by Tom Roush
(since I wrote this, the instance of super hero movies has increased dramatically, and taken top spots at the international box office)
Among boys, the world can be broken out into an endless collection of dualities. There are the jocks vs. the geeks, the eggheads vs. the burnouts, and the boys that get the girls and the boys that go home alone.
And then, there are the DC men vs. the Marvel guys. Just after the age that a boy learns to read, he will be confronted with alternative comic book worlds, each inhabited by superheroes but heroes of an entirely different sort.
Both worlds have been good to the movie industry, spawning films that have brought in billions of dollars for the studios and the comic book creators. This summer, the worlds will collide again as Marvel offers up “Iron Man” on May 2, and the DC world puts forward another permutation of Batman in “The Dark Knight” on July 18. Both films will open to millions of young male eyes and write their tales into millions of beating male hearts.
The superheroes that DC Comics offer up are true blue and muscle bound. They are the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman who populate The Justice League of America along with their lesser players like The Flash, The Green Lantern and Aquaman. DC superheroes are mostly born into super powers which are worn with pride.
Over in the Marvel Universe, the superheroes are funkier. Marvel specializes in outcasts and freaks. There is Spiderman, the Hulk, Ghost Rider, the X-Men and Iron Man along with a host of other variants. Marvel superheroes are often the result of scientific experiments gone awry with superpowers the shameful results.
The stark difference between the universes is a product of when the characters were created. DC Comics started in the 1930s as America watched Hitler’s armies overrun Europe. Superman launched in 1938 and was followed by Batman in 1939. Both are super crime fighters who stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way…DC superheroes lead with the chest.
Marvel Comics has roots in the late 1930s but the brand really came in to its own in the ’50s and ’60s and built a following on strange antiheros who had a uniquely Cold War perspective. Marvel heroes are bitter about their powers and use them grudgingly and sparingly as a matter personal sacrifice, not pubic service. In the case of the Hulk, Bruce Banner is not even in control of his superhero identity and is actively seeking to return to normal. Created in 1962, the Hulk is a result of gamma radiation blast that transformed the scientist into a raging out-of-control monster. The Cold War symbolism could not be clearer.
Which comic universe rules the box office universe? For a long time, the movie industry eschewed Marvel freaks and leaned on the DC brand for leading men. Superman was a television series first and then a blockbuster film in 1978, launching the career of a young Christopher Reeve. The first Batman followed in 1989.
But once Marvel characters broke through on television and then film, its been a Marvel world ever since. In the superhero genre, the three Spiderman movies hold the top three U.S. box office spots, pulling in a collective $1.2 billion. The Hulk, X-Men, Ghost Rider, the Fantastic Four have all followed and raked in more billions. At this point, its fair to say that the geeks at Marvel have triumphed over the jocks at DC.
Of the old DC Justice League members, only Batman has persisted in the public imagination and as a cinematic character. The Dark Knight was always something of an outcast in the DC world. Bruce Wayne has no super powers and is largely a self creation. Like Marvel characters, Batman is the product of tragedy. Wayne’s parents were murdered, and the wealthy and secretive Wayne created a separate identity to give his retribution a form. Batman’s villains are also self created crazies, like the Joker, who was mutilated after falling in to a vat of chemical waste. Batman is Marvel all the way.
Probably the latest Batman film, “The Dark Knight” will prevail over “Iron Man” at the box office this summer. “Iron Man” is not a well-known character with a previously built following and the film stars the distinctly earthbound Robert Downey, Jr. “The Dark Knight” opens later in the summer and will have the benefit of super powered publicity courtesy of Heath Ledger, who turned in his final performance as the Joker and then died from a drug overdose.
While Ledger, a mere celebrity hero, will never return, superheroes serve some purpose in the public imagination and we are likely to see many more of them at the theaters for generations to come.