There’s a moment in 2012’s fascistic spectacle The Dark Knight Rises that, for me, was the first noticeable flinch in the DC/Marvel arms race for IP domination that began in 2008. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) effortlessly takes out a bar full of goons and then poses as an innocent bystander while the bar is swarmed by a SWAT team. When the coast is clear, she makes her way over to a wounded man in a Hawaiian shirt and urges him to “keep some pressure on that, sweetheart.” As she struts away, Hawaiian shirt looks up and croaks “call me?”
“Call me?” I said, loudly, to myself, in the theater. Call me? What kind of punch-up nonsense is that? That was the moment for a fucking take to the camera that was only barely missing a gulp and collar-tug? This guy just got shot in the leg. Compare and contrast to the “that man is playing Galaga” scene in The Avengers that same summer—a moment of simple, effortless humor that further endears us to our motormouthed protagonist while giving some no-name background character a bit of real color. Even in 2012, The Dark Knight Rises felt the need to include jokes. Like, “HaHa” jokes.
This is not a new point of comparison and I don’t want to beat it to death. My point is this: there was an extreme group of fans that posited, after The Dark Knight, “I would like all comic book movies to be gritty and realistic because a part of me worries that my preoccupation with this franchise is infantilizing and I would like validation that my interests are as adult as I am.” There was a similar group of fans that posited, after Iron Man, “I would like all comic book movies to be this loose and fun because I get that the premise of the whole thing is kind of silly and it’s satisfying to watch a movie lean into that a bit.”
Were these the intentions of Christopher Nolan and Jon Faverau? Probably not. But regardless, in the intervening decade since this all started, the Marvel line of thinking has definitively won out. Not just because Marvel dominates the box office three times a year and is somehow making regular cultural phenomena out of its most minor properties while DC is limping across the critical finish line with a Justice League universe that got everyone to hate Superman. Marvel has won because every superhero movie is a comedy.
Specifically, all superhero movies are character comedies, and despite still leading the charge in terms of stunt work and special effects, they live and die on the success of their comedic element. The thrill of just seeing a comic book adaptation on the scale it deserves arguably dried up when Green Lantern tanked in 2011, its stabs at Iron Man-esque japery falling incredibly flat. In an era when you can’t swing a dead Chitauri without hitting some perfectly passable and convincing CGI spectacle, the only reason people love these movies is because they’re actually funny, like “HaHa” funny, and Marvel knows it.
The fact that they were able to nail a handful of signature comic beats in The Avengers proved just how starved audience were for real humor in superhero movies following the emo jazz antics of Spider-Man 3. It was actually kind of annoying, with “shwarma?” becoming the “my wiiife” of a certain section of the internet for a while. By the time 2016 rolled around, Deadpool was breaking records not because it was selling R-rated violence but because it marked the genre’s full embrace of self-awareness, and people couldn’t get enough of it. Meanwhile, the most exciting and memorable element of Civil War wasn’t the promised introduction of Spider-Man, it was the introduction of Peter Parker—trying to keep up with Tony Stark and setting up their mentor/mentee relationship for this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie that absolutely put it’s John-Hughes-coming-of-age-comedy foot forward first and its superhero-call-to-adventure foot second. Civil War finally skipped past the bombast and self-importance of an origin story to just throw a beloved character into the mix.
The Leipzig Airport showdown was thrilling as a fight, sure, but was chiefly entertaining because we got to see sets of characters with clear, enjoyable dynamics bump egos one by one. They could have just stood there trading barbs and it probably would have been just as fun. For all the buzz about how these movies are modern day adventure serials, feel free to rename them “The One Where Tony and Cap Butt Heads,” “The One Where Vision and Scarlet Witch Make Dinner,” and “The One Where Thor Gets a Haircut.” MCU films almost always get off to a good start when they put character comedy at the top of the agenda from page one (consider Captain America’s pop cultural catch-up list at the top of The Winter Soldier). The series’ calling-card post-credit sequences now generally (not always) abandon serious plot teasers in favor of “on the next Arrested Development” gags like Captain America’s public service announcement at the end of Homecoming. Doctor Strange’s appearance in Thor: Ragnarok reminded me most of Woody Harrelson popping up in an episode of Frasier.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s commitment to hiring overtly comedic talent behind the camera is reflective of the company’s warm embrace of this trend following Joss Whedon’s success with the tone of The Avengers. Since 2012, the studio has gone out of its way to hire the original wisecracking screenwriter Shane Black, genre-bending sitcom directors the Russo Brothers (now poised to take over the entire universe), James Gunn, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd, John Francis Daley, Chris McKenna, and The Onion’s Jon Watts, to name a few.
It all culminates this fall with the competing releases of Thor and Justice League—a crossroads that will determine what it actually is about these movies that give them a grip on both the market and our collective cultural enthusiasm. Taking numerous cues from Guardians of the Galaxy’s retro-futuristic giddiness, Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi brings to the table everything he mastered making quirky indie charmers like Boy and What We Do in the Shadows and collaborating with fellow kiwi’s Flight of the Conchords. Right down to voicing the movie’s breakout character, a gentle pile of rocks named Korg, Waititi loads every inch of the movie with idiosyncrasy and real comedic rhythm. Yes, his reported flexibility with the script and encouragement of improvisational moments during filming is helpful, but it’s all baked into the pie—the entire movie, even its dazzling Technicolor visuals and action, is built around a tone that will support the joke-per-minute average Waititi wants.
The DC Extended Universe, on the other hand, will just occasionally post up for a high-five that the audience doesn’t know what to do with. Humor in DC movies not only reeks of course correction from the unbearable glumness of Man of Steel and the landmark case of Batman v Superman. The jokes in Justice League are generally extended lampshading riffs, with the Flash calling out something unusual and then awkwardly passing it back and forth for a bit before calling it self-awareness and clocking out for the day. Suicide Squad’s cringe-inducing stabs at “wicked” humor generally amount to just calling someone a bitch and throwing an obnoxiously on-the-nose song on the jukebox. If Marvel is the dude in your improv class who is natural and savvy but maybe doesn’t know how to turn it off, DC is the finance bro who saw something funny once and has been trying to ape that vibe ever since by pulling out an invisible gun every scene.
But, for better or worse, neither of them has a choice anymore. People can’t take the ponderous gloom of the DC movies, and people have come to expect Marvel movies to have a generous ratio of Shane Black back-and-forth to action set pieces, so from here on out every superhero film has to at least pretend to be having a good time. The notable exceptions bring something significant to the table instead (Logan and Wonder Woman being two of 2017’s best movies anyway), and I don’t mean to suggest that this trend is purely positive. For one thing, the late night world’s embrace of the MCU movies as being the zaniest of flicks made by the bestest of pals can be tiresome. But Jimmy Kimmel has to ask the casts of these movies what it’s like to all hang out together because the movies have become hangout movies —as contingent on us believing everyone is everyone’s friend as something like This Is The End. The MCU, at least, announced its intentions early on and stuck with it. “Is everything a joke to you?” Cap asks Tony Stark in The Avengers. “Funny things are,” he replies.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.