So Thor: Ragnarok is out and Justice League is coming out in just a few days. This is causing a bit of a kerfuffle, and by “a bit of a kerfuffle” I mean that fanboys are at each other’s throats about which will be the better movie. This isn’t surprising, though. MCU vs DCEU battle has been ongoing ever since Man of Steel was released. It’s a highly divisive issue and DC fans are desperate to get another win under their belts after the success of Wonder Woman.
I don’t have high hopes, though. Let’s face it. Most of the DCEU movies suck. Batman vs Superman was a slog and Suicide Squad was just plain boring. But there’s gotta be more to it than just being bad movies. Why do they suck? What is DC doing wrong that Marvel is doing right? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: Okay before we get started, I want to preface this by saying that I don’t have any strong biases towards Marvel or against DC. This isn’t a fanboy issue. I’ve been a Marvel fan my whole life but I’ve always greatly appreciated DC’s characters and settings. I grew up watching the DCAU just like everyone else, so I have a lot of love for those characters. I want to see them done right on the big screen. In fact, my primary issue with the DCEU is how they seem to fundamentally misunderstand what makes their characters interesting. These movies aren’t bad because they’re about DC characters; they’re bad because DC doesn’t understand why people go to superhero movies.
Now let me also clarify that I haven’t actually seen Man of Steel, so I’m going to focus most of this article on Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. And before you try to point out any sort of bias, remember that, in the interest of fairness, I also haven’t seen The Incredible Hulk, so I think that keeps things balanced.
So let’s start this off with the point I mentioned earlier, a misunderstanding of what makes DC characters interesting.
1. Batman Picks Up A Gun
The most striking contrast between MCU and DCEU is the way they treat their characters. Comic book characters are iconic, and a lot of them are universally recognizable. Even if you’ve never picked up a single comic in your life, you still know a lot about certain characters, just by cultural osmosis. Superman is a guy who wears red and blue and flies around and saves people. Captain America is a guy who wears red and blue and throws a shield and saves people. When we look at a comic book movie, we expect to see the major parts of their characters represented.
This is one of the MCU’s strong points. Sure, it takes some liberties here and there, but at their cores, the Marvel heroes are recognizable for who they are and what they stand for. They draw elements from different comic series and combine them into a distilled blend of the hero at their most iconic. They even go so far as to hire actors who greatly resemble the characters. They’re good illustrations of what the characters should be.
DC, on the other hand, takes far too many liberties and removes what makes their characters so special. Now, let’s be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making changes. Mixing up elements of a character for a new adaptation keeps them fresh and exciting, and offers a new perspective that the audience may not have considered before. We EXPECT some things to be different, because the DCEU is established as a world separate from the comics. The same thing happens in the MCU.
However, when you change too much, you take away from what the audience expects, and we’re left wondering why you even bothered. This is no better exemplified with the DCEU versions of Superman and Batman. In the comics and in most other medias, Superman and Batman serve as contrasts for one another. Their relationship is interesting because they work towards the same goal, but approach it in completely opposite manners. Superman is bright and cheerful, working in the open, without a mask, being a public figure adored by all. Batman is dark and brooding, working in shadows, hidden away, to be feared by criminals. This dynamic works well whenever they team up or interact, because it highlights the contrast and allows them to approach the same problem from different angles.
The DCEU makes Superman into a dark, sullen savior and Batman into a violent, darker, more sullener avenger.
The DCEU makes Superman into a dark, sullen savior and Batman into a violent, darker, more sullener avenger. The contrast is evaporated immediately and we lose what makes their relationship interesting. This is perfectly highlighted in a montage scene in BvS, where Superman is shown flying around and saving people from disasters. In another Superman movie, this would be a moment of levity and triumph. We would see Superman saving people at the nick of time, reassuring them that they’re okay, with a big goofy smile on his face. The music would swell with heroism, and we’d see people cheering as he flies off to help another person. BvS treats these acts like they’re a burden on Superman. He’s not smiling, people aren’t cheering. He just looks tired and almost bored as he pulls people out of floods or burning buildings. There’s no joy in his life. Saving people is just a responsibility for him, one he doesn’t even seem all that comfortable doing. This is who we’re supposed to cheer for? This is supposed to be SUPERMAN? The most iconic superhero to ever exist? The one who stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way? I don’t buy it!
And let’s look at Batman. One of the most important parts of Batman’s character is that he doesn’t kill people and he doesn’t like guns. The Batman in this movie, on the other hand, seems to love just shooting people and running over people with reckless abandon! There’s no stopping his murder spree! Now, to be fair, Tim Burton’s Batman also had a much looser “no-kill” policy, but those movies did a much better job at representing the character in other ways, that you could be willing to let it slide. But in BvS, there’s not a lot of other characterization for Batman to make him feel like his comic counterpart. It’s still really shocking to see Batman shoot a guy with a sniper rifle instead of trying to knock him out with a Batarang or something. They changing too much of the character and it makes the audience lose interest.
The problem with these drastic changes is that this is going to be a long-standing movie series. The MCU gave us strong representations of their characters because Marvel knew they would be using them in a ton of movies. A sour, burdened Superman is interesting as an idea for a miniseries, but the audience doesn’t want to keep seeing him as the primary Superman. It’s short-sighted that way, and it shows that DC wasn’t prepared to actually create a cinematic universe. Which brings me to my next point…
2. DC Wasn’t Prepared to Create a Cinematic Universe
It’s pretty evident that DC wasn’t actually planning on following the Marvel format when developing their cinematic universe. Man of Steel was probably meant to get a couple sequels and then be done. But it came out the same year Avengers did, and DC had to look over at the money Marvel was raking in and think “We can do that!”
But they couldn’t.
Marvel struck gold with their cinematic universe approach. A project like this had never been done in a mainstream way. Sure, there were series that had tons of sequels, but nothing quite like introducing a large ensemble of characters in one central world. Marvel took their time and introduced their stars slowly, making sure the audience understood who the characters were and how they fit into the world. Believe it or not, Iron Man wasn’t really all that popular before his movie came out in 2008. Sure, he was pretty recognizable, but he wasn’t even close to the popularity of Spider-Man or the X-Men.
Same for the Hulk, Thor, and even Captain America. They were basically B-Listers before the movies came along. That’s why Marvel put out their movies one at a time, so the audience could get to know the characters, and then put them all together in The Avengers five years later. We had a chance to really know them on an individual level before seeing them on a team. That was the whole appeal of The Avengers in the first place! These characters all got to be really cool and exciting in their own movies! Imagine what it’ll be like to see them joining forces!
Once Avengers was a proven success and Marvel had a solid foundation, they were allowed to branch out even more. Marvel was taking a huge risk with Guardians of the Galaxy. This was a big budget, high-action movie that required a lot of special effects and CG. It was also a property that very few people had ever heard of. But after Avengers came out, the general audience was more willing to go “Oh hey, Marvel’s making this? I might give it a shot, then.”
The same thing happened for other lesser-known properties like Ant-Man and Dr. Strange. Marvel earned the right to try new things with obscure characters because they planned ahead.
DC, on the other hand, is taking a backward approach to things. Instead of slowly introducing us to the Justice League members, they chose to give the future members a brief look in BvS, and then put out all their solo movies AFTER Justice League hits theaters. They want the Avengers’ impact without doing the prep work required for it to pay off. We should be getting our Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg movies BEFORE Justice League so we have a chance to understand the characters before seeing them work together. For crying out loud, the third movie in the DCEU is Suicide Squad! A movie comprised mostly of characters no one knows or cares about. We’re told that these characters are supposed to be cool, and it feels like DC is kind of nudging us and going “Eh? Eeeehhh? Deadshot, right? Cool dude, right?” I guess DC is expecting us to care because we’re supposed to already know who they are, and know why they’re cool. Which is a problem. Because we don’t.
3. Audience Expectation and Assumption
When you adapt a story for a new medium, you have to consider your audience. You have to decide what parts of the story are important to preserve and what can be improved for better flow. You have to make sure the story can be told to an audience who has never experienced this story in its original form. You can’t confuse your audience by removing too many details that explain why events are happening the way they are.
This is really important in superhero movies especially. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of superheroes are cultural icons, and information about them is pretty much public knowledge. Especially for characters who have already gotten a bunch of movies. Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have had tons of movies, relaunches, TV shows, cartoons, and video games, most of which tend to start at the character’s origin. Because of that, we see a lot of the same things play out over and over again. Spider-Man: Homecoming decided to skip right past Spider-Man’s origin, instead presenting him as a rookie hero still learning the ropes. We didn’t need to see Uncle Ben get shot again because we already saw it two times! We get it! We know what happens! They just gave us a few quick references to imply that it happened, and moved on. No need to waste time!
In contrast, BvS opens with the classic scene of Martha and Thomas Wayne getting shot in the alley. This is completely unnecessary and pointless filler. The audience is well aware that Batman’s parents get shot. We’ve seen it happen so many times already! Now, the problem with this isn’t just that it shows Batman’s origin. Origin stories aren’t inherently bad, and sometimes they’re even necessary. The general audience might not know the origins of characters like Iron Man, Dr. Strange, or Wonder Woman, so it’s important to establish their history when incorporating them into a bigger universe. But showing Batman’s origin is just one part of the overall problem that ties into BvS’s two biggest faults: Superman’s death and Batman’s violence.
As much as I dislike BvS, I will give one particular scene a lot of credit. Early on in the movie, it’s stated that Batman has started getting more violent and unhinged while capturing criminals. He’s even started branding people! Later on, we see Bruce Wayne in the Batcave, walking past a glass case containing a torn and tattered Robin costume. It’s sprayed with graffiti too, reading “THE JOKE’S ON YOU”. The camera just lingers on the outfit for a moment, then moves on. The scene is powerful in its subtlety, especially considering literally nothing else in the movie is subtle.
Anyway, the scene in question tells you everything you need to know. Something bad happened to this Robin. He was probably killed by the Joker, and this drove Batman to becoming more violent and unhinged. It doesn’t go into a flashback explaining what happened, and Batman doesn’t talk about it with anyone. It’s a really good scene and one of the few parts of the movie I actually enjoyed. But I still have one big problem. This is something we probably should’ve seen! And I don’t mean in a flashback, I mean we should’ve seen it in a Batman movie! BvS feels like the third movie in a trilogy. It feels like we skipped over a whole Batman movie that would’ve shown Bruce falling into being more brutal. A movie that would’ve depicted Robin’s death and how it affects Batman. This is our first introduction to the DCEU Batman, and we’re jumping into the middle of his story. Now that’s fine, but they shouldn’t have focused on his origin, which we already know about, and instead focus on what led this Batman down a different path. Instead, Batman’s origin is at the crux of everything. Batman ultimately decides Superman is a good person because he says Batman’s mommy’s name.
This ties back to what I said about audience assumption. DC assumes you know enough about Batman to know he doesn’t kill, so his willingness to murder in this movie should be shocking. But the problem is that we never saw THIS Batman with a no-kill policy! Until the Robin costume scene, nothing in the movie actually indicates that Batman used to avoid killing people and is now okay with running them over with his Batmobile. We first see it and our reaction is “Oh. I guess this Batman just kills people all over the place.”
The same goes for Superman’s death. We’re expected to mourn him and relate to the world at large after losing a great, selfless hero. But we barely got to know the guy! The DCEU Superman was only active for a couple years at most, and his first major outing as a superhero resulted in Metropolis nearly being destroyed. Even after that, like I said earlier, he treats being a superhero with about as much passion as a college retail worker. When DC pulled the Death of Superman story arc in the 90s, we could understand why everyone mourned his death. Comic Superman was a selfless champion of justice who loved helping people and had tons of trusted friends and allies. Even some of his enemies mourned him! He had been active for years in-universe, and had saved countless lives time and time again. He was a figure worthy of praise and respect. The way people mourned Superman in BvS, you would think he ALSO had a long-standing, respectable career. But instead he was just a tired guy who saved people a couple times. DC is trying to use the audience’s meta-knowledge of their characters’ histories to create false emotional impact, without actually having their movie versions do the things we like about them.
DC is trying to use the audience’s meta-knowledge of their characters’ histories to create false emotional impact, without actually having their movie versions do the things we like about them.
Furthermore, Batman decides to form the Justice League after Superman’s death, hoping to carry on his legacy. This makes sense if Superman and Batman have been friends for a long time, but not so much in BvS. They were only friends for a couple hours! Heck, the first time they met, Superman basically threatened to kill him! That’s not a guy I’d be inspired by, even if it was all kind of a misunderstanding.
Let’s compare this to the MCU and Civil War. As I stated earlier, Marvel spends several movies letting us get to know the characters before really challenging them as people. We got to know Iron Man and Captain America in their respective solo movies, and then saw them together in Avengers. We saw them butt heads a few times, based on their different ideals, but eventually work through their issues and start to trust one another as friends and allies. Then we got to see them work together again in Age of Ultron, where they further established their friendship and ability to cooperate effectively. They even had a bunch of cool team attacks together that make for good gifsets on Tumblr.
Then we see what happens when that relationship is tested in Civil War. Their differing ideals overpower their friendship and it leads to conflict, which leads to the dissolution of the Avengers and their trust in one another. Marvel didn’t rely on their comic friendship to make us feel the impact of their conflict, it worked to build them up within the movies first. It treated the movies as a separate property, and didn’t assume we’d be interested in their fight just because they’re buddies in the comics. Marvel isn’t using the comics as a crutch to create emotional impact in their movies. They’re making sure people who have never picked up a comic book in their lives can still appreciate the tension and drama.
Speaking of tension and drama, let’s talk about that!
4. Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy
One of the biggest complaints that gets passed around about the MCU is that everything is too bright, quippy, and actiony. That these movies are just cheap thrills and lack the emotional depth of the DCEU. To that end I say “What emotional depth?!”
No, that’s not fair, let me try that again. To that, I say “That could be a fair argument but I think DC movies rely far too much on drama and tragedy in a shallow way and end up sabotaging themselves because of it.”
Even I’ll admit that Marvel movies tend to mostly be a lot of action and one-liners and big cinematic fight scenes. People have different levels of tolerance for that kind of thing. But MCU movies have enough points of tragedy, tension, and despair that they tend to balance out and create a full, rich experience. Let’s be real, these are still SUPERHERO movies! Being full of sci-fi action and colorful costumes is kinda the name of the game, folks. You’d expect them to be more on the optimism side than the cynicism side.
It’s basic storytelling 101 that a good tale has both happiness and drama. They complement one another and lead to a more emotionally fulfilling experience. Even some of the most basic stoner comedies tend to have at least one or two scenes where things get kinda real and the characters are faced with a challenge they can’t fart joke their way out of. Likewise, drama or horror films tend to have moments of relief, or usually start off positively for the protagonists to emphasize how far they’ve fallen when the bad stuff happens. This makes the characters more endearing and makes them feel more like actual people, instead of joke machines or sadness factories.
But this doesn’t mean you can ruin every dramatic moment in your movie by adding a joke at the end, JOSS WHEDON.
Where was I? Oh yeah. There’s nothing wrong with your superhero movie being dark. In fact, I actually kinda appreciate the idea of DC making more serious films as a counterpart to Marvel’s more lighthearted adventure romps. Ideally, you’d get the best of both worlds! The problem is that these movies are too dark and dreary, without enough levity. Like I said earlier, Superman is supposed to be a positive figure of morality and idealism, to better counteract Batman’s brooding antihero tendencies. In BvS, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all seem to be burdened by responsibility and the contrast is completely absent. I can only remember Superman smiling in one scene!
Superman’s death would’ve been way more impactful if he was painted in a positive light, being the ideal hero we’ve come to love. That’s why his original death was so strong in the first place. It painted a grim picture that even our strongest, most invincible do-gooder hero can fall, and with it, bring down the idealism he stands for. But everyone’s so busy brooding the whole movie that by the end, the audience doesn’t really care. If our heroes can’t be bothered to care, why should we? After seeing a whole movie of people dying, Superman being worshipped like a god, buildings exploding, a monster raging, and finally ending in Superman’s death, we’re barely given any bit of levity or brightness to remind us that there’s still something good in the world. We’re expected to believe that Bruce was inspired by Superman’s heroics to form the Justice League, but if his inspiration is a guy who just sorta lazily floated around and carried people out of natural disasters, imagine how much he’d be inspired by a guy that actually CARES!
Let’s compare this to Civ-NO! Let’s compare BvS to WONDER WOMAN.
Wonder Woman is a movie set in WWI, one of the grimmest, roughest points in modern history. A tragic war where young men were forced to die by the hundreds for causes they didn’t believe in. Where they suffered horrible conditions, rampant disease, fatigue, exhaustion, and the ever-present fear of being shot at any second. It was a dark time that almost taught us a lesson about having the whole world go to war against each other.
And yet despite all of this, Diana, and by extension the rest of the movie, manages to retain her belief that humanity is worth protecting. And unlike BvS, we actually see that happen. Diana is a very serious, stern character, but we see moments of levity and genuine joy in her. She retains a curious, optimistic side that makes her more endearing, and helps punctuate the moments where she gets serious. Even if it’s over something simple like being excited over seeing a baby or eating ice cream. Diana is shown having fun dancing with Steve and listening to music. She even inspires her friends and helps them find worth outside of their ability to fight. She serves as a good role model and someone worth following. When she declares that humanity is worth saving, it’s believable because we’ve seen her encounter the goodness hidden beneath the muck. It’s one of the many reasons why Wonder Woman is easily the best DCEU movie out there, and why they should just hand the reins over to Patty Jenkins full-time.
But even though Wonder Woman is a great movie, it’s still fairly dark and serious. Like I said, a lot of people say that MCU movies are all quippy and fun, but that’s not entirely true. The Captain America movies are all pretty somber. They’re way different in tone compared to Guardians or Thor or Ant Man. There’s a lot of variety in storytelling methods within the MCU. The DCEU movies all tend to just be pretty dark, though. Even Suicide Squad, which was more comedic, still ended up being pretty dark. And I mean that literally! The whole movie was really poorly lit! Turn on some lights! I can’t see the movie!
5. Everything Else
While I was actually writing this article, Henry Cavill had an interview where he expressed similar issues with the DCEU that I’ve put out here. This was refreshing, not because he basically affirmed I was right, but because it’s clear that he cares about the DCEU and wants it to succeed.
I have nothing really bad to say about the actors. I was actually surprised at how much I liked seeing Ben Affleck as Batman, and Gal Gadot really impressed me as Wonder Woman. They’re doing the best they can and it’s not their fault the movie scripts are so lacking.
Basically, I want to be able to enjoy movies on both sides. There’s no reason we should have to pick a team and stick with it. I was overjoyed when Wonder Woman turned out to be amazing. It served as an example for what the DCEU could be—the potential it could live up to. Hopefully Justice League can capture that same energy. Maybe it just took DC a few movies to find their footing, and we’re going to have a bunch of quality films from now on. And hopefully they don’t just announce a bunch of stuff all at once without any hint of a plan or a strategy to release them in a specific order-
Ah well, I guess we’ll see what happens. Anyway, thanks for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it. If you wanna hear me talk about things that aren’t superheroes, you can listen to my podcast where my friend and I talk about video games.
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