By Kevin McVicker
In the world of cinematic interpretations of our comic book superheroes there are two typical paths that are taken. One trail is the dark, gritty, and presumed realistic take on the subject matter, while the other is characteristically brighter and has at least a tone or morality consistent with the source material. In such manner also shows the divergence between DC’s The Man of Steel and Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which I believe to be an argument not only against the Man of Steel but also against the dark, gritty, and presupposed realistic depictions of superheroes.
Since I am writing this for a Marvel site, I feel a bit more obligated to spell out the plot, mood, and faults of The Man of Steel, so please excuse this essay if it feels I am treating you a bit like a child when it comes to that subject. I promise when dealing with the Marvel side of things, again you will be engaged as an adult just as any good Marvel fan should. Before any DC fans stumble upon the wrong site prior to their Road to Damascus conversion to Marvel, please know that, yes, I am being demeaning to DC and its characters, and no, I do not care about your opinion because you’re a DC fan. Sure there are some good characters and creators at that company, but the inability to create any sort of cohesive continuity for more than fifteen years doesn’t strike me as a collective source of sound material to establish and solidify a reputable fanbase. And for those of you DC fans who weren’t blessed with the eloquence and grandiose vocabulary of Marvel’s Generalissimo during your child and are having trouble understanding this, I am calling you stupid. (Editor’s note: you give the kid an inch and he takes a mile. You’re not stupid. -Jarid)
I’m kidding (kinda).
The idea here is that Avengers: Age of Ultron is an argument against The Man of Steel as a comic book based film. To better understand why I think it is an argument against the film, it is best to understand The Man of Steel as a movie first. Get ready for an analysis of a DC film on a Marvel only fansite! It may be the first of its kind.
To begin with, The Man of Steel is to Marvel movies basically Iron Man. It is the start of their attempt at franchising a cohesive cinematic universe in the same way Marvel already has, and in the same way they attempted to create a cohesive comic book universe in the same way Marvel already had. Notice a trend? If you’re going to copy, copy from the best. I’m not writing this as a review of either film. I actually enjoyed both on the first takes. The more I thought about The Man of Steel the more I had issue with it, but it was a fun spectacle of a movie. Age of Ultron is still too new in my mind to rend a complete judgement on that movie. I did thoroughly enjoy it and defended it from armchair activists on the Internet on a separate site I write for on the internet (this site is slightly less all-ages than M6P, but is cleaner than most of the internet), but I need to give it at least a third viewing before I rank it with everything else Marvel has done.
Nothing I’m writing here is to say one movie is better than the other (although this is Marvel site, so Age of Ultron is better). I’m not going to say Avengers 2 is better than the Man of Steel (but it is). I’m not even going to say Superman Returns is better than the Man of Steel (but it is).
The Man of Steel is basically issue one in what will become (at least according to current plans) around a dozen films or so. Then, like all modern films, they’ll reboot everything despite the wails of suffering from the Internet. Until that point in time, they actually have to make the other films (two are in production, and one that should be can’t find a director, and others appear to have an overbearing studio hand sucking the life out of them, so… way to go WB). As The Man of Steel is the first in a series of films, it sets the tone for expectations to come. This tone that was set as a continuation of the tone in the dreary yet exceptional Batman trilogy by Christopher Nolan: dark, gritty, and realistic. This tone and mood also worked well with The Man of Steel’s director, Zak Snyder, whose other works include the Dawn of the Dead remake, 300, and the Watchmen. The director is obviously talented, but has a history of violent and incredibly dark R-rated films. He brought this aesthetic to producer Nolan’s already gritty aesthetic and this is the world established in The Man of Steel. It is as far from the bright and promising Superman that Christopher Reeves brought us as it is from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This darker vision is so drastic that the fill was obviously color corrected to be darker. While I’m not a huge DC fan (I called you stupid earlier if you stupid DC fans don’t remember because you’re stupid. Again… only kidding… kinda) (editor’s note: I’m sorry -Jarid), why would someone make a film about a hero who draws his power from the sun color corrected to look darker? The idea that Superman gets his power from the sun also drives the idea of the tone for his story, which he’s called a “boyscout” by his contemporaries in the comics. By attempting to create aesthetics they (producers and directors) immediately ignore who the character is (admittedly, my concept of who this character is predominately comes from the Richard Donner films of the late 70s and early 80s).
Not only are the visuals and the tone darker, but the heroics are darker. To put it mildly, this movie’s climax makes the 9-11 terrorist attacks look like just another Tuesday. Superman in the film is forced with facing an opponent nearly as powerful as him, but is much smarter (Zod hasn’t absorbed as much solar radiation as Superman, so Supes has a chance against Zod’s tactical brilliance). Zod’s initial attack on Metropolis kills a lot of people. If you haven’t seen the film, it is more than a handful of city blocks that are completely decimated, as in nothing but rubble is left. So in New York city, which is what Metropolis is modeled after, there are 27,000 people per square mile and typically there are about 17 blocks per square mile, so that gives an average population size of a city block at around 1588 people. This is in terms of living, not working, which would increase the block size tremendously depending on the high-rises and businesses in the area, and this attack happened midday. So let’s say to begin with almost 8000 people are probably dead, at least, by Zod straight out of the gate. I think that’s a fair estimate. This of course is glossed over and ignored in the movie, because the central characters that work at the Daily Planet are all okay so the viewers are told to not care in a round-about way.
The next part of the film is a huge battle between Zod and Superman in the part of Metropolis that is still standing and they throw cars and blow up gas tankers and clear out floors of buildings. While it is difficult to say how many may have died in this fight, there had to have been some casualties. The end of the fight though is we finally get to see one family in harm’s way thanks to Zod (remember at least 8000 people have already). Superman breaks Zod’s neck to save that one family, and then he cries, not for the massive death toll, but that he’s the last surviving member of his species (until this Fall’s Supergirl on CBS which we all won’t be watching!).
The Man of Steel is a dark and gritty superhero film with massive casualties and the main character resorting to murder because he’s a rookie and can’t figure out how else to stop the villain. I get that the idea behind the film is that it is Superman’s first outing as a hero, so he doesn’t get the collateral damage aspect, but I encourage you to look back at what he does in his rookie outing in the original Superman film (hint: he causes California to not sink into the ocean). Here is why I think Avengers: Age of Ultron is an argument against that type of superhero film.
First off, while writer/director Joss Whedon said Avengers 2 would be a much darker film than the original, what he didn’t mean was that the film was going to be more violent or grittier. Age of Ultron is darker in terms of characters’ interactions, actions, and motivations. You basically get to see why the Avengers shouldn’t work unless there is a large scale catastrophe. Everyone on the team has their own purpose and drive and need an unifying event (say an attack by an unstoppable AI) to actually work together. That’s the darker and more realistic aspect of this film: the characters are humans and flawed. This has always been Marvel’s strong suit since Stan Lee started with Fantastic Four #1.
While Age of Ultron has its more realistic aspect, it is in characters, not in a darker and cynical world view. This is the first argument I think Age of Ultron makes against The Man of Steel. Superman is a boyscout. Superman is that perfect Middle American son who loves his God, ma, pa, and dog (in that order). Whereas in the Avengers (even if you just wanted to compare this to Iron Man) the characters are humans with flaws and dare I say it… personalities. Captain America is probably the closest thing to Superman in the film, but he’s a 100 year old stoic solder. What’s your excuse, Kal El?
That is potentially something that could be changed later on with the inclusion of more characters in the DC film franchise, but I think it is still an argument that Age of Ultron makes against the lack of humanity and authentic characters in The Man of Steel.
The death toll already mentioned early in this piece is the second, and I think, the most obvious argument Age of Ultron attempts to make against the type of superhero film The Man of Steel is. Superman’s only concern is to stop the bad guy. It’s a singular focus he has. I’ve already mentioned I’ve heard the excuses that he’s a rookie hero, but hey, as a rookie in the first movie he turned back time to saved California and Lois Lane (and Miss Teschmacher’s mom).
In Age of Ultron, the heroes specifically spell out a different credo, which is to save the citizens at all cost. Remember, the Avengers are saving a town that established earlier in the film hated them (or at least Iron Man). So these people despise the Avengers, and yet Ultron is trying to use this town (spoilers) like a giant asteroid to destroy humanity. Quickly the Avengers figure out a way to stop it, because Ultron can’t make a plan smart enough to fool Elon Musk apparently (I never said the movie was faultless). They don’t execute that plan. Why? It would kill off the population of a small town.
The towns people are (another spoilers) eventually evacuated thanks to a Helicarrier in a matter of minutes which can really only lead us to think that there are maybe a few hundred at the most citizens that needed rescuing once the town was floating in the air like some evil mutant’s outer space hideout (I can’t be the only one to notice that). Even before the city is ripped from the ground and sent into the skies, the Avengers’ goal is still to evacuate as many people as possible.
Even earlier in the movie as Iron Man must stop the Hulk, the entire fight Iron Man is multitasking and attempting to move the Hulk away from the population as best he can to reduce or eliminate any collateral damage. That fight scene, almost more than the end of Avengers 2, shows the counter heroics of the one-on-one fight scene in The Man of Steel.
So the second argument made by the Age of Ultron is, as much as a hero must defeat the villain, they must also defend and protect the innocent. Those are the two sides of the same coin. You have to have both to be a hero. You have to sacrifice yourself if necessary to protect those citizens who didn’t ask to be in the fight. Sure, Supes saved a lot of people by stopping Zod, but their fight getting to that point was so hazardous and ignorant of the citizens in the area, it was more like two bulls fighting in a daycare than a hero trying to defeat a villain. Avengers 2 is establishing that Marvel’s heroes are different than the heroes DC has started establishing.
DC’s next film is the Suicide Squad, which is comprised of a handful of villains who are manipulated with explosives in the base of their necks to perform tasks for the government. These hero-villains are killers and psychopaths, so it doesn’t actually appear that DC is trying to retract their view on heroes. Heroes do whatever has to be done in their movie’s worldview. Citizens are just ants and fodder who get in the way of these super beings playing with their futures. So far Marvel appears be doing everything to present an opposite worldview of super beings, where citizens are ants and fodder for the villains and the entire purpose the hero fights.
The third and final argument of the film is really just the full visuals of the Age of Ultron. It’s easy to see. Just watch back-to-back the final theatrical trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron and then The Man of Steel on Youtube. Even in scenes where it should be incredibly dark and the visuals shouldn’t be bright, Age of Ultron still makes them bright. It is literally attempting to bring the comic book to life (the same the original Avengers films did). It isn’t trying to use tired film techniques to make things look dreary and hopeless like the color correction and tinting used to in the Man of Steel to even just suck the color out of the visuals. Age of Ultron isn’t trying to be anything other than a comic book film, which it succeeds at not only in story and characters, but also in visuals. It and its predecessors all prove you don’t have to be a tone separate from the source material to make a mature and widely accessible film.
DC appears to be presenting a cynical, dark, and characterless expression of heroes as they progress their films (even maybe attempting to rip-off Namor to do an Aquaman movie?). While I have no doubt that these films will be a fun spectacle to view at your nearest IMAX theater, it feels counter-intuitive to what has already been established in Marvel films (and even DC television shows) in what fans want.