By Mark E. Johnson
In the post-Clooney world of 2005 we were all more than happy to accept a grimmer, more ‘realistic’ Batman. It was already five years since the first X-Men film brought on-screen superheroes closer to Earth. And… you know, Batman’s Batman. The dark(ish) tone of Man of Steel, however, has proved to be more of a sticking point. A lot of people are unhappy with the fit.
In a thoughtful and well constructed piece over on CBR, Jim McLauchlin argues that the superhero films of DC/Warner Bros have a much more pessimistic outlook than those of Marvel. Further, he argues, they fail to reflect the worldview of that all-important 18-34 demographic that they’re kinda-sorta catering for. While I’ve greatly enjoyed output from both camps, I’m here to disagree.
The DC films are, of course, darker in tone than their Marvel counterparts (Green Lantern seems to be getting locked in a yellow wooden box and buried for the purposes of this discourse, which suits me just fine). You could be forgiven, after a viewing the final battle of Man of Steel, for crawling into a Pikachu onesie and refusing to come out until Adventure Time came on the telly. Personally, I would certainly have appreciated a lighter touch in the film—a gentle smattering of a few additional humorous moments would easily have done it. The Marvel films, by comparison, make you feel like you’re already wearing your bright yellow onesie and it’s OK because Ryan Gosling has one too.
It’s a mistake, however, to mistake darkness for pessimism.
McLauchlin discusses optimism among today’s 18-34s in terms of their belief in their ability to mold the future, in a sense of agency. He makes an example of the recent strides towards equal marriage rights in the US. I’d be tempted to argue that we actually feel that we have some agency in civil rights-related issues, but feel largely powerless on issues which involve the cold hard realities of cash, such as global warming and income disparity. However, McLaughlin and I are writing from different sides of the Atlantic (I’m in the UK) and I’m sure that we could trade contradictory anecdotal evidence all day. So, accepting the notion that we’re basically an optimistic bunch with a sense of agency, how does that bear up in the films?
I’d have to say: better in the recent examples of DC films than of those from Marvel. So… SPOILER WARNING.
In The Avengers, New York City is attacked by a raging alien horde and the average-Joe-policemen look on, helpless, until a man in a superhero costume rocks up and suggests in a steely voice that they might get some civilians to safety. In Man of Steel, it’s actually an average-Joe-soldier who deals the decisive blow against the raging alien horde, saving the world. Similarly Lois, while she still needs rescuing a couple of times, manages to be a lot more useful than any of the un-super-folk we see in Marvel’s films.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bats wouldn’t have got very far without the ordinary, heroic men and women of the GCPD stepping up for that final battle.
‘But,’ you might argue, ‘up until that point the GCPD are a bit rubbish. And Superman trashes the military’s drone because he doesn’t really trust them.’ Yes. There’s definitely an air of distrust whirling round the DC movieverse when it comes to powerful institutions. There wouldn’t even be a Batman if he trusted the police to do their job.
Individually, though, ordinary folk are frequently stepping up. Jim Gordon is an obvious example. Perry White refuses to abandon Jenny (whoever the hell she is – ‘Jenny Olsen’?). The chaps on the boat in Dark Knight decide not to blow up the other chaps. While the machinery of the GCPD fails Gotham, the men and women of the force come forward to fight Talia and Bane. According to David Goyer, there are numerous people in Smallville presumably keeping Clark’s secret, even as the military tries to spy on him. (And by the way, doesn’t smashing up that spy drone look like a good idea right now?)
Over in the Marvel movieverse our heroes have a vaguely more positive relationship with public institutions. SHIELD seems to exist as part networking tool, part superhero cover-up operation, part shady weapons manufacturer to be disregarded once it becomes apparent they’re shady. Oh, and they wanted to nuke NY. On balance, I suppose you’re getting a watered-down version of the negativity towards state authority without the faith in the man on the ground. The man on the ground, for the most part, is there to bungle things so the superheroes look more impressive when they show up to see off the aliens/save the president/punch Loki.
You could actually frame the entirety of Man of Steel as a tug of war between pessimism and optimism. Clark, fuelled by the fear that mankind will reject him and/or do something stupid to itself should it discover his true nature, has to decide whether he can trust humanity to accept him and step forward with him into the future. And, frankly, they do. Arguably, it’s the graver threats that throw the heroism of all those average-Joes into greater relief.
Over in the Mighty (film) World of Marvel, however, the question is ‘can some super-people swoop down and save us, absolving us of responsibility for dealing with this mess ourselves?’ The answer, of course, is yes.
Sure, the movie world of Marvel is a brighter-looking place than the DC equivalent. I’m sure many of us would agree we’d rather go for shawarma with the Avengers than nomadically wander the Earth with Bruce or Clark. But surely, when you get down to it, the more optimistic outlook is the one in which ordinary folk stand up and take some responsibility for saving themselves, rather than just waiting for a caped messiah to turn up and do it for them?
[Mark E. Johnson is a writer and professional nerd. He tweets from @Spinface. Copyright © 2013 Mark E. Johnson. All Rights Reserved.]