If anything, 2016 will go down as the Year of Superhero Civil Wars. Over the weekend, Batman fought Superman to huge box office success in DC’s Warner Bros.–backed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, proving critic-proof and shattering records as it grossed $400 million worldwide. Despite an onslaught of mixed-to-negative reviews, the audience has spoken.
Next month, Disney/Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War pits Cap and allies Falcon, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man against former fellow Avenger Iron Man and pals War Machine, Black Widow, and Black Panther in a battle over nationwide superhero regulation. If a government-enacted superhero registry sounds familiar, that’s because this concept has already been explored by another Marvel enterprise: 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies, in which Professor Xavier’s moderate mutants fight Magneto’s militant mutants, to be continued May 27 with X-Men: Apocalypse. Even February’s surprise R-rated smash Deadpool threw in X-Men’s Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.
So why are so many heroes going mano-a-supermano? Since their inception, superhero comics publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics have maintained a tradition of crossovers and team-ups between their various characters — a sales gimmick to engage readers and sell more comics. More so than DC, Marvel grounded its characters within our real world (New York instead of Metropolis or Gotham), and that shared universe became a large part of Marvel’s appeal.
To many, a movie titled Batman v Superman may seem bizarre, even contradictory. Aren’t these two on the same side? World’s Finest, Justice League of America, Super Friends, etc.? While BvS might sound like a latex-clad lawsuit to the average moviegoer, well-versed comics readers know director Zack Snyder’s quasi-sequel to his 2013 Man of Steel takes its cues from cartoonist Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a future-shock, alternate-continuity saga (pitting an old, grizzled Batman against Reagan administration tool Superman) that — alongside Alan Moore’s postmodern, quasi-parody Watchmen — signaled a sea change in 1986, forever altering comics, namely, questioning the role of a superhero. (Snyder, incidentally, directed 2009’s Watchmen film.) Miller’s mini-series (whose influence runs through Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) has cast a “grim ’n’ gritty” shadow over superheroes ever since.
It’s not enough to throw the Caped Crusader against the Son of Krypton, so in BvS, Wonder Woman makes her big-screen debut (unless you count 2014’s The Lego Movie). BvS also cameos Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg (soon receiving their own movies). The goal: to set up two Justice League super-team movies (as suggested by BvS subtitle “Dawn of Justice”) and establish a DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU) through an annual slate of superhero epics much as Marvel has.
However, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) wasn’t consolidated until relatively recently after some false starts (remember 1986’s Howard the Duck?). In the 1970s, Marvel patriarch Stan Lee came to Hollywood and began doling out the movie options to his co-creations all over town. There was a stillborn Silver Surfer film, a failed Captain America starring J.D. Salinger’s son, a shelved Roger Corman Fantastic Four, a Punisher cheapie, and that Blade trilogy. The Spider-Man rights were an especially — and contentiously — tangled web. (At one point, James Cameron pitched an eight-armed Spidey to B-movie kings Cannon Films).
By the early 2000s, Fox got X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil; Sony claimed Spidey and Ghost Rider; Ang Lee attempted a Hulk film for Universal; and Paramount scored Iron Man.
After the mega-success of 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, the MCU gained momentum in summer 2008, when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk planted the seeds for an ongoing S.H.I.E.L.D./ “Avengers Initiative” storyline weaving through all Marvel movies, building speed after Disney’s $4 billion Marvel purchase in 2009. All of this prefaced 2012’s mega-successful supergroup feature, The Avengers. More Marvel characters are receiving their big-screen break, paving the way for stand-alone features (2015’s Ant-Man; Black Panther in 2018) as Disney/Marvel now furthers its running storyline toward the two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018-19).
Interestingly, the MCU and DCCU are now influencing non-superhero franchises: 10 Cloverfield Lane has been folded into the “Cloververse,” while there’s Hollywood talk of a “Ghostbusters”-verse.
Back to BvS and its monster box-office take. Perhaps our appetite to see these iconic characters clash (as well as the heightened anticipation for the Team Cap/Team Shellhead Civil War slugfest) reflects where we’re at as a society. In our post-9/11, Facebook-fueled world — where politicians are no longer taken at face value, governments aren’t trusted, and people debate whether or not entities such as Anonymous and Edward Snowden are just — the traditional “Good vs. Evil” idea now seems quaint. Maybe in these complicated times, we prefer our superheroes darker and morally ambiguous. Not-so-Super Friends, anyone?