Why Can't The Superheroes Just Get Along?
With two of the year's biggest movies having weirdly similar themes of dudes in their underwear beating each other up, resident Dark Lord of the Nerds Skot Thayer takes a look to see if there isn't something more going on.
With the imminent release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, superhero geeks are getting their Justice League undergarments into an uproar. A bitter, older, more cynical Batman facing off against an idealistically opposing Superman in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster is money in the bank for DC Comics. The epic showdown between two of the oldest and most revered characters in pop culture also kickstarts the entire Justice League cinematic universe, giving DC a chance to catch up with their competitor’s own ever-expanding movie mythology. A politically motivated face-off in a world where being a superhero is illegal, the disparate partisanship of two iconic symbols coming to blows is relevant all over the world right now.
Set to come out only seven weeks after Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War has the whole Marvel pantheon beating the crap out of each other. The Avengers that we’ve come to know and love over the last eight years have had their ups and downs, but now they’re shooting each other and punching each other in the face. Again a conflict over politically charged lines, Civil War shows that the Marvel universe is not a democracy, and any kind of disagreement could mean a rocket-propelled filibuster from Iron Man.
Why are two of the biggest movies this year focused on our heroes beating the crap out of each other? What is it that made them pissed enough to shoot lasers at each other in the first place?
Superheroes fighting each other isn’t a recent trend in comics like it is in the movies. Considering they have been around for almost 80 years, Batman and Superman have been in conflict on and off for nearly half that time. The scene from the trailers we’ve seen, showing an armoured Bat and a grumpy Superman fighting in the rain, is taken almost literally from 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. A four-issue miniseries at a time when Batman was last known to most as a goofy detective on TV, Frank Miller’s book created the modern idea of Batman as a gritty and violent super ninja who isn’t afraid to blow his enemies up and punch cops in the face.
The story of The Dark Knight Returns takes place in an alternate timeline where a middle-aged Bruce Wayne has come out of a decade of bat-retirement to save a dystopic Gotham City from a gang of mutants and a few resurgent super-villains. In his quest to rid Gotham of crime again, Batman and his pals keep order after an EMP causes a blackout. This ends up upsetting the government, ironically, and they send Superman to make sure Batman never embarrasses them like that again. After duking it out with Superman in his bat-mech-suit for a while, a one-armed Green Arrow shoots Superman with a kryptonite arrow and greatly weakens him. With Supes on the ropes, a victorious Batman lets Clark know that he could have killed him but formulated the kryptonite arrow to serve as a non-lethal warning. He then he gives one of the most badass speeches in all of comic bookery.
They used the same speech to announce the movie back in 2013 at San Diego Comic-Con and people lost their minds.
Another comic book story in which costumed heroes embodying Orwellian ideas astride the divide between freedom and security, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War is between two ideological factions who are hellbent on proving themselves right by giving big speeches and shooting lasers out of their hands.
Based on 2006’s comic event of the same name, Civil War has the American government attempting to regulate superpowers via the Superhuman Registration Act. This comes after a team of B-grade heroes called the New Warriors, who are the subject of a reality TV show, clash with super-villains and destroy an entire city block, including an elementary school. Iron Man and several other prominent heroes come out in favour of the act, saying that people with such powers should have proper training and oversight to avoid the instances of collateral death and destruction that seems to happen every five minutes in comics. Meanwhile, Captain America and his ‘Secret Avengers’ go underground, continuing to fight super-evil while sticking it to ‘the man’. Spiderman gets caught in the middle of the divorce and has to choose a side, with Tony Stark buying his love with a sweet Iron Spider Suit. The story gets pretty convoluted with all the subplots and the massive cast (including a murderous clone of Thor) so it’s not a surprise that Disney decided to streamline the plot while still giving us the most superheroes on screen at once.
Compared to the paltry handful of heroes in Batman v Superman, Civil War has numbers on its side with more heroes and more movies building up to its climax. It is arguable, however, that Batman v Superman is more focused, with two icons that illicit strong emotional responses compared to the huge roster of supporting Marvel heroes that nobody really cares about. Since Marvel shoehorned Spiderman into the last trailer, though, the fury of nerdboys and girls around the world seems to be matched.
How did we get here? Is this some kind of conspiracy between Disney and Warner Bros to control our minds with subliminal messaging? Or is it just a natural result of the comic movie arms race? Not being able to create too many memorable villains at the risk of overshadowing the hero and downplaying the dramatic import of each movie means that studios needed to do something big to keep people coming back, coupled with the aforementioned escalating cinematic arms race between two of the biggest universes in modern media, has ostensibly brought us here.
Is there more, though? Our communities and our governments seem rife with divisions. This is still true if you look at any other point in human history but, with the world at such a crossroads, it exacerbates the illusion of separation between groups. Climate change, terrorism, economic instabilities, and the rapid advance of science and technology are going to make the world a very different place for our children. This sort of emotional stress on the planet has made people who are convinced they know the best way to proceed into this brave new world become louder and more passionate than ever. The discord between freedom and security has taken on whole new dimensions in the age of Twitter and terrorist attacks, and, of course, the costumed paragons of our folklore reflect the psychic landscape.
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