To many, the only distinction between the heroes of DC and Marvel are the companies that own them. Fans don’t see “DC heroes” and “Marvel heroes;” they only see “comic book heroes.” At the risk of sounding pretentious, however, that’s a very unobservant thing to say. When you look closely at the two rosters of heroes and the way the two companies approach their respective properties, a fundamental philosophical difference becomes apparent.
To best illustrate it, consider a scenario:
Imagine if Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern and Flash (generally considered the core Justice League roster) were to be hit in the head with an anvil, wake up in the future and find there that world peace had been reached. Poverty had been eradicated. Crime had been abolished. Earth is basically Gene Roddenberry’s utopian fantasy. How would they react?
Superman? He would, for the first time, get a good night’s sleep. For all of his time on earth he has heard the cries for help, the beggings for mercy, the shouts and the painful groanings of crime-stricken victims. At any given second he hears a million different people crying for anyone to rescue them. It becomes a white noise that is ever present, and one that he can tap into in order to search for the next opportunity to help. To wake up in a world of total peace would completely change him. He would still have super speed, super sight, the power of heat vision and the power of flight, but there would be no need ever to use them again. Superman–Clark Kent–was raised by altruistic, morally-minded, down-to-earth middle-Americans. He was taught the virtues of humility and service. Without a world to save, Superman would cease to exist. Clark Kent would probably marry Lois Lane and move to the ‘burbs.
Batman? Here’s a guy whose entire life has been consumed by crime. His most vivid childhood memory is of a crime. His adolescence was shaped at boarding schools being teased by bullies with taunts describing that crime. His young adulthood was spent training to fight crime. His adult years were spent fighting crime. His elderly years (depending on what you read) will be spent at his computer, sending out drones and robots to fight crime in his stead. If he were to wake up in a world without crime, he very well might go insane and end up a super-criminal himself (there’s an “elseworlds” story to write about!). Bruce Wayne would probably sell all of his estate and give the money to various causes before moving to Tibet to live in a monastery, meditating until death.
Wonder Woman? She’d just say “mission accomplished” and return to Themyscira to live out her days.
Aquaman? Same. He’d return to the sea to rule as a king,likely never to surface again.
Green Lantern? Very likely he would just leave the earth and journey to some other world to fight against injustices.
Flash? Probably he’d donate himself to science and spend the rest of his life working very very quickly to invent the next great help to humanity.
With the exception of Batman (who could probably use a few decades just meditating and calming the rage within him), DC’s heroes’ lives would be largely fulfilled, because those are the kind of heroes DC presents in their books. DC creates gods that pretend to be men. Take away the need to be a god and these heroes would see their life’s mission completed. Either they would retire or they would go off to find some other way to help some other people.
Now imagine the same scenario as before, only make the heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. How would they react?
Captain America? He was a soldier before he was a super hero, but in a world without war, he would probably go looking for whoever was in charge and volunteer to be his bodyguard. Maybe he’d run for office. He’s a natural soldier; good at giving and taking orders, so his options are limited. In a world with no need for soldiers, he’d just be a man.
Iron Man? What are his skills? He’s a tech genius, so maaaaybe he can help out in this future world, once he gets used to all the new technology that’s around. People say he’s Marvel’s version of Batman, but that’s only a superficial comparison that only focuses on their wealth and lack of super powers. Bruce Wayne is a detective, ninja, crime-fighting zealot who happens to be super rich. Iron Man is a super rich guy who happens to fight crime. Take away his suit and what is he? He’s a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. Billionaire? No, He’s either lost in a crowd of many other rich dudes, or–if perhaps money is no longer a thing in this utopian future–he’s not even that. Playboy? A utopian fantasy world sees everyone as equal, social status is non-existent. Philanthropist? A world without poverty is a world without the need for charity. Tony Stark would be nothing. He’d just be a man.
Thor? He is really Marvel’s spiritual-interpretation of Batman, in that he’s the one hero that is different from the rest. Steve Rodgers, Tony Stark, even Bruce Banner (when not provoked) are just men: Thor is an actual god, and that’s a rarity in Marvel’s world. If he were to wake up to a utopian Earth, he’d go back to Asgard as the guardian of a realm that didn’t need him anymore. He’d just be an immature god with no purpose or direction to focus his attention and drag him to maturity and heroism.
Hulk? He’d never have a reason to get angry again. Simple as that. He’d be able to suppress the monster within, perhaps permanently, arriving at a defacto cure and returning him to being “just a man.”
In this utopian world, the lives of Marvel’s heroes would suddenly feel minor, depressing and lost. because Marvel creates men that pretend to be gods. take away the need to be a god and these heroes would have no purpose. The reason is because the kinds of characters Marvel specializes in, are the kinds of characters that need a reason to exist. With the exception of Thor, Marvel creates men who pretend to be gods.
That’s the big difference between the two companies. That’s why fans should not look at Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s take on the DC cinematic universe with contempt. These characters are not Marvel characters. Their movies have to reflect that. Captain America doesn’t have to worry about a cult of people falling at his feet and worshiping him. At the end of the day he’s just a morally-pure soldier on the best steroids in history. But if a guy like Superman suddenly showed up, you better believe people would start bowing their knee before him, while others would be fearful of him, and others still (like Lex Luthor) would use and manipulate that fear for their own purposes. The weight of responsibility, pressure, and even inherent-guilt that comes with BEING Superman is ten-times more weighty than being Iron Man or Hulk or even Thor (who, as stated, is depicted literally AS a god among men). Why wouldn’t Superman’s origin-story be filled with angst? Man of Steel may have been “grim” and “sad” but it’s the realest take on the character I’ve ever seen, simply because it gave me a very realistic portrayal of how someone like Kal El would be received in the real world.
People were upset with Man of Steel movie because it wasn’t the take on Superman they thought it should be. What they wanted was the comic’s take on the character, and though that sounds like a reasonable and obvious way to go, you have to remember that in the world of the comics Superman has been around since 1938. People are used to him. Even when the comics reset and present Superman’s origin anew, the stories usually introduce him to the public as a savior that wins over the opinions of the people almost as soon as he bursts onto the scene. That’s fine for comics, because comics tend to gloss over the finer details of reality for a more stylized universe, where characters like Oswald Cobblepot and Captain Cold can pop up and no one bat an eye.
The movie universe that Man of Steel established and that Superman v Batman will expand upon, is one where mankind believes it is alone in the universe and at the top of the foodchain on earth. The arrival of Superman threw that assured thinking for a loop and it will bring out of hiding other godlike heroes like Wonder Woman to continue shocking society. In that world it makes perfect sense that there would be people distrustful of Superman. When you think about it, it makes Richard Donner’s beloved take on the character silly and absurd. In the United States today, a congressman can’t talk about how best to handle the “illegal immigration problem” with the words “compassion” or “humane” without being attacked mercilessly by radio talk show hosts. Of COURSE the appearance of Superman–the most famous immigrant of the, all–showing up (and bringing three “countrymen” with him to wreak havoc on the earth) would be met with disdain and mistrust by some, and worship and adoration by others.
This kind of take on the character has been hinted at in some comic stories, but rarely has it been explored in depth as it is in the new DC cinematic universe.
There is a quote from the comics, spoken by Lex Luthor to Bruce Wayne, that seems to perfectly convey the tone these movies are striving for. Lex talks about Superman being an alien, whose thought process is inherently different from our own. We simply can’t predict what might cause him to suddenly decide the best course of action is to rule the planet like a tyrant. He might up and decide that the rainforest needs preserving so he will heat-vision a moat around one-third of South America. He might one day come to the conclusion that whales are better than humans and then its bye-bye people. We can’t understand the way he thinks because he’s not “one of us.” Lex and Bruce are having this discussion and Luthor kept referring to Superman as an “it.” Bruce finally replied that “it” has a name. To which Luthor said:
[a name] that we gave him, an attempt to humanize him — as pointless as naming a hurricane. Forget the name, Bruce– and think about what he can do… Think about a hurricane with a will. Then multiply that intensity a thousand fold.
Bruce then replies “That’s some storm. Good thing he’s on our side.”
Luthor then calmly retorts:
What if he changes his mind? What if… Tonight– he looks down at us and decides we’re not capable to manifest our own destiny? What if tomorrow he wakes up believing he knows what’s best for us? What if comes to believe that it’s not enough to protect the world…when he can just rule it? The only safeguard we have against that happening… is his word.
No one wants to see a well-established Superman hated by the people. Luthor will always hate him. That’s his character, but ultimately Superman needs to be viewed as a hero to the world. As a way to introduce him, however, I can’t imagine a more real way to do it. Fans would do well to exercise a little patience, and let DC play its stories out. It’s clear that Batman goes after Superman in the upcoming film because he has bought into the hype that an alien being with such unchecked powers must be taken out for the good of humanity. Judging by the defaced statue in the recently released teaser, a lot of people agree with him. It will take some kind of mutual threat to force Batman and Superman to team up, and that threat will have to be big enough that humanity sees the need–despite the risks–in having a hero in blue and red watching from the skies.
Until then, Superman will continue to be a god pretending to be a man, and man will rightly fear him as a result.