What’s wrong with the DC Cinematic Universe?

Now that Avengers: Age of Ultron has opened to rave reviews, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has moved one step closer to world domination. This leaves many commentators wondering, “Can DC Comics ever hope to catch up?”

Man of Steel, the first film in DC Comics’ shared universe, was released in 2013 to mixed reviews—some fans loved it, some didn’t. Later that year, the sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced, with more heroes added as time passed. The full DC Cinematic Universe release schedule was announced on 15 October 2014.

So far fans and critics have been somewhat skeptical of news from the DC CU’s upcoming films: from the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman to the non-traditional look of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman to the strange appearance of Jared Leto’s Joker. Each new bit of information has both supporters and detractors, but every one has been controversial.

After the overwhelming praise for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, why are subsequent films being received so much more coldly?

There might be a few reasons:

Most of the DC characters have been around longer, and are better known, than Marvel characters.

Superman and Batman are among the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, crossing all international borders. Superman has appeared in multiple movies, television shows, and cartoons over the past 75+ years. The general public has expectations as to whom Superman is and how he is portrayed, whom Batman is and how he is portrayed.

The same can’t be said for even the most popular characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (possibly excepting the Hulk). Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Guardians of the Galaxy? General audiences had never heard of any of these characters before the movies made them household names. This means that there are no expectations for the movies. People can’t be let down when they have a blank slate.

Batman is dark in the popular imagination. Tim Burton’s Batman has for the most part replaced the 1966 TV show as a cultural reference for Batman. So Christopher Nolan’s dark-toned Batman trilogy—supported largely by strong performances from Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Heath Ledger, Tom Hardy, and the rest of the cast—did not constitute a major departure from what movie-goers expected.

On the other hand,  Superman is still a more positive, upstanding character to most casual fans. Some generations may remember the Christopher Reeve movies of the 1970s and 1980s or the Super Friends cartoons. Others might think of Smallville, or more recent cartoons. Zak Snyder took Superman into the same sepia-colored dark world that Nolan’s Batman inhabited. Could the general audiences used to the benevolent “Man of Steel” handle a Superman who kills?

Marvel Comics characters share the same world, our real world. DC Comics characters inhabit a fantasy world.

Spider-Man swinging between the Twin Towers pre-9/11 is an iconic image that planted him square in the heart of New York. No one has ever been to Metropolis or Gotham (at least not the ones that hold Superman and Batman).

DC heroes didn’t start out in the same world. This started years after Superman and Batman first appeared, and it always seemed forced. Just how close was Gotham to Metropolis, anyway? DC had no connected universe or continuity, which is why the whole thing had to be “rebooted” in the 1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Marvel’s crossovers came more naturally. A lot of these heroes lived in parts of New York City. It is only natural that at some point they would bump into each other, fighting the same bad guys in the same city.

The same thing extends to the cinematic universes. Honestly, it has seemed weird that Spider-man, and the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers have all been in the same city and not run into each other. (OK, well licensing rights might prevent that from being fully realized, so let’s use Iron Man and Captain America as the examples.)

When DC throws Superman and Batman into the same movie, you have to wonder how they coexist in the first place. Why does the almost god-like Superman spend all his time in Metropolis, and Batman spend all his time in Gotham? What was Superman doing during the events of The Dark Knight Rises? It seems like they could have used his help. He could have ended the whole thing in 20 minutes.

And I think that might be the clincher. This “kitchen sink” approach to throwing every superhero they have into Batman v. Superman seems forced.

Personally, I am still looking forward to the movie. I really, really hope it is good. It does, at least from what I have seen so far, remind me of Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns—if it can pull that off, I think I’ll be satisfied. As for the rest of the films, let’s hope that they are more Batman and less Green Lantern.