Like a lot of other people, I found my way to the local bijou on the final weekend of April. The nearest Cineplex to our rural home in northwest Wisconsin is in the town of Rice Lake, where Lake 7 Theatre offers first-run movies on, you guessed it, seven screens. On that 28th day of April, three of them were showing the same film, Avengers: Infinity War.
Readers of this blog know my affinity for heroes, especially the super kind. I was probably about five years of age when I first saw reruns of The Adventures of Superman on my grandparents’ black-and-white TV down in Platteville. At the Schultz Bros. department store downtown were racks of comic books, where I could see the great hero’s exploits in full color on the page. If I had an extra dime or a quarter, I’d buy one or two to take home. Better yet, just a block away from my grandparents’ house was the home of the Leuth family. The mom, Leona, was a friend of my grandmother’s, and her two boys were buddies of my grandparents’ son, my uncle Denny. Leona had a nephew, I think it was, who ran a comic book store in Madison and when he took comics off his shelves to be replaced by newer issues, he’d ship the old copies home to Platteville, and Mrs. Leuth let me sit on her front porch and read them, a few dozen at a time. Just one more reason why growing up in Platteville and nearby Potosi in the sixties was like living in a real-life Mayberry.
It was about that time another comic book company rose up to challenge DC, which had ruled the superhero comic book roost for a quarter-century with standard-bearers Superman and Batman. In 1961, a competitor, Atlas Comics, re-branded itself Marvel and launched a line of superheroes concocted by a young stable of writers and artists like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Pretty soon, characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and a resurrected World War II hero named Captain America started muscling Superman and Batman aside on the comic-store racks. By the 1970s, when I was in junior high and high school in Potosi, the two stables of heroes were pretty much equal in terms of sales and stature. A good friend of mine and basketball teammate, Bill Heck, was a Marvel guy, while I stuck with DC. Every few months we’d get together to exchange comics and argue about who was better.
My heroes hit the movie screen.
By the mid-70s, both DC and Marvel had seen their most popular heroes translate to the small screen, usually in the form of cartoons. The old George Reeves TV version of Superman was hopelessly outdated, with its clunky special effects and hokey plots. The Batman TV series of the ’60s had flamed out quickly once viewers got tired of its goofy fight scenes and outlandish villains. By 1978, cinema technology had advanced to the point where a realistic superhero movie was possible, and when it arrived, Superman was a box-office and critical hit.
Not only were the special effects light years ahead of what we’d seen in the Reeves TV series twenty years before, Superman gave us a hero who kept his idealistic views even in the face of skepticism from the public and threats from the genius villain, Lex Luthor. Reeve went on to star in three more Superman films through 1987. By the end of the series, fans were clamoring for Superman’s partner (and sometimes rival) to make it to the big screen, and in 1989 we got it, with the premiere of Batman.
Like Superman eleven years before, Batman was a huge hit with fans and critics. Director Tim Burton got high marks for giving us a Gotham City that was as gloomy and dangerous as its masked protector, and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Batman’s adversary, the Joker, was spectacular. Comic book fans, who would soon be given the somewhat-derogatory name “fanboys,” clucked about the casting of Keaton and a few other details, but by and large the film followed the trend of Batman comics in the 1980s, which had been growing progressively more serious and dark in tone. Batman inspired three sequel films and also Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1992 and set a new tone for serious, artistic superhero stories in animation. More than a quarter-century later, DC’s animation division continues to crank out stylish, well-written animated movies.
Even while the animated series and comic books were rocketing skyward in popularity thanks to the first two Batman films, the movie series quickly lost its steam. To this day, many fans insist it’s because the films got away from the original’s premise and devolved into campiness more akin to the ’60s TV series. A change in directors was critical; Tim Burton helmed the first two films, but Joel Schumacher took over for the next two, and his different vision was apparent. Keaton reprised the role in Batman Returns, but gave up the cowl to Val Kilmer in Batman Forever. That film finally gave us Robin, Batman’s teen-aged sidekick, although the role was filled by Chris O’Donnell, who was 25 years old at the time. O’Donnell returned in 1997’s Batman and Robin, which starred George Clooney as Batman and also introduced us to Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone). By now the films had rolled through the big names in Batman’s colorful rogues gallery of villains, starting with Nicholson’s Joker, adding the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the second Keaton movie. With Kilmer’s film, though, the Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) started the madcap dash back in time. When Clooney was selected to succeed Kilmer under the cowl, I was actually pleased by the choice; the suave star of TV’s ER had been considered to play another ’60s-era masked avenger, the Green Hornet, and I thought he’d make a pretty good Batman. (Today, Clooney probably wishes he’d become the Hornet instead.) He did, but wasn’t given much to work with. Not only did he have to share screen time with Robin and Batgirl, the two villains he faced off with, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), chewed so much scenery that the movie suffered. I remember going to see it in Rice Lake with my son Jim, then ten years old, and I came close to walking out halfway through when Batman flashed his “bat-credit card” (“Don’t leave your cave without it!”), a gag straight out of the old TV show from thirty years before.
By the end of the 1990s, it had been more than a dozen years since Superman had flown across the movie screen, and the critical momentum gained by Keaton’s first two Batman films had ground quickly to a halt. DC and its movie-studio partners didn’t know what to do. There was talk of reviving Superman, and some test scenes with Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel were shot, but nobody could agree on a direction for the film. There was talk of bringing Wonder Woman to the movies, but the TV series starring Lynda Carter was already twenty years in the past.
Meanwhile, Marvel was having a tough time just keeping the lights on. Since the mid-70s, Marvel had optioned many of its characters out to the movies for adaptations, but nothing ever clicked. The Hulk and Spider-Man had short TV runs in the late ’70s, but a 1986 film based on its quirky character Howard the Duck was a quacking bomb. A Captain America movie in 1990 went direct-to-video and a Fantastic Four film a few years later was judged to be so bad it wasn’t even released. By the late ’90s, Marvel was desperate for cash and optioned Spider-Man to Sony for development. Marvel’s own fledgling movie division, Marvel Studios, released Blade in 1998, starring Wesley Snipes as the vampire hunter. The film did well enough to keep Marvel afloat and finance its next project, a film about a group of mutant heroes, the X-Men. In the meantime, Sony was moving ahead with its Spider-Man film. They would both hit the screen within the first three years of the new decade, and they started a cinematic run of Marvel successes that is still going strong.
New century, and a new boss at the box office.
The arrival of the X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 boosted Marvel into the cinematic stratosphere. The films combined to gross over a billion dollars in U.S. box office business, succeeding not just because of awesome special effects but because they gave us characters right out of the Marvel comics: conflicted about their place in the world, sometimes confused about their powers and the necessity to use them, and often reluctant to work together or submit to any kind of authority. There was a lot of gray in the makeup of the Marvel heroes, whereas DC’s tended to be strictly black and white. Moviegoers responded by packing theaters and demanding more. Marvel, of course, was more than ready to give it to them.
More of Marvel’s heroes began marching onto the big screen. From 2003-07, we saw the Hulk, the Punisher, Daredevil, two films starring the Fantastic Four, and two sequels each for Spider-Man and the X-Men. Momentum was building, and Marvel laid plans to capitalize on it by revamping its movie production branch, aiming to bring its biggest stars to life in the next few years.
DC wasn’t exactly twiddling its thumbs while Marvel was eating up screen time. A revamped Batman franchise kicked off in 2005 with Batman Begins, taking the hero back to his roots. An unknown British actor, Christian Bale, was tapped for the lead role, and unlike the art-deco style of Gotham City showcased in the earlier films, this one had some exterior scenes shot in Chicago. Director Christopher Nolan’s goal was to make Batman as realistic as possible, and he succeeded. Nolan gave us a Batman who was grim and driven, but he had to be, in order to avenge the murder of his parents and bring Gotham’s crime lords to justice. A stellar supporting cast featuring first-rate actors like Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman certainly helped.
Over the next seven years, Nolan gave us two more Batman films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The movies grossed over $2 billion worldwide and the middle installment received eight Academy Award nominations, winning two: Best Sound Editing, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. Ledger’s performance was so good, in fact, that after seeing the previews, my wife Sue said she didn’t want to see the film, declaring that the Joker was too disturbing. But she accompanied me anyway. We saw the movie at a small theater in a nearby town, Cumberland, and midway through, while the Joker was rampaging through Gotham City, the screen went dark and the theater’s emergency lights went on. My first reaction was, My God, he’s here! I immediately looked at the exit, expecting to see the Joker’s clown-faced gangsters charging in with submachine guns. But it was only a brief power outage caused by a thunderstorm. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the film resumed. I had never before had such a visceral reaction to a movie.
But the Batman films weren’t enough for DC to halt Marvel’s momentum. A new Superman film arrived in 2006, with Brandon Routh as the hero, but although it was well-done—Superman’s rescue of a falling airliner was awesome indeed—Superman Returns failed to jump-start the franchise. Plans for a sequel were scrapped, a sign of the times for DC and its studio partner, Warner Bros. Other than Batman, nobody seemed to be able to figure out a way to bring DC’s superheroes to the screen in an effective and popular way.
Marvel wasn’t having those issues. With the support of its owner, Disney, Marvel created the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. The plan was to weave a huge tapestry of superhero storylines in the movies and TV, and it began with Iron Man, released that year. Iron Man had never been one of Marvel’s top comic-book characters, although he had been one of the founding members of its superhero team, the Avengers. But the character was brought vividly to life on-screen thanks to the charm of Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man was a huge hit and the MCU was off and running.
Marvel has kept its emphasis on the movies, bringing us first-rate films featuring Captain America, Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. Its two films featuring the Avengers set a very high bar for DC to reach with its own superhero team, the Justice League, and by the end of 2017 we would see it was a bar they couldn’t reach.
On TV, DC has done well. Starting with Arrow in the fall of 2012, featuring the second-tier hero Green Arrow, DC has partnered with the niche network The CW to bring us well-done shows. Joining GA in the ranks has been the Flash, Supergirl, Black Lightning and a quirky time-travel series featuring more of the company’s secondary characters, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The shows work because they established their own identities, based on the nature of their central characters. Arrow is dark and gritty, showing millionaire Oliver Queen taking on the underworld of his city and outside forces that seek to take it over. Supergirl is like its heroine: bright, colorful, and with a science fiction tone that is appropriate, since she came to Earth from another planet. The Flash has elements of both in its storylines, while Black Lightning featured an African-American superhero trying to bring order to his city in a series that is definitely slanted toward the culture of black America, sometimes to an extreme; virtually all of its white characters, few that there are, come across as villainous and reactionary, if not outright racist. The one exception is Gamby, the tech wizard who aids the hero; it’s revealed during the course of the series that Gamby once worked for the shadowy government agency that has re-emerged to threaten the city, but he saw the error of his ways.
Marvel hasn’t ceded TV to DC, but they have gone about it in a way that’s at least as effective and perhaps more with an eye toward the future. Agents of SHIELD has been a modest success on ABC, while Agent Carter didn’t last past its second season. On the streaming service Netflix, though, Marvel has scored high marks with shows featuring some of its second-tier heroes: Daredevil, the Punisher, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist. Marvel’s advantage here is obvious to anyone who compares the two franchises. On Netflix, the series run for ten to thirteen episodes and are available immediately, rather than week to week as on more traditional broadcast and cable networks. Plus, the writers can push the envelope more in terms of violence and sexuality than DC has been able to do with its CW-based shows. In fact, DC got some pushback from viewers of Supergirl when the show featured a lesbian romance last year between two of its female characters. (Not Supergirl, thankfully.) This season, the romance is over and the show is back to its scifi roots. To its credit, Marvel hasn’t been gratuitous with the sex or fight scenes, and its shows, all filmed on location in New York, have a realistic feel that DC’s haven’t yet been able to achieve.
By the summer of 2017, DC was trying to play catch-up ball to Marvel in the movies. Director Zach Snyder’s 2013 reboot of Superman, Man of Steel, had special effects that the earlier movies couldn’t match, but its storyline was criticized for being too cynical and its climactic fight scene was slammed for its violence. Henry Cavill made a fine Superman, but he didn’t exhibit–or wasn’t allowed to show–the empathetic and idealistic qualities that Reeve, and to a lesser extent Routh, had brought to the character. Three years later, Cavill returned as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, another Snyder-helmed film that gave us a Batman straight out of the pages of the epic mid-1980s comic series, The Dark Knight Returns. As played by Ben Affleck, this Batman was older, angrier, and definitely more violent than any of his cinematic or TV predecessors. Having said that, the film gave us a fight scene that I and many other longtime Batman fans consider to be the best display of the hero’s fighting prowess ever brought to the screen, large or small: Batman warehouse fight.
Almost in spite of itself, DC and Warner did something right in 2017: they gave us Wonder Woman, which was a smash hit with audiences and critics alike. This is how to do it, we finally thought.
But DC’s ultimate answer to Marvel’s movie dominance, Justice League, was already having problems. By late September, two-plus months after Wonder Woman’s release and two months ahead of Justice League, DC was scrambling to make its upcoming feature palatable to fans and critics. And in the long term, the company was starting to reorganize when it came to its cinematic future, as this article in Vulture illustrates so well: DC Is Rethinking Its Movies.
Showdown of the superheroes.
Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t enough to save Justice League. When the movie came out in mid-November, critics clucked that it looked every bit the mashed-up mix that everyone said it would be, after Snyder left the film and The Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought on to finish it. The movie got busted for everything from its length (trimmed to two hours, which cut back on development for new characters like Aquaman and Cyborg) to its special effects (Henry Cavill’s mustache, which he’d grown for a new movie role and refused to shave, was clumsily CGI’d out of existence). The angry, cynical Batman we’d seen in BvS was now the guy trying to save the world and bring back the man he’d once tried to kill. Jason Momoa was great as Aquaman, but a lot of DC fans criticized the casting of Ezra Miller as the Flash over Grant Gustin, who’s played the hero so winningly in the CW TV series. Despite its massive $300 million budget, the film didn’t give fans their money’s worth, and its box office was the smallest so far of DC’s Extended Universe films, which began with Man of Steel.
As 2018 arrived, two new Marvel movies were poised to take over the multiplexes. First was Black Panther in February, a rousing hit directed by Ryan Coogler, who had given us Creed a couple years before. The character, Marvel’s first African superhero, had been introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and now was the main guy in his own film. And what a film it is, showing us a fantastic African nation called Wakanda that has been mostly hidden from the world for centuries as its people mined an ancient meteorite for the alien element vibranium, which acts as a stupendous power source, not to mention being nearly indestructible. Having built a futuristic, egalitarian society while the rest of the continent struggles, Wakanda now has a young king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who must grapple with an outside threat to his people.
And then, just two months later, came Avengers: Infinity War, the third film in the series. It was everything Justice League could have been but wasn’t. The decade-long development of its universe that Marvel had worked so hard on all came to fruition in this film. The internet blazed with articles about how the film’s events had been foreshadowed in earlier MCU films, and how effectively everything was brought together in this epic. And it’s been a box-office smash, skyrocketing to levels that DC can only dream about. As of this weekend, its worldwide gross is $1.44 billion, and growing.
The most dynamic contrast between the two recent superhero team-up movies, as far as I was concerned, was how each portrayed its villain. In Justice League, the bad guy is Steppenwolf, an entirely-CGI creation. Steppenwolf is one of the main warriors for the galactic dictator Darkseid, as DC comics fans have known for years, but instead of seeing Darkseid in this movie, we got his sidekick. Granted, he was tough enough on his own, although when Superman finally showed up, he made short work of the threat. But in Infinity War, we got the main man, Thanos. Played by Josh Brolin, Marvel created a screen presence for its villain that was far superior to what DC had done for Steppenwolf, mainly by using motion-capture photography. We also got to see a lot more of Thanos than we’d seen of his DC counterpart, and it really gave the audience a feeling for what he was about, and why he was doing this. In many ways, Thanos is the star of the film.
The ending of the movie guarantees a sequel, which is due in 2019. Without giving it away, in case you haven’t seen it yet, Thanos puts the Avengers, and all of Earth, in a very tough spot indeed. Will they get out? Can they? We’ll have to wait till next year. In the meantime, DC execs must be shaking their heads, wondering if they’ll ever be able to make a movie this good, and this popular. I’m hoping that they can, but they have a lot of work to do.