I went on a tweeting rampage recently (rampage is defined here as a flurry of posts on one subject) about the duality of the two most popular DC Comics characters after being asked which I liked better Marvel or DC. This is the main reason why I feel that the Marvel films are better and will continue to be better than their DC counterparts. There are a few things to consider before you read:
- 1. The text below is only applying to the cinematic interpretations and modern representations of these characters. Any comics before the 80s are so tonally different from story to story that they become difficult to really pin down.
- 2. This is my opinion, something I have ruminated on for the better part of a few years.
- 3. While this applies to a majority of DC Comics characters, this does not apply to all of them. The same goes for the Marvel end.
The main crux of the problem is present in the duality of DC’s characters. Although of mythic proportions and composed entirely of fictional locations, the DC universe works on a fundamental basis of the dual natures of these characters. For example, Superman is himself, but when he is Clark Kent he is playing a character to protect his true identity as Superman. Superman and Clark Kent are diametrically opposed; Superman is imposing and exalted while Clark Kent is timid and meek. Similarly, Bruce Wayne is opulent and capricious, while Batman is practical and imperial in nature. Thus, casting the role perfectly is probably impossible.
Marvel has the opposite situation with the their heroes, many of whom don’t even use alter egos. Captain America and Spider-Man are exactly the same people in and out of costume; the costume is simply there to provide their loved ones with the security of anonymity. The dual natures of the DC characters are not present in the Marvel heroes. To be fair, this makes DC characters appear to be much more complex — and to some degree, they are — but this also means that the characters are more difficult to bring to the big screen successfully. Marvel’s characters have been more successful in theaters during the last decade because they are easier to display in the shorthand that is cinema. Mythic characters with single identities are a cinematic shorthand for hero; Cinematic shorthand wins out in the spectacle film.
To illustrate my point, here are some examples of Superman on film:
Christopher Reeve: An excellent example of “Casting for the Clark,” which is what directors should do, as it is easier to believe that a Clark Kent is Superman than it is to believe that Superman is Clark Kent. Reeve brings an excellent acting ability to the role of Clark, but spectacularly falls flat once he is in the costume. Part of the reason for this is that he just doesn’t feel like Superman. Even while dressed in the iconic blue and red, Reeve feels like a Clark dressed for a Halloween party.
Brandon Routh: Probably the best Superman on film. Why? Because he can play both Clark and Superman fantastically. Sadly, He doesn’t get enough screen time as Superman, but while on screen his physique and steely eyes portray a man-god of physical stature that is believable for the first time. While also being an acceptable Clark, he is not as believable in the role.
Henry Cavill: Actually avoids this problem by not really being Clark at all. He is Superman the whole time. He hasn’t really developed his secret identity as Clark Kent yet and thus he works on film better than any previous live-action incarnation of the Man of Steel.
Now let’s take a look at Batman’s portrayals over the years:
Michael Keaton: I know he is beloved, but honestly, he makes a great Bruce Wayne and is utterly unbelievable as Batman. He didn’t have the physique or the commanding presence required to be Batman, though he clearly was very good at being Bruce.
George Clooney: He has the same problem as Keaton. Fantastic Bruce Wayne, terrible Batman. His demeanor shines when the cowl is not on his face. Although he was definitely physically fit at the time, his presence wasn’t commanding or fearful enough to be Batman
Val Kilmer: Kilmer will probably go down in history as one of the better Batman actors. That doesn’t mean his movie was good, but simply that he was commanding and bold as the Caped Crusader. That being said, he was awful as Bruce Wayne. Completely unbelievable as a billionaire playboy with a secret.
Christian Bale: The best Batman in cinema. Now hear me out — He has the physique, the presence and the demeanor to pull off both Batman and Bruce Wayne. This is most evident in Dark Knight Rises where the true duality of the character is seen. Bruce and Batman nearly merged in the film, their purpose being the same for the first time ever.
Meanwhile, on the Marvel side, nearly every actor who has played one of the Marvel characters in the modern age has pulled it off with their singular, mythic quality. Well, everyone except Chris Evans, who is as flat as ever. He was terrible as The Human Torch and he is just as bad as Captain America. Characters with dual natures in Marvel films are often played by two different people, or in the case of The Hulk, the other half is CGI (or Lou Ferrigno) freeing the Bruce Banner actor to fully envelope themselves in their character. The only difference between Peter Parker and Spider-Man — in both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-man — is the fact that he refrains from using his powers while not wearing the mask. Both characters act exactly the same.
This dual nature that is inherent in the characters of DC Comics is of course both a hindrance and aid. It gives their characters more depth and realism than their Marvel counterparts, but that leaves them with less time for superheroics in the limited time available during a movie. Marvel’s simpler characters are expressed much easier in the blockbuster mega-budget action films that pass for superhero flicks. Marvel will always be able to out mythicize DC because of their inherent mythical qualities.
To further illustrate, here is a selection of Marvel actors:
Tobey Maguire: A perfect example of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Nerdy, geeky, selfless and always talking. The only thing he does to hide his identity is to wear a mask and not use his powers without wearing it.
Andrew Garfield: Arguably better than Maguire in some ways and worse in others. He embodies Peter/Spider-Man almost perfectly, however he does have a bit of a hipster twist to him that makes him a less accurate depiction of the character.
Edward Norton: Not the best Bruce Banner, but a very competent one. He depicts some of the best traits about Banner — kindness, selflessness, and meekness. Sadly, he does neglect the key element of an underlying rage.
Eric Bana: Bana definitely got more of Banner right than Norton did. The underlying rage is there, but not as well depicted. He looks like he is going to burst into tears at any given moment.
Mark Ruffalo: It can be argued that this is the best depiction of Banner theatrically. His underlying rage-filled demeanor is present, and his ‘overly excited nerd’ characteristic is shown. In addition, he performs perhaps the best piece of dialogue ever uttered in a Bruce Banner role — “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” That line alone adds extra emphasis to Ruffalo’s portrayal.
Robert Downey Jr: It could be argued that Downey Jr and Stark are one and the same. While there is evidence for that, it’s undeniable that he plays the part perfectly. Cocky, overconfident, and supremely flawed.
All of these are clear depictions of characters that are presented well because they are either the same in and out of costume or are played by different actors/CGI depictions. This is something that DC is unable to accomplish and will be both their weakness and their strength if the DC executives can stop manhandling the properties.
As you can tell, it is better to have a character with a single identity in a blockbuster superhero genre film. The single identity allows the audience to connect more easily and quickly than with a character who has conflicting identities. Before I finish off this article, allow me to say that I don’t have a problem with the duality of DC’s characters — I am simply stating that this formula doesn’t work well for big blockbuster films. I love these characters, but I think it’s important that we admit to ourselves why Marvel films will always be better than DC films. Always.
P.S. Man-Thing doesn’t count. We all know that. Don’t bring it up or I will laugh in your face.