This past week, I saw The Avengers: Infinity War. I was also home sick and decided to re-watch Justice League. Minor spoilers of these and other Marvel and DC movies are sprinkled throughout, but nothing major.
It was Justice League that inspired this blog post. A generally held belief is that people are still waiting for the disappointing Marvel movie, while people are still waiting for the DC film that doesn’t disappoint. I think I’ve figured out a few reasons for the disparity. As a quick sidebar, I’ll admit my bias for being a bit more of a DC fan. Sure, ‘feature film’ isn’t their strongest medium, but virtually every TV series they’ve done in the past three decades, animated and acted, have been pretty solid. Also, while Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels are excellent games, the only Marvel games I can think of that were any good were their Street Fighter clones – nothing that had its own story to tell.
I am certain that the biggest challenge faced by both The Avengers and The Justice League is the same: they need a villain powerful enough to require more than one superhero to resolve the conflict, and a circumstance dire enough to warrant it. A villain that powerful, however, is nearly impossible to create without devolving into a one-note, insatiably power hungry, god-like being threatening the entire planet. There is basically no other story line which supports the heroes working together in such a manner.
A multi-superhero movie wouldn’t work if they were a villain like Khan. His appeal is the fact that he made the audience second guess whether there was some merit to his cause. Interesting as Khan was (and still is), Iron Man would make quick work of him. It’s similarly impossible to go for the unsettling nuance of a villain like Norman Bates. What made Bates such a memorable antagonist was the fact that he wasn’t some larger-than-life monster, it was precisely that he was so ordinary. That sort of nuance is unsettling when they are the antagonist of an equally ordinary person, but Norman Bates would not have enough time to creep everybody out before Wonder Woman took him out. Even a villain like Darth Vader, the textbook definition for “ominous” or “imposing”, would be a tough sell as an antagonist for The Hulk or J’onn J’onzz; there’s no possibility for a showdown to go his way. Thus, we are left with Thanos, or Steppenwolf, or some other villain who is equally impossible to assign any other personality quality than “more powerful than any two superheroes fighting them”. Any such quality would be subsumed by that power – a power that inherently isn’t human or held by a being that can be any real sort of reflection on the human condition.
As another quick aside, the last point, I believe, is amongst the reasons why Batman villains are as good as they are. Scarecrow’s power is to use people’s deepest fears as a weapon. Two-Face embodies internal conflict. Catwoman’s motivations are primarily self-serving but she’s helped Batman in isolated instances. The Joker is, essentially, Batman’s antithesis and turns Batman’s own moral code against him. An ensemble of enemies who are themselves relatable in conjunction with a flawed protagonist makes an excellent basis for a story, and the lack of one is what makes a superhero movie devolve into “two dudes punch each other until the movie decides one of them actually harms the recipient”.
So, why does DC have this problem more so than Marvel? I think there are a few reasons. First and foremost, I think DC’s biggest challenge is Superman. His laundry list of powers make him a team on his own, and thus no room for internal struggle or conflict – or, conversely, a need for teamwork. A fight between anybody and Superman has no stakes because his only weakness is a hard-to-find substance only billionaires seem to possess. It would have been particularly interesting if Superman’s weakness was something more common, like aluminum – easy enough for him to avoid, but suddenly evens the score as “the thing that can kill Superman costs $20 at Target”. Since it’s not, DC’s first hurdle is far higher – a being Superman can’t beat by himself. This multiplies the motivation and personality problems, because “more power for no reason” or “he’s just evil, okay?” is about the only way to justify an attack requiring more than Superman to resolve.
Second, One of the major issues with superhero groups is the classic question of “who watches the watchmen?”. Marvel handled this with Captain America: Civil War. This movie’s pitfall was that each side seemed to have its adherents split down the middle for the sake of keeping the things evenly matched during the fight scene. It would have been more interesting to have spent more time having the motives of each individual explored and explained, but at some level I’ll need to concede that Marvel’s 12 Angry Men would have a far more limited audience. DC tried tried to tackle the same theme with Batman v. Superman, and it was not nearly as well received. A major part of it was because of the almost nonsensical setup to the fight, along with the fact that the fight could have easily been avoided in a thirty second conversation where Superman just explained what was going on. However, I submit that even with that situation handled differently, the story still wouldn’t have held up. Batman isn’t well known for his unwavering accountability to commissioner Gordon, so for him to be the one having an issue with Superman’s lack of oversight is hypocritical and nonsensical.
Finally, I think there are the “less tangibles”. A few bullet-time shots can add some artistic flair, but over half of the slow motion shots in Justice League were pointless. I think director Zack Snyder uses hard lighting in excess as well. Using heavy contrast in lighting can illustrate a darker mood, but having 2/3 of the movie done that way is enough overkill to leave viewers with a sense of despair that Marvel’s brighter colors help avoid. While Marvel did the single-superhero stories well, DC only seemed to have solid success with Wonder Woman; only she and Superman had a standalone movie prior to Justice League. In practice, this meant that The Avengers could spend more time on the standalone story, while the first half of Justice League was the summarized origin story of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg (and, dealing with the, ehm, “Superman Situation”).
I’ll close with this – DC truly shined in their early 2000s animated series Justice League: Unlimited. They did this by making it primarily a compendium of smaller stories. In most cases, one or two superheroes would address a particular foe or circumstance, rather than the Justice League battling in concert every time. These stories were excellent in their depth and complexity precisely because they avoided “the world almost ending on a weekly basis”. There were so many great episodes and scenes that I feel it’s a great counterargument to the Marvel movies – the series was done in such a way that it’s near impossible to retell its stories in a movie format.