Why Marvel madness trumps DC darkness

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Realism and darkness worked for Batman, but if DC wants a super-team to compete with the Avengers, they really need to lighten up.

“To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish: these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.” – C.S. Lewis.

It’s strange how a man writing in 1952 could have such a keen insight into the state of modern superhero movies. DC’s recent output, Man of Steel and the Dark Knight films, are dedicated to absolute seriousness at all times, and while Nolan’s Batman films are deservedly regarded as some of the best the genre has produced, there’s a part of everyone that misses the Biff! Pow! Smack! which used to be a big part of the character. Marvel Studios’ films, by contrast, have embraced the inherent ridiculousness of their source material and, by not being afraid of seeming childish, have achieved a much bigger and more dedicated audience.

These films are about billionaires teaming up with magic space Vikings. We want them to be silly. We want them to be comics

The costumes are a great case in point. Man of Steel, so desperate to be grown-up and serious, got rid of Superman’s red trunks. Yes, they’re silly, but they’re an essential part of the character: by making him a little silly, you make him more human. The trunks would have lightened things up a bit, and maybe made the film more fun. The Avengers, on the other hand, kept Loki’s preposterous reindeer helmet, and trusted the audience enough to let them get behind the silliness. He’s a megalomaniac Norse god who wants to destroy the Earth, so why shouldn’t he have a stupid hat?

It’s part of the reason that Iron Man – prior to 2008 a B-list character at best – has been so popular. Tony Stark got into the superhero business for the same reason that we did: to have some fucking fun. We’re watching films about billionaires in flying robot suits teaming up with magic space Vikings. We want these films to be silly, to not be embarrassed of their melodramatic origins in four-colour print. We want them to be comics.

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The recent Superman and Batman films have done everything they can to sever ties to their over-the-top, garish origins, desaturating the colours and trying to make everything grim and grounded in reality. I, for one, do not watch films about an indestructible alien who dresses like a circus strongman and shoots lasers from his eyes for gritty realism. It was in the scene where Clark first learns to fly, leaping across the ice before finally overcoming gravity, smiling while doing so, where Man of Steel came to life, and if it had maintained that same sense of childhood wonder, that super-ness throughout, it might have made me believe a man can fly all over again. And as brilliant a film as The Dark Knight is, it’s not so much a superhero film as a crime epic which happens to have Batman in it.

As brilliant as The Dark Knight is, it’s not so much a superhero film as a crime epic which happens to have Batman in it

The films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have shown utter disregard for realism, to the point where The Avengers prominently featured a flying invisible aircraft carrier. And you know what? That was fantastic. This was a film where a giant green fist monster defeated the aforementioned mad god with a stupid hat by grabbing him by the ankles and repeatedly smashing him against the ground like a metronome powered by rage. And it was hilarious, just like the rest of the film. The Avengers, despite blowing up New York at the end, was a very light-hearted film with a pantomime villain, just like the comics it was based on. I certainly can’t imagine Tom Hardy or Michael Shannon showing up in costume at Comic-Con and verbally abusing the crowd.

It’s not that there isn’t room in the genre for introspective deconstruction, because The Dark Knight showed us that there absolutely is. The problem with Man of Steel (which I maintain is actually good in spite of its flaws), is that constant oppressive darkness is a child’s idea of maturity. I can understand the studio’s desire for it to be taken seriously, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to balance the Super and the Man, but when the dominant colour in your Superman movie is grey, something has definitely gone wrong somewhere.

When the dominant colour in your Superman movie is grey, something’s gone wrong

Letting things be a bit more cheerful worked for Marvel, and it would work for DC too. The two companies’ attitudes can be quite nicely summarised by having a look at two of their upcoming films: DC’s Man of Steel was criticised for being too dark, and the solution to this problem apparently involves putting the Dark Knight himself in the sequel. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is going to have a main character called Rocket Raccoon.

 

All images: Marvel

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