I get asked two questions a lot: 1) Does Marvel pay you for the good coverage, and 2) why is everything superheroes these days?
2) Because the world is scary and we want to believe in heroes.
I’ve been thinking about #2 since Drew McWeeny at HitFix published an editorial last night about Warner Brothers’ alleged “no jokes” mandate for their budding DC Cinematic Universe. McWeeny is an excellent film writer and HitFix is above the fanboy bullshit of DC vs. Marvel, so I don’t think this can be reduced to any kind of pandering or “taking sides” or any of that. If McWeeny is comfortable publishing it, there’s a very real chance there is fire under that smoke. I haven’t heard it put so bluntly, but I have heard similar things from the direction of the DCCU myself, that they have a particular tone they want to strike and it’s not as broad or humorous as Marvel’s house style. Which brings us back to #2 and why I am so often so hard on WB/DC—they’re missing the real point of why people are flocking to superhero movies.
X-Men came out in 2000, proving that superheroes could look cool on screen and be profitable. Batman Begins came along in 2005, showing that superheroes could also be used as a more serious tool as a metaphor about terrorism and the security state. And then in 2008 Iron Man and The Dark Knight both came out, arguably the two greatest superhero movies ever made. Both were huge financial and critical successes, and they had wildly divergent tones. Iron Man was irreverent, funny, referential and pop. The Dark Knight was methodical, philosophical, adult, and everyone’s new favorite buzzword—gritty.
As Marvel’s cinematic universe grew, they refused to make a gritty superhero movie (their darkest movie to date is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that makes at least one joke every 20 minutes), even as that became the flavor du jour for everyone else making tent pole movies because of The Dark Knight’s success. And that was okay—Marvel characters and DC characters are different, and DC comics tend to be darker and grimmer anyway, so it felt natural that the movies should follow that tone. It especially suits Batman, with his deep emotional scars and psychological trauma.
But then two things happened. In 2011 WB/DC released The Green Lantern, their attempt at a lighter superhero movie, and it tanked critically and financially. And in 2012 Marvel released The Avengers, and suddenly—even though Christopher Nolan capped his hugely successful and cinematically ambitious Dark Knight trilogy in 2012, too—Marvel was THE superhero game in Hollywood. Despite the critical, commercial, and artistic success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, by the end of 2012 Marvel was king of the superhero hill, and WB/DC was left to ask how in the hell they got trumped.
The answer to that question has nothing to do with DC or Marvel or rivalry or fanboys or casting or any of it. The answer has to do with the audience and what they want, and the answer is very simple: Heroes. The rise of the superhero film coincides exactly with the rise of international terrorism, a war on two fronts, and our increasing disillusionment with the people in charge. It’s not hard to understand why audiences would suddenly embrace stories in which heroes defeat villains that reflect the real-life things that scare us: Tony Stark fights smug stock-broker types, Steve Rogers takes down a PRISM-like surveillance apparatus, Batman defeats a terrorist bent on sowing chaos in the world.
But going back to that schism in 2012, what becomes even clearer is that a hero isn’t enough. What people really want is a team of heroes. And it isn’t because bigger is better, it’s about friendship. Why is Guardians of the Galaxy the biggest movie of the summer? Because it’s about five selfish assholes who get their shit together, become friends, and defeat the villain with a Care-Bear Stare because friendship is magic. THAT is the story people want to believe in—that when it really counts, no matter how far apart we may be, we can come together and save the day. And that notion, of disparate characters forming bonds and succeeding as friends, is the heart of the whole MCU.
Which is why I worry about Batman v. Superman. Because while yes, Lex Luthor will be there doing villainy things, at the end of the day, it’s a movie about two heroes not being friends. There’s an allure to seeing Batman and Superman punch each other in the face, and I have no doubt it will make a bunch of money come 2015. But I wonder at its long-term viability, and I wonder if this is really the foundation on which to build a sustainable DCCU. I wonder if audiences really want to see two heroes going at it when the other option, coming barely five weeks later, is the next installment in Steve Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Jokes or no jokes, I just hope that WB/DC doesn’t lose sight of the real point of superheroes—to remind people that ANYONE can be a hero, and that good can defeat evil when good is a bunch of people putting aside their differences and working together. Now more than ever, people want to believe in that message. I don’t think the DCCU has to be as lighthearted as the MCU, and I do think there’s a place for a more serious-minded superhero franchise. After all, it’s not the lack of jokes that’s hurting WB/DC. It’s the lack of hope.
The logic behind positioning the DC heroes as “gods amongst men” and creating a “pantheon” isn’t necessarily bad. A number of the Justice League members aren’t human, so it fits in that framework. But the thing I worry about—the thing I’m not convinced DC understands—is that’s not what people really want to see. People respond most strongly to the most human characters, the ones with flaws and foibles and problems we can all identify with. Positioning superheroes as “gods” is missing the point, and I worry it might actually turn off audiences. They’ll show up for Batman v. Superman, there’s no question of that. The question is will they like it? Will it make them feel hopeful? Ban jokes if you want, just don’t ban hope.