Superman vs Iron Man: From comics to film

Carljoe Javier
Supes and Shell-head face off in American summer movies. Who do you think will fare better?

HEROES WITH FLAWS. Marvel's superheroes battle demons not just outside of them but also within. Screen shot from Carljoe Javier's Comixology collection

MANILA, Philippines – As the American summer movie season neared, I got a number of survey questions asking which movie I was looking forward to more, “Man of Steel” or “Iron Man 3.” What intrigues me isn’t the receipts, but the kind of moviegoing world we have now in which Iron Man actually has a chance against Superman. 

I had to ask myself, what has happened that it’s possible for Iron Man to be more popular than Superman? Consider that Superman, celebrating his 75th year, has been popular in various media including radio, TV, film, and video games. He is the first superhero. He is one of the most iconic and recognizable figures in all of popular culture. Sure, that “S” has undergone some reworking and re-mythologizing, but any way you cut it, Superman is big — household name big. 

READ: Tony Stark outside the armor in ‘Iron Man 3’

Iron Man on the other hand, before the films, wasn’t too well known. One might argue that his long life at Marvel is proof of his popularity. But it’d be easy to counter that pre-film, he was probably on the level of, say, Ant-Man or Wasp, his other early co-Avengers. Which is to say that he was popular with people who liked the Avengers, but not so much outside of comics fans. 

DC really has the household names. They were around long before Marvel came into the scene (though both began under different names), and they had the Trinity, the big 3 of superhero comics. How much more recognizable and iconic can you get than Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? Their integration into media and global cultural consciousness has gone well beyond the comic book pages. The logos and costumes, no matter the reboots and new versions, are instantly recognizable. You need not have flipped open a single comic to know their origins, stories, and other important points. 

SUPERMAN 2013. Henry Cavill in the 2013 film 'Man of Steel' opening in the Philippines on June 12. Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

And yet, Marvel, with its group of lesser known but equally compelling superheroes, is hot on the heels of DC in establishing its franchises in the global consciousness. “The Avengers” being one of the highest grossing films of all time, should be a clear indication that while flagship characters like Captain America and The Incredible Hulk might not be as popular as DC’s Trinity, Marvel knows how to draw a global crowd. 

I have to wonder why DC isn’t doing better with its franchises. Sure, Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy did an amazing job of bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen and to a larger audience. But after the floundering “Superman Returns” and the failed attempts to get Wonder Woman back on television (and if you want to add on the failure that was “Green Lantern” and the long-rumored and as yet to materialized Flash movie), it’d be easy to say that DC looks to be struggling to establish a foothold for its universe in film.

Marvel, on the other hand, has a firmly established film universe (and they have already packaged it so, witness the Phase 1 box set) and they are further building upon it with follow up movies and the impending sequel to “The Avengers.” This, even when these characters were pretty much unknown until they started showing up in flicks. I mean, who was Hawkeye? Who knew Black Widow could be such a badass?  

One reason that Iron Man has the ability to take on Superman, then, is the machinery behind him. Sure, Supes has been around forever, but he hasn’t been marketed as well. After two great early film adaptations, he hasn’t done too well on the big screen (if you want some good Superman though, you would do well to check out some of the Timm-verse stuff, particularly the animated version of “All-Star Superman”).

Watch the trailer of ‘Man of Steel’ here:

Iron Man, on the other hand, has had an effective marketing push behind each film. And check out the merchandising and other toys. Iron Man merch, especially masks, have been a lot more popular than Superman stuff.

Even the approaches to promoting each, one mythic and god-like, the other human and extremely fallible, make Iron Man a character that can be closer to his audience. There are two iconic images that have appeared in the trailers for each film, which I would like to draw attention to.

For “Man of Steel,” it is Superman digging his fist into the ground and manipulating the world around him so that he takes off in a sonic boom and tears through the sky. Godly, if nothing else. In “Iron Man 3,” we have Tony Stark in the snow, dragging the wrecked Iron Man armor. He is broken and lost. 

“Man of Steel” promises to wow us. “Iron Man 3” promises to take us to a dark place, to show us some real vulnerability. Make of that what you will, but if those are the propositions, then I would think that the superhero struggling to drag his suit would be way more compelling. 

THE MAN OF STEEL ARRIVES. Superman's first appearance in Action Comics. Screen shot from Carljoe Javier's Comixology collection

Speaking of compelling, a last point worth raising would be the actors who bring these characters to life. 

It’s hard to deny the fact that Robert Downey Jr. brought Tony Stark to life, and that recent comic book iterations have drawn upon the personality that RDJ created. His Tony Stark has been so charismatic and appealing, while at the same time terribly flawed and sometimes obnoxious.

His getting on Captain America’s nerves aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier in “The Avengers” was great character work that helps to build Iron Man across films. It’s very possible then that we can attribute the Iron Man popularity to RDJ too, and his ability to transcend the already good material and deliver a believable superhero. 

On the other hand, the more recent iteration of Superman had Brandon Routh, who was chosen more for his resemblance to Christopher Reeve than his charisma or ability to create a new character. One can only wonder how much space Henry Cavill will have to make Superman interesting. This when Superman is often considered a boy scout and we can only speculate how far this new film is willing to go to explore other aspects to Superman. 

PERFECT FOR THE ROLE. Robert Downer Jr's portrayal of Iron Man in the films has influenced today's comic book iterations of the hero. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

We see, then, that the divide between Superman and Iron Man help to draw the lines between DC and Marvel. DC has great, well-known heroes, but our knowledge of these heroes is largely superficial, and their defining traits are connected to their being heroes.

Marvel’s heroes are always fundamentally flawed in some way, and they are always struggling to overcome one thing or another in themselves, as they take on external threats. When we think of Superman, we think of his powers, and how he’s a super guy who does the right thing all the time. When we think of Iron Man, we think of drunk, pompous playboy trying to be better than himself. 

The reason Iron Man can face off against Superman is that he’s got a lot of story behind him. He has caught up and become interesting, through a mix of these various factors, while Superman’s relevance and the interest in him have slipped.

It should be interesting then how things turn out once both films have screened. –

Iron Man 3‘ is currently screening in the Philippines. ‘Man of Steel’ opens on June 12.

Carljoe Javier

Carljoe Javier teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman, but what he would really like to do is spend the whole time in the classroom talking about comic books. He studies pop culture like comic books, film, and other forms of new media. He wishes he could fit into a superhero costume.

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