The spring’s big comic-book movies feature the superhero trend du jour of good guys fighting one other: Batman takes on Superman, Team Captain America versus Team Iron Man. But these all-star team-ups — specifically, Warners/DC Comics’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel/Disney’s Captain America: Civil War — are in a fight of their own, and not just to see who can come up with the more unwieldy title.
For years, DC had the prolific, and sometimes even Oscar-nominated comic book franchises, while its chief competitor’s characters were in cut-rate movies that were less than stellar (or in the case of that infamous Roger Corman production of Fantastic Four, were literally unreleasable). But the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 with Iron Man, and the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, turned the tables: Suddenly Marvel was running the table and DC was playing catch-up. The latter’s creation of its own multistrand, multi-movie universe, which begins in earnest with BvS, is a blatant attempt to follow in its opponent’s footsteps. Worse, that precipitous drop-off at the box office after its opening weekend suggested an eager audience was deeply dissatisfied with what they saw, and not necessarily eager to come back for more. Meanwhile, Civil War posted the fifth-biggest opening weekend in history. You win this round, Cap.
There’s no way around comparing Civil War to Dawn of Justice, and not just because the proximity of their release dates is close enough to hold the attention span of the Thinkpiece Industrial Complex. It’s not even because their plots, both of which center around attempts to hold super-powered heroes accountable for the civilian casualties of their world-saving, are eerily similar on the surface. In addition to the larger issues they at least pretend to wrestle with, both movies can be seen as part of an ongoing attempt to deal with the fact that their title characters (or, in the case of BvS, the second character in its title) are — how to put this delicately? — kinda dorky. In his cultural history, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon says that, at his core, Superman is “kind, caring, and endearingly square”; in a (since-retracted) 2014 essay called “Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s a Prick,” Vulture’s Abraham Riesman argued that “Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.”
Superman and Captain America, born of the Great Depression and World War II, respectively, were both created when the borders between good and evil were drawn in thick, black ink. Superman was dreamed up by two Jews from Cleveland, an American answer to the Nietzschean übermensch; on the cover of his first issue, Captain America gives Adolf Hitler a sock in the jaw. In the following three-quarters of a century, both characters have been reimagined innumerable times, but they’ve both stayed true to the fundamental decency at their core. And decency, as admirable a quality it may be, can be pretty boring.