Wednesday, July 3, 2013


So, I already weighed in on Man of Steel, as have so many others. Despite what seems to be a lot of hedging and qualifying going on in the reviews, I guess it's making a good deal of money, and will go down in the win column for Team DC. Now that this re-boot has been deemed successful, eyes are looking forward to the playing out of the DC universe film franchise, eventually leading up to a Justice League movie. And that train of though ultimately leads to a comparison with Marvel's Hulk-Iron Man-Thor-Captain America-Avengers movie-to-movie build-up and whether DC can emulate Marvel's triumphs.

Pursuing this comparison, Jim McLauchlin, in a guest post at CBR, writes that "the world that the Marvel Comics character films take place in is an ultimately optimistic one, and the world that the DC Comics character films take place in is ultimately bleak." He offers some evidence for this from Man of Steel and The Avengers, and further says "The effort to make all the Marvel movies take place in a world that you want to be a part of is a very conscious one" and wonders whether DC's choice of  a "dangerous, edgy, gritty world" was made in a bid to corner the youth market, thinking that's what they want. He concludes that this is a wrong-headed strategy, as his experience with youth tells him that they are used to a malleable (his word) world in which they expect to have some control and get what they want, and will want to see movies set in that same kind of world because it is the world they would prefer to live in.

I have a lot of responses this argument; while it sounds pat on a first read, the situation is much more complex.

First of all, thinking that the youth market can be appealed to with things that are dangerous, gritty, and edgy is not  an egregious error, if indeed it is an error at all. Video games like Fallout, Bioshock and Grand Theft Auto (based on what I have read and had reported to me - I am not a gamer) seem to evoke this sensibility, as do any number of gorenography and revenge porn movies. The era of the grim antihero does not seem to be waning much, and even the new Wolverine movie seems to be playing up the darkness and Logan's monstrousness.

That said, Marvel as the bright, optimistic universe and DC as the bleak, dour universe does seem to be an odd reversal of roles. Marvel's rise to popularity was based at least in part on its subversion of the "optimistic" superhero standards set by DC: not all their heroes were successful and squared-away; not all the conflicts with super-villains ended in unqualified successes; and not all the endings were happy. It was this "realism" - this grittiness, if you will - that distinguished Marvel books from the often still-juvenile DC books (at least until the Bronze Age of Comics was well underway).

But maybe it is a case of that was then and this is now, and the question is not whether the viewer wants to live in the world they see but whether they can relate to living in the world they see. In the sixties, the boundless optimism of DC comics was becoming out of place in a world where the youth were beginning to feel disaffected and disenfranchised more and more; as the counter-culture grew, so did the desire to have comic book heroes who were every bit as challenged and alienated as the reader. Hence the rise of Marvel heroes in the comics. Now, youth feel not so much disaffected as they do entitled - everyone expects to be rich and happy and satisfied - to get what they want. So Marvel gives them Tony Stark, who proves you can be rich and witty and sexy and a hero and a genius all at once. I get that.

But it doesn't explain why so much grim 'n' gritty does still sell.

The problematic nature of so many responses to Man of Steel is not just that its world is too bleak; it's that Superman's world in particular is not supposed to be so bleak. Maybe the Marvel heroes are malleable enough to transition from the darlings of the disaffected to the millennial mainstream - they were never quite as radically different as we all like to think, anyway. Superman, though, is another story: he's not just a comic book hero, he is a cultural institution. Re-interpreting him doesn't just play with the rules of fiction, it messes with expectations and symbolism that have seeped into our society as a whole. None of characters featured in The Avengers has anywhere near the cultural weight that Superman does, certainly not Iron Man, and not even the Hulk or Captain America. That weighty mythology is out of alignment with the world presented in Man of Steel, and that alone makes it a bad choice for the film.

As I said, the movie seems to be doing pretty well, so we'll see whether DC's choice in this direction is ultimately a profitable one. Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy was about as dark as it comes, and the second two films are in the top ten for movie box office take. We can presume Batman will be rebooted as well, but into the world in which Man of Steel was set, so we can expect that darkness to remain. And as other characters are added in, we will see how the setting develops.

It seems to me that having a dark universe may not be a bad business decision for DC movies; it just may be a bad artistic decision.

I have been waiting for a couple of years to use this Squirrel Girl clip...


  1. I need to finish up a "meh" review of I Never Sang for My Father, so I'll keep this short...BUT, I think what's wrong with Man of Steel (mood edition) is that there's no sense that Superman is making the world a better place (he's just starting—give him time). And that's important. Whether it's a comic-book world or a simulation of our world, we can all agree that the world's in shitty shape (whether it's because of crooks in domino masks stealing candy from babies or Hitler invading Poland) and Superman's presence is supposed to make things BETTER. We're supposed to be GLAD he's here, his very presence making us look up. But, here, he's not making things better, he's making things considerably worse, attracting alien invaders and creating rubble out of architecture with his new super-power "Crashing Through Skyscrapers Two at a Time." He's an outlaw, not a Boy Scout, and one wonders how much responsibility this screen Superman is going to take in re-building Metropolis. This semi-inspired me to want to title my review of MOS (after a web-series of cover-grabs that showed Silver Age Superman gleefully teasing Lois and Jimmy) "Superman's a DICK!"

    I imagine this Superman saying "I'm not going to clean this up...I'm supposed to INSPIRE you, not INTERFERE with your every-day lives."

    But, then what did The Avengers do after all the damage to New York City? Have lunch.

  2. Good point about making the worl dbetter - I think that's the legacy (that I mentioned in my actual review) they squandered. If you changed the super-suit and the names on this movie, you'd have a sort-of bleak alien-encounter movie, the upshot of which is would be something like "OMG, what do we do with this alien in our midst?" In fact, it almost has a SyFy channel pilot feel to it...