Superheroes aren’t real. (Gasp, I think one may have just died because I said that). They aren’t, but the rise of realism in comic storytelling that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, means that readers demand realistic elements to the storytelling. Even though our capes are walking deus-ex-machinas, we prefer the veneer that all things are genuine struggles for them. But surprisingly, superheroes do have limits. They are not perfect. Because for all that the superheores can do in their fictional realms, they cannot leap from the page and be a part of this world. However, they can appear increasingly life-like through good and sustained storytelling.
A good measure to think about superheroes is to consider how they operate in response to the world around us? How do they deal with real tragedies such as 9/11 and other tragic events wherein they are specifically designed to protect us from? Herein, I will explore how both DC and Marvel have grappled with that idea and the implications it has had for their cinematic and television universes.
I turn to Peter Coogan and his seminal book on the superhero as a genre (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/222322.Superhero) to highlight the power of the genre over others and how it may operate or deal with the real world.
“Real events from the past are worked in…Likely it will become more prominent as creators are freed from the burden of timeless continuity and are able to present stories that deal with the passage of time in more flexible ways….The superhero has a unique signifying function. It can be used to express ideas that other genres cannot portray as well. Superheroes embody a vision of the use of power unique to America.
Superheroes enforce their own visions of right and wrong on others, and they possess overwhelming power, especially in relation to ordinary crooks. They can project power without danger to themselves, and they can effortlessly solve problems that ordinary authorities cannot handle. This vision of power fits quite well with the position America finds itself in after the Cold War. America is the only superpower in the world, something like Superman in the days before other superheroes and supervillains.”
However, with cataclysmic or galvanizing events, trying to tell superhero stories becomes trickier. Cord Scott articulates this challenge in discussing writers dealing with World War II in “Written in Red, White, and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War II and September 11” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00381.x/abstract):
“The writers and artists had to walk a fine line in how they portrayed these characters and how they showed them fighting the enemy. If a character was too successful at a time when the war was going against the United States, sales went down and people became demoralized. If the superhero did nothing but fight imaginary, nonthreatening foes (such as domestic criminals), then the heroes were not doing their part for the war effort.”
What does walking a fine line look like when dealing with more contemporary events, especially when the perceptions of comics and readers are much darker and adult-oriented, when censorship and violence is much more present within comics?
911—Continuity vs. Non-Continuity Responses
In 9-11: September 11, 2001 (Stories to Remember, Volume 2), published in January 2002, DC published a 2-page feature as part of a 2-volume series of publishers and artists delivering stories about 9/11 with the proceeds going to charities for the survivors. The short piece, “Unreal” features Superman saving a spaceship while breaking the fourth wall and telling the reader that despite his superpowers, he cannot “break free from the fictional pages.” The story reveals a child reading the comic that Superman is featured in and being rescued by a firefighter (likely, in one of the World Trade Center towers). The final panel bears the words, “A world, fortunately, protected by heroes of its own” while showing a silhouette of a firefighter holding an American flag.
By contrast, Marvel Comics addressed 9/11 in Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 2. Interupting the ongoing plotline, the largely internal dialogue of Spiderman is heard as he makes his way through New York City in the wake of the devastation. A bystander confronts him, “How could you let this happen?” He ponders this question and denies his ability to have stopped it with, “We couldn’t imagine. Only madmen could contain the thought, execute the act, fly the planes. The sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things.” Despite incapable of preventing it, much of the Marvel Universe is dedicated to the clean up in various not-so-sublte disguises. Included in the mix are characters such as Dr. Doom, Magneto, and Kingpin—characters who’s fictitious murders well surpass the death-toll of 9/11. According to Spider-Man, their presence is “Because even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human.”
Brian K. Vaughan’s series, Ex-Machina presented an interesting third option for superheroes regarding 9/11. The series presented the main character, Mitchell Hundred as a superhero who managed to prevent the second plane from striking the second town. Two years later, Garth Ennis would entirely reinvent 9/11, preventing it from happening as we know it and simply having his hedonistic and narcissistic superheroes fighting one another and causing one of the hijacked planes to crash into the Brooklyn Bridge. While both series started with Wildstorm (a subsidiary of DC), The Boys moved to Dynamite Entertainment after the first six issues. However, both were contained universes that had no need to address continuity issues. They also both adhere to Coogan’s point about the chronological distance allowing for them to play with the event.
But DC and Marvel’s approach to the real event is fascinating in its initial reaction to the event. Marvel folds the story into its universe—albeit a bit clumsy. It doesn’t give up its own fictitious realism but doubles down on it. By contrast, DC gives up the ghost and merely says, “Hey, we’re not real and can’t do anything.”
The Real World Approach To Movie-Making
For many years, Marvel was known for being a bit more realistic with its fictional world than DC. The classic, “superheroes with problems” shtick that derived from the 1960s Lee & Kirby team up has long permeated an assumed difference between Marvel and DC. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just superheroes with problems, but it’s superheroes in a real world. Notice that Marvel Comics, by and large, exist in realm places New York City, Los Angeles, London, etc whereas DC has its fake cities: Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, etc.
This difference also accounts for some of the reason why Marvel has dominated at the box-office in the last decade whereas DC continues to stumble. Until Man of Steel (although really, not until Dawn of Justice), DC Comics created contained fictions. When the movie ended, the credits rolled and the story was complete and contained (even when sequels would follow, they existed solely within that superhero’s limited world). It was even rare for the movie to reference anything beyond its own world (e.g. Batman might reference supervillains in Gotham, but never those of Superman). For most of the last forty years, every time DC sets to tell a new superhero story in film, they hit the reset button from anything else relating to DC.
For over a decade now, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has continually let viewers know that the fiction does not end. They did this through cameos, Easter eggs, and post-credit scenes—all of which told us, the universe was not contained; there was more story to enjoy. Though this is most clearly done through the Marvel Cinematic Universe (movies revolving around the Avengers character franchises), it was also present within the X-Men movies of the 2000s with numerous references to other characters and events within the Marvel Universe (and, of course, their branching out with the Wolverine movies).
At best, DC can said to be trying to do this now with its TV series and films, but it appears to be in a constant state of catch-up. While its Arrow, Flash, and other shows have found ways to be woven together and that with Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the films are existing in the same world, Marvel still beat it to the punch in making the jump between the TV and the films with Agents of Shield.
I don’t have a superpower to tell the future, but my guess will be that it will be a long time before DC can meaningfully compete with Marvel on the cinematic level with engaging individual tales that interweave with a large tapestry of stories. Yet I can tell you that when it does, it will because it has stopped admitting its own fictional existence and started to own its vision of what a real world would look like with superheroes.
*This essay was adapted in part from a previously published essay by this author in this collection: September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide. Sara E. Quay and Amy M. Damico, Eds. Greenwood Press (9/2010).
Lance Eaton is an instructional designer, adjunct instructor, part-time writer, and perpetual collector of degrees. He resides in Beverly, MA with his partner and two adorable cats and is currently working on a PhD. He writes about books, audiobooks, comics, popular culture, education, and anything else that crosses his mind on his blog: By Any Other Nerd (http://www.byanyothernerd.com)