New ‘Man Of Steel’ Illustrates DC Movies’ Advantage Over Marvel—Its Supervillains

I’ve been generally bullish on Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel, or as I’ve been jokingly calling it given the long shots of waves and broody atmosphere of the trailers, Terrence Malick’s Superman. So I was excited to see this latest trailer in the form of a calmly-voiced demand from General Zod (Michael Shannon), demanding that Clark Kent be turned over to him:

It’s also a reminder that while Marvel’s done a much better job of developing its full roster of heroes into a gigantic franchise that runs in multiple tracks that converge into event pictures like The Avengers, DC has its rival beat all hollow when it comes to the development of generally frightening and distinct villains. Marvel’s villains have tended to relatively cartoonish and disposable. Iron Man has faced off against Obadiah Stane, who despite Jeff Bridges’ generalized acting chops was a relatively generalized industrialist, the Ten Rings, who were relatively generic jihadists, and Ivan Vanko a reasonably generic Former Soviet Bloc Crazy With Eccentric Teeth. Captain America went up against the Red Skull in The First Avenger, and the bonkers makeup didn’t do much to conceal that Hugo Weaving’s villain schtick has seen better days. Only Thor has had a truly worthy adversary in his half-brother Loki, but it took two movies for him to morph from standard-issue petulance to achieve his “brain like a bag full of cats,” an unsettling combination of imbalance and precise manipulation.

DC, by contrast, has been extraordinarily lucky to have Christopher Nolan designing its villains for the better part of the last decade in his Batman films, which have anchored the DC franchise even as Marvel seemed ascendant. The Scarecrow may have been the least of Nolan’s creations, but it was an unsettling performance that made the best possible use of Cillian Murphy’s sharp, almost pretty features. As the Joker, Heath Ledger was so unsettling and so fully committed to the role that it remains uncomfortable to watch him. And if The Dark Knight Rises made some miscalculations in the handling of Bane, it provided Anne Hathaway with a career-shifting role that let her be sensual and angry in ways she’s never been on film before. These villains are indelible, rather than disposable—I think, not matter how unsettled they make us feel, they’re characters we’d happily spend time with on their own, and certainly ones who offer specific insight into facets of Batman’s personality and mission in a way Marvel villains rarely have. We’re still a long way from knowing how Man of Steel will shake out, but DC’s been wise to know that you can’t know superheroes without knowing their nemeses, and that’s a strong insight DC will have on its side as it tries to play catchup to its own rival.