Spare a thought for poor James Gunn, heralded director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the not-so-proud owner of a Twitter feed packed with angry Marvel and DC fans slogging it out for geek-culture bragging rights. “Every time I mention anything DC, no matter what, my feed becomes an endless screaming match about BvS [Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice],” tweeted a fed up Gunn recently,” before adding: “You guys are never going to convince each other – it’s just a bunch of wasted energy.”
For those tired of the fighting, I have good news: a new trailer for Batman v Superman follow-up Justice League suggests this long and painful conflict might finally be entering its endgame. For there can be little point in taking sides when the tonal distinction between Marvel and DC movies has become almost non-existent.
Justice League is ostensibly directed by The Avengers’ Joss Whedon, following the departure of Snyder for personal reasons. And the new trailer hints that Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has imported his trademark crackling inter-superhero badinage straight from Marvel. Our costumed heroes may still deliver furious monologues about the dangers of Ciarán Hinds’s nefarious Steppenwolf, but they also wisecrack about the comic minutiae of superhero existence, just as Marvel’s heroes do. All we need is for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to blast in and the Justice League team might as well be inducted wholesale into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Batman in Dawn of Justice was the kind of angsty, charmless guy you would cross the road to avoid. But in the new trailer for Justice League he is an absolute hoot. “You’re out of your mind,” shouts Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork,” bats back a deadpan caped crusader.
The only thing missing is a laughter track. We should probably be girding our loins for more gags involving Diana of Themyscira’s lasso of truth – as already tested out to decent effect in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman – and perhaps the odd joke about Cyborg’s suitability as a USB hub for recharging mobile phones.
What’s wrong with some good old-fashioned comedy smarts, I hear you ask. And if the alternative is the meat-headed, heavy-metal film-making of Dawn of Justice, then just about any shift in tone is fine. And yet there is a danger that Marvel’s blueprint for success has now become so popular that audiences are unable to accept a superhero movie that does not wear its comedy superpowers on both sleeves. To a casual observer not versed in the difference between DC and Marvel’s films, Wonder Woman was also tonally indistinguishable from a Marvel episode. Funny and aware of its own ridiculousness but capable of genuine pathos, it made absolute sense to audiences who have been swallowing up these movies since Iron Man first hit cinemas almost a decade ago.
One might argue that last year’s Deadpool helped break the mould with its spikily self-reflexive approach. But that shift in tone has also now been absorbed into the studio hive mind, as evidenced by the breathlessly jocular Thor: Ragnarok, a movie so full of thunderous meta-lols that any sense of lasting threat to its heroes is wiped out from the first minute in.
The upshot of this rapidly narrowing blueprint for success is that studios once considered to be languishing in the Marvel machine’s rear vision have an opportunity to move out from the pack. Logan, 20th Century Fox’s paranoid, postapocalyptic vision of superhero flick as noirish modern-day western, might just have begun that process. And it’s encouraging to hear that director James Mangold is now working on a spin-off for Wolverine’s clone daughter, Dafne Keen’s soulfully unhinged X-23. Next up for the studio is its New Mutants spin-off, by The Fault in Our Stars’s director Josh Boone, which also looks different. A new trailer, full of jump-scares and sinister dream sequences, suggests the genre of choice this time out is horror.
The challenge for Fox, and indeed Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man spin-offs Venom and Black Cat & Silver Sable, is to continue to find idiosyncratic and eccentric spaces in the superhero rubric. With Marvel and DC occupying the zany, banter-fuelled mainstream, the only room for other studios to make their mark is by exploring darker, more cerebral corners of the genre, where others now fear to tread. The alternative is that the superhero movie becomes one big joke.