Recently I was in a discussion about Man of Steel at my local comics shop. It's no secret that I was very much looking forward to this movie, and no secret that I was utterly disappointed in it. Now I've always been The DC Comics Guy at my store. Most of the folks there are more into Marvel's stuff: Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four, to name but a few. I prefer the old school stuff from DC: Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Justice League of America. And in the course of the discussion about why I was so distressed by the Superman movie, I realized what the overall problem is.
The two companies have switched places, at least in their movies.
In the comics, DC was the bright primary-colors world of hope and promise. Marvel had the universe where the heroes were plagued with personal problems. Think about it. Superman had, if anything, too much power to be interesting. Batman was a billionaire. Gotham City was scary, but protected by the Batman. Metropolis was the City of Tomorrow. All the cities in the DC Universe were made up places: Green Arrow had Star City, the Flash had Central City, Green Lantern protected Coast City, Hawkman was in Midway City, and so forth. Sure, if you squinted hard enough, you could see that they were supposed to be LA or NYC or Chicago. But they were pretend places, and you could go there in your imagination and make believe that maybe you could be chosen for an alien power ring. Or at least look up in the sky and see Superman on patrol. It was a nice, warm four-color feeling.
The Marvel Universe was different. Spider-Man was always plagued by money troubles, girl problems, and the imminent death of his last surviving relative, Aunt May. Captain America was a man out of his own time, lost in the 1960's after being frozen alive during WWII. The Fantastic Four come closest to the DC ideal, but their strongman, the Thing, was stuck in his deformed, rock-like body. The other members looked human or could at least turn their powers on or off at will, but poor Ben Grimm was stuck as "some kind of THING" for the rest of forever. And all the Marvel superheroes -- Iron Man, the Avengers, Thor, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four -- worked out of New York City. Every single one. Daredevil protected Hell's Kitchen, Doctor Strange covered the Village, and the FF had midtown, but they were all practically tripping over one another. The only one not there was the Hulk, because that poor, tortured monster was in self-exile out in some desert in the southwest. The heroes all had problems, and the appeal was that it made them "more like us."
But the movies have very subtly turned things on their respective ears. The Marvel Universe is a positive place. I want to go to there. Iron Man's Los Angeles looks great. There's always some new flashy Stark Industries expo where a fan can spot Tony Stark on the red carpet. Spider-Man's New York City is a place where you might look up and see Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man swinging by, instead of Superman. In the Marvel Universe, the good guys win, not without cost, but by the good-guy rulebook, and whether it's Iron Man, the Avengers, Captain America or Spider-Man, you want to cheer when they come out on top. Not so much in the DC movies. Nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Gotham City. It's a bleak, horrible, hopeless place. The Batman is essentially a driven whiner who is just as likely to give up and allow things to go to hell as he is to try to do something positive. Superman stands by and allows his Earth foster father to commit suicide by tornado. Then he kills the bad guy with his bare hands. Nobody I know wants to live in a world where Superman is a dark, tortured, yet indestructible alien. And although I love the character of Green Lantern, the movie GL was kind of a self-absorbed twit. His LA was no place I'd want to hang out, not like I wanted to hang out in Coast City when I was a kid. Although I believe the Green Lantern movie had more merit than most critics gave it, I never believed that the movie version of the hero was flying around on patrol because it was the right thing to do. The cool thing to do, maybe, but not the right thing.
So that's my theory. The Marvel movies always end on an upbeat note. The DC movies not so much.
It makes me shudder to think what's going to happen with Wonder Woman, or, Zod help us, the Justice League movie....