Saturday, May 2, 2015

What People Get Wrong About Marvel vs. DC

The Daily Beast issues a piece on how Christopher Nolan and Zach Snyder ruined the DC Universe with their grim, glowery superheroes:
Look at the content of that Batman v Superman trailer. Everyone is so enshrouded in darkness you can barely see them. The characters look pained and miserable. There’s something to do with Superman being worshipped as a false idol, Bane-esque chanting, and melancholy to spare. “Fun” is probably the last word you’d use to describe this atmosphere.
Beast writer Emily Lindoff concludes that DC is making its characters too grim and gritty. She notes that Marvel had some early missteps too with its horrible Daredevil, it's 'cartoonish' Fantastic Four, and its 'over-edited' The Hulk. The Omnivore will throw in its 'weaksauce' Ghost Rider. Then, though, Marvel found its footing. Lindoff writes:
Things changed with 2008’s Iron Man, the first film in the canonized MCU. Filmmaker Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr.’s spin on Tony Stark/Iron Man elegantly combined real-world commentary, huge action set pieces, and a wink-and-smile playfulness that set the template for future MCU entries, fromCaptain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy to this weekend’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. It struck just the right balance of seriousness and silliness, retaining that lighthearted comic book tone and allowing it to appeal to comic-consuming and superhero-loving fans of all ages.
Is that right? Is it that Marvel has re-discovered fun while DC leaves it out in the cold.

The answer is 'kinda'--but that's missing a BIG piece of the puzzle. Let's take a look.

The Fun? The Fun is Gone!
Lindoff's analysis is right on target in one way: DC/Warner Brothers not only hasn't put an emphasis on making fans laugh or smile--but has actively tried to perform a kind of fun-er-ectomy by washing out the color pallet of Man of Steel in post production:

What you see above is an attempt to restore DC's Man of Steel (Superman) to the colors it was actually filmed in. Even a cursory look at the restored footage shows us that whatever Zach Snyder's shortcomings may be, the film he captured on camera looks a hell of a lot more like a Superman film ought to than the one we got on the big screen.

The above video concludes that DC made the decision to wash everything out before release because their dark-hued Batman franchise was a success while their "brightly colored" (in quotes because, erm, was it?) Green Lantern was a flop. If, indeed, that was the reasoning--and the argument seems fairly tight to The Omnivore--it was a Dirty-Harry style shot to the foot: Holy Self-Inflicted Wounds, Batman!

But even full color wouldn't have saved Man of Steel from some pretty questionable moves such as having his human dad needlessly killed off by a tornado trying to save the family dog. Let's also keep in mind that although stunningly produced, complexly plotted, interestingly relevant, and appropriately dark, Nolan's Batman franchise literally ends with (a) the main character 'going dark' (leaving Batman behind) for several years, only to come back and (b) have his back-broken by a new villain forcing a credibility straining lengthy recovery in a far-away-land then to (c) appear to get killed off in a nuclear explosion culminating in a (d) Inception-like ending sequence where one of the richest and high-profile men in the world is unrecognized while acting out a 'dream sequence' for Alfred in 'real-life.'

Presumably Nolan's Batman did get his happy-ending (with Catwoman!)--but if we're looking for an unnecessary emotional wringer, even the Batman movies seem to be obsessed with that.

Before we get to where Lindoff and a bunch of other critics miss a key point, let's take a moment and look a why these films do seem to have unwelcome installations of drama--and how Marvel's philosophy seems to avoid that mistake.

Why Are Superhero Movies So Grim, Anyway?
The Drama-Disease isn't just related to Warner Brothers. In Spiderman 3 (Sony, with a Marvel character) we find Peter Parker working a soul-killing job for a horrible (if entertaining to watch) boss, living in a run-down dilapidated apartment that is actively falling apart even as he's behind on his rent (a good lawyer could probably get him off his rent obligation until the landlord fixed the door--but superheroes probably don't lawyer-up all that often?).

Oh, and his girl friend, Mary Jane, is pissed at him because he's spending too much attention on being Spiderman and too little on her. During their argument he hears sirens--someone's in trouble--but Mary Jane is right there and he (sigh) decides to do the 'right thing' and let the cops handle it this time. The plot and script treats this as the 'right thing' (even if he's a bit immature in being unhappy about it) because in the beginning of the film we see Spiderman getting a parade and the key to the city: he's finally being hailed as a hero and it's gone to his head.

Mary Jane needs to bring him down to earth.

Never mind Spiderman's Act 2 wherein, when infected with an alien parasite, Peter Parker transforms into a kind of 70's bad-ass disco-dude who is 'selfish' and doesn't care about his whiny girl-friend. That could be a whole extension of this point.  Instead let's look at that Fantastic Four debacle.

That was done by Marvel and in the second movie (and there were echoes of this in the first) Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl are gonna get married. She has to chide Mr. Fantastic, clearly an iconic Supra-Genius--really Super-hero Super-Genius as his "power" has always been said to be his brain and not his elastic body--when he goes to answer a distress call during their wedding planning.

Same drama: the super-hero stuff is the fun thing the boys do. The relationship stuff is the grown-up thing their real-life alter-egoes need to focus on.

Never mind that in-universe if Mr. Fantastic gets a distress call? It could be because the Negative Zone has, like, kidnapped Australia. Similarly, when Spiderman goes out there on the streets of NYC, it could be because Badnews Bob has robbed the 7/11 again--but with all those sirens it might be because Electro is about to kill everyone in Times Square and no one else on the planet can stop it: Peter doesn't know and neither does Mary Jane--being a superhero means that sometimes you are the only guy who can solve the problem.

This pattern repeats itself over and over in the non-new Marvel movies: there is an interpersonal drama injected into the super-hero story (to be fair: it's usually somewhat backed up by the source material) and then expanded--kind of inflated like a thematic balloon--in order to prop-up the 'grown-up' credentials of the story itself.


Because superhero stories appear on first-blush to be power fantasies--specifically adolescent male power fantasies--and these movies rely on (a) getting at least some women to the theater and (b) need to be elevated above "kids movies" to justify their multi-million-dollar special effects budgets.

Compounding this is the fact that most of the comics really were intended for boys and that part of the formula for a lot of superheroes does involve Disney-esque missing parents and for-real tragic back-stories. In other words, some darkness is embedded--it's not hard to see how people without a Judo-grip on what makes superhero stories tick could lose their way.

Marvel has found their superhero whisperer in Kevin Feige--the overseer who holds the grand vision for the entirety of Marvel's universe of stories--but they have also managed to reliably pick directors who are able to execute on their characters again and again. This track record proves it isn't coincidence that they keep making great superhero films--it's technique. What is that secret sauce?

How Marvel Gets It (and DC Mostly Still Doesn't)
The active ingredient in Marvel's vision that is missing in everyone else's (including Sony and Fox's handling of Marvel characters) is that Marvel understands that its characters are super heroes. That sounds fascicle but its hugely important. These characters are heroes--the 'super' modifier placing them above the capabilities of human heroes--but they are still heroes and not inhuman power-houses playing at being heroes. They are, by definition, fighting for what is right and just--being a superhero is not a pathology. Finally, they are necessary: the world that has a superhero needs--requires--that superhero to step up or else horrible tragic things will happen--and keep happening. Superheroes are not extraneous and they are not just a "boys club" for people with extraordinary capabilities.

Titles that violate the above exists--Watchmen, one of the greatest comicbooks of all time, gave us characters who were indeed pathologized, highly morally ambiguous, and often the exact opposite of heroic. The Authority explores what happens when super power becomes a justification to play god while providing no real moral sign-posts. The characters in each case certainly kill people who "need killing"--but while analogues to Superman, Batman, and others abound in those titles, they are not superheroes in the sense that the actual Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Iron Man, and so on are.

The real "uncut" superheroes don't exist to 'learn lessons' in their story arcs--they are lessons--and they are lessons about the best of ourselves, the best of us, being empowered to do what is right and good. The foundation of these characters are concepts like justice (the real kind, not the cynical kind), goodness, and the human spirit made flesh.

Furthermore, these characters are not being burnt out by being super heroes. While the iconic super heroes do sometimes make mistakes or question themselves, there is never any question whose side the universe is on. While characters may grow and change some over their course, their progression never leads to the idea that they've done more harm than good. Superheroes don't need to "grow up" from being superheroes.

They also don't pay a terrible price for being superheroes. Yes, Batman is on a mission--and he's definitely kinda dark--but he's not a constantly tormented soul unable to find any degree of solace in what he does. Superman doesn't get to have much of a social life--but he isn't a bitter people-saving automaton: It's really cool to be Bruce Wayne and it's really cool to be Superman. Both of them are able to enjoy the good of their work. It's a freakin' blast to be Spiderman: he isn't putting a happy face on his misery (even when he's angsting)--being Spiderman is a responsibility--but it's not an awful soul-eating burden.

Where some movies focus on making being a superhero an extraneous juvenile pursuit and others focus more on the cost of being a superhero, Marvel seems to have hit the sweet spot that actually sold all the comics: there's that element of joy inherent in every one of the Avenger's even as they all have their problems--their super identities are part of the solution--not the cause.

The exception, of course, is The Hulk--and even he gets his moment when he finally--finally--has something worthy to fight. When an alien invasion run by a rogue god comes to town, it's finally time for Bruce Banner to smile. To see how this works on a smaller scale let's look at [ Spoilers ]  Marvel's Netflix debut with Daredevil. In Daredevil, a street-level superhero, the blind-but-with-super hearing attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox hitting the gym like a maniac) fighting crime in Hell's Kitchen.

At one point, early in the series, the episode opens with Murdock unconscious--cut severely, and beaten, laying in a dumpster. A kid gets a woman--a nurse--to take him in and patch him up. It's unclear why she takes a wounded, unconscious, masked man into her apartment--and treats him--rather than calling the cops or an ambulance or both. It turns out? She kinda knows who he is--not his secret identity (although she learns that later)--but that there's a masked vigilante putting bad people in the hospital.

She's a nurse in the hospital--she's seen the parade of villains: abusers, pushers, pimps, come through instead of the regular string of victims. He's helping people--this masked guy--she's seen it--and now he needs her help . . . and that means no cops.

In a later episode [ More Spoilers ] the mob catches up to her: they know she has an idea who this guy in the mask is and he's put a serious hurting on them. They kidnap her to a parking garage and begin to beat the information out of her . . . brutally. She holds out until Daredevil arrives and while he's not super human, once he turns the lights out, the bad guys are in the dark and he can see, well, hear, perfectly.

When he rescues her we're ready for her recriminations against him--she got involved with him and his crusade got her beaten and nearly killed. Now it's time, narratively speaking, for his playing vigilante to catch up to him: good people are being hurt because of what he's doing, after all. She has to be the grown-up in the room and tell him to put the damn mask away.

Except she doesn't. She knows the city actually--for real--needs him. The kinds of people he's going up against--the brilliant (and brilliantly played) Kingpin isn't the kind of crimelord New York is going to be able to handle on its own--it needs something more than the cops--more than the law--it needs . . . heroes--super heroes.

That's where the distinction comes in: Spiderman--the character in the comics, not the movies--isn't a man-child playing cops and robbers--he's a hero. He's a hero that can accomplish things ordinary human heroes can't--if the world needs heroes above the normal human scale then the world needs super heroes. He doesn't need to hang up his web-slingers any more than a fire fighter should consider getting a real job rather than rescuing people from burning buildings.

These characters' super powers don't make their feats non-heroic: their powers make them able to rise to the challenges they'll face. This means that Mr. Fantastic doesn't need to learn a lesson about being nicer to his fiancee and Spiderman doesn't need to realize his girl friend is the most important thing in his life--these guys are for-real heroes and the world? The world needs them.

The DC Batman and Superman characters got that their hero-identities were necessary--but these movies focused intensely on the costs of leading a dual life. Batman is a driven shell of a man and Superman hides out on the edges of society for 33 years (a non-random number) before returning to face a threat that has 9/11 iconography over and over as Manhattan buildings fall.

Compare this to The Winter Soldier's opening scene where Captain America is jogging around Washington DC and while he's seriously a fish-out-of-water and all-his-friends-are-dead he never loses his sense of humor, his basic kindness, or his will to keep being the best he can be. He's never bitter or cynical and he isn't just "putting a brave face on his misery."

This view was right for The Watchmen (which The Omnivore thinks Snyder did a pretty good job with despite what lots of other people thought) who were not exactly actual superheroes but much more like what real people with super(ish) powers would really be like. The problem is that it isn't right for the top-line comics characters.

This is why, for the most part, when superheroes do learn a lesson, they learn it in the first book as part of their origin story. Their arc isn't about growing as a person, it's about how they rise to the challenges that try them. While it's problematic to take this too far (Iron Man did have a history of drinking problems) the basic rule is that superheroes are necessary, really and truly good, and that they find joy or at least satisfaction in their service. They may have problems--but being a superhero isn't the cause of them or the major one.

That's what Marvel gets from Guardians of the Galaxy (whose superheroes are about as tarnished as you can get and wear the label) to characters like Captain America where it would be easy to focus on the pain of his lost world for some ready-made melodrama. Marvel knows what superheroes are made of: DC, while it has some of the best, is still figuring that out.

The formula isn't the joke-lines or the "silliness" that Marvel has (to the extent they have it--the key parts of Avengers were pretty rough rides and The Winter Soldier wasn't a laugh-riot either) but rather that they understand that the core of their characters lie in their innate heroism and the fact that even if they fail, their moral-compass is always True North at the end of the day. If and when DC figures that out it'll be able to take its characters to the screen with the same appeal they've had on the page.

Screenwriting is a kind of reduction process where the character must be reduced to essentials in order to fit in a 2-hr movie format. If you get those essentials wrong--or play up the wrong ones for purposes of trying to meet target demographics you're going to fail . . . and that's leaving aside having a mess of a plot (like Green Lantern did). Making great superhero movies is hard--but at least Marvel has figured out how to start with the right ingredients.

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