Will the Justice League film be able to compete with The Avengers? That was the tagline for this post, inviting readers and contributors to debate whether DC or Marvel has created the more compelling fictional universe. The formally proposed question was:
Who will ultimately triumph in the superhero battles to define the genre? Does Marvel with Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men set the standard? Or does DC with Batman and Superman provide a better model for aspiring comic and superhero creators?
As a lifelong rabid fan of both Superman and Batman, I want those properties to succeed. However, if I am going to be objective about it, I have to concede that Marvel not only will win the battle to define the comic book film genre – they already have.
Some say imitation is the highest form of flattery. If we make our assessment based upon who imitates who, then Marvel leads the day. DC seeks desperately to clone the achievements of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. It can be seen in the rush to cram as many characters as possible into the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman, ramping up quickly toward the debut of the Justice League. Would DC be so eager were it not for the massive success of The Avengers? In a business where there’s one Deep Impact for every Armageddon, probably not.
This modern relationship is ironic considering that DC predates Marvel and retains the oldest characters with some of the most tried and true narrative conventions. Spider-Man creator Stan Lee has confessed that he was inspired by Superman. But today, the Man of Steel seems to follow where Lee’s creations lead.
A decent popcorn flick, Man of Steel was certainly the most entertaining Superman film in decades. But that’s not saying much. Once the comic book king of the silver screen, Superman graces scant few films on any “best of” list. Batman has fared much better, but has remained largely sequestered from other heroes. Particularly in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman works because he could be anybody.
The key to making the Justice League work will be integrating a mortal character like Batman with the fantastic pantheon of gods found elsewhere in the DC mythos. Marvel has managed this, building an immersive and consistent universe across multiple properties with different directors, casts, and crews. That Thor can occupy the same space as Iron Man, and moviegoers buy both, speaks volumes to Marvel’s accomplishment. Can DC do the same with Batman and Superman?
It’s the kind of thing that has to be thought out and executed deliberately. It has worked for Marvel because they took their time. They focused on getting single characters right – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America – and slow-cooking the shared universe. DC looks to the microwave, shoving its ingredients together into a mysterious potluck without much regard for narrative.
Take Man of Steel as our sole indicator. It could have easily been dissected and expanded into shorter and much more compelling films. The story of Krypton alone, focusing on the exploits of Superman’s alien father Jor-El and the plight of a dying world, deserved far greater scrutiny. After Man of Steel’s 143 minute run time, I’m left with little idea of who any of these people are or why I should care. The project rarely stops for breath, has scant humor, and takes itself far too seriously. The Nolan narrative style, skipping back and forth through time, works better when utilized by Nolan himself than by the frantic and unfocused Zack Snyder.
If that’s how we’re going to get introduced to all these characters, to Batman and Wonder Woman and Cyborg, than I fear a Justice League adventure will never be as fun as The Avengers. And that’s sad. Because it easily could be. DC has a rich history to draw from with decades of stories to mine and refresh. These characters deserve the same focused, nuanced, yet lighthearted treatment that Marvel Studios has given its mightiest heroes.