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With Avengers: Endgame, the DC and Marvel cinematic universes switch places

The competing mega-franchises are following opposite paths, and it’s working

black widow and captain america in avengers: endgame Marvel Studios

The trailer for Avengers: Endgame has finally been released, and it is grim.

Fifty percent of all living creatures are gone. Tony Stark is slowly dying in space. Bruce Banner is looking at pictures of dead, or missing, friends. The Avengers hangar is empty.

Everyone looks defeated, but that’s because they have been defeated. There is the vague notion that Captain America has a plan to fight back somehow, but it’s a last-ditch effort, and we’re given no hints about what it might be. Thanos is only seen for a moment; for this first trailer the loss of these characters is more important than the enemy whose work seems to have been done.

Packaged in this way, Avengers: Endgame plays like a comic book reboot of The Leftovers. How do the survivors cope with so many others gone under supernatural or magical circumstances?

Leaning into the loss, the trailer delivers the sort of grimdark tone and nihilistic undertones familiar in another corner of the comic book movie landscape: the early films in the DC cinematic universe. Except this tone is being delivered at the end of the MCU’s “Phase three,” not the beginning.

Both series have had to adapt as time goes on, and it’s almost as if we’re at a point where they’ve swapped tonal definitions.

The two franchises are moving in opposite directions

And it’s happening at a time when the DC movies coming from Warner Bros. are focusing more on standalone films with a sillier tone, after beginning in a place of violence and fear. The two competing movie franchises, after all these years, are almost mimicking where the other began.

Look at it this way: The Endgame trailer presents a version of Captain America who sounds like he’s given up hope. That’s a shocking thing for a character who has zoomed through so many movies with a can-do attitude and a good heart. On the other hand, Man of Steel began the franchise with a Pa Kent who argued that maybe Superman can let kids die if it means keeping his secret, and a “boy scout” hero who killed someone before the credits rolled. What’s left to break down if that’s your starting point?

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of either approach or path forward; creating this sort of interlocking universe is a challenge, and it’s natural to stumble along the way. Warner Bros. rushed into its version of The Avengers and ended up stuck in the ultra-dark and critically repellent aesthetics of Zack Snyder’s films.

The company slowly pivoted to find the fun and hope in these comic book stories, or at least began to hire people who could do so, and now, after Wonder Woman’s massive box-office pull, and Aquaman’s high prospects, seems to be on a better path. It’s just a path that looks a lot like the brighter colors and goofier tone of the early Marvel films. Fair enough.

Marvel went the other way. Iron Man was often funny, even if Tony is now more serious than any other character as he deals with PTSD and greater responsibility to protect Earth. And the lore was built slowly, despite the inclusion of the Nick Fury post-credits scene. Iron Man 2 came two years later, while Captain America and Thor were introduced with their own full-length origin stories a year after that.

These movies all snapped together in satisfying ways, but that connection wasn’t the whole point. Characters went through hardships, but they were mostly heroic and optimistic about the future.

Marvel knows that all that fun has to lead somewhere to be satisfying, especially when they can no longer keep going bigger with each new film. The world had to constrict a bit before the films could begin building up to another huge battle in whatever comes after this cycle of movies. And the team guiding these films wasn’t exactly making it all up as they went along.

Which is why the darkness of this trailer works when Warner Bros.’ early DC films stumbled and sank into self-parody; the darkness has been earned over a long period of time, with a very complicated setup.

These characters aren’t feeling much hope, and we can sympathize because we know how they got there across all these movies. Marvel isn’t afraid of giving the audience a sense of how bleak this world can become, and how much is ultimately at stake.

Age of Ultron was more or less built from Iron Man’s existential dread, and Civil War took place due to the actions of two guys who couldn’t figure out how to talk to each other. The MCU went to great lengths to prove that these heroes are often their own worst enemies, and how much damage they can inflict on others through their own wounds. Early on, DC movies insisted upon it.

Both of the mega-franchises feel like they’re in solid places. Avengers: Endgame is only at the beginning of its trailer and hype cycle, but it’s not like the audience isn’t already hungry for the movie. Aquaman seems comfortable going to fun, bizarre places with its story and aesthetic, while adapting a slo-mo fighting aesthetic that Snyder established and executed so well.

Marvel will still have light-hearted movies in the future and the Warner Bros. DC films will likely still be comfortable in the darkness. But the most logical path from those starting points is always going to be toward the opposite spectrum. We just happen to be at a point where the poles have flipped completely.

What we think of as a “Marvel movie” or a “DC movie” is based on evolving ideas across dozens of movies over a long amount of time. The stereotypes about these franchises can change as the movies do, and it looks like both cinematic universes are doing exactly what they need to do in order to entertain the audience. Neither is standing still, and both are learning lessons from their own failures, as well as each other.

The fact that both franchises started at opposite places before ending up where the other began is a neat piece of symmetry, but it mostly shows a path that helps explain how both series are getting better. As a fan of comic book movies, I couldn’t be happier or more excited to see the next film in both franchises.

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