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  • Mairead Levitt

Has DC Comics Finally Figured It Out?

It is no question that Marvel knows how to make movies. Starting with “Ironman” in 2008, the studio has made successful movies for more than a decade, with only a few minor blips (we don’t talk about “The Hulk”). DC Comics, on the other hand, has not been as fortunate with its movies. Despite having interesting characters, its box office endeavors are always terrible. So, what makes Marvel movies so good and DC movies so bad? More than that, has DC finally found its own formula for making good movies?

First, let’s talk about why people like superheroes so much. For a while, superheroes and comics were synonymous with nerds (you all know the stereotypical dweeb from a movie or TV show who would rather read comics than play sports). Now, we don’t live in a society with social standings that are that strict, but comics are still more “nerdy” than anything else. However, when “Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire, premiered in 2002 and “Ironman,” starring Robert Downey, Jr, premiered in 2008, a lot of people, more than just comic book fans, watched and loved these movies. Why? For one thing, they made people feel a sense of patriotism.

“Spider-Man” premiered in 2002, a year after 9/11. Superhero movies, especially Marvel ones, showed a very black and white world. People were either good or evil, a mentality that was strong in America at this time. In “Ironman,” Tony Stark is kidnapped by foreign terrorists. In the “Avengers,” aliens (in this case, they are literally aliens, but keep with the metaphor) invade New York and lay waste to the city. Superhero movies gave people a way to connect to the horrors in the world safely. More than that, they always end (okay, almost always end) with the heroes winning. People can see their fears play out on screen but also see them end with a happy ending. People are able to feel like they’re safer afterward because they’ve seen scenarios play out and noticed success from the “good side.” Superheroes movies, to put it simply, give people hope.

So why does Marvel know how to do this and DC doesn’t?

Marvel movies have a formula; the studio knows how its movies affect people. The filmmakers know that their work is entertainment for some and hope for others, so they have to balance both narratives. All Marvel movies deal with real-world topics such as racism, sexism and class divides, but it’s much easier to think about racism when you’re thinking about how the Krees irrationally hate the Skrulls (another alien race) rather than thinking about the real world. What Marvel has mastered is the humor element. The topics the studio deals with aren’t inherently humorous, so the thinly veiled metaphors can’t naturally be a source of comedy. Marvel manages to fit humor in its movies through the “Funny Guy Character” (Peter Quill, Tony Stark, Scott Lang), the “Strange Humor Character” (Drax), and the “Strong Female Character Who Is Also Funny Because She Thinks/Acts/Is Better Than the Male Characters” (Natasha Romanoff, Gamora). When these characters mix, Marvel is able to make movies that not only are funny and heartfelt but also have substance because of the issues they communicate. It’s the perfect formula and continues to work time and time again.

Why are most of DC’s movies bad?

For one thing, look at the source material. While both companies take creative liberties for their movies, the core of the story always comes back to the comics. And DC’s comics are fundamentally darker than Marvel’s. That doesn’t mean that DC’s comics are better or worse than Marvel’s or even that all DC comic heroes are as dark as Batman. They’re not; most characters either are “dark” or have a “Darkness Within Them” (a key element of many DC characters). This means, when DC makes movies, they’re darker--both metaphorically (the storylines are always heavier) and literally (apparently the people who made all the Batman movies and Suicide Squad didn’t know lights existed). This darkness always puts somewhat of a damper on the movies because where Marvel’s visuals are typically bright, cheerful and fun, DC feels more hopeless. Pair this darkness with badly thought-out ideas (“Batman v. Superman” anyone?), and it’s no surprise that DC movies are regarded as bad. Even if the studio pursued better stories, DC movies wouldn’t compare to Marvel movies because fundamentally, they don’t give people hope. The movies take themselves too seriously to be as lighthearted as Marvel, and that mindset made them appear more hopeless because they want to seem serious and thoughtful.

What has changed in DC?

What’s the point of bashing DC movies? If you know me, you know that I think DC is better than Marvel (I adore Marvel movies, don’t get me wrong, but DC overall is better than Marvel), so why write this? Well, I think that DC has figured out how to make movies. I know you’re probably thinking, “Whoa, Mairead, hold up! Firstly, I can no longer trust your opinion because you prefer DC to Marvel and now you’re telling me that DC knows how to make movies? Have you gotten brain damage since your last article?” And, yeah, I know what I’m saying doesn’t seem to be true. But look at the last few movies’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes:

  • “Wonder Woman”: 93 on Rotten Tomatoes, certified fresh

  • “Justice League”: 40 on Rotten Tomatoes

  • “Aquaman”: 66 on Rotten Tomatoes

  • “Shazam”: 90 on Rotten Tomatoes, certified fresh

  • “Joker”: 68 on Rotten Tomatoes, 14 various awards

  • “Birds of Prey”: 78 on Rotten Tomatoes, certified fresh

If you ignore “Justice League,” DC seems to be onto something. Its movies are doing better and are much more entertaining because they found their own formula. DC didn’t diverge from their darker tone, but the writers were able to incorporate humor to work with the tone. If DC weren’t dark, it wouldn’t be true to DC’s identity; the studio would be a knockoff Marvel. What DC was able to do is balance its darker tones with darker humor, and that change seems to be doing pretty well so far. Take 2020’s “Birds of Prey.” I went into that movie with the same low hopes I have about every DC movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. Since DC wasn’t trying to avoid the R-rating, it was able to make the movie clever, violent and honestly pretty fresh. It was very different from Marvel movies and even other DC movies, but in a good way. It was a suspenseful, heartfelt and honestly (in my opinion) one of DC’s best movies to date.

Now, I’m not saying that DC movies are going to rival Marvel movies (they’re not), but I do think that we can start thinking optimistically when DC announces a new movie because the studio might have it down.

Article about superhero movies and 9/11:

Rotten Tomatoes:


Photo courtesy of DC Comics

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