Of Gods and Heroes
For example, you could argue that ancient Greeks and Romans literally believed in Zeus, Ares, Hades, Hera, Artemis, etc. Or you could argue that it’s technically possible that the statues and paintings and stories and songs based on them could have been something around which an entire entertainment economy was built.
Every one of those characters very specifically represents various aspects of what it means to be human: Zeus represents the fallibility of the father, one who attempts to project omnipotent rule while frequently, publicly failing. Ares, who was not exactly the most popular of gods, represents the danger in giving oneself wholly over to violence and ill-temper. He was pretty much the Incredible Hulk of ancient Greece, which might explain why neither of them have ever been able to carry a solo picture on their own. Maybe if they put Ares in glasses and a sweater he’d be more likable, I dunno. I really dug the Professor Hulk thing to be honest; I know I can’t be the only one!
Of course, many of these exact same characters appear in both Marvel and DC comics by nature of their being public domain, complicating this analogy. But I’m less interested in that, and more interested in the parallels between the old gods and the new. DC in particular seems to have always had an ongoing fixation with building their own pantheon of god-like heroes, with Superman obviously serving as their Zeus, Wonder Woman as Hera, Batman as Hades, Aquaman as Poseidon, the Flash as Hermes, and so on. They couldn’t have been more obvious if they tried.
The Relatability Question
But therein lies a small problem, and it’s what I suspect makes the DC characters a little harder to relate to than their Marvel counterparts: drawing a barrier of relatability between the reader and the character. It’s probably why we saw so little of Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame; She’s so powerful that it throws everything out of balance. At least the Greek gods were family by blood, and that’s where a lot of the more relatable drama came from in those stories. The primary heroes of the DC universe are not even that; in fact, their families are usually dead, nonexistent, never mentioned, or at the very least frequently retconned.
For example, Superman’s idea of what it means to be a human is basically this:
SUPERMAN: “Well, hey there fellow newspapermen and newspaperladies, it’s me, your ol’ pal Clark Kent, local dimwit, noted coward and dunce reporter…”
Superman spills coffee on himself.
SUPERMAN: “Derp! I spilled coffee on myself because I’m so stupid and weak that I can’t even consume the thing I require to make it through my boring, useless day without bungling it. Wow! Being a human is sure dumb!”
Everyone loves Wonder Woman right now because she’s an ass-kicking character that had a pretty great stand-alone movie, but can you imagine knowing someone like her in real life? She’s basically never had a job, never paid rent, and is essentially a princess with a Type-A work ethic. Like imagine the most wealthy person you have ever met and then imagine they’re also really into crossfit. I’ll bet Wonder Woman can’t go an hour without bringing up her combat training regiment.
Batman’s no better. Batman is pretty much a trust fund boomer going around kicking the s#!t out of poor young people in his pajamas at night because he’s sad. And this is beside the point, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows he’s Bruce Wayne, but don’t want to say anything because they feel bad for him. It was probably kinda cute to play along when he was a mentally deranged but well-meaning 20-year-old; less so in his forties and with what I have to assume is the entire economy of Gotham riding on the razor’s edge of the dude’s sanity.
All this to say, there’s some really interesting stuff going on there, and I think there’s merit to examining it further. But it’s this unrelatable element that has always driven me to be more of a Marvel guy, and might explain why they seem to have more universal appeal at the box office. The thing that really stands out about a lot of the Marvel characters is that, as unbelievable as the powers and the stories always are, the characters themselves and their alter egos always felt more relatable, like someone you could genuinely imagine existing in real life.
For example: Superman and Spider-Man both have a similar “with great power comes great responsibility” theme. Superman, however, is more focused on the “power” where Spider-Man is focused on the “responsibility” part. There are not usually any meaningful repercussions for Superman being involved with something or not. The classic interpretation of Superman acts because it’s easy, and out of a sense of duty ingrained by a 1950s-era set of ethics. He can’t really be harmed or die and he spends most of his time with other superpowered beings.