With the astronomical success of Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to an end for most viewers. A veritable titan in Hollywood, the MCU has almost single-handedly maintained the film industry over the past ten years. Nothing else produced in Tinseltown—including the most successful installments in rival Detective Comics’ line of movies—have come close to matching the series’ success.
There are many reasons for Marvel’s rise to power on the silver screen. First, the stories have presented good and evil in unambiguous terms, generally without objectionable content. Second, the writers, actors, and directors clearly respect the material and those who enjoy it. Rather than put their own spin on the characters or slap together a movie based on the most popular titles in Marvel Comics, as DC’s directors and writers are wont to do, they took the basic stories and adapted them for film in novel ways.
Third is Marvel’s often oversimplified approach to the concept of power. While both DC and Marvel deal with the idea of ordinary people receiving or being born with fantastic abilities, their attitudes toward the power their characters accept are entirely dissimilar. Neither viewpoint is inherently bad, but one is more obviously Christian than the other. It is therefore harder to miscontrue or misunderstand their concept of authority.
DC’s approach to the concept of empowered beings is Classical in origin and, for the most part, remains so to this day. In the Classic or Ancient era, the reception of power and glory conferred veritable godhood on an individual. Although epitomized by Herakles, the son of Zeus is not the only demigod in the line up of deified men. Odysseus, while an ordinary mortal, could also be counted among the lesser pantheon of the Greek deities. Aeneas, Achilles, Paris, Menelaus, and many others qualified for the lower strata of Olympian society as well.
In contrast, Marvel takes the Medieval view of heroes and heroism. In the Middle Ages, brave men who won renown in combat were regarded as extraordinary examples of the grace of God. Medieval man believed power was a blessing but more so a responsibility to be wielded for God’s glory. Charlemagne, Charles Martel, Louis IX, Alfred, Isabella I of Spain, Blanche of France, Joan of Arc, and other renowned champions of the Middle Ages exemplified this attitude. While held in respect and awe, they were nonetheless understood to be human beings lifted to positions of importance and power to serve the purposes of God.
Perhaps without truly considering the fundamental differences between them, each franchise embraced these models. The result is that their stories and characters contrast sharply in every platform in which they appear. This was apparent almost from the outset of their competition. It is this variance which has contributed to DC’s mediocre film offerings and Marvel’s stellar rise to prominence in movies.
Of Gods and Men
Although the two companies’ pantheons are traditionally compared to Classical deities, Marvel’s heroes fall short of the ancient definition and understanding of gods. DC’s roster more closely resembles that list, something the company has more or less admitted over the years. The animated movie Justice League: War specifically shows Wonder Woman likening five of her male comrades to the Greek deities Hades, Apollo, Hermes, Hephaestos, and Zeus. Other famous members of the League, such as Aquaman and Superman, bear strong similarities to Poseidon and Herakles respectively.
Superman is closer to Kevin Sorbo’s portrayal of Herakles than he is a direct recast of the original character. And while Flash, Batman, and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) are each mortal, their powers or skill sets are at nearly divine levels. Indeed, the Flash’s list of abilities is so extensive as to qualify him for deification in Ancient Greece, while Batman has become almost unconquerable in close quarters. Hal Jordan’s enormous willpower, coupled with the nearly djinn-esque power of his ring, easily puts him a level above that any human can hope to reach. The League’s Hall of Justice and Watchtower, apt parallels to the Parthenon and Olympus, only make their connection to the Classical deities more succinct.
DC’s Classical attitude toward strength is not bad in itself, but it does inevitably lead to the same problem encountered by the pagans prior to Christ’s birth. Men are not gods; they are fallen creatures, capable of great sins. Like the Classical writers from whom they drew inspiration, over the last three to four decades Detective Comics has leaned heavily on “dark and gritty” noir-style tales to make their mark on the industry. When ancient, personal deities fall, they inevitably prove to be less than men. Thus, they inspire terror and abhorrence more than awe and veneration.
This is something the more recent DC films – animated or not – are quick to focus on, showing how much the Justice League is feared by ordinary people. And when the gods go to war, they seldom worry about the lives of mortals, as shown in the live action Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Justice League movies. The near wanton destruction caused by the eponymous heroes in battle with their foes leaves them little time to be concerned for the people scurrying for cover below them. The implication that their affairs are of more import than the lives they could save if they exercised some discretion and caution speaks of the Grecian view that, in the end, the gods care very little for humanity.
It can therefore be said that, despite the filmmakers’ blatant disinterest in most of the source material, the Classical attitude of DC is the distinct Achilles’ heel which renders the franchise vulnerable to their indifference. When the only balance of power acknowledged by the creators is the equilibrium between the divinized and the damned, then that is all they will present to audiences. This view of strength – adopted by many today and writ large by them on the silver screen – provides a sad, if timely, reflection of the current state of affairs in modern society.
“To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected.”
Unlike the Classical understanding of power, the Medieval outlook recognizes that men who have great graces bestowed upon them are still human. Whereas the ancient pagans believed that strength was automatically good, conferring righteousness upon those who received it, writers in the Middle Ages saw authority as a gift which comes with the expectation that it be used well and wisely. Remembering Christ’s statement that “To whom much is given, much is expected,” they came to understand that power must be used in service to the good if it is to remain good.
Marvel Comics followed the Medieval pattern practically from the outset, shown by its adaptation of Christ’s words in Spider-Man’s motto: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker demonstrated this most memorably for audiences when he chose not to use his fantastic abilities to stop a petty thief when he had the chance, which led to a traumatizing loss for him and his aunt. Indifference to the moral law even in minor events can have dire consequences for those charged with enforcing it, as all good Christians are expected to do to the best of their ability.
Other characters in the Marvel Universe(s) illustrate Medieval tendencies as well. Tony Stark, in his original conception, epitomizes the ideal of the gallant knight. He comes from a position of wealth and influence, which he uses to benefit not only his company (i.e. his fiefdom), but those outside of it. Captain America/Steve Rogers is the pure knight who embodies all the Christian virtues America aspires to achieve, as Galahad did before him in England. Jean Grey and Scott Summers/Cyclops of the X-Men are comparable with Guinevere and King Arthur, rather than similar Greek archetypes. Professor X’s likeness to Merlin and the uncanny resemblance between the X-Mansion and Camelot only serve to cement their link to the Medieval mindset.
Most intriguingly, Marvel’s depiction of Thor is not at all Classical, since the Prince of Asgard’s behavior is closer to that of a recently Christianized knight or prince than to the attitude of his Nordic namesake. In many ways he corresponds to the freshly catechized Norsemen of old, an image that gains new meaning when one considers his banishment from Asgard. Made to live as a crippled, mortal man in the early comics, he dies to his old self and emerges a new man sworn to uphold Christian laws, a position ensured by the nigh-Arthurian worthiness spell on his hammer. It makes him something of an evangelist to his fellow Asgardians, who find his decision to remain among men as one of them difficult to comprehend.
Also of note is the fact that both the Avengers and the X-Men do not truly sequester themselves from those they have sworn to protect. The manors which both teams originally call home are situated either near or within the civilian population. Similar to the castles of old, these mansions serve as bastions of defense and safety for the heroes at the same time they remind the protagonists of their humanity. Even when these bases are attacked by villains, the damage rarely spreads beyond the borders of the property, as the heroes work harder to ensure that the conflicts are confined to their land and do not harm innocent bystanders.
Built upon the Christian idea of power, Marvel managed to deliver fine stories of derring-do without losing sight of or scorning the ideals it wished to promote. No matter how many times the Avengers or the X-Men would fail, personally or as a team, they were permitted to do so because they were human beings who could be imperfect but still good. For this reason, they were more readily translated to modern screens than their DC counterparts have been over the last few years.
Regardless of which franchise one prefers, or the paths each company treads going forward, these separate views of power lead to a valuable conclusion for both casual and diehard fans. Every person born into this world possesses some type of power over others. It may be slight, such as the smile a waitress gives to a customer when she takes his order. On the other hand, it may be fundamental to another individual’s formation, as a parent or older sibling’s authority over younger members of the family. None of us are ever truly incapable of affecting those around us, for good or ill.
Therefore, if we would have good, we must put good in. Architects of the Classical school laid the foundation for this understanding, allowing the Medieval scholars to build a strong center for reference to moral knowledge. While the present and future offerings of DC and Marvel may decline, their initial contributions to entertainment and current society cannot be underestimated or discarded.