This piece contains spoilers for both Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Mother’s Day is this weekend, so it seems fitting that two of the year’s most anticipated superhero movies — one which hit theaters today, only two days before the holiday — would involve mothers in important ways.
We all know how this went down in Batman v Superman — at this point, it’s been memed to death — but here’s a quick recap in case you need a refresher. After squaring off in the streets of Gotham City, Batman gets the best of Superman and stands over him, arms raised, about to plunge a Kryptonite spear into his chest. It’s only when Superman mentions the name “Martha,” which happens to be the name shared by both of the heroes’ mothers, that Batman realizes there’s some humanity to this god-like man after all, so he stays his murderous hand.
In Civil War, however, the mention of Tony Stark’s mother is actually what incites violence, not what quells it. Iron Man and Captain America spend the movie at ideological odds with one another, but near the end of the film, Tony finally realizes Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier) has been framed for crimes he didn’t commit and forms a truce with Steve Rodgers. The three find themselves deep in a Russian bunker with the villain, Zemo, who openly states that he wants to tear the group apart from the inside out. He shows them a video from 1991. It’s footage of Tony’s parents’ deaths at the hands of Bucky, and when Tony predictably loses his cool, Steve tries to explain that Bucky was brainwashed at the time. “I don’t care,” Tony says, “he killed my mom.” And the fight begins again.
Pop culture is littered with stories about fathers and sons (an episode of Lost was even titled “All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”), and the Marvel and DC universes are no exception. Clark Kent famously leaves his father to die in a tornado in Man of Steel, Thor and Loki have power struggles with Odin in the Thor movies, Gamora and Nebula have their own problems with Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, and there are dueling father stories in Ant-Man as both Hank Pym and Scott Lang fight to remain in their daughters’ lives. Tony Stark has it perhaps worst of all, though, having to deal with living up to Howard’s impressive legacy, physically battling surrogate father figure Obadiah Stane in the first Iron Man movie, and experiencing the other side of the equation in Age of Ultron when his own “child” turns against him.
When it comes to mentions of mothers in these franchises, though, the list of examples grows smaller. Clark turns to Martha Kent for support after his father is gone, Thor and Loki both seem to have decent relationships with Frigga, and Peter Quill’s connection to his mom is an important part of Guardians, but that’s essentially all that’s to be found in the MCU and DCEU…so far, anyway. (We know Wonder Woman will interact with her mother in the upcoming solo film next year.)
I won’t attempt to ascribe any larger thematic significance here, or make any sweeping generalization about how the way the opposing reactions to mothers in these movies is somehow representative of their respective cinematic universes as a whole. I just thought it was a fascinating coincidence, and thus far the dearth of maternal association on the big screen makes it especially interesting that two films which share so many surface similarities (blockbusters in which major superheroes fight each other, featuring multiple heroes, loosely based on comics, touching on themes of security and freedom, released only weeks apart, etc.) would also both spotlight key moments involving characters’ moms.