Suicide Squad v The Avengers: Why do DC’s superhero movies suck and Marvel’s succeed?

Where DC heroes might be vulnerable to the likes of Kryptonite or the colour yellow, Marvel’s heroes struggle with alcoholism or debt.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

There’s a joke I keep seeing on Twitter – the kind that gets copied with slight permutations by would-be Chegwins but probably originating from online funnyman Rob Whisman. It goes: “If you see Suicide Squad, be sure to stay after the credits. Lots of people leave half-empty containers of popcorn and you can just have them.”

It’s fair to say that the critical reaction to DC/Warner’s latest would-be blockbuster has been mixed – some people think it is a bad superhero film, while other critics just think it is a bad film.

This is disappointing for two reasons. First, this was the film that led Jared Leto to play The Joker with such deeply-committed method acting that one suspects he has spent the entire post-wrap period plotting to rob a bank with the aid of a giant jack-in-the-box. But secondly, and mainly, it was meant to turn around the dismal cinematic fortunes of DC Comics.

DC has struggled to turn its stable of superheroes into a cinematic universe to compete with that of its rival, Marvel. Since 2013 we have seen movie outings for Superman in the gloomy, brooding Man of Steel, the even gloomier, brooding-ier Batman v Superman, and now the “edgy” Suicide Squad (also somewhat gloomy/brooding).

And that’s just the most recent attempt to kick-start a DC shared world. Brushed conveniently under the critical carpet are flops like Green Lantern and Superman Returns and aborted projects like Superman Lives and Batman: Year One.

Marvel, meanwhile, is happily knocking out films to flesh out its shared cinematic universe – 2012’s The Avengers being a fairly recent example of such success. Even the lesser films in its franchise – like the cobbled-together Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk – form part of a cohesive whole and are fairly well-regarded by fans.

There are many reasons why this might be the case. On-set gossip suggests Suicide Squad suffered from studio interference and reshoots and DC/Warner Bros have opted for a “director-led” approach under the loose control of Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder rather than putting the shared world under the control of a single creator, as Marvel has done with Kevin Feige.

The real differences between the two mega-franchises, however, are in character and tone.

The main DC characters are gods. Wonder Woman is literally a goddess, being either the daughter of Zeus or a clay sculpture given life and power by the Greek gods, depending on which version of her origin you take as canon.

Superman is godlike – something the films take great pains to remind us of – and Batman is a being of almost mythical abilities. Even on the next tier down the DC hero hierarchy, you can find elemental qualities. The Flash is speed incarnate, Aquaman is Poseidon or Davy Jones, Cyborg represents the fusion of mankind with technology.

Marvel’s heroes are equally earth-shaking – but all remain anchored in something like the real world. Where DC heroes barely seem to exist outside their costumed identities, Marvel’s have at least cursory plotlines involving their personal lives and the real-world problems someone in that bizarre position might be in.

Where DC heroes might be vulnerable to the likes of Kryptonite or the colour yellow, Marvel’s heroes struggle with alcoholism or debt. Even the godlike Thor is brought down to earth figuratively as well as literally, and the writers find comedy and pathos among the cod-Norse bellowing. They may be flimsy by the standards of a decent novel but compared to the average action movie or even the best of DC’s offering, Marvel’s flicks are like Shakespeare.

Tone is a trickier concept to get right. The Marvel movies are generally lighter in tone than their DC counterparts. That’s not to say they lack drama but the writers aren’t afraid to use humour and to show that, for many of their characters, having superpowers is a blast. The Marvel films are fun first, dramatic second and their setting is at least a version of the real, modern world.

By contrast, DC is stuck in an eternal Nineties. Back in 1986, Frank Miller created Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This revisionist Batman book recast Bruce Wayne as a troubled vigilante in a gritty, crime-filled dystopia. These elements had always been part of the Batman story but Miller brought them front and centre, and the result was a Batman comic that felt more mature than the camp adventures of the 1960s, which defined the character in the popular imagination.

It was a huge hit and spawned a whole decade of gritty, urban adventures in which the line between hero and villain was sometimes blurred and, for some reason, everyone started wearing costumes with loads of ammo pouches sewn into them.

Marvel was just as guilty of this as DC and a dozen or more indie publishers. While DC was killing Superman and Robin (briefly, these are comics), sending Green Lantern insane and replacing Batman with a merciless killer while Gotham’s finest recovered from a broken spine, Marvel was pumping out brutal vigilantism from The Punisher and gun-toting action from the likes of Cable, drawn by Rob Liefeld in his signature style (no proper feet, ammo pouches, enormous gun).

Unfortunately for DC, their Nineties brand of grit and gunplay was enormously popular and it is that which the cinematic universe is trying to recreate. The trouble is, this style is only “mature” if you are a 14-year-old boy, and it works better on the page than on screen. A few panels of Sad Batman staring meaningfully at the Gotham skyline look great in a comic but a live action equivalent risks looking like an emo music video.

DC leans on darkness and gloom as a cheap way to add gravitas to its characters. Worse, it does this at the expense of the characters people supposedly want to see on screen.

The movie versions of Superman and Batman are tortured and bitter. In the comics, both have a strict code against killing but Man of Steel ends with Superman killing the villainous General Zod. And while Batman still pays lip service to his code of ethics, he seems perfectly happy to mount Bat-miniguns on the Batmobile and strafe a building full of bad guys from a heavily-armed Batplane before deliberately trying to kill Superman with a Bat-spear.

Suicide Squad was meant to give the DC universe a shot of fun with characters who weren’t cast from the usual square-jawed DC mould, and a sense of freewheeling anarchy. Instead, we see characters who interrupt acts of psychopathic violence with one-liners and, in the case of The Joker’s paramour Harley Quinn, endure a violently abusive relationship because she enjoys it.

These angry and bitter characters fit the world in which they live, which is the kind of crime-filled dystopia you might find in an NRA recruitment video. Again, this fits the “darker is better” styling of the Nineties comics boom, but it restricts the kind of stories that the filmmakers can tell.

As Marvel has found, keeping the tone light allows you to go dark when the narrative demands it and turn a story with a fairly silly premise into something with real dramatic heft. By starting out at the bottom, DC has left itself nowhere to go.