‘Civil War’ vs. ‘Batman v Superman’: What Marvel Is Getting Right
It doesn’t have to be that way: For a long time, comic-book do-gooders and their movie counterparts were unambiguously heroic — superheroic, even. Christopher Reeve’s Superman struggled with the burden of his awesome responsibility and his loneliness as the last survivor of an obliterated race, even the ability to form a coherent sentence in the presence of Lois Lane, but he was never tempted to use his powers for anything but good. He’s like a Sunday School Christ, benevolent and all-forgiving, with none of that nasty Old Testament wrath.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which turns 30 this year, changed all that. His Batman was, to use the now-clichéd terms, dark and gritty, an angry avenger in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. In the story’s climax, he engineers a fight with a weakened Superman, using his human cunning and advanced technology to gain a tactical edge over the Man of Steel. (Snyder drew heavily — very heavily — on Miller’s imagery for the final battle in Batman v Superman.) But in the wroter-artist’s telling, the Caped Crusader’s real advantage is his anger, which gives him a focus and a strength of purpose his goody-two-shoes opponent lacks. “You always says yes, to anyone with a badge, or a flag,” Bruce Wayne sneers as he rains haymakers on his opponent’s once-invincible chin. “It’s way past time you learned what it means to be a man.”
Along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, whose first issues were published in the same year, The Dark Knight had a seismic effect on the world of comics — and especially how they were perceived from the outside. Mainstream media outlets published innumerable articles on comic books’ embrace of “adult” themes, all headlined with some variation on “Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore.” In 1989, Tim Burton’s Goth-tinged Batman cemented the triumph of the tortured vigilante hero, and although that series, like the Superman movies before it, soon devolved into camp, its influence held. While Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight took the character to even darker, grittier depths, the man defending truth, justice and the American way languished in development hell, with five attempts to revive the character for the screen withering on the vine, and 2006’s Superman Returns failing to reboot the franchise.
That’s the MCU’s blessing and its curse. It’s now so big that it’s created its own rules. Critics call Civil War “the best Marvel movie yet” without addressing whether that means it’s actually, you know, good.
Captain America fared even worse. Before finding his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his only previous big-screen outing was a 1990 movie so bad it still hasn’t been released in the U.S. (It survives mainly as a trivia owing to the fact that the lead was played by J.D. Salinger’s son, Matt.) The failure of Marvel’s pre-MCU attempts had many roots, but the guy with the red, white and blue shield presented a special problem: How do you make the embodiment of American values, you know, cool?
The MCU’s answer: Essentially, you don’t. Chris Evans’ Cap is a literal throwback, a freeze-dried remnant of an earlier, simpler age. Rather than trying to soften his squareness, the movies poke fun at it: A canny cut-in from The Winter Soldier shows him eying a to-do list of pop culture catch-up that includes disco, the history of the Berlin Wall, and “Nirvana (Band).” He’s surrounded by cynics, including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, but he’s steadfast, defending his ideals even if, as becomes increasingly the case, that means standing against the very authorities who created him. Civil War makes Cap a rogue agent, hunted by his own government, and yet he’s still the good guy.
The Superman of Zack Snyder’s universe has been, in a word, Batman-ized. Man of Steel gives Henry Cavill’s Kal-El a thorough grounding in Midwestern values: “”I’m from Kansas,” he says at one point. “I’m about as American as you can get.” But his is a post-9/11 America, where principles are negotiable and ideals only get in the way. He seems blithely unaware of the cataclysmic consequences to Metropolis during the movie’s climactic battle, which ends with him snapping his opponent’s neck. In Batman v Superman, he’s memorialized as the city’s savior, but Bruce Wayne is the one who’s concerned with counting the bodies.