The film sensation Black Panther has recently surpassed Titanic to become the number three highest grossing film of all time. Now I debate the effectiveness of measuring film gross without accounting for inflation, but that is a discussion for another time. And while the MCU debates blockbuster after blockbuster, the DCEU flounders. The DCEU makes a profit, but not really enough to justify pouring more money into it. So that begs the question, what is Marvel doing right that DC is doing wrong?
Truth be told, there is no one answer. But if I had to narrow it down to one, I would suggest that the problem lies with the lack of three dimensional antagonists in the DCEU. I like to look at it like this, the DCEU has villains while the MCU has antagonists. This isn’t entirely unusual. DC’s characters have been around a lot longer. In their original comic book format, the characters are often portrayed as good vs. evil. They conform to classical archetypes and rarely deviate from them. That is partly why Stan Lee was so successful. He and Jack Kirby did what other comic book writers were afraid to do, buck the system. The legendary comic duo wrote characters as flawed, human figures, not the god-like characters that DC provided us with. Lee and Kirby laid the foundation for future comics like The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Judge Dredd. Eventually DC caught on with the success of Marvel and updated their characters, but the damage had been done. The iconography of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and many others left DC with a lot of baggage. That carried over into their cinematic efforts.
To illustrate the difference, let’s examine the most recent MCU film, Black Panther. Marvel already introduced us to T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. That gave them the ability to world-build, a valuable tool when working in fictional universes. Because of that, we already had access to a well developed Black Panther character. We know the world surrounding Wakanda, T’Challa, and to some degree, the Black Panther. As far as DC goes, they also offer similar levels of world-building and protagonist character development. We are offered Clark Kent’s motivations, even if we have a hard time grasping them. But where Marvel stands out is in their development of their antagonists. DC gives us very little to work with when it comes to their antagonists, and as a result their films suffer for it.
Take Killmonger, for example. Marvel and director Ryan Coogler went to great efforts to offer insight into Killmonger. Black Panther was such a tremendous success both critically and at the box office because it didn’t simplify the black experience. The film constructed the subtle nuances and complexity of what it means to be black into the characters and world itself. Simplifying that experience into simplistic tropes, like DC does, would rob the film of its heart. Black Panther was so impressive because it gave us a villain, and I am hesitant to call Killmonger that, that was relatable, pitiable, and accessible. The contrast of his upbringing where everything was taken from him by elitists to the upbringing of our hero, T’Challa, where everything was given to him, makes the film a standout among superhero movies. What Marvel is aware of is that a three dimensional hero is worthless when burdened by a two dimensional villain.
Now look at DC’s antagonists. By comparison they are flat and single-minded. Zod, Enchantress, Ares, Doomsday, Lex Luthor, Steppenwolf, we know relatively little of why they are motivated to do what they do. In that way they are unrelatable. The audience can’t feel what the villain feels, so there is no conflict within the audience. Since there is no conflict, there is no investment in what is on screen.
If DC doesn’t get its act together, they can expect more of the same. Which begs the question of why carry on at all?