Wired On Why Marvel’s Movies and ‘The Avengers’ Works and DC Comics Movies Don’t

I’m literally hopping up and down with excitement to talk to y’all about The Avengers—I’ll have a review on Friday that can act as an open thread for discussion over the weekend and spoilerific post about the movie on Monday. But to pass the hours until the movie hits theaters, and to continue our conversation from yesterday about The Avengers and The Dark Knight it’s worth checking out Adam Rogers’ long piece on Joss Whedon and the process of making The Avengers, perhaps the first time Whedon’s been able and allowed to relax into a well-oiled machine that had no interest in letting him hoist himself on his own petard. He also has an overarching theory of why Marvel movies are working, while DC Comics movies, with the exception of Batman, have had such trouble:

Not incidentally, these were all characters from comics published by Marvel. The characters from competing comics company DC—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the Superfriends—were lying fallow, even though the corporation that owns DC also owns Warner Bros. Pictures. Marvel, on the other hand, was doing so well with its A-list characters that in 2005 the company took the bold step of financing its own theatrical releases. It would translate its characters its own way.

Spider-Man had been indentured to Sony, and the X-Men and Fantastic Four were already at Fox, but the remaining roster of potential movie heroes was still plenty deep. First up: Iron Man, an alcoholic gazillionaire playboy who builds his own rocket-powered exoskeleton. Then there’s the Hulk, a brilliant scientist who turns into a massively strong, uncontrollable green monster. Oh, and Captain America—a supersoldier from World War II brought into the present—and Thor, a hammer-wielding Norse god with superpowers and family drama that makes the real housewives of Atlanta look like the Osmonds. Unlike the gleaming, godlike DC heroes, Marvel characters are more likely to regard their powers as a curse than a blessing; great power has a pesky tendency to come with great responsibility. And that makes for pretty good movie plots.

I think there’s something to that. But of course, Marvel movies do have gods in the form of Asgardians, and some of the pleasure of watching Thor and Loki duke it comes from seeing gods behaving badly, of seeing these brawls play out on the largest possible scale. I wonder if the secret overall is that, on-screen at least, the Marvel heroes have tended to be funnier and more self-deprecating than the DC heroes, which is not precisely the same thing as angsty. There’s something inherently ridiculous about a god in a pet store, or a rich kid reacting in amazement and pleasure to his new toys, to the fact that he can fly. Acknowledging that absurdity is a useful nod to people who aren’t lifelong geeks, but are letting themselves be talked into drinking the Kool-Aid. And the transmutation of anxiety and darkness into comedic gold is basically Joss Whedon’s sweet spot.

Batman’s owned the flip side of that joyful ridiculousness, a sense of deviance: Gotham residents may not be right about the precise ways in which Bruce Wayne’s head isn’t right, but they’re not wrong that there’s something wrong with him. That comfort with painting the hero as a bit too dedicated, acknowledging our unease, may be why it’s worked better than say, Green Lantern or Green Hornet. One way or the other, the movies seem to require a deep tonal commitment to work.