Comic book adaptations have become a go-to for Hollywood – with talented directors, writers, and actors flocking to be part of the continually expanding superhero movie slate. With so many comic book films in development (more than 40 are scheduled to hit theaters by 2020), it’s becoming increasingly important that each project stands on its own – even if it is part of a larger shared movie universe. In the coming years, superheroes will battle each other for box office glory – attempting to woo viewers into their comic book movie by blending franchise characters with genre storytelling: the supernatural (Doctor Strange) as well as antihero-centric adventures (Suicide Squad and Deadpool), among others.
However, at the heart of the superhero boom is a long-running fan debate: DC vs. Marvel. Only a small fraction of moviegoers maintain concrete loyalty to one brand – most just want to see a good film on the big screen. Yet, DC and Marvel are absolutely competing for box office dollars (casual moviegoers already choose which superhero films to see in theaters). The DC vs. Marvel rivalry has raised the bar for both studios – pushing creativity and forcing the publishing giants to reflect on what is necessary to make a Marvel or DC property a quality Marvel or DC film.
Ever since Michael Keaton put on the Bat-cape and cowl, Warner Bros.-owned DC has taken a “darker” approach to movie adaptation. Joel Schumacher moved Batman away from Tim Burton’s gothic inspirations but director Christopher Nolan was quick to return the Dark Knight to a more grounded and “gritty” tone in Batman Begins. Even though it remains disconnected from the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe, the success of Nolan’s films set a template for Warner Bros. and DC – one that, comparatively, is much darker than Marvel’s Avengers universe.
As a result, fans have pondered whether Disney and Marvel Studios would eventually follow suit with a “dark” turn but speaking directly to fans, MCU head Kevin Feige made it clear that humor is essential to their movie brand:
There is no dark turn in the MCU. He says every year fans come up to him and ask him if this movie is when the MCU goes “dark” or takes a “dark” turn. He said while the trailers may seem ominous or have a sense of impending doom, the movies do not have that feel, and will not. He said he ‘Hoped people would catch on by now’ – there will be no giant dark turns in the MCU where it then continues to head in that direction. The humor is in the DNA of the movies, there are no plans to change that.
It’s a fitting time for Feige to be commenting on the subject – after Avengers: Age of Ultron drew criticism for some uneven tonal shifts as well as a (sometimes) comedic portrayal of the titular villain. Without question, The Avengers sequel is a critical (read our review) and commercial success but many comic book readers were surprised the overall film and its antagonist were not darker. As Feige notes, the initial Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer was very ominous – presumably setting up a chilling (and downright scary) antagonist; yet, the final film did not “have that feel.”
But that isn’t a bad thing either. As mentioned, with so many comic book movies hitting the big screen, fans should appreciate the variety that Marvel and DC, with 20th Century Fox and Sony, offer. No doubt, there are certain Marvel stories that would benefit from a darker tone (especially as we enter Phase 3 with Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok), just as there are DC stories that will require a slightly lighter touch (The Flash). Daredevil has proven that dark Marvel stories can be a success – at least on the small screen – but, as of right now, it’s unclear how (and if) Marvel Studios will actually bring the series, and its Defenders co-projects, into the full MCU. So, for the time being, Feige is likely addressing Marvel films – not TV projects that could be folded into the larger cinematic universe down the line.
Regardless, the MCU simply isn’t the same medium as its print source material and, for that reason, fans shouldn’t expect Disney to go all-in with a true-to-the-books (read: gloomy and violent) adaptation of Civil War. Disney and Marvel Studios have a very profitable (and well-received) blueprint for success at the box office – so, going forward, they’ll be walking a fine line between utilizing popular stories and characters that longtime fans want to see while also maintaining the tone and humorous DNA that made the MCU over $8 billion at the global box office.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is following their own highly profitable template for DC adaptation. Many will argue that Man of Steel was too dark (both in visual appearance and story content) but, with Nolan as a producer on the film, the studio didn’t want to drastically shift the more “mature” tone of recent DC films – especially after Green Lantern‘s cartoony and CGI heavy misadventure cost them millions of dollars.
Ultimately, while fans can debate which heroes, brands, and movie universes are their favorites – it’s actually encouraging to hear that Marvel Studios is confident in their approach. Select viewers would love to see a darker version of Civil War or Infinity War but most, even those who didn’t love Age of Ultron, can agree that Marvel movies are immensely entertaining (even if they aren’t perfect).
With several Avengers actors nearing the end of their studio contracts, high profile hero deaths could be on the horizon and time will tell how the studio manages to do their Phase 3 slate justice – considering many of the source storylines are fundamentally “darker” than Phase 1 and 2. Nevertheless, in an industry that continues to churn out “gritty” reboots and overly-serious action thrillers, an extra helping of humor is, more often than not, a welcome change of pace.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now in theaters, followed by Ant-Man on July 17 2015, Captain America: Civil War on May 6 2016, Doctor Strange on November 4 2016, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 on May 5 2017, Spider-Man on July 28, 2017, Thor: Ragnarok on November 3 2017, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 on May 4 2018, Black Panther on July 6 2018, Captain Marvel on November 2 2018, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 on May 3 2019 and Inhumans on July 12, 2019.