Stan Lee, so the story goes, was thinking about getting out of the whole business of comic books back in the late 1950s. He’d worked his way up from errand boy to a script writer and editor at the company that had become Marvel Comics, and had tried his hand at everything from westerns to horror to romances and the game was getting boring. Then, legend says, he was told that, as he was on the way out, why didn’t he try writing some stuff that he wanted to write, with no real editorial guidelines other than his own preferences?
And so the Marvel Age of Comics was born, starting with the suddenly best-selling Fantastic Four and including names and ideas which seem astonishing now: the Amazing Spiderman, the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Invincible Iron Man, the Uncanny X-men and so many more that I am sure many writers and creators today can’t quite believe that they all came from the pen of one man, even when their success and development involved many others.
It was a fun time to be a kid. Marvel was buzzing: they even called themselves the ‘House of Ideas’. Blind superheroes, masters of the occult, heroes the size of ants, a whole range of super-powered characters who simply genetically gained their abilities, and villains who seemed Shakespearian in their depth and passion: Doctor Doom, Galactus, Dracula. Each character seemed more human than super: a teenager who gained the proportionate powers of a spider may not sound like a hit, but Lee’s authentic-sounding dialogue, comic banter and real-life problems and vulnerabilities added a dimension to Spiderman that no one had dreamed of before. One memorable issue of The Avengers concluded with an extract from a poem by Shelley as an epitaph to the final decline of the villainous robot Ultron. And the ‘Marvel Bullpen’ communicated to its readers every issue with friendly and humourous banter, including an editorial column called ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ where you got to hear from the Man himself. It was a mixture of the fabulous and the ordinary. The two aspects ignited each other in a creative explosion. Its ripples are still being felt today.
Meanwhile, what was happening over at DC Comics? Apart from the staples, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, DC had gone through a phase of ‘rebooting’ classic heroes from the 1940s and 50s -we got to see new versions of characters like Green Lantern, the Flash and the Atom. But there was a different tone to it all. Superman was still blowing out stars and moving planets around, being affected by ‘red kryptonite’, ‘gold kryptonite’ and just about any other colour of kryptonite, surrounded as he was by a super dog, super horse, super cat and super monkey; Batman was camping it up on television in the 1960s; and Wonder Woman was doing something of the same kind as the 1970s wrapped up. It was all entertaining enough, within certain parameters. DC characters were largely two-dimensional, though, as their medium suggested. Clark Kent had been a reporter at the Daily Planet since forever; his pal Jimmy Olsen had even had his own comic series, based on the plot device that he had a watch which could summon Superman in moments of distress. The only way to make a Superman story interesting seemed to be to invent hugely powerful enemies for him or a new way of him losing his powers and seeming more vulnerable to physical attack. Verisimilitude wasn’t part of the picture at all.
Sure, things changed in the 1980s. The tone of comics darkened overall, and we saw the rise of the ironic anti-heroes like Marvel’s Wolverine or DC’s revised and much grimmer Batman. ‘Real life’ surged into DC like an infusion of foreign blood: it brought out a series of ‘realistic’ tales that verged on horror. It was DC after all, who produced what might be the closest to a work of modern, ironic literature that the comic genre has yet produced: Watchmen. DC also strove to bring its sprawling, many-faceted super-hero universe under control with the famous ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ saga, attempting to re-boot it on a more Marvel-like footing, with some measure of success.
But the reason why DC will struggle to match Marvel’s success on the cinema screen is because of the back story outlined above: the executives and creators currently managing the unbelievable success story known as the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, which strides from one biggest grossing film to the next and is yet to seriously falter, are the same people who grew up on the House of Ideas’ creative boom of the 1960s and 70s. When Tony Stark quips sarcastically about his latest venture, or Captain America says something noble to his cynical modern antagonist, or characters engage in comic banter in the middle of battle, older audiences are drawing upon a heritage of the same kind of thing, and celebrating that they are ‘in the know’. One only has to sit through the credits of a Marvel movie, waiting for the now-fabled post-credits sequence, to note that one is not alone: a significant percentage of the audience are demonstrating their sense of inner knowledge by waiting with you. It’s that ‘Marvel Bullpen’ intimacy all over again.
How can DC respond? It can try to over-compensate for its lack of a similar heritage by making its films overly gritty and even darker than the comics, which is precisely what it is attempting to do. But Superman was born in two-dimensional primary colours and represents a bygone age’s values; it’s difficult to turn him into an anti-hero (though the forthcoming blockbuster ‘Batman vs Superman’ will inevitably try.) It might have been better for DC to carry on down the road trail-blazed by director Richard Donner with 1978’s Superman film and try the lighter, almost tongue-in-cheek approach which allow the superheroics to blossom in their own way. Donner was drawing on DC’s heritage -an almost comic melodrama between exaggerated characters who had clearly emerged from a ‘comic’ book past. His genius was to super-impose that upon a modern-day New York-style Metropolis, making Clark Kent a figure of fun against a ‘realistic’ background.
Marvel films are not turning comic books into films, they're capturing the essence and spirit of Stan Lee's 1960s Marvel in a new media. DC doesn't have that 60s heritage to capture in a new form: it simply never had the old form.