Sunday, 10 April 2016

Truth, Justice and the New American Way (VOR)

Captain America and Superman are two very similar characters in an ideological sense; so why is it that Marvel can get the former so right whilst DC have gotten the latter so horrendously wrong? 

Captain America is a character that could've sunk the Marvel juggernaut. Looking back to before his 2011 debut, The First Avenger, I remember sneering at the thought of a superhero film where Chris Evans strutted around Nazi Germany dressed as the Stars and Stripes. To me, it looked hokey and cheesier than a margarita pizza. How could Marvel make this outdated flag carrier, a literal product of World War II propaganda, mesh with modern movie-making? How could they make him relevant in a post-9/11, War on Terror world?

Two solo movies later (and four appearances across the series at large) and Chris Evans' Captain America has become one of the best, if not the best, element in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His role is fundamental and essential to the series' popularity and longevity; to some (myself included), he is seen as the lead character that drives the series forward as well as the moral and emotional anchor that ties the separate franchises together when they crossover in The Avengers series. His success is a testament to Marvel's excellent planning and writing, and showcases their fundamental understanding of the character and the role that he plays in the overall narrative arc for their pantheon of heroes.

Which brings us to the similarities that Captain America shares in an ideological sense with his DC Comics counterpart, Superman. Both are traditionally seen as 'boy scouts' who stand for principles such as truth, honour and justice. Typically, they're seen as leaders (in the Avengers and the Justice League respectively) who inspire good qualities in those that they command. Where other characters are fun but flawed (Batman is tortured, Iron Man is self-destructive), these two are upstanding citizens of not just America, but of the World. Their ideological sensibilities stem from their 1930's roots, and both share an inherent loneliness that defines but doesn't separate them from society.

However, if we compare their most recent film adaptations, it's clear to see that depictions of Captain America and Superman have radically diverged. One has stayed true to his roots and transitioned perfectly onto the big screen, whilst the other has been steered into rockier, murkier territory - as is in much poorer health as a result.

On the one hand we have the aforementioned success surrounding Captain America. Evans' depiction of Steve Rogers is rich and layered; he's respectable, humorous, strong-willed, warm, inspirational and brave. He stands up to bullies, he defends freedom (no matter the cost) and he'd sacrifice everything to save his fellow soldier. He's a man out of time, but he hasn't let that ideological distance with the modern world prevent him from doing what he feels is 'the right thing.' Look no further than his determination to defy SHIELD in The Winter Soldier; faced with a weapon that can prevent crime before it takes place, Rogers defiantly states that "This isn't freedom, this is fear."

In contrast, Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers have travelled in the opposite direction with regard to how they've handled America's classic superhero icon, Superman.

Originally conceived back in 1938, Superman was a bastion of hopefulness and positivity. In an era where America was climbing out of economic despair and Europe was steadily feeling the squeeze of fascism, Superman was a ray of light that lifted people up and showed them the best they could be. As corny as it may sound, he stood for "truth, justice and the American Way".

Fast-forward to 2016, and Superman means something very different to modern audiences. Rather than uphold Superman's core values by writing him as heroic, selfless and idealistic, Zack Snyder has chosen to frame post 9/11 Superman as a threat. A cold, distant alien who treats humanity with disdain; a godlike being who perpetually hovers out of reach or allows himself to be worshipped by crowds of people.

Completely at odds with Richard Donner's uplifting depiction from the 1970's and 80's, the framing of Superman today actively strives to remind us that his character originated in a very different time. At one point during Dawn of Justice, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) tells Clark Kent that "it's not 1938 anymore" and that Clark "doesn't get to decide what the right thing is"

Uh, yeah he does - that's what Superman is all about. He shows us ("us" being mankind at large) what the right thing is. He inspires hope in the downtrodden and offers help to those in need, whether they're trapped in a burning building or trying to retrieve a cat from a tree.

And this is the clincher for me; I can envision the MCU version of Steve Rogers dropping everything to rescue a cat from a tree. I can picture him helping an old lady cross the street. Marvel has shown us time and again that they can adapt the character to the big screen in a way that stays true to the core principles on which they were founded.

Meanwhile, I struggle to imagine the same scenarios with Snyder's Superman; I can only envision him burning the tree to ash with his laser vision or carrying the old lady across the road so fast that she snaps her spine. DC have strived for something different in their new depiction of Superman, but in the process have muddied the water from which the character was sprung. I don't admire or cheer for Superman in the same way that I do for Captain America, and maybe that's why I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe so much. Not because it's light and fluffy (there's plenty of substance to be found underneath the quips) but because they've found a way to mould their characters to the 21st Century without sacrificing that integral sense of hope and decency.

This article forms part of my annual Marvel Month series. Throughout April I'm celebrating everything Marvel from movies and TV in the lead up to the release of Captain America: Civil War on April 28. To find past entries in the series, click this link - and remember to check back later for more musings on all things Marvel throughout the month of April. Thanks for reading.

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