Avengers 2012 vs Justice League 2017: A Lesson in Narrative Storytelling
Following the success of Man of Steel back in 2013, the Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe arose in contention against the astronomically popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, debuting 5 years prior. Several installments into both franchises later, and fans of either universe have been wrought into conflict about which fabled fiction reigns supreme. Online forums have become battlegrounds for comic book nerds and movie casuals alike, to assert that their cinematic depiction of superheroes is superior. Whilst some fans argue on the grounds of box office profit, and others preach that their heroes would be victorious in actual battle, from a narrative perspective there is a clear supremacy between the two. Amidst the visual spectacles and prodigious Hans Zimmer music scores that the DC Extended Universe boasts, the character development of the individual members of the team in the MCU’s Avengers (2012) is head and shoulders above the current cinematic iteration of the Justice League. Potentially being an example in a narrative storytelling 101 class for future creative writing students, here are a couple examples of why Marvel’s narrative is ‘better’ than DC‘s:
Blurring the Lines Between Main and Minor Characters
Typical incarnations of the Hero’s journey revolve around one central protagonist who sees a need, fulfills the quest, and is changed because of it. This narrative structure has been recycled throughout the decades, to the point where the outcome is predictable. Even franchises built around a cohort of heroes, the Hero’s journey seems to be primarily concerning one member of the team. Han Solo may have risen above his life as a smuggler to become a hero of the Rebellion, but Star Wars: A New Hope is ultimately about Luke destroying the Death Star. Hermione Granger may have grown to be a capable witch at Hogwarts, but the Harry Potter franchise revolves around the namesake character’s campaign against Voldemort and his Deatheaters. The ‘lord of the rings’ Sauron ultimately had to be defeated by Frodo Baggins casting the ring of power into Mount Doom, but it could be argued that Aragons’ journey from being Strider in the Prancing Pony, to leading one fractured half of the Fellowship to save Rohan, to claiming his identity as King of Gondor upon reforging the shards of Narsil, is what leads to Middle Earth’s defeat of Sauron’s armies. A stark contrast against this narrative precedent in modern literature is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s magnum opus is notoriously hard to explain within a reasonable amount of time, which is arguably a testament to the complexity of its narrative, an interwoven web of high-fantasy epics and political plot-lines. It’s most underrated attribute is its blurring of main and minor characters, something which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also accomplished, albeit less discreetly.
Each addition to the MCU is arguably it’s own stereotypical rendition of the Hero’s Journey, Thor is about Thor, Iron Man is about Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger… you get the idea. The masterclass of the MCU is through it’s culmination installments, the ‘Avenger’ films. Marking the end of each ‘phase’ of the MCU, they converge the storylines of each of the titular protagonists into one cinematic epic, in which all the characters are tested and transformed. Steve Rogers overcomes his past soldier lifestyle to adapt to battling extra-galactic enemies. Tony Stark uses his engineering prowess not to make WMDs but to save humanity. Bruce Banner overcomes the unpredictability of the Hulk to consciously use it to his advantage. Thor learns he is not head and shoulders above everyone in the universe and humbly works with a team to defeat his brother. The Avengers doesn’t tell the story of one main character with a cast of minor characters arising to the occasion, but a team of individuals who each have their own contribution to make to fulfill the quest.
The structure of the DCEU lacks this interwoven complexity. The debut movie for the DCEU entails the rise of an extraterrestrial orphan who mistakenly found his way to earth, was raised by its inhabitants and subsequently protects its new home against antagonized members of its own species (not to be confused with Goku from Dragonball, a Japanese manga emerging some 30 years after the original comic book). The sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, released 3 years after, chronicles the world’s reaction to the emergence of a god-like being in the form of Superman, alongside the struggles of a seasoned Batman, who ultimately come to conflict over whether humanity should attempt to control this god-like figure. However, this conflict is dissolved by Superman having to defeat a genetically engineered monster created by Lex Luthor, effectively diminishing the attempt at solidifying another titular character whose importance could rival that of Superman’s, and instead cementing Superman’s sole significance to the city’s salvation, and the movie’s plot.
Justice League introduces a ensemble of heroes, each with their own tragic backstories, Barry Allen’s quest to restore the honour of his father, Arthur Curry’s rise to becoming the true king of Atlantis, Victor Stone’s struggles with walking through life as a spontaneously updating cyborg, with only Diana having a previous instalment in the franchise to flesh out her story, alongside Bruce Wayne from the Batman v Superman. So how do all of these character’s plot arcs converge in their cinematic union? Through having to resurrect Superman, in order to defeat the might of Steppenwolf. Despite having a team comprising an Amazonian World War heroine, the most advanced cyborg mankind had seen at the time, the future king of Atlantis and the one human being who stood toe to toe with Superman, their plan revolves around recruiting someone else. Where The Avengers develops its characters through their own individual contributions to defeating Loki, Justice League confirms that the only character in the franchise that can save the day is the Hero’s journey personified, the comic book Jesus, the walking deus ex machina himself, Superman.
Incremental Superteam Formation
The assembling of the Avengers in the 2012 film was developed incrementally through a combination of the effect each individual had on the shared universe, alongside a third party’s stake in their potential use for mankind. Steve Rogers became Captain America through the American army’s attempt to create a supersoldier to defeat the Nazi threat of WW2. The rise of Hulk originated from a failed attempt at replicating this supersoldier process through gamma radiation. Tony Stark is already a prominent figure for the American military, having developed weapons for them during their campaign in the Middle East through his company, Stark Industries. Only Thor’s origin stands in isolation, having being exiled from Asgard to Earth, unexplained in the movie and could almost be assumed to be pure luck. It is the exile of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, also to Earth, that gathers the attention of the military, who initially investigate what to them is an other worldly object. Each individual hero had an impact on their universe’s timeline of Earth, established through their own movie.
The post-credits scene of the original Iron Man film, the first film in the emerging franchise, establishes that a mysterious figure called Nick Fury is attempting to recruit Iron Man into the ‘Avengers Initiative’. By the 2012 film, it is established that Nick Fury has been gathering extraordinary individuals investigated by the military to form a team to combat any alien threat. From the post-credits scene of the first film, the ground work for an epic franchise was laid. Each story was able to be told individually, and the narrative did not suffer from having to shoehorn in an attempt to connect any plot-line mid-movie entry. Each subsequent installment were not chronological sequels, but divergent storylines that deepened our understanding of the superhero team, not through flashback scenes like in other franchises, but through full-length adventures of their own, to build our bonds with the characters who would ultimately unite to become the Avengers.
The formation of the cinematic Justice League lacked the patience of individual installments. The 2017 film detailed how the death of Superman triggered the rise of Steppenwolf’s quest for the Mother Boxes, of which Diana as Wonder Woman came to know of through a message from her Amazons after Steppenwolf assaulted their home island. She makes her way to an old friend of hers, Bruce Wayne, and together they seek to find and recruit other ‘metahumans’ in an attempt to defeat Steppenwolf. A good portion of the second act of the film revolves around the attempt to form this team to combat an ancient god, only to devolve into attempt to resurrect someone else to defeat the threat by the end of the second act.
Bruce Wayne effectively becomes DC’s Nick Fury, but instead of having access to information about extraordinary individuals through working for a top-secret sect of the military (S.H.I.E.L.D), Bruce Wayne is able to discover metahumans through hacking top-secret military information because he’s rich. Diana and Bruce Wayne effectively become Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr from X-Men: First Class, recruiting different metahumans in their own dedicated scenes, except unlike Charles and Erik they happen to score three from three in their attempts. Bruce appeals to Arthur Curry’s previous interactions with Steppenwolf, Victor’s father’s death while working on the Mother Box sparks his interest in the team and Barry joins the team because he needs friends. While the potential for each DC character’s growth and depth is not to be disregarded, Marvel’s patient incremental development of each hero far outshines the attempt in Justice League to establish the significance of its characters.
These two examples illustrate the key narrative distinctions between the two films. Justice League’s attempt at establishing a film franchise through effectively chronicling Superman’s ability to save the planet pales in comparison to the incremental character development of the Avengers from a storytelling perspective. Whilst not often rewarded by box office revenue, the creative development of a story is integral to forming an effective relationship between the viewer and the characters, and taking the time and effort to establish this relationship ultimately pays off regarding viewer satisfaction. Something that Avengers has harmoniously executed, and that Justice League has not.
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