Or should that be Marvel vs DC? It’s the question that divides geekdom, our version of the Elvis or the Beatles conundrum. Well the answer is of course, that it’s okay like both (I know, I know, it will come as a revelation to some. Make yourself a cuppa and have a sit down before you carry on reading if you need to).
In this post I’ll be deconstructing the rivalry between the two US comic book giants, and exploring the differences between their two superhero universes, with a bit of a potted history of the American comic scene as we go.
Regular visitors to this august blog will doubtless be aware of my love of the comic book medium, both as a vehicle for storytelling and for showcasing some great art (yes, art teachers, comics are art). Being first and foremost a fan of British comics, starting with the war comics popular in the 70’s and early 80’s before progressing on to the delights of 2000AD, I never had a particular preference between either of the American giants, having been exposed to only a handful of imports stocked in my grandparents newsagents. It was mostly through film and TV that I got into the Marvel and DC stuff with the the fondly remembered Christopher Reeve Superman films (the first two at least) and a bit later on the early Marvel animations shown infrequently on British TV in the 80’s. I also have memories of the late 70’s live action Spiderman series starring Nicholas Hammond that showcased some hilariously inept blue screen work (and his webslingers shot out rope! ROPE!). I distinctly remember waiting for the Green Goblin to make an appearance. The first of many youthful disappointments.
Despite Marvel getting in the act of exploiting its intellectual property early by sending Stan Lee of to Hollywood in the early seventies, they were gazumped by Warner Brothers acquisition of DC. With some serious financial muscle behind them, DC’s heroes made the leap to the silver screen first with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), followed swiftly by its sequel in 1980. Batman’s journey to the big screen was somewhat more tortuous, finally culminating in Tim Burton’s splendidly gothic noir vision in 1989 (still the best of the Dark Knight’s live action outings for my money, but still outclassed by the superlative early 90’s Bruce Timm animations – check out his Green Lantern series on Amazon Prime).
All of which left Marvel with its metaphorical pants around its ankles. Apart from the aforementioned Spiderman TV show, Lee had scored some success with syndicated animations and a hit with the live action Incredible Hulk show (’you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’). But transferring the Marvel universe to the silver screen would prove elusive, particularly without the backing of a major Hollywood studio that allowed DC to steal a march on its rival. It’s true that to do justice to many of Marvel’s creations would have required a prohibitively expensive (at the time) effects budget, and truth be told, the technology probably just wasn’t there at the time. You only have to witness the abomination of Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1989) and the thankfully unreleased Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four to witness the cold hard truth of this. Not that money was enough to save any version of the Richard’s family’s adventures as it turns out. And why Marvel ever let an inept schlock peddler alike Pyun anywhere near any of its properties, one can only guess. Be careful with your intellectual property rights, creatives! In any case it seemed that the famously short attention span of Tinseltown quickly moved on from adapting superheroes for the screen, and for the time being the exploits of costumed heroes and villains remained in the realm of four colour ink. Marvel continued to sell film rights off to different parties (later resulting in a decades long court battle over bringing Spiderman to the screen, with Sony retaining those along with the X-Men film rights, resulting in their non appearance in the MCU when it came around, Homecoming notwithstanding).
Which brings us right up to the present day, with Marvel Studios owned lock, stock by the Disney behemoth, pumping out noisy high definition exploits of its pantheon seemingly at ten to the dozen while DC plays catch up with a, so far, uneven clutch of films kicking of its ‘extended universe’ or DCEU. And it’s the differing approaches each studio has taken with their universes which highlights their contrasting natures. Marvel favours a very clean, bright look to the MCU, one film seemingly blending into the next installment to such an extent that it’s difficult to tell the difference between directors, no matter how talented or high profile. If this sausage factory approach has led to a very tight cohesion in look and feel, then the downside is that creativity is sometimes sacrificed in order to maintain the format. Amid all the CGI and explosions, it’s difficult to feel connected to any of the heroes (or villains), something that the first two of Sony’s X-Men films (unconnected to the MCU – those pesky rights issues again), skilfully managed to avoid.
And is it me or do some of these films seem to have an unnecessarily long running time? Overplotting seems to be becoming a recurrent problem for me with some of the Marvel pictures, I’m thinking of Age of Ultron and Thor: the Dark World in particular here. I remember starting to lose interest halfway through with these two, in a way that I didn’t with say, Iron Man.
DC on the other hand seem happy to let directors take more creative decisions, which has led to rather uneven results, perhaps best exemplified by the mish-mash of Dawn of Justice, and the triumph of the long gestating Wonder Woman project.. The DCEU certainly seems to spend more time on characterisation, and is noticeably darker in look and tone. In retrospect, it’s not a great surprise that DC made it to the movies first, regardless of being bought by Warners, as it’s most famous creations (Supes, the Bat, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash) all emerged during the Golden Age of the 30’s and 40’s and were well embedded in popular culture by the late 70’s. Even your mum could tell you what planet the son of Jor-El came from. Marvel’s glory years were predominantly in the Silver Age of the 60s-70’s when the golden duo of Stan Lee and Jack ‘King’ Kirby along with the now legendary Bullpen, virtually created the foundations of the Marvel Universe as we know it today. This meant that it had a way to go before gaining the sort of cultural traction enjoyed by DC.
The other major difference between the two is that Marvel’s Silver Age heroes were conceptualised as deliberately flawed human beings who just happened to have superpowers whether through accident, experiment or mutation. If anything these all too human flaws are magnified by their acquisition of superpowers (‘with great power, comes great responsibility’) Their surroundings were self consciously contemporary, and grounded in the real world, being centred in and around New York City. In contrast DC’S pantheon inhabit imaginary stylised urban sprawls like Gotham and Metropolis or lands like Themyscira and Atlantis, giving the universe a semi-mythical ‘nowhere-time’ milieu. Sure Clark Kent and Diana Prince may appear flawed like you and I, but it’s all just an act, a mask to be discarded when the call to action inevitably comes. These contrasting approaches to the staple of American culture that is the superhero comic book, whether consciously planned or organic in execution (I suspect a bit of both) define the look and feel of the two most valuable and well known comic book universes today.
If I had to make a choice, I’d probably come down just on the side of DC, as I personally prefer the slightly darker feel, and I’m a big Batman fan. As with the DCEU, they seem to be more prepared to get creative, as exemplified in the ‘Elseworlds’ series. My all time favourite Superman book has to be Red Son, for instance, the self contained tale of a communist Superman arising from his spacecraft crashing on a collective farm in 1930’s Ukraine is one of the all time greats of the modern era in comics. If you haven’t read it, go do so. Immediately. Marvel’s recent questionable decision to out Captain America as a secret Hydra agent, just doesn’t cut it, and has only succeeded in dividing fandom. Perhaps if they’d done it as a stand alone alternative universe story?
On the other hand I’m really into Marvel’s Netflix originals series at the moment. Daredevil is another favourite character of mine, and the two series so far have been nothing short of excellent so far, with the showrunners riffing off Frank Miller’s 80’s and 90’s run on the character. Currently I’m bingeing on Jessica Jones, a lesser known character brilliantly brought to neurotic, cynical life by Krysten Ritter, that continues the dark look and themes of Daredevil. What stands out most in this series is that all the protagonists are actually really, really terrified of the baddie, an on form David Tennant, knocking it out of the park. When Hollywood needs a great baddie, always hire a Brit.
While the Netflix shows have gone for darker, more adult themes than their cinematic cousins, they are still bound up in the wider MCU, with plenty of references to the films and characters to set geekdom all aquiver, unlike DC who have intentionally kept their TV and film universes separate from each other.
Back in the DCEU, the helmer of both Avengers flicks, Joss Whedon was hired in to finish the Justice League movie after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy, and word around the campfire is that Warners have retained his services for their planned Batgirl feature. Advance trailers for JL look promising, and it’ll be interesting to see what Whedon brings to the party.
A lot to look forward to then. DC have stand alone films slated all the way to 2020, with Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps (I liked the Ryan Reynolds movie. There. I’ve said it). And that’s before I’ve scratched the surface of reading any of the Rebirth stuff, in the comic universe’s latest reboot/universe/whatever – currently I’m ploughing through Aquaman: The Drowning, by the always reliable Dan Abnett..
On the Marvel side, there’s the mooted Punisher stand alone series, more Daredevil (yay!), Doctor Strange still to watch, the second book of Brian Michael Bendis’ Iron Man reboot comic series to read…
Really, it’s okay to like both.
And on an unrelated note, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the Book of Face shortly, so if you’d like to continue reading my irregular missives, then may I suggest subscribing in order to receive them straight into your inbox? Any suggestions/comments/constructive criticisms are of course welcome in the comments, and if you like what you read, feel free, in the words of the ABC Warriors, to Spread the Word!
PS – for anyone interested in the history and background of American comics, I suggest picking up a copy of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. It’s a fascinating read if you are at all interested in this corner of popular culture, and is also available as an audiobook on Audible.
See you on the other side.