Recently, a friend of mine posited the following: “The things that make the new Marvel movies great don’t work on television. The things that make the new DC television shows great don’t work on film.” And, at present, he is absolutely right. The Flash, Arrow and Gotham are currently hits, while Agents of SHIELD is struggling. Marvel movies, on the other hand, are nigh-universally beloved while also having the additional benefits of just straight up pooping money. Verily, their coffers doth runneth over, drowning Robert Downey Jr. and Ike Perlmutter in a sea of hedonism and arc reactors. DC properties on film have fallen neck-snappingly short of their competitor’s quality and financial gross. So what’s the difference in approach for their medium adaptations? Well, DC is making TV shows that are essentially comics and making movies that are ashamed of their source material. Marvel is making TV shows that are budget Marvel movies and making movies that embrace the core qualities of their characters. In a lot of ways, DC is making Marvel Comics TV shows and Marvel is making DC Comics movies.
Now, clearly there is a litany of caveats that need to be considered here, not the least of which is that film and television are drastically different mediums. Arguably, television has a leg up over film when it comes to comic book adaptations because they operate much more like comics than movies do. Obviously, there’s the serialized nature of them, which allows for cliffhangers and the type of pacing suitable for melodrama and the juggling of multiple subplots. So, yes, TV and movies work differently is the amazing insight you can expect from me, I suppose. Moving on, each TV show and movie in question is produced, distributed, showrun, written, directed, key gripped and Kraft serviced by a slew of different entities. So, it’s not fair to say that Gotham and Arrow are on equal ground solely because they’re both DC properties. One is on The CW produced by Berlanti Productions in conjunction with DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Television and the other is on FOX produced by Primrose Hill Productions in conjunction with yada yada yada. So it’s not as though they have the same mission statements. Ditto all that jazz for each of the DC films as well. Here’s an even bigger (oh my god, Becky look at that) “but”: the sample size at present is skewed because we’re talking about one Marvel television series compared to three DC shows and once the Netflix shows debut for Marvel, my friend’s thesis may be moot. But for right now, the mechanics, themes and tones of the Marvel films are not translating at all to the small screen.
Throughout the first two phases of Marvel Studio’s golden era, the most common descriptor of their films has been “fun.” It’s true and that’s mainly because there is an air of confidence running within them paired with some sharp humor and balanced by just the right amount of humility; those knowing winks and nods at the audience that say: “Hey, look we know this is a little silly as a premise, but fuck it, it’s pretty awesome too.” The films put it all on the table; they fully embraced the inherent corniness of their properties because they weren’t afraid to admit that the corniness was a large part of what made them great. Captain America actually says the lines “I don’t like bullies” and “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn” out loud and instead of being eye-rolling moments, they’re fist pumping moments. Now it might sound ridiculous, but growing up I never really considered Marvel comics to be silly. To me, they were the serious and realistic publisher. Sure, there were bright costumes and kooky codenames and Fin Fang Foom even wore pants once upon a time. But, the stories still felt grounded in a recognizable world (New York City, where I happened to grow up) and dealt with more familiar human problems than the Distinguished Competition and their alien boy scouts and millionaire’s with robot dinosaurs. So, with the films it’s strange to see the down-to-Earth publisher putting the spotlight on some of the more goofy and sappy facets of their properties and thriving on them. Really, they feel like what you would expect DC characters to be portrayed as; bombast, rigid morality, cosmic shenanigans with trees and raccoons, and handsome powerful men from space charming Earth ladies. Now the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an actual thing that people refer to and it’s thriving on telling these operatic, high-concept, winking and “hells yeah”-inducing stories on a gigantic scale. And then they tried to cram it into a superhero-less, hour long TV show that airs on ABC. *Sad Trombone Wah Wah*
Agents of SHIELD is the Macduff of comic book television as it was not of comics born. It’s the direct result of the movie’s success and virtually every aspect of it is meant to fit within the confines of their established cinematic rules. Simply put, it’s not a comic book TV show and it was never designed to be one. The zenith of the first season came when it elaborately tied into The Winter Soldier, which was for many far too late into the run to have stayed with it. This is not to say the show is awful, judge that for yourself of course, but it does highlight that what it is trying to do is condense the successful traits of the films into a medium that cannot handle them. Or at least not with the current formula it can’t. Maybe the Netflix shows, starring the more street-level characters will flip the switch, but for now the square peg is just not fitting into the round hole.
The Flash is great, right? I know it’s only two episodes in at this juncture, but it’s kind of nailing it thus far. You know why? Because the show is basically a Spider-Man comic, folks. Young, nerdy character suddenly has life turned upside down because of freak accident that grants him inexplicable abilities and now tries to balance common everyday problems with taking on evil meta-human crooks all while struggling with self-doubt, anxiety and the trappings of a brightly colored costume? Yeah, I know that dude Peter Parker. Okay, it’s not exactly Spider-Man and it is succeeding on its own merits of distinctly Flash-related mythology, but the overall tone feels like a Marvel comic book. It’s whimsical, yet familiar. There’s dynamic action sequences bookended with the realities of hiding your identity from people close to you in order to protect them. While Arrow and Gotham certainly are much darker and (ugh…grittier, I suppose) they’re still pulling just the right elements from the comics source and translating them for television. Of course they’re episodic, but the monster-of-the-week villains, the ground level pulp detective work, swashbuckling vigilantism and, most importantly, the genuinely naïve/charming motivations of characters wanting to do the right thing all translate very well to hour-long television. Don’t get me wrong, until Ollie grows a Van Dyke beard, I’m not willing to admit DC has wholly embraced the silliness of their characters, but for now, they’ve cherry-picked without feeling embarrassed. Which is exactly what DC has been afraid to do with their films and what Marvel has excelled at.
To say DC is uncomfortable with their underwear-on-the-outside heroes is an understatement of Apokolipsian proportions. Earlier this summer there were rumblings that Warner Bros. had a “no jokes” rule for their films, which if we’re judging by Man of Steel (and we are because the smell is still lingering) seems pretty legit. Obviously there was a huge knee-jerk reaction to the Ryan Reynold’s led Green Lantern, but it wasn’t jokes that made that film unwatchable despite what WB may think. The tone of Man of Steel and the soon to be Snyder-verse are a dissonant interpretation of the source material, too ashamed to admit that Superman will pull a kitten from a tree with a smile and a spit-curl or that Batman is part of a duo that features a brightly attired child companion. Hopefully the upcoming slate of films released on Wednesday we take a page from the Marvel playbook and accept that some the coolest components of their comic roots are the silliest of ideas.
There’s so much in the pipeline from both Marvel and DC for both film and television, so who knows what the shifts in approach and tone might be a year from now. But for now, it is a little amusing and equally perplexing that these two friendly rivals have an inverse relationship with their source material’s adaptations; seemingly feeding off of each other’s historical strengths. None of this terribly matters, I suppose, because traditional comic fan and those who are newly discovering these characters through newer media are being treated to a surfeit of costumed, do-gooder entertainment. Look upon thy media, plump with capes and catchphrases, and rejoice; for the best of both worlds, Marvel and DC, Television and Film, shines brightly in what was formerly the darkest of places.