Today’s video talks about the ambivalent approach to the use of power we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel movies are often as much about how great power hurts itself and what it aims to protect as they are about bad guys. The video lays out that the DC movies have none of this subtlety. As I think more about it though, I think I was too easy on the DC movies. These films are pro-US power, and even pro-torture in a very Trumpian, Fox News way.
A couple years back, with a review of Batman V. Superman, I talked about the main influence on the DC movies, a guy named Frank Miller. Frank Miller is an undisputed genius, but he’s got a world view that is deeply rooted in the 1980s. His vision is of a world that is being torn apart at the seams. In Miller’s world we need powerful people to do what’s necessary to face “evil” no matter the cost. This vision of the world made a lot of sense in the 1980s, with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and with US cities falling into an abyss of crime and drugs.
I am writing this from the heart of New York City, a place that is now safer than it was in the 1950s. Despite the US’s careful cultivation of rogue states, and the ever present threat of a dirty bomb, nobody expects human civilization to be wiped out anymore. I hate to throw this word around, but from this perspective, Miller’s vision looks more than a bit fascist. And that’s the perspective the DC films have adopted. Evil is everywhere. Power must confront it. And that power should not be questioned. You can see this world-view on Fox News every day, and you can see it in the speeches of Donald Trump.
After the critical and financial failures of Batman V. Superman, and Suicide Squad, the Warner Brothers corporate offices mandated that the films get more “optimistic”. But this pro-power perspective has continued in the DC movies, regardless. Last year’s “sunnier” Wonder Woman takes place during World War I. The film-makers don’t know anything about World War I, so they just portray the Germans as Nazis. This fits with the US foreign policy establishment’s lionization of Woodrow Wilson, and insistence that US power is always used for good. As someone who would love to see pop culture reckon more seriously (or at all) with World War I, I was pretty disappointed.
I may be over analyzing things here. The DC movies have been a mess, top to bottom, since Christopher Nolan finished his last Batman film back in 2012. But there are a lot of really, really bad ideas floating around in that soup of crap…
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there! Long time viewers will be aware that long before I was a geopolitics nerd I was a tremendous comic book nerd. In honor of the upcoming Avengers movie, today I’m taking a break from the Middle East to talk about why the Marvel comic book movies are so much better, and so much more successful than the DC comic book movies. This may seem petty to some of you, but superhero movies shift billions of dollars, and I think the stories that work, and the ones that don’t say a lot about where we are as a world.
For those of you who don’t follow this sort of thing, most famous super hero intellectual property is owned by two different companies. You could make a great argument that the DC characters, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, are better known, or at least that they were better known ten years ago, but it’s the Marvel movies, with Captain America, SpiderMan, Black Panther and the rest of the Avengers that do a lot better financially and critically. Of the top 20 comic book movies, 15 come from Marvel, and only 5 come from DC. The Marvel movies have successfully built a shared universe with its own momentum. People are excited to see new movies because of the brand itself. The DC films are perpetually on life support, and with the exception of Wonder Woman, each film is more loathed than the one before.
Now there’s a lot that goes into this. Marvel has done a lot right, and DC has done a ton that’s wrong, but I think there’s a central difference in the types of stories that are told. Marvel’s stories resonate more. Superheroes are about conflict. Most of the 18 films that fit into the MCU, or Marvel Cinematic Universe, just have better bad guys.
Because Marvel bad guys are almost always closely tied to the hero. The DC bad guys are usually some sort of generic personification of evil. This is actually truer to the comic books, but it’s really hard to do well on film. If you’ve got Director Christopher Nolan, and a once in a lifetime performance from Heath Ledger, who adds even more thematic weight by dying before the movie comes out, then you can pull this off. Otherwise not so much. All three of the Christopher Nolan Batman films were well received, but the Dark Knight is the only one I can imagine ever wanting to sit through again. This is the central problem with all the DC Universe movies. None of the bad guys have real personal connections to the heroes. Whether they are evil gods or corporate baddies, they’re just evil for evil’s sake. It’s boring. It makes for movies that feel like watching other people play video games.
Not so with the Marvel movies. In Marvel, the bad guy is always much closer. It’s a family member, or an organization that the hero belongs to. In Black Panther, the villain is a cousin, who was deeply wronged by the Black Panther’s father. The villain in the first Avengers movie is Thor’s brother, and in the second it’s an AI computer program created by the good guys that gets out of control. The only recent exceptions to this I can think of are the second Thor movie, and Dr. Strange, which are two of the least financially successful MCU movies. That second Thor movie is also the lowest rated Marvel movie on Rotten Tomatoes.
Films with a personal conflict obviously connect more deeply with audiences. All these movies about conflicts with mentors, fathers and brothers strike a chord with everybody. But I think there’s a resonance beyond that.
All the Marvel movies are self-contained, but they can also be joined together to tell a broader story. Certain films, specifically the Captain America and Avengers films, do more to move the plot along than others. They are stories of betrayal, where the institutions and people that are supposed to keep us safe are actually doing everything they can to hurt us. Sometimes out of malice, but usually out of the best of intentions. It’s a very open question in the movies whether the Avengers are more of a threat to the world than a help. Does that sound at all familiar to you? The Marvel Comic books, launched at the height of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, when American Empire was new, constantly emphasized that Great Power Brought Great Responsibility. I think that it’s fitting that the Marvel movies, 50 years later, seem to be asking whether Great Power is more trouble than it’s worth. The Marvel movies are actually playing with some pretty big questions here. And that’s why they are better than the DC movies.
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