The Lowdown Regarding Marvel and DC Characters

For the record, I’m not gonna bother acknowledging those crossover comics.

So the One Punch Man review sort of drew a crowd. Didn’t think anyone really cared about my opinions on the show given I’m not much of a shonen action guy, but whilst I’ll concede that not bothering to acknowledge that Saitama is supposed to be a satire of the common working man is grounds for arguing against my judgment that he’s a dull character, I have to take issue with when someone asks me to elaborate on my references to Marvel and DC in regards to saying why the characters were dull. First off, do I look like Hideo Kojima to you? Second, how can people not know by now why Marvel villains and DC heroes are giant snorefests?

Generally, I make references in my reviews in order to make it clear that I judge anime based on my own experiences and no one else’s (particularly the fans who seem to have it in their head that you can only compare anime to other anime). Plus, if you don’t know what I’m referencing, I’ll usually provide enough context so that you don’t need to know anything that a quick google search won’t fix, and you usually don’t need to even do said search to get the gist of what I’m getting at. With Marvel and DC, I didn’t see the point because even if you’re not into superheroes, I find it hard to believe that you don’t have baseline knowledge of Batman given how he’s everywhere. I think all of us have seen at least one Marvel movie and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and I think most of us agree that the latter easily triumphs whatever entry in the former you watch. But you know what? I do have some steam to blow off before my next review, so why I don’t tackle a subject that most people know, but few are willing to call attention to?

Let me list off some superhero films if we’re just paying attention to Marvel and DC: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight, and Man of Steel. What do they all have in common? Well, they’re all movies I think are great. Man of Steel shares the same writer as The Dark Knight (and whilst he didn’t direct it, you could easily see Nolan’s prints on it) and the same director as Watchmen. Watchmen and V for Vendetta were both based on source material by the same author. And most importantly of all, they’re all DC – or at least related to DC. Not a single Marvel film is in that short list.

Why is that? Well let’s look more closely at Marvel and examine their traits. Now I’ve talked amongst people who enjoy Marvel’s output and they seem to like them because they think they’re great character pieces. And it’s true that I like Marvel’s heroes, and not just because I watched their stuff religiously as a kid. Spiderman is probably my favorite superhero of all-time and the films’ portrayal of the rest of the heroes from Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to Chris Evan’s Captain America are likable folks who the films characterize to a good extent in terms of personality and what they represent. They’re all flawed individuals who deal with what life gives them in their own unique ways, and said ways don’t often work out to their benefit, not unlike our own. But no amount of likability in our main hero can make overlook the fact that their stories are total shit. Why? Because the conflict they always go through is total shit. Why? Because their villains SUUUUUCCCCKKKKK!

With the exception of X-Men and maybe the Blade films, Marvel has never been able to write good conflicts for their heroes. All their villains are just a bunch of animal or elemental gimmicks assigned to a random scientist or criminal who only know the hero because he stops them when they test it out, and even a good one like Magneto is limited by the fact that the only real person he has any chemistry with is Xavier. The most Green Goblin ever had with Spiderman was a difference in what kind of costume was appropriate to appear in public and don’t even get me started on Jeff Bridges in the first Iron Man movie whose only real contribution to the plot was making a “better” suit to test Stark’s. And even then, they’re way better than the villain in Ant-Man, who literally came out of nowhere just to have a battle of the bug powers with Paul Rudd. Even if you take into account that a good external conflict is not necessary as long as the internal one our hero has holds up well (like, say, Hellboy) A) that doesn’t hold up if the external conflict takes up a good chunk of the runtime and provides a majority of the fuel to said internal conflict B) Spiderman is the only one I’ve seen who’s been able to pull that sort of stuff off successfully (seriously, fuck Iron Man 2).

And before people bring up those Marvel Netflix shows, whilst they are connected to the MCU, they sort of exist in their own world – especially since all TV has to be character-focused these days if you want to get greenlit – and thus I don’t acknowledge them as credible evidence to deny my claims.

Contrast the MCU with those DC films I enjoy. Now I just want to make it clear that I’ve seen that awful Green Lantern movie so I know not everything that’s come from them has been all that great. And whilst one or two of them are decent, the protagonists in DC’s stuff are generally bland plot devices. But you know what the ones that are great like Watchmen and Man of Steel have? Engaging conflicts often led by villains you could actually take seriously because they make powerful contrasts to the heroes and liven up their dull lives. See, DC has the opposite problem of Marvel in that whilst they can give Batman the best villain lineup in the business, their attempts to give Batman some charm with a personal story and motivations for what he does utterly fail. And the kicker is that he’s actually not so bad off compared to his successor in Batman Beyond or Wonder Woman or pretty much anyone who’s not Static Shock from that universe. Again, I’m disregarding those TV shows like The Flash and Arrow, not helped by the fact that I haven’t watched them.

DC has never been able to do a good job at giving anyone from the Justice League the personal issues that made us care about Marvel’s good guys, and their attempts to try to fix that shows how fundamentally flawed their heroes are on a conceptual level in terms of personality. The number of times they made Superman fat or evil or just flat-out gay in the Silver Age in order to compensate for the fact that he’s an all-powerful being is just embarrassing. And making a teen self out of him and everyone else just so they could appeal to us just makes me lose all hope for humanity. Word of advice: just because you give a guy a reason for his actions doesn’t automatically make him fun to watch. Especially when you’ve got the Joker as a counterpoint. The guy practically never has a reason to be anything but chaos-incarnate, and yet he’s regarded as probably the best supervillain in all of history. Why? Because there are deep consequences to what he does that’d last for a long time if Batman wasn’t around to stop him, and he knows it even if he doesn’t really care whether they actually come to fruition or not.

When you make a story, it’s generally best to make the villain interesting over the protagonist because they’re the main reason the story exists in the first place and the latter is generally tolerable when he’s got a good chemistry with said constant evil force. Certainly helped to make Monster one of the most acclaimed anime around these parts. Conversely, a good protagonist has not and will never be able to make anything surrounding him lively because I don’t do stories that have no conflict or challenge in them. For all the complaints lashed out at Man of Steel, you cannot deny that Michael Shannon’s Zod tested Superman in terms of both physicality and mentality whilst having his own personal reasons for wanting to destroy the humans and even having said reasons affect Superman since he’s of the same race that Zod wants to revive. Pretty much everyone watches The Dark Knight for the Joker. And whilst I know a lot of people who like V mostly because he’s closer to a DC villain than a hero, I can’t recall anything he does in that film that isn’t related to taking down the fascist government. It makes for a more engaging watch than any of the big-budget Saturday morning cartoons that are those Avenger films at any rate.

DC’s villains are great because what they represent is great. Greater than anything even the Marvel heroes stand for because there’s a limit to how proactive a character can be when all he wants is to live a normal life. They want change. They want to rise above what society decides they should be. They’re not above playing cards with each other whilst discussing their individual diabolical plans. And they’d get away with it too if it wasn’t for Batman swooping in to punch them in the face and their inability to just shoot him when they’ve got him cornered. Hey, nobody’s perfect. But at least they’re closer to it than Marvel’s villains – and consequently their products – will ever be.

Minor Quips

  • Incidentally, yes I am hoping that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is good enough to make the Batman v. Superman film worth watching. Because you can bet your ass these three wonder breads aren’t going to get the job done.
  • Static Shock really was DC’s version of Spiderman, wasn’t it?
  • If One Punch Man was supposed to have its villains be Marvel quality and its heroes be DC quality ironically, it needed to push the irony a lot harder than it actually did.
  • I actually enjoy Tenma as a character, even though I think the series could have pushed him harder than it actually ended up doing.

9 responses to “The Lowdown Regarding Marvel and DC Characters

  1. I wonder if this is why I like Captain America so much better than the other Marvel heroes after watching so many MCU movies. He’s kind of like a DC hero in that he doesn’t really have much of an inner life and he mostly just represents some ideal, but the films he’s in mostly revolve around him addressing bad stuff other people do.

    I feel like a lot of the internal conflicts in the Marvel movies follow the same structure where the hero stops thinking they’re awesome, and then has to re-learn that they’re awesome so they can go punch the villains again. I don’t know if it’s because DC has more interesting villains or more boring heroes that they avoid this.

  2. This sums up why it’s really helpful to have articles like this which, when referencing your opinions on wide-scale issues such as the strength of villainy in different franchises, you can link to, so that readers know how on board they are with your consensus at a more detailed level.

    I don’t, for instance, like Watchmen at all, and I think Marvel’s Loki is an achievement for mainstream cinematic villains (if people watch TDK for the Joker, I watch The Avengers, and all of Thor’s movies, for him). The second Avengers movie also had a decent stab at an antagonist, as Ultron and his cronies got all the heroes in a muddle over whether what it meant to ‘play God’.

    • Loki is charismatic and has good chemistry with Thor, but he lacks threat and his plans/goals are too cartoonish for me to take seriously. I actually liked the second Avengers movie more because Ultron was somewhat credible as a villain, but his “playing God” schtick came off as more a trait he has rather than an essential part of the story.

      • Yeah, I don’t/can’t take Loki seriously either. Part of why I love him. It’s a good translation from the mythology; in tales of Norse myth the trickster God was always the bugbear that we knew wouldn’t succeed but loved to see trying to. Gaiman’s Loki embraces this tradition too, albeit with much more depth and complexity.

        With Ultron, the more you equate each of the heroes’ actions to playing God, the more the villain’s part in it feels more connected to everything. I don’t think there was another major theme in that movie, so Ultron’s godlike role is pretty vital in it.

      • Something I enjoyed of Ultron was how they crafted him to be a mix of almost childish naiveté and adolescent impulses. It was imho a very refreshing detour from the cliché of complex Artificial Intelligences who however are totally cold and calculating. To me it’s more believable that an intelligence as complex as a human’s will naturally develop something akin to emotion on its own terms, and Ultron does just that, treading a line between the alien and the exceedingly familiar.

  3. “I think all of us have seen at least one Marvel movie and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and I think most of us agree that the latter easily triumphs whatever entry in the former you watch.”

    Hmmmm, no, I for one don’t. I genuinely think that at least Guardians of the Galaxy, the first Avengers movie, and Captain America 2 put up a good fight.

    Mind you, you’re absolutely right in your analysis about villains and heroes. Marvel’s villains are its weakness. As far as cinematic representations go, of course no one can hold a candle to The Dark Knight’s Joker. But honestly, that is THE ONE entirely good movie that came out of the DK trilogy (and even so it has its problems, most importantly in not knowing when the fuck it should JUST END). Batman Begins is plagued by exactly the same problems you point out in Marvel movies: it spends a lot of (excellent) time developing the protagonist, then it gives us a silly Saturday morning cartoon worthy villain who IS GOING TO DESTROY THE CITY! WITH A DIABOLICAL MACHINE ON A RUNAWAY MONORAIL TRAIN! And so on. It was so disappointing. The Dark Knight Returns does it worse because after hyping Bane so much it destroys him in the final act to show up a “true villain” we couldn’t possibly give less fucks about – all aggravated by having a fundamentally repulsive overall message.

    Yeah, Marvel movies have bad conflicts, but it really depends on WHAT you enjoy of those stories. I can live with a conflict that’s merely a foil to let some good likeable characters shine. And they’re not merely “protectors of stability” – they DO drive change, they just do so in saner ways than the villains. Iron man points towards technological advancement and is driven by his obsession for security. Cap fights for his ideals going as far as to challenge the law for them. The Hulk has his own personal battles to settle. And so on. Even in the Guardians Peter Quill has his own small arc of change – in the form of redemption and coping with his mother’s death. Yeah, it’s not “destroy an entire planet” change but that’s why those are considered villains. Also the MCU has Loki who arguably is a pretty good villain. And here’s to hoping that Thanos will get some more development in the future, and anyway Civil War will see a genuine conflict between heroes (which I believe will not simply boil down to “OH NOEZ WE’VE BEEN FOOLED HERE COMES THE REAL VILLAIN” like Batman vs. Superman is wont to do) so there you go.

    By the way I don’t really think Watchmen and V for Vendetta should count as DC to these ends and purposes. They’re not part of their main line, in fact Watchmen was supposed to use actual DC heroes and they explicitly asked Alan Moore to change that, plus they can get away with killing off characters and doing a lot of stuff that movies that are part of bigger series can’t do. Also they both follow very pedantically their (arguably excellent) source material. They both made some changes, Watchmen’s I liked more than V’s (the latter imho really loses quite a bit compared to the comic book version, and distorts the message and themes), but they still are fundamentally adaptations, whereas Marvel’s movies merely use characters and some bits and pieces of storylines but have independent plots for the most part.

    • I think Batman Begins fares better than Marvel’s usual stuff because even though the second half fell apart, Ra’s was developed decently enough to have some effect on the plot. Moreso than Iron Monger or Whiplash at any rate. Rises I agree with you on for the most part, but I didn’t think the message was that bad.

      As I said to JekoJeko, I do acknowledge Loki as a charismatic villain, but it’s hard for me to take him seriously as an actual threat.

      And yeah, I know Watchmen and V aren’t “really” DC, but as I said in the post, they had some connection to the company and I’d only have two films to say I loved if I removed them.

      I’ll reserve judgment for Civil War and Batman v. Superman once I see them, but as I said for the latter, I’m really hoping Lex Luthor gets a good role because I don’t enjoy DC heroes left to their own devices. And I agree with you in that Iron Man going against the Cap has more promise.

      I can live with a conflict that’s merely a foil to let some good likeable characters shine.

      Like I said, I enjoy the Hellboy films. Iron Man 3 isn’t too bad either. The thing is, most of the stories in those Marvel films depend a little too much on the external conflict for my taste to dismiss it as a mere foil. Ant-Man was absolutely awful in regards to that. What’s supposed to make Paul Rudd interesting in that film is that he wants to be there for his daughter despite being a thief, and too much of Ant-Man’s screen time is spent on the actual (uninspired) thieving side of things and testing out the powers rather than the daughter – who ended up being mostly there so we’d hate the villain more.

      • Ant Man was an entertaining evening but that’s it, no rewatch value for sure. It followed the logic of a heist movie without being really creative in its heist, I agree. And the entire bit about “going subatomic” had me groaning, if you are small enough to pass through the molecules of something how the hell are you ever going to ACT on that something (like defusing a bomb)? I mean, it’s not like I expect sensible science in a superhero movies, but come ON, this is simple logic.

        I’d say my current favourite Marvel movie, and best example of that “conflict as a foil” principle, is Guardian of the Galaxy. Imaginative, witty, fun, and full of likeable and interesting characters. Only one who really wasn’t was… the villain, again, Ronan, who was basically just there. But the entire thing was so entertaining I just didn’t care (also, while the villain was certainly generic, the threat DID feel real, mostly due to the protagonists not being especially powerful or really superheroes at all in their context).