For decades, superheroes have been duking it out at the box office, becoming especially popular and high quality in the last ten years or so. But from this fun pastime, something greater and far less fun has arisen. Two universes competing for dominance in the crowded, noisy, hypercritical entertainment world. We call it … the Marvel/DC War. We all know it’s being fought in the trenches of movie theaters and television sets. But who’s winning?
Just to be clear, we’ll be talking about the universes currently in the making. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which I love, is off the table. So are the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Fantastic Four movies. And for the sake of time, I won’t be talking about the X-Men universe. That means we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) including movies and TV shows, DC’s TV universe, and Man of Steel and related Justice League movies.
In terms of films, Marvel is clearly pulling ahead. It helps that they got a head start on building their world; eleven movies in, they’ve established their characters, they’ve had team-ups and tie-ins and cameos, and they’ve left their mark on the world. This may be the most important element: Marvel has a proven track record. We’ve seen their movies, even the not-so-good ones, and we had such a good time that we want more. That’s why Marvel can give us a list of upcoming movies and we start marking our calendars while DC does the same and our reaction is . . . meh.
After all, in terms of a cohesive movie universe, all DC has right now is one movie, a teaser trailer for another, and a whole lot of titles with no story behind them. We don’t really know where they’re going; all we can do is postulate from Man of Steel, a movie which many loved, many hated, and I managed to both love and hate. We have nothing to go on. DC has yet to earn the right to throw titles at our faces and expect us to cheer, and this late in the game, they may not get that right.
We can already see, though, that Marvel has a clear advantage in its characters. Why? They’re human, relatable, colorful. They make jokes, they have flaws, they like ordinary things like 70s music and schwarma. They sit around after parties and talk about things that don’t really matter. In Man of Steel, everyone is larger than life. Everything they talk about is grand and important, and we never see them take time to be human. We’re less invested because as much as we may look up to these people, we can’t really put ourselves in their shoes.
I’m not saying having your heroes be larger than life role models is a bad thing. DC’s strength has always been giving us shining examples: Superman’s rigid morality, Wonder Woman’s spirit of truth, Green Lantern’s willpower, Aquaman’s regal might. Even Marvel has their bastion of goodness in Captain America. But the point of having someone to look up to is being able to look up to them. Bringing them down to the dark, grey, brooding world of Batman simply because he’s the cool hero right now only makes them lose the one point in their favor. If they’re so unattainable we can’t see ourselves in their place and they’re so dark and mopey we don’t want to be them, what’s the point of having a superhero?
Another point in Marvel’s favor is that they’re breaking away from their superhero origins to try new things. Sure, they still have classic superhero films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, but they’re not afraid to cross genres. We’ve had spy thrillers like “Agent Carter” and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, space operas like Guardians of the Galaxy, crime dramas like “Daredevil,” and we’re about to get a heist movie in Ant-Man and a fantasy in Dr. Strange. Breaking into these new territories is a good long-term strategy for surviving the superhero bubble. Audiences are already getting super-fatigue from the constant barrage of costumed heroes, but diversity plus Marvel’s staying power will make it a household name for years to come.
That said, DC may be getting an edge on Marvel when it comes to television. CW shows “Arrow” and “The Flash” have been wildly popular, and now “Supergirl” and “Legends of Tomorrow” are poised to continue that world in ways never dreamed. Shows on different television channels sharing a universe? Superhero team-ups on the silver screen? A show that features time travel, reincarnation, resurrection, shrinking nanotech, and nuclear men? These people might actually be a step ahead of the MCU.
Why are these shows so great? What do they have that DC movies don’t (so far)? For one thing, not everything has to be taken so seriously. The characters don’t have to be some mythical pantheon; they’re people with flaws and hang-ups and regrets and addictions, but they also aren’t afraid to laugh and have genuine friendships with each other. Plus the cinematography is so much brighter and more colorful than the Man of Steel movies. And DC TV isn’t afraid to be comic-booky. You can have Rainbow Raider and psychic gorillas and time travel and Lazarus Pits, and people will accept it and have fun with it. As long as we like the characters, we’ll suspend our disbelief till kingdom come.
Marvel TV isn’t bad, but it doesn’t stand out much either. For a while now, it’s been represented by “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which has suffered on-and-off from lackluster writing, overcrowding, not enough superpowers, and being held back by the big reveals in the Marvel movies. “Agent Carter” and “Daredevil” have helped Marvel’s television track record, and the rise of more Netflix shows may well give it some traction, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe for now is planted firmly in the cinema, while DC owns TV.
So who’s winning the Marvel/DC War? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. In a two-front war, Marvel is taking the theaters while DC is killing it in your living rooms. They both do amazing work, and they both have flaws. Fans love both and hate both. So this war might be a draw, and I’m okay with that, because no matter who wins, we the audience will have plenty of high-quality entertainment that we can enjoy for years to come. Now that’s worth fighting for.