Two houses of Super Heroes

Done in the “house style” of our local mag….

So you can now find out who wins the fight between Batman and Superman, and see Iron Man take on Captain America. But what about Spiderman versus Wonder Woman, or Magneto taking on Mr Freeze? Afraid not; there’s an army of copyright lawyers in the way. For far-fetched fights with silly names, you will need to watch wrestling for your fix.

The Montagues and Capulets of the comic world are Marvel and DC. They both feed off each other, and rival each other. DC is headed by perhaps the two biggest names there are: Superman, created by two Jewish artists to fight for justice, and Batman, morally ambiguous and psychologically complex before it was fashionable. There is also Wonder Woman, struggling to revise her outfit and powers in line with feminism. The rest of the DC Stable—Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman etc—aren’t nearly as famous.

Marvel’s fame is spread a little more evenly. They have endearingly neurotic Spider-man, genial lunk Thor (currently a woman in the comics), clean-cut Captain America, reformed arms dealer Iron Man, and the Hulk we all wish we could emulate on occasion (debate continues about whether any CGI can be as good as Lou Ferrigno the bodybuilder in green paint). They also have the Fantastic Four and the X-men, but the film rights are held separately, so they can’t meet up. Spider-man used to be in the same boat until he tried a reboot too far, and decided to join the big successful franchise. Given that their last outing wasn’t even liked by the director, the Fantastic Four might come begging to join up as well.

On the big screen, Marvel has been the winner of recent years with a master-plan worthy of a supervillain. Since Lord of the Rings showed it can pay to think ahead and think big, Marvel decided to create a single, coherent, cinematic world across multiple films and TV series. It established its characters in individual film franchises, then brought them all together for the Avengers. Like a rock supergroup, they can still go off and have solo outings. The shared universe extends to their TV series, with the little guys in Agents of SHIELD foreshadowing and reacting to the events of the films. They’re not lacking for ambition.

DC, in recent years, has been a bit lacklustre at the cinema in comparison. I use that word deliberately, seeing how they seem hell-bent upon making everything gritty, serious and, ahem, realistic. A muted palette and subdued lighting seems to be a vital part of this. A credible plot, however, doesn’t seem to be so essential. Humour is largely absent, apart from a couple of attempts that fell flat in Batman v Superman.

Marvel, meanwhile, does what I’d call proper superhero films: light, colour, action, humour, and a sense of fun. For the most part they have been smart enough to realise this doesn’t mean slacking off on plot, subtext or character. The critics seem to have been going for them as well; after all, after directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon knocked up an acclaimed production of Much Ado About Nothing for balance, and just to show he could.

Consider for a moment how to make a superhero film. Let us suppose it was that most poisoned chalice of all, the first Avengers film. You are told “Here are a few too many already established characters. You have to make them beat seven bells out of each other, and then a few bad guys, for two hours.” A good job may not wind up being high art, but it definitely requires skill. How do you make people warm to someone called Captain America, for example? You show people he’s actually a bit embarrassed about it.

You may get the impression I like the fun approach better. Not everyone does, and the idea of mixing a little bit of reality into a comic-book is a good one. Watchmen (the admired graphic novel, not the less admired film) did a fine job of considering how it would affect politics, civil liberties, and even popular fiction. Kick-Ass (at least the film; I have less indie cred about this one) started off imagining what would really happen if someone really did put on a costume and tried fighting crime, or what someone doing it with real combat skills would be like. It then went gleefully outrageous before turning comic-book itself by the end, although still with the disturbing edge.

On the small screen DC has been ruling with its Arrows, Flashes, Legends, Supergirls, and Gotham (adapted from a truly rubbish cartoon idea to make a cool adult series). Marvel’s Agents of Shield has been shaky in comparison, but getting stronger. Agent Carter started brilliantly but lost steam in its second season. All these were more “traditional” superhero-type fare; and DC has already said they won’t be linking up with the films. Marvel then experimented with other approaches using on-demand: Daredevil is dark, and Jessica Jones is matte* black.

You might not want to get your full geek on to keep track of all the ins and outs; you probably don’t have the time to watch more than a fraction of the output, anyway. But our evolving and media-jumping fictional ecology is a jungle with some fascinating beasts in it. Myself, I am wondering what would happen if Wonder Woman and Thor fell in love and tried to breach the divide….

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About jamestucker1972

Aspiring writer!
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