliens and talking raccoons hang around with walking trees and Asgardian gods. What results is a yearly (or seasonal, it seems) adventure into another world, free from the hardships and conflict that we all have to experience in our own lives.
The suspension of disbelief expected across the board also means that personalities can be just as heightened as the action; Tony Stark can fire off quips in the midst of a fight, Thor can fall in love with the first human woman he meets, and Captain America can go into a fight with little more than moxie, and come out on top. People want the fun and the far-fetched adventure, not a semblance of reality.
It’s the reason Joss Whedon can juxtapose Loki’s attempt to brainwash Tony Stark with a joke about erectile dysfunction, and we still like him. Where Joker making a witty remark about his victims or the carnage he’s unleashing on a city is twisted and perverse. This is our world, and the risk of innocent people being hurt is no laughing matter. In Marvel’s we expect Tony to come up with a quip, not think of the people being hurt or buried off-screen.
People will always love escapism, and Marvel’s box office success has proven that the trend is alive and well. If we’re honest, it’s hypocritical for any fan of genre or fantasy to criticize their decision, since Luke Skywalker seemed to take the death of his aunt and uncle at the hands of storm troopers pretty well.
That doesn’t mean nothing can be taken seriously, or audience investment in Marvel’s films is any harder to come by. Serious stories have taken place, and Phase Two will likely be adding to the drama. But where realistic films build drama and tension around walking through a dark alley, a bomb plot, or serial killer on the loose, Marvel can make viewers just as invested and concerned while remaining fantastic.
‘Serious’ in a Marvel film means an alien attack, super-powered terrorists, or a Frost Giant invasion. It’s worked so far (going by the box office numbers), but when Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer were charged with adapting Batman for modern audiences, they chose a fairly…different route.
The DC Approach (so far…)
Given that Christopher Nolan wasn’t exactly a ‘comic book geek’ out to make a comic book movie, the decision was made early on to not adapt the heightened reality of the dark knight’s comic book world and respective Rogues Gallery. Instead, the serious themes of anger, resentment and vengeance were emphasized, in order to tell a story arguably more about Bruce Wayne than Batman’s gadgets or suits.
Injecting fantasy into that world would stick out like a sore thumb, so Nolan and Goyer decided that to keep their world internally consistent; no element of the comic book’s fantasy could be adopted without being made to fit the onscreen world that more closely resembled our own.
The central antagonist of Batman Begins was Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), leader of the League of Shadows, a mercenary group bent on Gotham’s destruction. Gone were the comic villain’s Lazarus pits, along with Joker’s acid-spitting boutonniere, and Bane’s rage-inducing ‘Venom’; the bad guys in this world are people no more insane or fictional than any extremists or radical terrorists in our own.
While the ‘serious’ tone and events of Marvel’s films existed within their own fiction and circumstances, the ‘serious’ events of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy were portrayed in a more realistic light, and were made to appear more relatable to an audience – along with everything else in the movie, by design.
The approach worked for Warner Bros. and DC Comics, since the decision to tell a Batman story that did away with fantasy instead of embracing it (like Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton’s installments had) led to a bigger box office take, and even Oscar nominations. The message was clear: audiences wanted superheroes they could relate to, living in a world inhabited by people like them.
Lest anyone assume that DC or Marvel’s decision was the ‘right’ one, it warrants mentioning that Batman Begins made sure to keep humor intact – not through unbelievable walking jokes, but normal people with developed senses of humor, including Bruce Wayne. The people could be funny, but no more than seemed believable. With The Dark Knight, Nolan and Goyer went head-first into the dark story of loss and insanity that would, for many, come to define the trilogy as a whole.
“Dark, gritty and grounded” is all well and good for Batman – but Superman? He’s the personification of comic book fantasy. So when the creative team of Nolan and Goyer were announced to be providing the story and production oversight on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, all hell broke loose online.
Immediately, those who felt that Christian Bale’s Batman was an insult to the comic books worried that the same de-powering and grounded approach would kill everything that made Superman important, while those who loved Nolan’s trilogy hoped the team could work the same magic, and create a Superman cleansed of the silliness of the comics.
The filmmakers immediately went on the defensive, as Nolan explained that Man of Steel was Zack Snyder’s film – a claim since reiterated by star Henry Cavill. But as we mentioned above, Goyer and Nolan didn’t just write a new take on Batman for their film series (any comic fan will tell you that there are serious parallels between the comics and Nolan’s films), they emphasized what they felt were the most fundamental elements of the character, and removed or changed everything that didn’t fit within a world audiences could recognize as their own.
From the first trailers for the film, it was obvious that Man of Steel would be a serious movie – but that doesn’t mean it’s a dark one. The argument may be easy to make, but there’s no real proof that Batman’s story of loss and darkness will resemble Superman’s tale of optimism and hope in any meaningful way. Even if they are told by the same people, with a commitment to realism as the driving force behind each.
Is that a serious take on the character? Absolutely. But he’s still wearing a bright blue bodysuit and wearing a red cape. Not to mention defending Earth from invading Kryptonians also gifted with similar superhuman abilities. Making that kind of action and fantasy still remain grounded in our world is a tall order, and one Goyer already claims was much more difficult than with Batman. The solution? As the action gets bigger, make the story even more personal.
Man of Steel‘s mix of a man with two fathers and an extraterrestrial invasion sounds like the kind of blend of serious and fantasy that led Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) astray, but Goyer and Nolan seem to know that the same rules apply here as with Batman. Mainly: keep it consistent.
If Superman is being approached as if the entire story were really happening in today’s world, then the conflict from Krypton has to be made to fit. Is it a coincidence that Michael Shannon has said from the beginning that his General Zod is no more a villain than any modern general? That far more time will be spent on Krypton to explain what will be driving the conflict between Kal-El and Zod, instead of simply jumping into combat?
Some might claim that a Superman story should be about escapism, not a serious look at the world as it really is; that lowering Superman to our earthly troubles is an insult to the character’s history. In all honesty, the readers who first made Superman a success would likely disagree, since the big blue Boy Scout spent most of his early years as a crusader for social justice, fighting wife-beaters and criminals, not Brainiac or Doomsday.
Snyder would disagree too, since he doesn’t believe that Superman is about heights people could never achieve, but a story about hope. And one that Goyer believes the world is in need of now more than ever.
DC: Grounded Characters over Escapism
It isn’t sacrilege to say that a Superman origin story should be taken seriously; it is an undeniably serious one. Kal-El is the quintessential immigrant, an orphaned boy raised by parents who teach him how to be a man for others, and leave it to him to determine how his abilities will make the world a better place. If told honestly, it’s hard to think of a more serious story, superhero or otherwise.
But does it have to be a dark story as well? Far from it. In many ways, it’s the happiest and most inspiring story in comic books, if told right. And it may hold the key to how Man of Steel will launch DC’s shared movie universe.
In the debate over how much seriousness is acceptable in the superhero genre – one which is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future – it’s easy to try to divide the argument between Marvel and DC fans. But do Marvel fans think no hero should be portrayed seriously? Considering the fan reaction to darker takes on characters like The Punisher, Daredevil, and others, we’d say the tone should fit the character.
But Marvel chose the route that would grant them the biggest cohesive universe, and as we continue to warn, every comic book license reverting back to Marvel means fewer Marvel heroes appearing in fewer films. There’s also the fact that re-acquired characters like Blade or Ghost Rider might not fit with the current slate of heroes; a no-holds barred take on The Punisher, for instance, is harder to market as part of the family-friendly Avengers shared universe.
Will Warner Bros. and DC encounter a similar problem, and be unable to introduce a character more known for humor and heightened reality like, say, the Flash? Green Lantern dove into the deep end of Marvel’s strategy, introducing absurd and poorly-explained villains and plotlines that now make fitting the character into the upcoming universe a challenge, not a headstart.
Only time will tell how GL is handled, but the steps being taken by the studio to build a shared universe are promising; Man of Steel will be setting the stage for other heroes, not by name-dropping or alluding to other Justice League members, but by establishing a formula that can be taken with every DC character. They may not all have the same tone (Batman’s darkness vs. Superman’s hope), but all are built with the same commitment to serious storytelling and character insight over fantastical adventure and escapsim.
Obviously, we hope to see both formulas find success, since it means comic book movies that offer both a look at heroes in our own world, and one that will make comic book fans’ dreams come true. However, fans of each approach must learn what to expect from one studio’s films over the other.
As Iron Man 3 has already shown, and Man of Steel may make clear before long, superhero movies will never make everyone happy. If nothing else, we hope this look at DC and Marvel’s different strategies will help remove some of the venom from the more heated debates between fans. Arguments can continue over which is preferred by a specific movie fan, but the two studios are headed very different directions, and are doing so on purpose.
What do you make of the differences between each studio’s idea of a ‘serious’ superhero movie? Do you tend to lean toward Marvel’s take or DC’s? Can you see your opinion changing in the future, or are you sticking with one side?
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.