Whenever you have a space dominated by two powerful factions, people are naturally going to take sides. Coke versus Pepsi, Apple versus Microsoft, Red Vines versus Twizzlers . . . people are always eager to declare themselves part of “Team [Blank]” and will defend their choices like knights of the realm. The Marvel vs. DC debate has raged for decades inside the walls of comic book shops, but the struggle burst onto the mainstream in previously unimaginable ways when DC revived Batman from his Joel Schumacher-induced exile with 2005’s Batman Begins and Marvel gingerly took its first steps towards a cinematic universe with 2008’s Iron Man.
Since then, both sides have seen their triumphs and failures magnified as even their most C-List heroes have people flocking to theaters (“Paul Rudd is Ant-Man” is a real thing that exists) and superheroics have gone from niche obsession to the pinnacle of pop culture mainstream–attracting the type of accomplished A-List talent (Oscars winners like Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lawrence, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Brie Larson) who would have viewed putting on a cape and cowl as career death 20 years before. Now that we all can agree that we have at least some investment in the fortunes of Marvel and DC Entertainment, let’s explore where each one stands currently and where each one is poised to go from here.
We know what you’re thinking, “Didn’t they just say Batman Begins came out in 2005?” Yes, and that’s precisely why we’re looking at–currently–a very one-sided movie battle in Marvel’s favor. Although the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight, and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) were critically-acclaimed, wildly successful, instantly iconic, and even earned a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger, they also painted DC and Warner Bros. into a giant, bat-shaped corner. Nolan crafted a very reality-based world for Bruce Wayne, one that was impossible to use as a springboard to introduce orphaned aliens, ring-powered space cops, and Amazonian princesses from ancient myth. So DC had a monster hit that they couldn’t capitalize on for further cinematic growth. So they had to wait until the Superman reboot Man of Steel in 2013 to begin laying some groundwork. By then, Marvel had already had two Iron Man installments, successful solo runs for Captain America and Thor, and had already built up to The Avengers.
Projects To Date
Marvel: 14 films; 10 TV series
DC: 3 films; 5 TV series
DC has staked its claim to television in a big way, and has enjoyed a great deal of success with shows that harken back to the comic company’s best days–days when they successfully mixed science fiction with pulp action and just enough pop-colored silliness to make it all congeal into a satisfying whole. Green Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl have given fans exactly what they want while not alienating newcomers looking for some fun. Unfortunately, the willingness to be bright and occasionally goofy on TV has only magnified the strange choice to make the cinematic world so oppressively dour and one-note. Marvel struggled with TV for a bit until they teamed up with Netflix, which allowed them to explore some of their grittier, street-level heroes like Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist while not having to draw hard lines between “the movie universe” and the “TV universe” the way DC has. Sadly, DC once again cultivated a successful world that they somehow can’t or won’t mine for movie success–hence why there’s a TV Superman and Movie Superman, a TV Flash and a Movie Flash, and so on. Jessica Jones might not show up in Avengers: Infinity War, but she lives in that same world.
State Of World Domination
Marvel: Hulk smash! In the past five years, it produced 4 of the 12 top-grossing films in history; Netflix-based miniverse is humming along with six series in production.
DC: Movies, shmovies! Its blockbusters are not beloved by critics or comics fans, but its live-action and animated TV series are kicky fun.
Marvel was fine weathering those rocky first few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. thanks to their box office dominance, while DC really needed television to prove they could adapt their heroes successfully while the films struggled to please fans, general audiences, and critics the way Marvel’s had. But the tide might be turning (again, thanks to Netflix), as Luke Cage not only inspired a million thinkpieces when it debuted but has just recently nominated for a prestigious Peabody Award.
Marvel: Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige focuses on comics fans, bringing everyone else along later.
DC: Jon Berg, Ben Affleck’s favorite executive, and Geoff Johns, a comics writer who’s branched out into video games, TV, and film, co-run DC Films.
The key to Marvel’s success has been the fact that Feige has been the point person from the start, keeping everyone on the same page and everything speaking in the same voice. Geoff Johns is a revered name among DC comic book readers and he did executive produce 2015’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but he and Jon Berg weren’t named to co-run DC Entertainment and manage the DC movie universe until May of 2016. By that point, the cruise ship was well on its way and changing course would be extremely difficult.
Essence In 10 Words
Marvel: People in capes running around and punching folks—plus jokes.
DC: People in capes moping around in the rain—plus brooding.
That’s pretty much it. Marvel understands that humor is essential here (and, oddly, DC understands it, too, but only on TV), because once you start to take these things too seriously, they become deeply, deeply silly. The occasional wink is needed. One issue may be DC’s insistence that the movie universe be filtered through Batman’s worldview. In the comics, his brooding, self-serious nature is a great counterpoint to the primary-colored, old fashioned heroism of Superman and Wonder Woman. But if everyone in the movies is Batman, then no one is Batman.
Marvel: Yeoman directors who don’t complain too much that Feige is in charge but gradually earn more leeway, such as Joe Russo and Anthony Russo (Captain America: Civil War).
DC: Visual stylists like directors Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and David Ayer (Suicide Squad), whose work is more personal.
The stories of Marvel’s tendency to micromanage filmmakers are well known–just ask Baby Driver director Edgar Wright, who ran from Ant-Man when it became clear that his vision for the tiny hero was not going to jive with Feige’s overall vision. Meanwhile, DC’s struggle has come from the fact that its directors’ strong wills have come at a cost to creative coherence.
Marvel: Making four separate films (or TV shows) before doing the team-up everyone’s waiting for. See The Avengers.
DC: Making popular, tween-friendly animated series such as Young Justice and Teen Titans Go!
Released from the pressure of having to introduce characters or concepts on a broader stage, DC’s animated films are free to mine specific works by specific comic creative teams for their adaptations, such as the late Darwyn Cooke’s beloved Justice League: The New Frontier or the All-Star Superman title by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. Meanwhile, Marvel has been able to keep things simple by building on the classic, archetypal versions of their heroes even as their comic book counterparts barely resemble them anymore (love Chris Evans as Captain America? You might not want to look at what Cap is up to in the comics these days)
Marvel: Fox keeps making X-Men movies—Logan was good!—and retaining the rights.
DC: The sad Ben Affleck meme from the BvS press junket (and his decision not to direct the next Batman).
“Sadfleck” was the meme that wouldn’t die, especially as fans and critics began savaging Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. His decision to drop out of The Batman directing duties was seen by some as the Oscar-winner slowly backing away from the Dark Knight entirely. So far, though, he still hasn’t relinquished his cowl. And Marvel’s dicey relationship with Fox has been petty from the start, and it’s been made all the more glaring now that Marvel and Sony are playing nice over Spider-Man. And it’s not just the X-Men, either. The fight between Marvel and Fox over the Fantastic Four got so bad that Marvel actually cancelled the team’s solo title a little less than a year before Josh Trank’s much-maligned 2015 Fantastic Four movie–exactly the time Fox would be looking for a comic book tie-in to help sell the film. Marvel was willing to wipe their “first family,” a staple of their universe since 1961, off shelves completely.
Marvel: Disney has given Marvel the freedom to spend a reported $2.5 billion on 14 movies because they drive merchandising, theme-park rides, and so forth.
DC: Warner Bros. reorganized its film business last year to create a dedicated division for DC movies while continuing to excel at producing TV featuring its characters.
Resources are clearly not a problem for either side, even if Disney’s tendency to draw immovable lines between “boys things” and “girls things” when it comes to merchandising rubs up against Marvel’s attempts to make the comic book shop more inclusive.
Coming Soon To A Theater Near You
Marvel: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5), the sequel to 2014’s space buddy comedy.
DC: Wonder Woman (June 2), which Hollywood has been trying to bring to the big screen since 1996.
The original Guardians of the Galaxy proved that story and performance top name-recognition, as only the hardest of the hardcore Marvel fan knew who Groot or Ronan the Accuser were before the movie hit. The shackles are pretty much off now, and Marvel is continuing to dig deep into its mythos in surprising ways (in GoTG 2, Kurt Russell plays an even more obscure character called Ego The Living Planet). DC does beat Marvel to the punch when it comes to one thing, though: A female-led movie helmed by a female director. Wonder Woman hits theaters well before Captain Marvel, with director Patty Jenkins hoping to re-set the course for the movie universe ahead of Justice League.
Marvel: The gritty adventures of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage on Netflix have fans excited about a meetup in the forthcoming series The Defenders.
DC: The Flash, which features poppy visuals, an ensemble cast, and a delightfully light touch.
TV hasn’t just been kind to Marvel and DC. Streaming services and the dominance of shorter seasons and controlled releases have been good to comic books in general. This kind of serialized storytelling is tailor made for a la carte TV, and the “big two” have a lot of company alongside comic adaptations like Walking Dead on AMC (originally published by Image Comic). DC has also been adept at mining more fringe material for TV (such as their DC Universe-adjacent comedy Powerless, or AMC’s Preacher, based on a comic published by DC’s mature content imprint Vertigo)
Ghost Who Haunts Them
Marvel: Marvel creator Stan Lee, whose cameos have led fans to speculate he’s the protean comics character named the Watcher.
DC: Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight trilogy led DC to buy into dark superhero dramas in the first place.
Of the two, Nolan has proven the more damaging. Lee’s cameos have always just been winks and nods and nothing more, but Nolan’s vision for Batman cast a shadow so large and deep that the movie universe just can’t seem to get out from under it, even when they’ve made clear that the Ben Affleck Batman is not the Christian Bale Batman. And don’t even bring up the Joker–Heath Ledger’s performance may have effectively ruined the character forever (and Jared Leto’s methhead Scarface attempt only further proves that point).
Potentially Fatal Flaw
Marvel: Fans might tire of the cross-platform synergies, fragrance deals, and everything else.
DC: It keeps fiddling with its long-term vision for its cinematic universe.
It’s inevitable. Marvel will hit a wall. Avengers: Age of Ultron showed signs of weakness, but strong returns on Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange have kept the ship afloat (and anticipation for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming are sky high). And DC will eventually find its footing, most likely when it stops trying to catch Marvel–which, at this point, is like trying to build your Formula 1 racer while you’re in mid-race–and settles into its being its own thing.