Cinematic Universes and the Death of Moral Storytelling

14423974_10210374394855663_1785292526_oBy Danielle Szabo, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic by Danielle Szabo

My dad started letting me get away with watching Batman: The Animated Series when I was about five years old (my mom didn’t think the violence was good for me at that age). I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve watched the cartoon, all of the films, dabbled in Adam West’s interpretation, read all of the major graphic novels, and the majority of the bat family issues are on my neighborhood comic book store pull list.

One could say I have a strong bias towards Batman when it comes to superheroes. But I have seen the caped crusader through his best, worst, and even-more-terrible-than-the-worst interpretations. What excites me about Batman and all good superheroes is their determination and will, their constant need to do what is right – their well-developed moral code, and the journey it takes them to become such a powerful symbol. Heroes should be inspiring. They should be an allegory or an exaggeration of the struggle we all have with our own morality when navigating the complicated ethical landscape of our world.

After saying that, I feel like an off-kilter idealist when confronted with the Detective Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) and Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). These films, thirteen from MCU and three from DCU, are not exactly inspiring. They are not a moral allegory of the world’s current tumultuous politics. These movies are confusing, conflicting, and sometimes even masturbatory. It seems like the writers’ first goal was to make money, then glance at the source material, and make a lot of hollow fan service. Planning twenty-some films to tell the story of one universe with different directors and writers sounds like a bad idea for any genre.

Universe building and maintaining have been vital for comics since the 1960s and Stan Lee. When comics lay out a universe, it doesn’t have to be a cash grab or difficult to get vital information. Each series, usually concentrating on one character or one team, will show large universe events through that individual’s point of view. If a reader chooses just one series, they know what is happening in the whole universe; if they choose to read them all, it’s not overly repetitive. How can this be done with films? Blockbusters are much more expensive and there cannot be a new installment every month. Storytelling has to take leaps and bounds over the course of each two-hour film. Will information about large universe events be spread throughout the films or is the viewer expected to see them all?

As of September 2016, DCEU has premiered three films: Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman, and Suicide Squad. I have unfortunately seen all three. MCU has premiered thirteen. I have seen eight. As much as the child in me would like to believe in the superhero movie, watching and rewatching eleven of the newest and supposedly brightest, I’m hesitant to give them the respect their box office numbers seem to be asking for.

Let’s rewind to 2008. The Dark Knight (TDK) was a part of a simple trilogy, not a life long epic universe. It is arguably one of the best comic book superhero films ever made. And if you don’t agree, come find me and we’ll argue about it. There are some easy reasons why no film has been able to match it – it is well-acted, well-written, and it has perfect pacing. However, one could possibly argue that many of the new films contain these elements, sometimes even all three. What is different about this Batman and Joker showdown then anything that has graced the big screen before or after?

The Dark Knight focused, not only the gadgets, moves, and intelligence of the caped crusader, but his moral stature. Christopher Nolan’s Batman represents immovable values and uncorrupting justice. None of us normal people have Bruce Wayne’s money or training, but we can share his strength and fortitude in doing what is right. The Joker represented the opposite. His cynicism is enticing; his chaotic disorder exciting. The world is always falling apart one way or another and we feel powerless in the wake of the large atrocities affecting our cities, communities, and world. Sometimes just saying “Fuck it” and causing chaos, or as the Joker would explain – showing people how flimsy their moral codes are, feels good.

However, the most important part of that film is not the final fight between the Joker and the Batman, but the two ferries choosing not blow each other up even though they knew they were facing certain death. The normal people within those ferries were able to have Batman-level moral fortitude in face of the “unstoppable force” that is the Joker.

MCU and DCEU haven’t shown me any movies that can hold up to this standard. I have divided their issues into four categories with the best and worst offenders:


Like our favorite Nolan caped crusader, the hero has to be well-developed – a three-dimensional character. They also have to struggle with their powers and/or identity. We have to believe, even for a second, that they could lose to the villain. But most of all, they have to stand for something. We can’t just buy into by virtue of being the hero that they will do good. Why are they good? What is good to them?

BEST: Captain America

The first Captain America film showed the viewer what Steve Rogers believed in. He struggled with being small and alienated, but he always believed in the courage that the military seemed to have in their propaganda videos. However, even he finally got a spot in the armed forces and found a few unsavory characters, he still stuck with the original bravery he came in with — even if that meant disobeying his superior’s orders. I never doubted that he wouldn’t defeat the villain, but I did see the origins of character with a solid moral standing.

WORST: Superman

If you have had the misfortune to see Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman, you’ll know exactly what I mean. This is one of the most lifeless Supermans to ever exist. He is in constant angst about who he is or what he is doing. Man of Steel spent so much time expanding on how difficult it is to be Superman, that I never once see how cool it is to be Superman. No one in Metropolis is seen even remotely rooting for the guy. The only moral foundation Superman has is that his dad told him he was going to be amazing one day. No wonder he’s so angsty, he hasn’t the slightest idea how to be a hero in any capacity. And what about Clark Kent? Where is the juxtaposition between the two – the classic hero-and-his-secret-identity? Where is that identity struggle? And don’t even get me started on the forced romance of the century — Lois Lane deserves better.

Dishonorable Mention: The Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is set up to be an amazing struggle between right and wrong. Here we have villains forced to work together, save the world, and become heroes. Nah. Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch Jared Leto With a Grill accost the marvelous Margot Robbie multiple times in a completely unnecessary and absurd love story B-plot? Somehow while that was happening, the rest of the squad became a family and saved the world. But no, that wasn’t good enough for the viewer, instead, we get a romanticized abusive relationship with an extra dash of the male gaze.


We have to believe the villain’s motives in order to have a true conflict with the hero and they have to be in enough scenes, not ordering around henchman, to feel like an actual threat to the world. The worst villains are those that are just bad because they are – they are not enticing for the viewer and they’re an easy target for the hero. They need the capacity to defeat the hero physically or change their mind ethically.

BEST: The Avengers

Weirdly enough, Captain America: Civil War showed us the best villains Marvel superheroes have ever faced – themselves. Finally, something more than just flashy fight scenes — an actual conflict where I could clearly understand the reasoning on both sides. Though, Civil War does fall short in many places. For the most part, the tension was manufactured forcibly around the center action scene – every Marvel hero (well… Hulk and Thor had better things to do, or they would have decimated everyone else on the playing field instantly), new and seasoned, comes out to fight in a fifteen-minute action-packed brawl. I am left wondering if the actual Iron Man and Captain America would have just settled their differences with a calm chat after a good night’s rest and a cup of tea.

WORST: Lex Luthor

Batman V. Superman was advertised with Lex Luthor being the main villain. But then I saw the film and all I got was a rip-off Mark Zuckerberg, who had strange social graces and a maybe prescription drug problem. Jesse Eisenberg is a great actor, I just think he was acting in an entirely different film. Lex Luthor, even in his cartoon form, was suave, sinister, and sexy. I felt like I could save angsty Batman and even-angstier Superman some trouble and just knock out this rip-off Mark Zuckerberg myself.

Dishonorable Mention: Thanos

This guy’s name means “death” in ancient Greek. He has a league of henchmen doing his dirty work. He sits in a floating chair that has the capability of spinning around dramatically. He’s a god? He’s ripped and has a deep voice. And he’s bent on destroying the universe with some weird magic stones. Yawn. I’ve seen it before. I’ll see it again. The Avengers are going to kick his ass with the help Chris Pratt & the Aliens in the upcoming Avengers film. The real journey will be the friends we made along the way. It’s all bullshit.


Earlier I posed the question: Will information about large universe events be spread throughout the films or is the viewer expected to see them all? My conclusion is that we have to see them all to get anywhere, but ultimately it’s still a confusing mess of a universe.


Marvel is best at fan service. The viewer is rewarded for seeing all of the films with hints and easter eggs that point to the other series. Nick Fury and SHIELD provide a solid basis to unite all of the heroes. Hydra is a constant presence, though sometimes a crutch for the writers to not have to develop a good villain. All of the MCU films look like they belong together – the cinematography, the costumes, the plot structure, and the tone all match in some way.


MCU is also the worst – solely because of these incomprehensible-plot-convenient “infinity stones.” So first we are introduced to the Tesseract in Captain America. It’s a cube… and has the power to make weapons? It reappears in The Avengers. And now has the power to open portals for non-descript evil aliens…? Oh and there’s a spear suddenly… it has the power to make a super complex, randomly evil AI in The Avengers: Age Ultron…?

In Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s an orb. The bad blue dude uses it to… dramatically push people at the end of the film? But you can’t touch it. Somewhere in the middle of Guardians, it’s revealed that these are all the stones that created the universe and ambiguous cloaked people used to guard them… but now they come into existence whenever the writers need the bad guy to have extra powers…? Don’t worry Thanos will unite them all and then do nothing with them before he is defeated.

Dishonorable Mention: DCEU

I don’t know if it’s right to judge DCEU on its universe building yet. It’s ten films behind Marvel. But the prospects don’t look great.


Sigh. Will any woman ever be able to make it out of one of these films without being a love interest for someone? Will a person of color get to advance past sidekick or mediocre henchman?

BEST: Black Panther & Wonder Woman

Black Panther showed up in Captain America: Civil War and Wonder Woman made an appearance in Batman V. Superman. They were both definitely spotlight stealers. Black Panther was able to have a developed character with limited screen time. He even got his own badass fight scene. Wonder Woman was integral in helping Batman and Superman defeat Doomsday. Her motives for appearing the world of  the film were clear and she didn’t stand for any of Bruce Wayne’s playboy flirting.

Please let their solo films be amazing. Please. They deserve it.

WORST: Harley Quinn & the rest of the Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad sincerely looked like it was going to win this category. The main characters are played by Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Margot Robbie. The rest of the squad contains Karen Fukuhara, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Adam Beach — all amazing actors of color. With this team, Suicide Squad should have been a powerhouse. But some white guy named David Ayer had to squash all of them with his poor, fight-scene driven writing, the male gaze of his camera, and his strange need to include Jared Leto With a Grill. Beach just walked on screen and immediately died. Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Hernandez, and Fukuhara probably had ten lines between them, maybe fifteen if you include Captain Boomerang. I could feel Smith, Davis, and Robbie struggling to give great performances, but lines were written to move the plot to the next action scenes, not to build character, the world, or even tell a story.


Overall, in my humble opinion, MCU and DCEU need to stop making films starring straight white men, predominantly played by actors named Chris, that concentrate on witty banter and explosive action scenes, instead of character-building. The narratives of the other characters from the comic books — the villains, the sidekicks, the love interests, what-have-you — are to conforming to the needs of these men.

Sure, no movie will live up to The Dark Knight — not even The Dark Knight Rises could do it. But these films hardly ever have a hero genuinely struggle with their identity or morals or bad guys. They just win and win and win. They don’t represent the world we live in and they don’t represent a world we want to live in. We deserve better from our superheroes. Yet, we’re still going to buy tickets and boost box office sales, go to midnight premieres and wear the merch. We love these characters and we already have an ideal of who they are that we can plaster onto MCU and DCEU’s weak outlines. We deserve better, but we’re going to continue to accept mediocrity.


One response to “Cinematic Universes and the Death of Moral Storytelling

  1. Not only did this article make me happy, but it speaks to the reason going to the movies isn’t exciting or original anymore. More than just these universes, companies just give what is necessary to make the public pay instead of making movies that have a lasting impression or give more to look forward too than testosterone and explosions (basically Michael Bay movies with a much higher quality).

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