The last two weeks have brought two new trailers for two upcoming comic book-based films: Marvel Studios’ “Captain America: Civil War” and Warner Bros.’ “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” One featuring a whole lot of Marvel superheroes, one featuring a whole lot of DC Comics superheroes. Yet while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now nearly eight years old and boasts a track record of a dozen successful films, all we really know about DC’s ambitions for a connected live-action film world are 2013’s “Man of Steel,” and the few minutes of “Batman v Superman” promotional footage that has been released.
Of course, there’s already a pretty clear idea of what the Marvel vs. DC divide will look like on screen. The prevailing notion is that Marvel films are light and funny (Baby Groot dancing to the Jackson 5) and the DC films are dark and violent (Superman snapping Zod’s neck). Even though there’s a very small sample size, it’s not unfounded to reach that conclusion about DC-based movies: In 2014 a widely circulated (yet ultimately unconfirmed) story surfaced that Warner Bros. had a “no jokes” policy for DC’s films; earlier this year WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara called the DC movies “a little bit edgier” than Marvel’s. Then there’s “Man of Steel” itself, a surprisingly downbeat affair with mass destruction, Pa Kent suggesting that Clark maybe should have let a bus full of kids die and that infamous neck-snapping scene; seemingly a deliberate choice to show a harder-edge to a character often called a “big blue boy scout.”
Yet when the latest “Batman v Superman” trailer arrived, it felt almost like a direct response to those worried about DC’s movies being too self-serious. There’s plenty of light moments in it — Jesse Eisenberg’s surprisingly chipper Lex Luthor, Batman uttering an expletive at Doomsday’s arrival — culminating in Wonder Woman’s debut, with Superman asking, “She with you?” and Batman quipping, “I thought she was with you!” This came just two days after the release of an undeniably grim teaser, which featured Superman unmasking Batman in what effectively looked like a torture scene.
Rather than “edgy,” the new “BvS” trailer felt like it could best be described as something else: Over the top. In a good way; in a way that superhero fare of this scale should be. In three minutes, viewers see a deliberately goofball Lex Luthor, Superman racing a Batwing, Batman grappling-gunning out of the way of a heat vision blast, Superman saving a rocket like it’s no big deal and a mad scientist Lex seemingly Frankenstein-ing Zod’s corpse into Doomsday. That’s all before Wonder Woman shows up — and were those Parademons flying around? Even though Batman has no superpowers and often has street-level adventures, it feels meaningful that this is the way DC and WB have chosen to introduce Ben Affleck’s take on the character — literally standing shoulder to shoulder with gods.
It feels very big, and it feels very “DC Comics.” DC has always been about big, powerful, iconic heroes living in fictional cities having adventures at an epic scale. Rather than a world that happens to include people with powers, DC’s stories often feel like a world where superheroes pretty much dictate how the world runs (and they probably would if they actually existed, right?). At this point, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of real-world touchstones in “Batman v Superman,” and that’s probably OK, as long as the superhero action works. Yeah, the new trailer starts with a conversation between Batman and Superman in their civilian identities, but it’s clear that’s just a prelude until the big ol’ fighting starts.
Marvel, on the other hand, as always been about “the world outside your window.” That saying may be a Reed Richards-esque reach when you consider this is a world with a Savage Land and a fictional European nation ruled by a guy in a metal mask, but compared to DC, it’s relatively grounded. And that’s what you see in the “Civil War” trailer. Yes, there are a lot of superheroes in the trailer, but the main force driving the conflict is a government interference sparked by a guy in a suit. Similar to the “Civil War” story from the comic books, it looks like this movie aims to comment on real-life issues of privacy and security. Even the action itself is pretty grounded — surely the stakes will be raised in the film itself, but here it’s mainly hand-to-hand combat; punching and kicking rather than, again, Superman saving a rocket like it’s no big deal.
So maybe the difference between Marvel and DC’s movies won’t be “light versus dark,” but the same underlying differences that have defined Marvel and DC’s comic books for 50-plus years. While Marvel looks to (mostly) use superheroes to comment on the real world, DC appears to be (mostly) building a grander, more fantasy-based world in which to operate. Both approaches are valid, and as we’ve seen from the enduring popularity of all of these characters, perfectly viable — and if history is any indication, fans will argue which approach is better for decades to come.
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