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Superhero Frenemies: Moving Beyond Heroes Vs. Villains

Captain America versus Iron Man. Batman versus Superman. Daredevil versus the Punisher. Superhero frenemies are big on film and television this year, and it’s about time. Superhero infighting has been going on for a very long time in comics, and too often it’s been explained by things like possession and mind control. Now superhero fights have spilled over into the big cinematic franchises in a way we’ve never seen before. Sure, we’ve seen it on the four color page, but the blockbusters of 2016 are starting to show fans and non-fans alike why the conflicts between heroes (and anti-heroes) are so compelling.

When two superpowers fight for justice, only the slightest difference in philosophy can cause a lot of fallout. This year’s season of Daredevil explored that idea in a very direct and faithful way. Matt Murdock and Frank Castle both want to clean up the streets of New York, and they both feel that violence is the answer. But instead of putting criminals in jail or in the hospital like Matt, Frank seeks a more permanent solution: He wants to put ’em six feet under.

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This conflict reaches an incredible high point when Frank chains Matt, still in costume, to a chimney and forces him to confront his philosophy of justice in a series of tightly written dialogue scenes. This is a faithful homage to a similar scene in Garth Ennis’ Punisher Vol 4 #3, and both involve Frank taping a gun into Matt’s hand. Though they both share a common goal, Matt’s strong moral stance against killing is brought into serious question when Frank’s methods are clearly working for him. Though they achieve a cathartic resolution by midseason and a tense alliance by the season finale, the moral rift between Daredevil and the Punisher should continue to prove very valuable to Marvel’s The Defenders and Daredevil’s third season.

Though it got a chillier reception from critics, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is undoubtedly one of the biggest superhero showdowns of all time. What makes it stand out from the pack is not its sheer hugeness, but how the film explores the conflict between two characters we know will have to get along in the future. With all the superhero infighting we’re seeing this year, it’s tempting to say that it’s tough to tell who the bad guys are anymore. But that’s simply not true. In all types of storytelling, it’s usually pretty clear who the heroes and villains are. But Batman v Superman is somewhat of an exception: The film really explores the idea of the big blue boy scout as a scowling, frightening villain. And it doesn’t pull any silly tricks to do it, either, like in Superman III.

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That’s been done before in comics, but Superman’s portrayal in the film divided fans and critics, and many feel that the essence of the character has been lost in this incarnation. The DCEU’s exploration of Superman as a villain won’t stop there — the upcoming Suicide Squad will bring this up, too. But when Superman eventually returns, will his beef with Batman be forgotten? Not likely. Bruce Wayne was right to fear him, and it’ll be interesting to see what fail safes he puts in place to ensure that Superman stays a hero in the coming Justice League films.

And now, on the brink of Captain America: Civil War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will expand upon the inherent tensions between its Avengers by pitting them against each other. After the decimation of Sokovia in Age of Ultron, the UN seeks to impose the Sokovia Accords: a series of restrictions that will prohibit when and how the Avengers can act. Tony Stark, now an ex-Avenger, is in favor of the Accords. Captain America, now leading a fresh team of Avengers, vehemently opposes the restrictions. This makes total sense; after the events of The Winter Soldier, Cap is right to distrust the authority that the government wishes to exercise over his team. He can’t trust the judgement of the higher-ups anymore, and he will exercise his patriotism through rebellion. Tony, on the other hand, as a veteran Avenger and reformed arms dealer, has seen the kind of destruction that good intentions can cause, so his side of the conflict is perfectly understandable, too.

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Now that we have huge interconnected superhero franchises, we’re seeing a marked evolution in how these characters interact on screen. And, of course, the spectacle of the fights will likely make jaws drop, but the meat of the conflict, the underlying philosophies and morals of these heroes, is expressed primarily through dialogue and character moments. That means the fight between Team Iron Man and Team Cap could produce some of the most fascinating interactions we’ve ever seen in the MCU.

We can’t wait to see Captain America: Civil War when it breaks out on Friday, May 6.


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