As a storyteller, one of the most important–if not the most important—elements that make up every great story are its characters. If plot is the backbone and setting the skin, characters are the heart and soul of a story. Without interesting, well-developed, loveable (or hate-able), and relatable characters a story is little more than an empty shell. This is a principle I believe wholeheartedly in whether I’m writing a story or consuming it. Plot may be what drives me to pick up a book or start a TV show but characters are what keep me from putting it back down or abandoning it in search of something new. So when the excitement over the Avengers: Infinity War trailer that dropped last week had subsided I was struck with just what, exactly, sets the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far apart from the DC Extended Universe. First, let me preface this post with: I will try to avoid spoilers but if you have not seen Justice League yet (or any of the MCU or DCEU movies for that matter) and want to avoid being spoiled, you should probably stop reading now.
I finally saw Justice League with my family about a week ago and, as with the rest of the DC Extended Universe movies (Wonder Woman being the only exception) I found that it left a lot to be desired. Especially when you compare it to even just the two minutes of material in the Infinity War trailer. Of course, there were things I enjoyed about the movie and it certainly far exceeded the mess that was Batman vs. Superman in quality, but it still came nowhere near anything Marvel has put out in the last nine years. While there are many reasons for this (seriously, has anyone at DC heard of daylight?) I believe the DCEU’s problems begin and end with one thing: character development.
Infinity War is Marvel’s version of the superhero team-up except on a much grander scale than Justice League. Based on the trailer, Infinity War boasts nineteen (wait, does Loki count as a hero?) superheroes not to mention what looks like the entire Wakandan army to Justice League’s six. But numbers aren’t everything. After all, nineteen superheroes means nothing if you don’t care about them as characters. But here’s the thing. I care about each and every one of those nineteen heroes featured in the trailer. Why? Because I know them. And I don’t mean I know them because I’ve read any of the thousands of comic books they’re featured in, because as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter how much I love the characters from the comics if their screen counterparts don’t hold up. I care about the MCU’s superheroes because most of them have been featured in at least one movie bearing their name and those that haven’t have had critical roles in several of those same movies. Side note: I have to give DC props here on one thing. They have at least had a female-lead superhero movie (and a well-written one at that!), something that Marvel apparently has no intention of doing until Captain Marvel. Seriously where’s my Black Widow movie? Or Scarlet Witch. That’d be cool too. But I digress. Of course, by the time Infinity War is released the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have spanned ten years and eighteen movies while the DC Extended Universe only has four years and five movies under its belt so it’s not fair to expect the DCEU to have reached the MCU’s level. But I don’t expect the DCEU to have caught up to Marvel; I don’t even expect them to have caught up to the first Avenger’s movie. Thing is, DC apparently does. They’re so caught up in trying to catch up that they’ve let character development fall by the wayside.
I said before that I care about each and every Avenger in the Infinity War trailer. So how many of the DCEU Justice Leaguers do I care about? One. (Hint: her movie was the only DCEU movie that lived up to the DC I know and love). Before jumping into a full-blown six-hero team-up, only two of the leaguers received their own standalone movies and only one of the other four had any sort of critical role in a previous movie. However, while having a standalone movie, or at least a central supporting role, is necessary to allow for character development, it hardly means that character development actually occurred. Henry Cavill’s Superman kicked off the DCEU franchise with Man of Steel and yet somehow I care even less about his character than I do the three heroes who appeared in Justice League with no background. This is because I’m not convinced that outside of being a robotic nigh-indestructible fighting machine, there is actually any character there. Man of Steel was entirely about Superman and how strong he is (and how many buildings he can destroy in his quest to defeat General Zod) and not at all about Clark Kent and who Superman is outside of his powers and even after roles in two subsequent movies I still don’t think he has a personality. As for Batman, we were thrown immediately into a conflict between him and Superman with absolutely no background on who he is–either as a person or as a hero–outside of what we know from the comics (or zillions of other adaptations of the character) which, as I said before, doesn’t count. Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman got no introduction either outside of small cameos in Batman vs. Superman. You can’t just throw a bunch of names and superpowers (because calling any of them characters would be a disservice to the characters whose names they bear) into an apocalypse-level fight and expect the audience to root for them or care if they died.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Marvel took their time not just in developing their heroes but also their apocalypse-level villain. Thanos, the villain of Infinity War, has received character development through various second-hand accounts of his evil deeds throughout the years. The Infinity Stones Thanos seeks are spread throughout the entirety of the MCU while Steppenwolf/Darkseid and the Motherboxes have only sort of vaguely been hinted at even though we’re supposed to view them as an imminent threat equal to Thanos. I genuinely fear Thanos, I know the horrors he’s committed. More, I know what the Infinity Stones are individually capable of so I know that together, in Thanos’ hands, they are a threat not to be taken lightly. In Justice League the Motherboxes were more of a “hey by the way these are super-powerful objects with mostly undefined powers that we happen to have” while Steppenwolf comes across as an unusually strong one-off threat as opposed to a lead-up to the bigger threat of Darkseid who has been mentioned by name maybe once. Again, I don’t expect the DCEU to be anywhere near the MCU’s level at this point, I just think that in their rush to catch up to Marvel, DC has sacrificed the development necessary for creating a franchise of the caliber that Marvel spent a decade building from the ground up.