As I watched the new Avengers movie on Monday night, I couldn’t stop thinking about Superman. Specifically, I got stuck on the idea that Age of Ultron felt like a much more heroic superhero movie than Superman’s last cinematic outing, Man Of Steel.
Spoilers follow for Man of Steel and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Man of Steel went dark in its interpretation of Kal-El’s mythos. Some would say too dark, that the character was barely recognisable as a Superman. The trailer for Batman v. Superman — complete with a Dark Knight who seems intent on making Superman bleed — indicates that the sequel will be staying in that desaturated mood. While Age of Ultron shoulders its own heavy themes, it’s different from Man of Steel in one crucial way: it goes out of its way to show the Avengers saving the lives of individual people. A lot.
One of the big questions that fans asked after watching Man of Steel was just how many people died as a result of Superman’s megaton battles with other Kryptonians. Combine all that destruction with the paucity of scenes where he actually protects people and an ending where he kills archenemy General Zod and it’s hard to see where director Zack Snyder established the character’s stance on the sanctity of life.
By comparison, the biggest battle scenes in Age of Ultron — directed by Joss Whedon — are rife with moments where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes get people out of harm’s way or deal with the repercussions of their actions have on innocents. A building about to come down? Iron Man scans it for life signs. Hulk goes apeshit in a heavily populated area? Banner wallows in guilt and shame. The one scene where it looks like a hero explicitly ends a bad guy’s life? Director Joss Whedon cuts away from the deed, leaving it ambiguous as to what actually happens. Killing isn’t cool in Avengers: Age of Ultron. That’s a very un-Marvel place to wind up.
Now, I’m not much one for ascribing specific tonalities to Marvel or DC. In 2015, writers, editors and creative talent all go back and forth from one publisher to another and they carry their proclivities with them. But there’s a long history of Marvel and DC branding themselves in specific ways that can’t be ignored. Traditionally, Marvel Comics has been the “edgier” shop when it comes to the big two superhero purveyors.
Despite their complicated relationship with their history, DC sells itself as a rich modern-day mythology with a Christ-figure sun deity, a vampire-demon lord of darkness and a Greco-Roman warrior goddess at its centre. The publisher’s major cities don’t actually exist and are idealised representations of places like New York, Cincinnati, Detroit or Seattle. In short, for some fans (and creators), DC is still synonymous with a toothless, wholesome naivete that they decry as boring. These characters are icons, hovering off the ground by dint of alien, celestial or 1% heritage. Readers are supposed to aspire to be like them in one way or another.
On the opposite pole lies Marvel. When the company presented the Fantastic Four in 1961, it put them in New York City and gave them squabbles like the family who might live next door to you. Spider-Man had the same kind of grounding, what with his constant money troubles and the missed opportunity to stop the man who killed Uncle Ben. The X-Men concept revolves around the idea of systemic prejudice. Iron Man presented a weapons manufacturer as a hero to envy. This — as Stan Lee, compatriots and successors would say — was the world outside your window. These characters were relatable and even fallible. You could be these characters, with the right chromosomes or radioactive accidents.
The characters who are standard-bearers for Marvel and DC also speak to these longstanding sensibilities. One of Marvel’s most popular characters, the now-dead Wolverine, is a stone-cold killer. His popularity came from the fact that he did what so many other superheroes didn’t. He’s killed on command and for vengeance. He generally doesn’t feel bad about it. It’s the opposite of naive.
Compare this to Batman, the DC character who eclipses even Superman in popularity. He’s dark as hell but doesn’t kill. If Bat-allies like Red Hood or Huntress cross the line and take lives, he makes a point to shut them down hard. After watching his parents die in front of him, his whole raison d’etre is to prevent death. That’s been a defining feature of DC Comics’ most important core characters.
Mind you, Avengers: Age of Ultron still bears many of the hallmarks of the Marvel comics formula. They bicker and threaten each other. Captain America is still presented as a man out of his own time, a tether to a more polite kind of heroism. Tony Stark’s sense of outsized ego and responsibility struggles with his ambition and guilt and the seeds for the movie’s robotic villain begin there.
Ultron here is more fun than he’s ever been in the comics. This is a super-smart AI who talks shit with chilling amusement. He knows he’s better than humanity, and thanks to James Spader’s voice acting, you believe him. His quest to destroy the human race opens up the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, letting Whedon sprinkle the movie with signifiers for the global contempt for American influence. The Avengers’ actions cause massive amounts of damage every time they fight bad guys and the world doesn’t quite view them as saviours anymore.
Is there so-called ‘destruction porn’ in Age of Ultron? Yes, tons of it. But the heroes’ desire to save lives is established and reinforced throughout the movie. All we got in terms of regret or awareness of repercussions in Man of Steel was Superman screaming “No!” after killing Zod. Look, if I’m expected to suspend belief enough to allow for a solar-powered flying man, then I also want a fantasy that also tell me he can save a couple of thousand people. Really, I want a Superman who saves everyone. But, if the last Superman movie is any indication, that’s an idea that seems unmarketable to DC/Warner Bros. powers-that-be. Avengers: Age of Ultron shows that superhero movies don’t just have to be concerned with ultra-kewl special effects battles and merchandising opportunities. They can focus on the best aspects of the superhero construct, which is that those who are more powerful than mere mortals really care about the people they fly above. The last Superman movie didn’t give me that but the new Avengers does it in spades.