Minor spoilers for Man of Steel and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Man of Steel, the DC Cinematic Universe kickoff movie directed by slo-mo enthusiast Zack Snyder, was controversial for many reasons. One of the big reasons why was regarding the final fight between Superman and General Zod. Said fight between these (essentially) gods took place in the heart of Metropolis and cost millions of lives, which isn’t to account for the billions of dollars of property destruction.
Fast forward two years to the Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel clearly took note of the public backlash at Kal El’s wanton destruction and makes it painfully obvious that no civilians are being harmed, presumably to make the audiences say “Now that everybody is safe, I can happily watch Tony Stark and Hulk destroy a city district.” Add in a throw-away line about Stark Foundation’s cleanup effort afterward, it’s hard to not get that the Avengers care about civilian life and property destruction. Everything in a one-mile radius was destroyed, but unlike in Man of Steel, we know it’ll be okay.
Snyder has recently addressed the criticism against Man of Steel’s destruction, saying “I was surprised because that’s the thesis of Superman for me, that you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences.” Ben Affleck, who will be portraying Batman in Snyder’s forthcoming sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (still a terrible title), has also defended the destruction because he believes it serves the story. Affleck says, “One of the things I liked was Zack’s idea of showing accountability and the consequences of violence and seeing that there are real people in those buildings. And in fact, one of those buildings was Bruce Wayne’s building so he knew people who died in that Black Zero event.” Snyder also added, in a not-at-all-subtle jab at Marvel, that “There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt. That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone?”
So who is right? Is is Marvel’s popcorn and family friendly fueled rides? Superhero films are pure escapism after all. Who wants to go see a superhero film that so blatantly reminds us of 9/11? That’s not what we go to the movies for. And of all the heroes to be city-leveling wrecking balls, why did it have to be Superman? Superman is the best. It is a criticism to some, but it is a comfort for others. Superman won’t kill and he will save the day. So how much did Snyder miss the point by having him both kill and fail to save so many?
On the other hand, how can we ever take superhero drama seriously if there are no true consequences, like Snyder says? Marvel Studios has no idea what the word ‘consequences’ means since every villain and hero has a 90% of being revived or having not died in the first place. Marvel is a bit more casual with how easily a character can come back to life and with how easy it is to put a city back together after it’s been destroyed. Yet, simply writing in all the outs you can just to have the Avengers so concerned with human life doesn’t change the fact that they were the ones who broke everything in the first place. Bruce Banner is absolutely right to want to be as far removed from society as he can be. His superpower is being able to break everything and not be slowed down. Christ, think of his catchphrase! As Joker informs Batman in The Dark Knight, the existence of heroes precedes the existence of villains.
Many feel the DC Film Universe is one of the most shoehorned reactions to the success of Marvel Studios, including me, but this is a moment where I feel DC could be ahead of the curve. Ever since Marvel revived Agent Coulson, there haven’t been any true stakes. Even before Age of Ultron was released, the cast list for Captain America: Civil War was so widely publicized that we knew who couldn’t die, and spoiled so much of what was intended to be a darker follow-up. (It wasn’t.)
As of next week, there will be 12 Marvel Studios films. While their success is undeniable, their mistakes are also public knowledge, and DC has a chance to not repeat these mistakes. That being said, the finale of the only DC film so far could also be seen as a mistake. It will come down to Batman v. Superman. The film has one helluva home-run to land. It needs to address the real-world audience complaints of the last movie. However, Snyder seems to have actually made the destruction work to his advantage. In Marvel Studios, it was the announcement of Iron Man’s identity that set off the “age of miracles.” In the DC Universe, the fight between Zod and Superman will have the same effect and it begins with Batman’s negative reaction to Superman’s actions.
So to ask the question again, who is right? The answer is that both sets of films need a serious course correction. Both are too casual with their treatment of civilians and property damage, but for completely contrasting reasons. Marvel treats human casualties like a video game objective that can be easily taken care of before the big boss battle whereas DC has entirely no respect for the innocent millions trapped in a war between two men. The answer for Marvel is to find a way to introduce actual stakes into their films, but to do that through those 12 films is going to be tough as the rules of their universe mean death and destruction are of no consequence. DC alternatively needs to use their next film as a springboard for our heroes to be heroic, which might not happen at the outset. The film promises more superheroes fighting each other, but hopefully a new threat will emerge that will unite them in the course of you know, saving people, which to its credit, Man of Steel did, though in a half-assed way.
The superhero genre is a bubble that will burst – and perhaps sooner rather than later. The primary reason it will is undoubtedly going to be market saturation, but this would be a small step towards making the over-saturation less of a problem. If there are too many films and none of them can be taken seriously then the genre will die, and it will only be a messy death. For now, we can try and make things more meaningful.