Comic book heroes have always had a role in post-war American culture. Characters like Superman, Batman, and Captain America have been used to represent icons of our country’s values, forever cementing them in the public consciousness as cultural icons. Fast-forward a few decades, and little changed, especially for DC Comics. We’ve seen 15 plus Batman and Superman movies combined between the two heroes, showing a commitment to the most recognizable names the DC brand has to offer. Little has changed today for DC, especially in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s insanely popular Dark Knight trilogy.
Marvel on the other hand though has taken an entirely different approach. Beginning with Iron Man in 2008, their cinematic universe has focused on many of their smaller, lesser known heroes. It was something born of necessity more than anything, with the studio having sold off the rights to their marquee names before they realized their true value. Up until recently, Sony had exclusivity over Spider-Man, while 20th Century Fox still retains the rights to both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. The result: Marvel was given the lesser lemons, and somehow made us some damn good lemonade. But how exactly have they accomplished this?
1. For better or worse, Marvel Studios has kept to one, unified vision
If there’s one thing that’s been consistent about DC’s films, it’s been their inconsistent tone. Batman has been through every iteration from the semi-comedic Tim Burton-led take, to Nolan’s decidedly darker trilogy. Superman has seen a similar tone-shift in its decades-long saga of movies, and it’s only been until very recently that DC has tried to rein things in.
Conversely, Marvel Studios has been almost compulsively consistent, to the extent to which they’ve drummed out some incredibly talented auteurs. Edgar Wright was shown the door after years of working on Ant-Man due to creative differences, while Jon Favreau abandoned ship following Iron Man 2, after clashing with studio-head Kevin Feige. This tonal rigidity though has made for coherent and thought-out storylines, that gives audiences consistent themes throughout the myriad of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
2. The directors that do stick around are wildly talented
It’s tough being a director with a vision in the MCU. Marvel has an incredibly specific and consistent tone they require of all their films, regardless of how creative anyone wants to be in the face of that. That being so, they’ve still managed to bring in some of the best directors the industry has to offer. Joss Whedon’s work on the Avengers films has made them crossover sci-fi hits. The Russo Brothers (Community, Arrested Development) made Captain America: The Winter Soldier the surprise hit of the entire franchise. Even Kenneth Branagh stepped away from the world of Shakespeare for a hot minute to direct the first Thor movie.
3. Marvel largely has a blank slate for their chosen heroes
When it comes to heroes like Spider-Man, Superman, Wolverine, or Batman, audiences have a very specific image of each respective character in their mind. Their origins, powers, and abilities have been well-defined in pop culture, and leave little room for imagination in the realm of movies. But before 2008, the same couldn’t be said for Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, or even Captain America. In the comics, they’re some of the primary members of the Avengers, but in greater mainstream culture, they were relative unknowns pre-MCU.
This in turn left Marvel Studios the chance to build the movie personas of their Avengers from scratch. Moving forward, their slate of upcoming films features an even more obscure group, in Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel. Put a creative enough writer/director in a room with vague-ish parameters for a comic book character, and what you get is something like Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel isn’t bound by a public perception for many of their movie heroes, and because of this they get far more creative license than DC does for more recognized presences like Superman.
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