I’m really excited for Dawn of Justice, but the new DC movie universe leaves me with a question: Where are all the paragons of virtue?
Here’s a confession: as much as I love fantasy, sci fi and everything geek culture — I’m not the diehard comic book fan I wished I could be, given the giant footprints comics have on today’s best stories. I’ve dabbled here and there (and currently subscribe to one series), but I’m not the person who’s lining up at their neighborhood comic book shop every new-release Tuesday (comic books come out on Tuesdays, right?) to buy my favorite 2 or 10, like I know some of my friends do. I enjoy some indies, particularly the hard sci fi or fantasy stuff, but the caped crusaders aren’t quite my cup of tea on the page. That said, I have seen almost every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every Sony and Fox comic movie and nearly all of the WB’s DC films, before and after their new Zach-Snyder-led movie-verse.
What interests me is how nearly all comic book movies released in the past 20-30 years can be divided in two: they either rely on whiz-bang heroes and laughs — or gritty, dark vigilantes, living in grimy, grim worlds.
With the rise of the MCU and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, as well as the transformation of Superman from Richard Donner’s confident, charming paragon of virtue to Snyder’s vision of doubt, angst and flaws, these divisions in our super hero films have only grown larger.
That’s not to say I’m picking a side on this divide. Marvel’s the king of the box office, but if fun and whiz-bang were the best, I wouldn’t have a Joel-Schumaker-sized black hole in my brain — and Sony’s decision to go emo with the Amazing Spider-Man led to one of the worst superhero films of all in Amazing #2.
What I do want to comment on is disappointment in how some fans of the grit seem to think grit equates to strength, or that Marvel’s levity is some kind of weakness. While Marvel’s heroes aren’t quite the heroes I’d want them to be were I in their universe, it’s not because they’re funny and colorful. It’s because in that humor and fun, we don’t often think about how dark and flawed they truly are — even if it’s all laid out there on the screen, clear as day. Marvel’s movie heroes aren’t our paragons of virtue, either.
At this point, all of our movie supers seem flawed and dangerous. What we seem to be lacking in our movies are superheroes who are warm, competent and inspire hope — characters who act like grown-ups, play nice with each other and stay on task.
Some may say we don’t have supers on screen today who resemble Donner’s Superman in character, even if not quite in power, because they’re bad for story telling, but I’m not so sure. Donner’s Superman still holds up as one of the best super hero films of all time – and as much as Tobey McGuire’s Peter Parker didn’t have all his stuff together, he was almost there. Further, insofar as he wasn’t, his youth and the learning curve as a new super held him back, while his hope, heart and inner-virtue kept him going or got him out of his funks. Compare Tobey’s Spidey to any of the Avengers and you can quickly see that all the Avengers are the superhero versions of test-taking crammers, fatally flawed in some way until there’s not a moment to spare.
All I know is if I was dangling from the top of a bridge or in a plane falling from the sky, I don’t know if I’d want Christian Bale’s Batman or Robert Downey Jr’s Ironman to save me. If I had my pick, it wouldn’t be Henry Cavill’s Superman, either — it would be his cousin, Kara.
From what we’ve seen of the upcoming pilot for Supergirl, Melissa Benoist’s take on Super Girl could lead to one of the strongest super hero characters we’ve seen on the screen yet. It doesn’t come through the dark grit we see in DC movies today or any kind of machismo, it comes through hope, perseverance and positivity — and, of course, a yellow sun. She’s a paragon of virtue who we haven’t seen since Christopher Reeve last donned a cape.
Benoist’s Super Girl doesn’t bicker with her compatriots like Marvel’s supers, threatening to destroy the world before they can save it, and she’s not brooding for revenge like Ben Affleck’s new Batman. She’s strong, powerful, works well with others and has two of the most important super characteristics of all: unbridled empathy and hope.
The biggest evidence that strong, hopeful and competent supers can work in stories today is the heroes we see on TV. I get a little tickle out of the fact that DC’s top TV show runners, like executive producer extraordinaire Greg Berlanti, get these issues so much better than any of his compatriots making DC movies — and I think Marvel could learn a thing or two from what Berlanti’s doing, too.
We have vibrant, hopeful, powerful characters from Berlanti, like Grant Gustin’s Flash and now Benoist’s Super Girl — and these are exactly the kind of super heroes we’re missing on the Big Screen today. Heroes don’t need to be dark or incompetent to make their stories interesting — their hope, empathy and virtue can be every bit as effective when used as story telling devices, and could serve as inspiration for generations of movie goers as Donner’s have before. I wouldn’t want the paragons of virtue to completely replace the flawed characters Marvel and DC are putting out every summer — gritty, funny, whiz-bang or otherwise — but it would be nice if they could be a part of the movie-going conversation again.