With Marvel releasing season two of the extremely grim & gritty superhero series Daredevil barely a week before rival comic book company DC (through their parent company Warner Brothers) releases their extremely grim & gritty movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you’d be forgiven for thinking that grim & gritty was the flavour of the month in superhero sagas. And it is, only that month is somewhere back around 1985, because what we’re seeing now is only the latest stage in a corporate struggle that’s been lifting moves from comic book wars that are 30 years old.
Back in the early ’80s, Marvel ruled the US comic scene thanks largely to an approach to storytelling that may seem a little familiar to fans of their current run of movies: the stakes might have been high but they were never so high that the heroes couldn’t make a quip or two while punching out the bad guys, while the plotting was all about soap-opera style twists and interconnected storylines, with characters popping up in other comics for guest appearances all the time. DC tried to emulate the Marvel style, but it never quite worked out (and if you’re having flashbacks to DC’s recent Green Lantern movie, you’re not alone) – and then they got lucky with a mid-’80s one-two punch of stand-alone series that re-defined Western comics: Watchmen and “old man Batman” story The Dark Knight Returns. It’d be nice to think that what the comic book industry took from those two smash hits was intelligent storytelling and treating the readers like adults, but no: instead, their grim and gritty style became a stable of comics as readers turned away from the lightweight tone of Marvel and went for a darker kind of superhero. Which is pretty obviously what DC is trying to do with their films today. If you can’t beat Marvel at their own game, then you offer the kids lots of angst and darkness and heroes who grit their teeth a lot. Marvel clearly know this. They also know that their movies – being Disney fare and as such suffering under some fairly firm limitations – can’t compete on the darkness front.
But on television Daredevil can beat the crap out of hordes of guys on a regular basis while The Punisher executes an entire prison cell block because, well, criminals deserve to die. Whether this is going to be enough to sate the desire of superhero fans to have their genre taken seriously (which means angst and plenty of it) remains to be seen, especially as the recent success of Deadpool (who is a Marvel comic book character but whose movie rights are owned by rival Fox) and the generally high level of anticipation for DC’s Suicide Squad suggests that audiences might not be so keen to re-fight a ’80s-era battle when they can instead watch ultra-violent superhero stories that don’t take themselves all that seriously. That’s still a problem for Marvel (remember, owned by Disney, so ultra-violence is out): whether it’s angsty superheroes or gleefully murderous one that win out in 2016, this might be the year when Marvel’s dominance of the genre finally begins to wane.
Written by Anthony Morris