As Warner Bros ramps up towards its own shared superhero universe, comparisons with Marvel Studios will arise. Also arising: the constant question of "can this genre sustain itself?," which seems to be answered resoundlngly 'YES" every single year. WB president Kevin Tsujihara was talking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference when he said this about how his company's DC properties are different from Disney's Marvel films:
“The worlds of DC are very different. They’re steeped in realism, and they’re a little bit edgier than Marvel’s movies.”
I'm not really sure I agree with that in any meaningful way. I mean, the tone of the MCU and the tone of Man of Steel are different, but I can't imagine any reasonable person saying Man of Steel is 'steeped in realism,' or that it's particularly edgier than, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier where it's revealed that Nazi fanatics have infiltrated America's premiere intelligence agency and intend to kill billions, all as part of a metaphorical attack on post-Patriot Act surveillance culture. I think there's family-friendly edginess all around.
But what this quote got me thinking was how we live in a very backwards world when it comes to Marvel and DC. It's all the result of a massive change that began in the 80s and has led to DC going from the sillier, more juvenile comic book company to the one that has the aura of dark and serious storytelling, a company where president Dan DiDio made it an editorial mandate that superheroes can't have happy lives and where Warner Bros made it a mandate that their DC movies couldn't have jokes.
DC was, for decades, the big player in town, and like most comic book companies in the first half of the 20th century they aimed their content largely at 10 year olds. As superheroes waned in the post-WWII era DC kept the big guns running, but they got sillier and weirder as the 50s wore on into the 60s. DC led the way in teen sidekicks and goofy storylines, and they unabashedly were telling stories for kids. Then they rebooted their line in the Silver Age, bringing back the concept of superheroes to the mainstream, but still keeping them pretty kiddie-oriented. After The Flash jumpstarted the Silver Age in 1956's Showcase #4, superheroes became a growing concern, and Marvel Comics jumped into the fray.
But Marvel approached superheroes fundamentally differently than DC did. DC's superheroes were paternal; later writers would compare them to the pantheon of Greek gods, but they were really mostly a line-up of 50s authority figures who might have been the kind of people skeptical about flouride in the water. They were square-jawed stiffs who were all about moral hygiene and good American fun. But where the DC heroes stood tall, the Marvel heroes slouched. Marvel didn't generally do teen sidekicks (Rick Jones being an exception, and he rarely ever took on a super identity, he just kind of hung around the heroes) because the heroes themselves were relatable to the kids reading comics. Where the DC heroes were like mom and dad, Spider-Man and The Thing and the rest of the fallible Marvel line up of bickering, confused, self-doubting and in-fighting heroes were directly relatable to the kids.
Marvel comics absolutely were 'steeped in realism,' and in every way possible; while DC stories all took place in an array of made-up cities, Marvel stories mostly took place in New York City, replete with all the landmarks and familiar signs of modern life. And the Marvel stories were 'a little bit edgier' than DC's; Marvel made history when they shipped issues of Amazing Spider-Man without the Comics Code seal of approval in order to tell a story about Harry Osborn tripping on acid (presented, of course, as a bad thing). If you talk to any nerd of a certain age, any nerd who is familiar with the SIlver and Marvel Ages of comics, they'll tell you without a doubt that Marvel was always the realer, edgier comic book company. Marvel's focus on relatability and realism and their awareness of a college-aged audience for comics (as well as a canny lean-in towards the 'pop art' movement) led to the publisher creating the first generation of adult comic book fans.
That all began to change in the 1980s, though (with seeds planted earlier, especially in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series). DC rebooted its line in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and this time the characters were refashioned in the Marvel 'feet of clay' style. Superman couldn't juggle planets anymore, and he also had self-doubt and carried some issues about being an outsider. Beyond the main DC universe, the publisher started putting out adult-oriented comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, tapping into a comic readership who had never grown out of the hobby. DC also launched Vertigo, an entire line of monthly comics aimed at mature readers. In the pages of DC Comics stories got darker and more brutal - Robin was killed, Batgirl was crippled, Superman was forced to execute a trio of Kryptonian super criminals - while the publisher nurtured new sorts of readers interested in non-superhero stuff.
Marvel continued to chug along being Marvel, although they caught the grim n' gritty bug as well. The publisher made several attempts at hitting an adult market over the years, everything from Epic to Marvel Knights to Max, but nothing stuck the way Vertigo did. Over time Marvel's output sort of looked more juvenile compared to DC's, although they mostly stayed true to what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the original Bullpen established - the characters were (generally - shit went wrong all the time) relatable and human and had feet of clay.
Marvel had some bad years there for sure, but in the last decade they began coming back in a big way, and they did so by doubling down on a lot of the stuff that made the comics work originally. DC, meanwhile, rebooted their universe yet again, this time even darker. While they continued to chase that adult fanboy thing, Marvel took another route - they started going after what I call the Tumblr crowd. Younger, more interested in aesthetics and iconography, possibly more female, influenced as much by the cartoons and movies as the source material comics, these readers resemble very much the original audience Marvel chased in the 60s. They're progressive and smart and it looks to me like Marvel might be doing today what they did in the 60s - creating a new generation of young comic fans who will become adult comic fans.
So a weird thing happened over the last sixty years - Marvel and DC have swapped places, at least in terms of perception. But I believe the perception is wrong, if only because I believe that the comic book (and comic book movie) biz has used the words 'realistic' and 'edgy' wrong for a very, very long time. Those words have, in the past thirty years, come to mean violent and unpleasant and dark and maybe even cruel. Both companies have fallen into this trap over the years. And many of the DC New 52 books have fallen into this trap. But I think the most realistic and edgy book coming out of DC right now is Batgirl, which is book that a lot of fanboys would write off as fluffy and light. But this latet iteration of Batgirl has that classic Marvel feel to me - real, feet of clay characters who reflect the readership while also having larger than life, pop art adventures. The story so far has been tackling social media and invasions of privacy in ways that I think are sophisticated, natural and - most of all - relatable to a modern audience. The book itself feels edgy to me in the way that it mixes tones and has a much more serious undercurrent - that's certainly edgier than a book like the Justice League reboot that had a monolithically dire tone (I quit that title after five issues, to be fair).
I guess if your definition of realistic and edgy is all about characters being unhappy and the Joker having his face ripped off, then Tsujihara is right - DC is more steeped in realism and a little bit edgier. But I kind of think the idea of a traditional Muslim girl trying to find her way in modern American society while also dealing with fantastical superpowers has way more realism than the tortured billionaire with the dead parents. I can identify with feeling caught between what is expected of me, what I want and what the world thinks I'm capable of being. What's more, the immediacy of that young girl's story - being, of course, Marvel's Ms. Marvel - feels edgier than yet another tale of Batman going too far or being close to the edge.
I think realism resides in characters, not in the scope of destruction. I think a lot about Rick Veitch's Bratpack, a straight-faced satire of DC's move towards grim n' gritty in the 80s and 90s, and how prophetic it was (The Authority ended up being another semi-satirical take on the material that was bled of satire). What Veitch does there, with sexually abusive crime fighters and sidekicks hopped up on smack, feels more like what Tsujihara is talking about. There's a place for that, and it's been explored fully in comics starting with Alan Moore's Miracleman and continuing on for decades. But as someone who came up through that period, who saw the dark stuff and the 'serious' stuff - and who really loved it - I've come to a place where I realize that this stuff isn't more realistic, and it isn't any edgier than teenaged me wearing t-shirts with curse words on them. There's certainly a place for this stuff, especially when we're talking about deconstruction, but as I've gotten older I have come to see the early Marvel comics as simply the most realistic and edgy books I've ever read, even with all their Silver Age silliness. It's because the comics take the characters seriously, and those early books are exploring their psyches without irony or distance or embarrassment. Taking these characters seriously in an emotional way? That is way more daring than having Wonder Woman snap Maxwell Lord's neck.
As a teen and a young man I really thought brooding and violent and dark and unpleasant were the hallmarks of 'serious' and 'adult' storytelling, but the more I become a real adult the more I realize they're just as juvenile as Jimmy Olsen, Turtle Boy, but in a different, more adolescent way. So yeah, maybe the Marvel comics and movies are lighter and brighter and sillier, but that feels kind of more adult to me now.
I hope that Warner Bros' DC movies work, if only because I have to go see them all over the rest of the decade. I also hope that the people making them realize that the true measure of realism comes from fullness of the interior lives of the characters, not from their ability to do harder-edged violence to the world around them.