Marvel VS DC: How Perception Can Make All the Difference
With the impending arrival of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice there has been a lot of talk about the difference between the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a little absurd at the moment considering Marvel currently has twelve movies out while DC only has ONE. But the comparisons really started to come out of the woodwork after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Some claims were made that Marvel purposefully shoehorned scenes of Avengers assisting with the city-wide evacuation while fighting hordes of robot invaders, as a reaction to negative reactions to Superman’s devastating battle in Metropolis during Man of Steel. Even one of the plot-points in Avengers: Age of Ultron is negative public reaction to destruction caused by one of their battles. And these claims are most likely correct. But let’s address what issues these claims illuminate and why they’re important.
Starting with 2008’s Iron Man and moving forward, the stakes and levels of destruction have grown larger with each subsequent movie. Iron Man showed parts of a military hideout, part of a freeway, and an empty manufacturing plant get destroyed. The Incredible Hulk showcased a University campus courtyard and a small portion of Harlem getting smashed. Iron Man 2 blew up us a heavily populated race track, a palatial mansion, and an extremely populated Convention Center roughly equivalent of The World’s Fair (hundreds of acres). Thor ruined a few desolate battlefields and most of a small New Mexico town. Captain America: The First Avenger displayed a great deal of destruction, but in the context of movie set during World War II, so that’s a bit more understandable.
Then Marvel’s The Avengers came along and everything changed. We saw the destruction of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, a pavilion in Germany, the flattening of half a forest, a flying aircraft carrier, and a few miles worth of New York. The characters make direct reference to the battle covering portions of 39th and 6th. 39th St and 6th Ave stretches for about two miles depending on how far East or West you go down 39th from 6th and covers Midtown Manhattan, Broadway, Times Square, and The Chrysler Building. 39th St and 6th St are about 25 miles apart, so it’s safe to assume the characters aren’t referring to 6th St (I certainly hope not). And 6th Ave AKA Skyscraper Alley covers SoHo and Greenwich Village, part of Chelsea, passes through the Garment District and skirts the edge of the Theater District. That’s a lot of collateral property damage.
During the second half of the battle, Captain America makes a plan to try to contain the fighting within a three-block perimeter, but that’s after the first half of the fight had already spread, and again taking the battle to 6th Ave suggests that they were unsuccessful in their attempted containment.
Now Man of Steel has the unfortunate downside of dealing with the fictional city of Metropolis as opposed to a real location like New York City. Thankfully, Metropolis is modeled after certain cities, specifically Toronto and New York (more specifically the borough of Manhattan), which is convenient since that’s were the climactic battle in The Avengers takes place. But since we don’t have any landmarks to estimate the total coverage of damage, we have to do some estimating. Near the beginning of the assault, we see a few people outrunning the shockwaves coming from the World Engine (the big machine Zod uses to terra-form Earth), so we know it can’t be spreading out too quickly. During the end of the assault we see the shockwaves take about three minutes to cover about two or three blocks as Jenny is trapped in the rubble. Taking into account onscreen action and allotting for instances of dramatic timing, the World Engine is active for approximately ten minutes. At roughly a block a minute, the shockwaves spread ten blocks from the epicenter. About 20 North-South city blocks equal one mile, so the area of damage done would be a circle roughly one mile in diameter.
Overall, more buildings get destroyed in Man of Steel as compared to The Avengers, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. Most of the complaints leveled at Man of Steel seem to be at the presumed body count as well as the seemingly constant action/destruction. More often than not, one comes across complaints that far too many people were killed during the battle of Metropolis when compared to the battle of New York. And most critics site Man of Steel as being far too action-oriented as another primary criticism. These two grievances are specifically why Avengers: Age of Ultron made time to explicitly show our heroes helping to evacuate the city during the climactic third act battle, something that Man of Steel didn’t do, and the first Avengers movie only sort of did (more on that later).
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way: whether people realize or not, or choose to ignore it or not, the simple fact is The Avengers actually is more action-packed than Man of Steel. Now, you probably don’t believe me. You’re probably thinking, “nah, I remember Man of Steel having way more action!”. And you probably DO remember it that way, because it’s partially an issue with perception (more on that in a bit). But let’s break it down, shall we?
Avengers – Approximate runtime without opening/closing credits: 2hrs14min
- 0:05:15 – 0:11:00 (Assault on SHIELD building)
- 0:38:00 – 0:39:00 (Hawkeye and Loki murder a few people in Germany)
- 0:41:00 – 0:43:00 (Loki fights Captain America and Iron Man)
- 0:47:00 – 0:50:00 (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America fight, leveling a forest)
- 1:12:30 – 1:27:50 – (Assault on the SHIELD Hellicarrier)
- 1:42:45 – 2:07:00 – (Battle of New York) (with a few moments of exposition)
- Total action runtime – approximately 52min50sec
Man of Steel – Approximate runtime without opening/closing credits 2hrs12min
- 0:02:50 – 0:05:45 (Zod’s insurrection and Jor-El stealing the Codex)
- 0:07:10 – 0:08:10 (Jor-El escapes Zod’s forces and returns home)
- 0:12:50 – 0:14:00 (Zod fights Jor-El)
- 0:18:25 – 0:19:20 (Planet Krypton explodes)
- 0:21:15 – 0:22:35 (Clark saves workers on exploding oil platform)
- 0:26:40 – 0:27:40 (Young Clark saves classmates from bus crash)
- 0:55:40 – 0:57:20 (Pa Kent killed saving people from a tornado)
- 1:24:30 – 1:27:30 (Lois and Superman escape Zod’s ship)
- 1:28:45 – 1:38:10 (Smallville fight)
- 1:44:00 – 2:00:00 (Assault on Metropolis & Battle against World Engine)
- 2:02:10 – 2:07:45 (Superman battles Zod one-on-one)
- Total action runtime – approximately 44min
There are two reasons for this misconception that Man of Steel has more action than The Avengers. One is pacing and the other is tone. Both of these issues have led many to perceive that Man of Steel is chalk full of action/destruction/mayhem (told you we’d get back to that perception issue).
Issue 1: Pacing –
The Avengers starts with what is ostensibly a prologue. Loki attacks a S.H.I.E.L.D. base, causing the deaths of probably at least a dozen agents, those delayed from evacuating because of his arrival and those caught in the ensuing fighting and car-chase. Then we have a pretty huge gap before there’s any more action whatsoever, unless you count quick flashbacks of Captain America: The First Avenger while Cap hits a punching bag, but come on don’t be that guy. Basically aside from the prologue, Act I is devoid of action, depending on how you break it up. Act II features the multi-part Loki/Captain America/Iron Man/Thor fight, and that’s it. Act III is when it all hits the fan. Almost all of Act III is the battle, slowing down or pausing for a few bits of exposition that basically function just to set up the next part of the fight.
Man of Steel features less action, but rather than saving almost all of it for the final act, it’s more spread out. In what could be considered its prologue, the destruction of Planet Krypton, there’s about six minutes of action over the course of twenty minutes. It’s also action on a much grander scale, a planet exploding as opposed to a building. That goes with the territory however; if we were given a movie based on Superman where his home planet wasn’t destroyed fans and purists would have been outraged and rightly so. Act I and II have almost no fighting of any kind, but they do feature a bit of action, primarily feats of heroics as Clark is shown rescuing people and even his father is shown saving others. Act II is punctuated with the escape from Zod’s command ship. Much like Avengers’ Act III features two fights back to back (Hellicarrier then New York), Man of Steel’s Act III starts with a fight in Superman’s hometown and then launches into the final fight in Metropolis. So, even though technically Man of Steel actually features less it’s action is more spread out, peppered throughout the story instead of being relegated to basically the second half of the story, so it FEELS like there’s more even though there isn’t.
Issue 2: Tone (The major issue) –
The biggest difference between the two films is tone. The Avengers, even during it’s few dark and grim moments, strikes a very light and upbeat tone both visually and figuratively. The movie, especially the Third Act, is very brightly lit utilizing a lot of sunshine and making the ash, smoke, debris and rubble from all of the destruction is a light beige instead of a stark grey. And aside from a quick moment of dramatic slow-motion where Captain America gets a little dirty, everyone looks fine by the end of the fight. Even the nearly constant barrage of civilians that we see running for their lives are remarkably clean for the most part. The musical score accompanying the onscreen action is also light and upbeat, very much in keeping with the traditions of John Williams, even when the action is on a downbeat and the music conveys this downshift, it’s done in a way that still maintains your enthusiasm and positive energy.
Man of Steel doesn’t do this. It presents a much more somber and sobering take on the action. Not gritty, not “realistic” (a term that gets bandied about too much by critics and viewers alike who have no idea what they’re talking about), but somber. Skyscrapers are destroyed, and the visual matches the reality. Grey ash and smoke fill the air and block out the sun. People running through the streets are covered in ash and dust. It’s not bright and sunny and light and airy. It’s dark, and rightly so. The music isn’t nearly constantly upbeat. It’s energetic to be sure, but it doesn’t glorify the destruction with fanfare. It strikes happier tunes when Superman musters the strength and willpower to defeat the World Engine, but for most of the onscreen action the music is darker, utilizing deeper strings and percussion. Think more Wagner and less Vivaldi.
Another way they differ in tone is how they handle the onscreen action. In Marvel’s The Avengers, the action is littered with nearly constant humor. Yes, the characters are on a mission and yes they’re upset, but that doesn’t stop them from cracking jokes and making pithy one-liners at every opportunity. They’re smiling and winking and quipping throughout the entire fight. The one character that makes the least amount of quips is Captain America, and his stoicism is used for a punch-line, involving an inept police officer who refuses to take Cap’s advice until he sees him in action. Man of Steel again, doesn’t do this. There are no one-liners or quips, and absolutely no witty banter during the fights. The only dialogue is handled seriously, with the military discussing the action and planning their next move, or Zod delivering lines cementing his character as a serious threat.
On the subject of Zod, this is a perfect example of how these movies differ in tone. Zod is a threat through and through, a certifiable madman who makes it clear that he will not stop until he has won or he is dead. While given strong characterization and even made surprisingly sympathetic by the end of the film, he’s still terrifying throughout.
Loki on the other hand is the butt of every joke. Yes, he’s charming and witty and a dashing villain in that Basil Rathbone sort of way, but he’s ineffectual. Firstly, he’s demoted from his sympathetic villain status in Thor to manipulated henchmen working for an unseen villain in The Avengers. He’s not the big-bad; hell it’s not even HIS army, it’s one he borrowed. And literally every time he does something cocky or thinks he has the upper hand, he gets put in his place, usually by some slapstick method where he gets knocked down hard and left with some bewildered and irritated look on his face. It becomes a running gag, actually.
He’s in the middle of intimidating a crowd of people, when Captain America starts smacking him around. He’s about to defeat Cap, when Iron Man shoots him down. He thinks he’s got the upper hand with Black Widow only to find out she played him. He gloats at Agent Coulson about his victory only to be blasted through a wall mid-sentence. He declares his impending victory to Iron Man only to be knocked on his ass not once but twice. In what should have been his coolest moment, he catches an arrow out of the sky without looking and smiles wryly at the camera only to have it blow up Looney Tunes style in his face. Speaking of cartoons, while boasting about himself at The Hulk, he receives yet another mid-sentence interruption the funniest and most gratifying of the gags, as Hulk slams him back and forth into the ground like a Tex Avery cartoon. The only thing missing was the accordion noise. And in the end, he gives up, makes a joke, and smiles sheepishly at the camera. He’s a fun villain to be sure, but never a threatening one.
Now that we’ve addressed the non-threat that is Loki, let’s get back to addressing the onscreen action. I mentioned how Man of Steel isn’t filled with one-liners or pithy quips, and how the visuals match the dark imagery of the destruction. Let’s delve deeper into how this differs from The Avengers.
There are a few moments where Captain America is shown planning to or attempting to rescue innocents caught in the crossfire, or where Hawkeye is pulling someone from an overturned bus. That amounts to a dozen people or so. They could only get to the few people who were already right next to them and within shouting distance. That’s the movie-equivalent of saying “it’s okay because the hero saves the puppy we see, while letting a few dozen kennels get smashed off-screen”. Throughout the rest of the battle, we see the streets nearly constantly full of people running for their lives as Iron Man manages to cause even more collateral damage than The Hulk, which is impressive.
In Man of Steel we see people running out of the Daily Planet as one building topples into another. The camera doesn’t cut away and Perry doesn’t make a pun after surviving the ordeal. In The Avengers, we see Iron Man purposefully taunt one of those flying building-sized aliens into chasing him THROUGH a skyscraper that starts to fall into another skyscraper. Iron Man carries on glibly not giving a shit and the camera quickly cuts away because if you don’t see the buildings domino, it won’t really register with you. This thing gives Iron Man a merry chase throughout Manhattan, and we’re shown that every time it goes down a street or makes a turn it cuts a building practically in half. I don’t know how much you know about structural integrity, but anyone who’s played Jenga knows those buildings are going to collapse if this keeps up. And remember folks, there were AT LEAST THREE of those behemoths.
We get a few more instances of various Avengers sending alien hover-chariots careening out of control into densely populated lobbies and street corners. In a clear case of negligence, Hawkeye specifically advises Iron Man to use the surrounding buildings as weapons while being chased because the aliens “can’t bank worth a damn”. Man of Steel shows our combatants crashing through buildings too. But by this point in the battle, Man of Steel also makes it a point to explicitly show that those buildings are empty. Metropolis is mostly devoid of people by the end of the fight. We have the people running out of The Daily Planet office building, a few people hiding near a parking garage, and a few people hiding in what looks to be a museum, and presumably some number more than that. The difference is, the attack on Metropolis came with a 24 hour warning, whereas the attack on New York came out of nowhere, so one of the reasons we see so few people wandering around at the end of Man of Steel is that most of them already got the hell out of there.
What this all boils down to is that the action in The Avengers is handled in a light-hearted Saturday matinee sort of way, where the action in Man of Steel is presented in a much more serious fashion. The seriousness and somberness of the tone adds a weight and impact to the action. Could Man of Steel have done better with critics and the box-office by tossing in a throwaway scene of citizens rejoicing and celebrating the hero? Most assuredly. Do I feel it needed to coddle the audience in such a way? Not remotely. It is this drastic difference in tone that has caused people to perceive that Man of Steel is wall-to-wall action when it really isn’t. The Avengers are cracking smiles at the end of their destruction filled party, while Superman is actively mourning the death he had a part in. I’ve actually encountered people that thought the Superman/Zod fight lasted upwards of fifteen minutes, and were surprised to learn that it’s barely over five minutes long. It’s because the action hits you harder, that you feel like there’s more of it.
I can understand that in a post-911 world, people may not want their escapism to take such a sobering tone. The Avengers keeps things light and the audience loves it. A lot of people don’t want their fantasy-film-destruction too grim and serious these days. I enjoy the hell out of both movies, despite the typical flaws and plot-contrivances. But I enjoy them for different reasons. It just bothers me that so many people praise The Avengers, which shows Manhattan getting devastated with this almost highly irreverent “couldn’t care less” attitude, while lambasting Man of Steel, for Metropolis getting destroyed, albeit with somber serious reverence. Both movies are terrific escapism, but I think Man of Steel deserves more praise for NOT going the Avengers route glossing over the death and destruction with humorous quips and unnaturally bright and happy color-schemes.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re one of the many people out there that were upset by all the destruction in Man of Steel, and maybe not looking forward to the upcoming DC Comics movies because of it, I hope this helped changed your mind.