I need a hero: but do I, really?

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By Samantha Wahl, Staff Writer

This past decade has been chock-full of superhero movies. Iron Man, Thor, Batman, Superman, Ant Man, the Wasp, the Justice League, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Black Panther all have graced the silver screen over the last ten years, and the list goes on.

And now, there are a few shockwaves running through the hero-flick world: over the last year, both Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck (cinema’s Superman and Batman) have stepped down from their roles. To some, this has begged the question: are superhero movies overdone? Is America sick of heroes?

My answer is no. There will always be room in American pop culture for big-screen superhero flicks. But only for a certain type. Let me explain.

The American superhero market is split between two major comic book houses: DC Comics and Marvel. DC is the older of the two, and has introduced classic superheroes like Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and the Flash to readers for nearly a century.

Its first films of the twentieth century were centered around Batman, including the megahit The Dark Knight. The influence of Dark Knight’s gritty, grey aesthetic can be seen in Man of Steel, which kicked off the official DCU, and almost all subsequent DC films.

Marvel Comics is a slightly younger company, and the mastermind behind Iron Man, Thor (well, comics Thor, not mythology Thor), The Hulk, Deadpool, and the X-Men. Their film franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicked off in 2008 with a film centered around the smooth-talking, larger-than-life Iron Man.

Like the DCU, the MCU’s tone continues to bear the influence of its early films. Marvel’s films are colorful, with humor and lighthearted moments blended in with even the most serious plotlines.

And here’s the thing: the way America reacts to each of these universes seems to be radically different. We show up to both DC and Marvel films in droves, but it seems like new Marvel movies have a fundamentally different effect on people than DC films do.
Chalk it up to marketing, or the circles I run in, or whatever you’d like; all I know is that I remember people being much more excited for Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2 than they were for Justice League. And why is that?

Marvel has caught onto a formula that DC is still mastering: its films have relatively emotionally complex characters, but blend in enough lightheartedness to render a slightly brighter, more exciting version of our own world. The Avengers get schwarma after saving New York; Batman does… what, exactly? Sulk in the Batcave thinking about crime and justice?

Take Marvel’s treatment of Captain America, for example. Captain America could easily have a brooding storyline a la DCEU. He’s stuck in the wrong century, for crying out loud; for at least one film, he thought all his friends were dead. (Turns out he had one friend that wasn’t dead. It’s this whole thing.)

And Marvel does not shy away from the gravity and pain of his situation; he grapples with the realities of being lost in time, and he is far from always happy. But he is still a multi-faceted person for all his anguish, with bright spots of humor and character development as he accepts his situation and finds relative happiness again.

The MCU strikes a delicate balance between drama, action, and characterization. With Wonder Woman, DC seems to have been getting the hang of that; but Marvel has had a handle on it for a relatively long time.

That is the reason that Marvel films resonate. There’s plenty of butt-kicking, but also, to be quite cliché, there is heart, and most importantly there is hope. I’m as down for an occasional trip to gritty grey Gotham as the next girl, but Marvel’s larger than life characters and colorful world-building offers an escapism that Americans have always sought from their heroes. As long as the cinemas can keep serving that up, I say keep the cape flicks coming.

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