Man of Steel, Man of Iron: The Relation of Modern Super Hero Movies to Their Comics Counterparts

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Man of Steel

Walking out of Man of Steel this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the way in which this was particularly a creation of the modern DC Comics mindset. With its dour, somber lead, bombastic, faux-operatic plotting, and general grim and gritty outlook, this was a Superman film that fit in well with Nolan’s Batman trilogy (with its monochromatic color palette feeling at times like a parody of the visual scheme those films developed), yet also with the way DC Comics have looked in the New 52 Era.

Before we go any further, I should make something clear. I am new to the world of monthly comics, spurred to try the medium from the perspective of a regular by DC’s bold relaunch in September 2011. Prior to that fateful month, I had dabbled in comics in trade paperback form, and I have since read some landmark runs as I continue to attempt to build an expertise in the medium. But having read every single #1 to come out in the DC re-launch (I’m still reading roughly 17 DC titles on a monthly basis), and having picked up (about the same number of) Marvel books at the same time, I feel reasonably situated to comment on what this year’s two tent-pole comic book movies, Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 say about the outlook of each line and the way it translates to cinema.

Man of Steel is a dark film, with a plot hinging on genocide and a body count that must be in the thousands, at least. Its hero is a godlike figure sent to us from another planet with a mandate to “Save them. Save them all.” Though Superman is given a supporting cast (including Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White), in a real sense he stands alone against the darkness. No one on this planet can truly understand him, and when things get bad, no one else can stop the slaughter.

This tone is matched in DC’s New 52 line, which situates its myriad heroes in a cynical, unforgiving landscape full of mad men and monsters. This isn’t to say there is no room for fun in DC Comics; there are titles that are a blast month-to-month, and Grant Morrison’s Superman-focused Action Comics (which wrapped earlier this year) was an occasionally kooky take on the character willing to revisit the high-concept sci-fi that dots his history. Yet there’s a pervasive sense of dread that hangs over the DCnU, a feeling that, even in the daylight, darkness lurks around every corner, and a vague inclination that everything good could be pulled away in a second if not for our heroes.

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Though franchises proliferate, there’s a feeling that, to a large extent, the heroes of the DCnU don’t play well with others. Where Marvel (which we’ll get to in a second) populates its line with crossovers and references that create the feeling of a shared universe, DC’s heroes seem to loom above even the teams they are on. The DC Universe is one in which Gods walk amongst men, and only by their benevolence do we continue to live.

Man of Steel fits this to a tee. The film isn’t shy about the results of a Kryptonian who doesn’t have Earth’s best interests at heart coming to visit (in the form of Michael Shannon’s villainous General Zod), and it isn’t subtle in driving home the point that the world needs Superman to avoid an apocalypse the next time a villain of Zod’s caliber shows up.

By contrast, think back to May’s Iron Man 3. The film was sold as Tony Stark at his darkest, with everything stripped away from him and even his sanity more tenuous than ever before. In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this was the darkest film to date. And yet, Iron Man 3 is a fleet, funny movie, balancing its thematic darkness with Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) trademark quips and making time for sight gags and colorful supporting performances (Ben Kingsley, especially, makes the most of his role). Though no Gods of Thunder or green behemoths show up when things get sticky, Iron Man 3 is brazen in its references to the larger cinematic universe, referring to the climactic battle in Avengers and even basing one of its plot points around Tony’s reaction to those events.

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Like its cinematic counterpart, the Marvel Universe is a place where the sun still shines, even on the darkest days. The books in this line make room for humor and take pains to examine the upside of having superpowers. This is not to say terrible things don’t happen in Marvel Comics (just read about what’s happened in the last decade to Daredevil if you don’t believe me), but there’s a genuine feeling of a silver lining here.

Add to that the sense of a shared universe I referenced above, and you create a comics line that feels lived in. The huge events in one book will be referenced across the line, and when things get rough, the heroes can often consult a colleague or call for back-up. Where DC’s Justice League feels like a loose collective of heavy-hitters, The Avengers are a team, with core members who truly are a family. Superman is an isolated god-like being whose relationships (to this point in the relaunch) often feel like they are kept at arm’s length. Captain America, by contrast, is a warm and caring, if stern and strategic, presence to those in his life. The DCnU is full of Gods deigning to protect men; the Marvel Universe is full of men and women straining to help each other.

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This is why Marvel was able to so fluidly build its film franchises to the climax that was Avengers, and why it hasn’t slowed down since. Meanwhile, production on DC’s Justice League has been troubled from the start, with rumored directors rushing to deny their involvement and lingering questions about how well the heroes will be able to co-exist in one movie. Marvel’s films, like the comics they adapt, are built on the foundations of uneasy teamwork, of people hoping to better their world by opening up and relying on each other. DC’s heroes rely on themselves, standing alone as titans and together like a pantheon watching over humanity from on high (literally, as their headquarters The Watchtower is a satellite; by contrast, The Avengers are located in various places throughout New York City, among humanity).

There’s nothing necessarily better or worse about either approach (though, as you may have guessed, I am partial to Marvel’s humanist bent), but it is interesting to see the way the tones of the comic books are seeping into the films. Man of Steel may not be a great Superman film, but it is a good depiction of the world DC has developed in both its comics and its films (excepting Green Lantern, which is a conversation for another day). It fits with this larger vision of Godlike heroes waging epic, cataclysmic war against the forces of darkness, and in its non-stop climax, it feels like the apotheosis of DC’s thematic concerns and moral outlook. The villains come, and they bring with them waves of destruction it seems impossible to withstand. Iron Man 3 isn’t my favorite Marvel movie (its not even my favorite of its particular franchise, which may never top its stellar first outing), but it is a strong reminder of the world Marvel has built, and the way it continues to develop over the company’s growing body of films. In both their comics and their films, it seems, Marvel is fascinated with building a universe and filling it with people who can grow and change together as they work to better their society. And DC? Well, as they say, some men just want to watch the world burn.

– Jordan Ferguson




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