The battle between Marvel and DC is about more than box office dollars—it’s about the idea of what heroes should be, writes David Goodwin.
When it comes to comic book superheroes and villains, there are two giants. Since the 1930s, Marvel and DC have been locked in a battle for supremacy. They have always been evenly matched, while Marvel has a longer list of readily recognised characters, from Spiderman to the X-Men, DC has the Big Three—Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
But, in recent years, Marvel has managed to widen the gap. The current Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), launched in 2007 with Iron Man, is now up to 18 films and counting, with 14 more in various stages of production. Together, the films have grossed more than $14.8 billion, making it the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. It’s also spawned a range of successful spin-off television series and video games.
DC have been trying to catch up ever since, and after a number of less successful attempts, launched their current cinematic universe (the DCU) with the Superman movie Man of Steel. They have gradually introduced other characters, in stand-alone movies and ensemble films. But, despite their financial success, few would argue that they have come close to the success of the MCU, either in pop culture dominance or in satisfying the fans with their interpretation of beloved characters.
Where Marvel have managed to capture the imagination of existing fans at the same time as attracting people who have never picked up a comic book, the DC movies have left many cold and been far more polarising. Critics may have been lukewarm about the occasional Marvel movie, but they have saved their vitriol for the DCU. So, why have Marvel been able to find a way to resonate with audiences on a level that seems to be beyond DC?
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in the very different approaches they have taken to the nature of heroism. Running through both cinematic universes are examinations of what it means to be a hero, what they stand for and the values they represent, but their conclusions couldn’t be more different.
This divergence can trace its roots back to the ’80s and the rise of the anti-hero. For decades, the majority of comic book characters adhered to the same traditional concepts—there was a superhero way. It was pretty easy to tell the heroes from the villains, the heroes were on the side of truth and justice and always did what was clearly the ‘right thing’.
However, as society changed, so did superheroes. While this was partly a reaction against one-dimensional characters and the same old storylines being repeatedly used, there was another factor at work. In a world where people were increasingly questioning many of the values society had taken for granted, the right thing was no longer quite so easy to define.
People wanted more complex characters, who wrestled with the same doubts and uncertainties they did, who faced choices that weren’t always simple. This led to heroes who were fallible, and villains who had motivations viewers could sympathise with. When this was done well it produced storylines that are still considered ground- breaking—comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Comics were no longer considered something only for children and they started to address many significant issues.
But when the writers missed the mark it often led to heroes who were indistinguishable from villains, or who didn’t stand for anything. Many of the classic characters were reimagined, losing much of what made them who they were. The idea of superheroes as role models, inspiring us to be better, almost disappeared.
When DC appointed Zack Snyder as the creative overseer of the DCU, it was clear that they were taking the grittier, modern approach. Snyder was on record as saying that he wasn’t a fan of traditional superheroes, and it was clear he didn’t really understand them. While this wasn’t problem when it came to directing the film adaptation of Watchmen—a storyline which took the concept of non-heroic heroes to its ultimate fulfilment—it made him a strange choice to reimagine Superman for a new generation.
Superman is the ultimate representation of the traditional superhero. His immigrant creators imbued him with a sense of justice that causes him to stand up for the most vulnerable in society. He uses his powers to do good through helping others rather than pursuing his own glory. His strength and invulnerability mean that the question he grapples with is not whether he can do something, but whether he should do it.
There are those who deride him as a naive character, who has too narrow a view of right and wrong. However, even though he was aware of how hard it is to do the right thing in a complex world, the Superman of old always acted against cruelty, greed, discrimination, selfishness and hatred.
When Snyder took charge it seemed like he decided that audiences wouldn’t respond positively to a character that he thought was old-fashioned with old-fashioned values. It was as if he felt the type of hero who refuses to stand by and accept what he knows is wrong, who fights injustice and inspires those around him—even those who disagree with his values—to care as he does about doing good, was no longer relevant.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s Captain America—who is basically Superman without the powers—has become a fan favourite and the conscience of the MCU because of his old-fashioned values, not despite them. He plants his feet firmly on tried and tested principles as he fights to shield the vulnerable from those who would seek to use and abuse them.
Perhaps people still do want heroes with clear ideals who they can look up to and believe in. And maybe it’s no coincidence that the most successful of DC’s modern characters have been Wonder Woman and the Batman of the non-DCU Christopher Nolan movies—characters that try to simply do good and provide a light in an otherwise dark world.
In a world where vast numbers of people are treated as commodities and where the inequity between rich and poor is widening every day, we need heroes willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves—and each of us can be these heroes.
As the Captain America of the MCU, and the Superman of yesteryear, understand—goodness is timeless. It stands on clear principles which mean that being a hero can involve going against the blurred ethics of a world of changing standards. For the most part, the heroes of the MCU strive to do the ‘right thing’ in a world where goodness can be hard to keep sight of, and often isn’t fashionable or popular.
Many of the heroes of the DC universe seem to have given up, letting a broken world drag them down instead of being an example that lifts up those around them—not least the ‘Big Three’ who have at times seemed unconcerned about hurting, or even killing, people in the course of their actions.
However, despite the diluting of Superman’s character, we are still often reminded of the parallels between him and Jesus Christ, whether it is their heavenly origins or the qualities of self-sacrifice they possess. And perhaps the most important ideal they share is the belief that sometimes a hero has to take a stand, and instead of changing to fit in with a society that has lost its way, you need to work to change society instead.
It’s Christ’s example of going against cultural expectations that inspired William and Catherine Booth to found The Salvation Army. At that time many people saw the slum dwellers of Victorian era London as worthless and a hopeless cause. The message of the Gospel that everyone deserved to be treated with dignity and respect, and that everyone was equally valuable in the eyes of God, was out of fashion even then. But instead of letting society’s values change them, the Booths launched a movement that sought to change society.
This willingness to stand for what is right is more important today than ever before. In a world where vast numbers of people are treated as commodities and where the inequity between rich and poor is widening every day, we need heroes willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves—and each of us can be these heroes.
Be assured that the Salvos will continue to let Christ be our inspiration as we work to build healthy communities where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. He is the reason we care for people, fight injustice and seek to help people have their lives transformed through his love.
It can be easy to be cynical, or to let the world drag us down. But the popularity of Marvel’s heroes shows that people still want to believe that we can make a difference to the world, even when it seems a dark and cold place. We may not have super- powers, but we can still inspire others and be a force for change.
That’s why The Salvation Army will keep doing the work we do regardless of what the rest of the world says, and we ask that you will continue to help us do so.