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.
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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.