It’s no secret to anyone that superhero movies are in vogue right now. People love the escapism of the idea having a good, powerful individual that they can imagine being or having as a protector. Lately, we’ve been getting tons of films starring classic comics characters from both of the two biggest companies, Marvel and DC. However, despite their similarities as comics creators, the two companies have several key differences in how they approach their movies both philosophically and as creators. Marvel movies tend to be more idealistic and fun, compared to darker DC. To illustrate this, one should examine two politically charged superhero movies that appear rather similar at first glance: Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and DC’s The Dark Knight.
Both are the second movies of their series, and both feature a character who is superhumanly strong and skilled without actually having superpowers, due to their training and scientific supplements—serum in Captain America’s case and assorted gadgets in Batman’s. Compared to other superheroes like Superman and Thor, they are much more human and relatable. On a more significant level, they both deal with terrorists who corrupt others and inject chaos into an orderly society and use that uncertainty to turn good characters against each other. Surveillance is used against the people. A close, admired friend of the hero is corrupted into a villain. The hero turns the authorities against the once-admired hero by framing him for the death of his friend and superior (which was faked.) However similar these situations may be, their outcomes and overall messages are very different.
Captain America is a military man, and a simple one. Although he benefits from the spying and sneakiness of his allies, he remains straightforward and by-the-book, only opposing authority when he realizes that he has been lied to and that Shield has been infiltrated. He expresses discomfort with surveillance and the idea that one organization has too much power without answering to the people, and indeed those are what allow Hydra to nearly kill millions. Batman is his opposite. He thrives on secrecy, lies, and defying the law. He answers to no one, and uses invasive radar technology to spy on all of Gotham. He does allow his subordinate to destroy the radar system, but only after he’s harmlessly and positively used it to stop the Joker and save the city. Both of these heroes learn that they were wrong—Captain America becomes an individualist who shows the world his independence and heroism, and Batman gives up his vigilantism and turns the public against himself.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier ends with Shield disbanded, with the message that its power and secrecy were too corruptible and dishonest to function. Captain America leaves it after Black Widow leaks its secrets into the Internet, noting that he must be able to make his own moral choices as an individual. They learn that freedom granted by a higher party, one that is lying to give itself power, is no freedom at all, and even authorities with the best of intentions are open to drastic mistakes. On the other hand, rather than exposing secrets Batman only adds to them. Despite the corruption of the police force and of Dent and the justice system, he chooses to take the blame for Two-Face’s murders and give the people of Gotham a politically convenient lie. He trusts the corruption to sort itself out if given a proper enemy and good leadership, even if the leader that they look up to was really a murderer. The truth does not matter if the liar has the greater good in mind, and it is better to allow a higher authority to dictate your safety.
In the end, Batman sacrifices the effective individual for the sake of the government, and Captain America sacrifices the government for the individual. In one, surveillance is dangerous and exploitable, and in the other it is a necessary evil. It’s easy to see why movies would want to tackle these subjects in our modern era, where issues of security and confidentiality have been making headlines. Superhero movies from both of the biggest providers have found a place in popular consciousness, and it is interesting how opposite the two major companies make their messages, using some of American pop culture’s most beloved characters. In the end, the idealistic Marvel makes the case for the necessity of open superheroes whereas DC is critical of the concept. Perhaps this is why Marvel has had so much more critical and financial success—it knows how to sell the public on the Superman fantasy better than the company that created Superman.