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The Geek Twins Discuss: DC vs. Marvel at the Movies

We'll be doing a semi-regular series where my brother Maurice and I discuss various geek topics via email. This week, the round-table is on DC vs. Marvel comic adaptations in movies.

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Nigel: I wanted to tackle the debate that's raged for decades: Marvel vs. DC. I'm taking the side of DC. I personally prefer DC superheroes over Marvel. With the monstrous success of Marvel's The Avengers, I've seen a lot of geeks sneering that Marvel is finally the winner. I disagree, and not just because Man of Steel was a hit. All my life, I've been an avid reader of DC comics. While I enjoyed the occasional Spiderman and X-Men, I never missed an issue of Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern.

The first argument I would make is popularity. I think DC superheroes are inherently more popular than Marvel's. While the recent Marvel movies have brought their superheroes to the mainstream, the general public has never heard of most Marvel superheroes. Characters like Wolverine, Iron Man, and Thor were legendary in the comic world, but almost unknown until their respective movies. Even now, they're still only popular because of the hit movies. Some of Marvel's most popular heroes like Deadpool and Cable are still unknown. Meanwhile, DC characters like Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been around for so long that, even though they've never had a movie, they're known throughout the world. Marvel can't beat that.

Maurice: You make a good point about the characters being well-known. DC practically created the superhero genre with Superman. But Marvel reinvented the superhero genre with breakthrough characters like a teenage superhero (Spider-Man), a patriotic superhero (Captain America), characters based on classic novels (Hulk) and characters based on mythology like Thor. I would say while DC created it, Marvel perfected it.

Plus, we have the Marvel Universe. DC created a new city every time they created a hero. And every one was based on new York. You have Gotham City, Metropolis and Starling City and every single one is on the East Coast in the same spot. Maps of the DC universe are ridiculous. Marvel used real-world locations like New York, so all the heroes can live in the same world. Marvel is just more realistic.

Nigel: I have to agree that Marvel does ground their superheroes more in reality. The true location of Gotham City and Metropolis is a matter of much debate. The Avengers had some great visuals, and the Statue of Liberty fight in X-Men is epic. But I think that also limits Marvel. How long before the movies run out of New York set pieces? I would argue that DC is more about mythology than realism. In Nolan’s Dark Knight series, they used a wide palette of cities from Chicago to New York to create Gotham City, and let’s not forget the iconic architecture of Tim Burton’s Gotham. Even the Metropolis of Man of Steel and Superman Returns looked hyperreal. It makes for a more interesting movie, visually.

Yeah, Marvel did reinvent the superhero with their characters in the sixties. But I would also argue DC’s motto should be, “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it.” DC has been doing it right since the beginning. When Spiderman was just hitting shelves for the first time in the sixties, Superman and Batman had already been a part of popular culture for decades. No one had ever heard of Wolverine before he appeared in X-Men. Marvel had to start from scratch building an audience with him. With DC, they have characters like Wonder Woman that movie audiences are literally begging to see. Just look at the frenzy in the media every time they even announce someone is writing a Wonder Woman screenplay. Imagine what will happen when a WW movie actually hits theaters. DC has a lot of untapped potential for growth.

Maurice: I have read articles complaining about the number of Marvel films set in New York. In fact, the whole reason Iron Man was set in California was because they wanted to separate the character from the rest of the Marvel Universe.

Yeah, you're right about the characters. DC has beloved characters that the public loves, but that works against them. Every time DC makes a movie they have to live up to all the pre-conceived notions about the character. Meanwhile, Marvel can just introduce the character and start fresh. Take Iron Man. While the translation from comic to screen was pretty loose, the character was such an unknown to most people that it didn't make a difference. They could update the character without having to explain anything. Of course, that worked against them in Iron Man 3 when they went so far away from the portrayal of Mandarin that people hate the movie. Known characters are hard to change and can become stale. Unknown characters can be updated and refreshed without much effort.

By the way, if we look at the box office numbers, Marvel kills them. Box office gross for the Marvel movies hit $3 billion dollars!

Nigel: I agree, the iconic nature of the DC characters has tended to work against them. Superman hasn't aged well from his perfect-man roots to today. They've had a hard time keeping him relevant to today’s love of flawed heroes. But the lack of familiarity hasn't helped Marvel. Look at what happened when they completely changed Deadpool in Marvel Origins: Wolverine. Not only did the new version have no relation to the original, and outrage fans, but the audience rolled their eyes as well.

I can’t debate the numbers in terms of movies. Marvel is clearly the most popular movie property right now. But it wasn't too long ago that DC was the top dog with their Batman and Superman franchises, and Marvel’s properties languished in development hell for decades. Remember the first big-screen Marvel adaptation was Howard the Duck in 1986, followed by Blade in 1998. Until then, all Marvel had were a string of cheesy TV movies. At that time, all the conversation was about how Marvel couldn't make good movies. It’s cyclical – all it takes is a major hit beyond the big two (Batman and Superman) to push DC back on top. DC’s plans for the Justice League movie could be the game-changer that Avengers was for Marvel.

Maurice: You have a great point there. Marvel used to be the "red-headed step-child" of superhero movies. Man of Steel 2 could be the game changer. I don't think a Justice League movie could ever be Avengers though. You only have two popular characters for JL while Avengers has three or four. You say Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man and people go nuts. All people have to hear is "Aquaman" and they'll be laughed off the screen.

I think Marvel will always be the greatest comic book company and they'll only get better.

Nigel: I will agree that most of Justice League’s heroes aren't as well known. I think Wonder Woman and Flash could really light up the screen, but Aquaman and Martian Manhunter would be a tough sell. Still, Marvel would had the same problem if they hadn't played it smart to establish each hero in their own movie, so the full impact of seeing them together would have a bigger impact. DC is rushing to get straight to their own Avengers, and I think it will be harder to get audiences’ enthusiasm. If it were up to me, I would at least have held off bringing Batman and Superman together until Justice League, that way it would build anticipation for their meeting. That could ultimately hurt them, but I think the movie itself could rise above it.
Ultimately, I would agree that DC has the advantage in movies right now. In the next five years, if DC and the studios play their cards right, it can get right back on top again where they belong.

What do you think? Which is better at movies, DC or Marvel? Do you have topics you'd like us to discuss? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. I'm a DC fan and at the moment, Marvel has the edge with how well they have developed their current franchise. Nigel is right that DC used to dominate, so for everything there is a season.
    Introduce the smaller characters in their own movies and then pull them together with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and a JLA film could go through the roof.
    Marvel has learned the balance with the humor. Of course, The Dark Knight is supposed to be grim and gritty. And I think it is the most grounded in reality of all the superhero movies. No super powers, no creatures from outer space - all reality based and more like the detective stories of old.
    Speaking of Marvel - the latest Thor is amazing!

  2. I would agree the popularity of the Marvel and DC movies is cyclical. With the right leadership and vision, DC can produce great movies again. Man of Steel, despite all the controversy, was my favorite superhero movie of the summer - and its box office proved it resonated with the public. Honestly, I've never thought in terms of one company being superior to the other. Why do we comic fans feel the need to compare or choose between them? Still, you two offer a great commentary on the current state of the comic industry's two titans.

  3. I like the recent Batman movies more than anything Marvel's put together but for their body of work Marvel's are better. DC pretty much buried the superhero genre with "Batman & Robin" and then Marvel brought it back to life with "X-Men." But for reading comics I prefer DC. By some kind of osmosis, even though I didn't read comics for 35 years, I'm more familiar with their characters and storylines than Marvel.

    BTW, you guys forgot about the Captain America and Punisher movies of the early 90s, which I reckon is pretty easy to do, lol.

  4. Great debate! DC forever for me. They are the original archetypes that all others are based. I am enjoying the Marvel movies. I really enjoy Deadpool comics, I just wish they would do him proper in the movies, no Ryan Reynolds!

  5. DC's inability to put out a good Wonder Woman movie is a big thorn in my side. They're just so chicken!

    Marvel has dominated so far, in the movie department, but all it takes is one big flop to derail that train.

  6. I have a lot to say about this, but I'll have to come back to it. Long day. And I don't even have time to read the whole post, right now.
    However, I will say:
    The reason that people know DC's characters has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with culture and longevity and McCarthyism. In many ways, important ways, comics never recovered from the purge of the 50s.
    But I'll come back later and talk about DCs continued failure to develop any type of cohesive universe.

  7. Another thing to consider is that Marvel tends to sell a lot of its movie tickets based almost moreso on the stars as the characters they're playing. X-Men became huge because of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. But Jackman still hasn't been able to make a true hit of a Wolverine movie, because it's the actor and not the character that audiences love. He seems to work better in the ensemble, probably because as a character Wolverine still doesn't translate as an icon. On the same hand, half the success of the Avengers cycle is due to the perfect casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man. He set the whole tone, certainly even up to and including the Avengers movie itself. The reason the others are hits is because Marvel has the zeitgeist at the moment (although audiences do seem to be getting a little fatigued, which is either great for DC or really horrible timing to be planning a similar Justice League franchise, which is why it's incredibly smart to continue hitting Superman and Batman until such time, as the failure of Green Lantern certainly suggests).

  8. That may be interesting. In a lot of ways, DC is constantly fighting against, not towards, a cohesive universe. The more elaborate it gets, the more DC is inclined to think about rebooting things back to square one, which has happened in a big way twice now. Marvel has never done that. It carries over old fans and seeds in new ones along the way, which I would call more of an indoctrination than inspiring its readers. This is fine as long as it works, but at some point the bubble, as they always do, will burst, probably the further the 60s fade from active memory. And we're fifty years at this point. Superman, meanwhile, is seventy-plus and still running strong...

  9. Do I have to decide? I loved the old DC cartoon as a kid, cheesy as it was - anyone remember the twins? But at the same time, I remember watching the Hulk show as well. However, I can't really say much about comics because as you've probably guessed by my answers I've been a fan of the screen adaptions. I've read some comic books, but I had to find them at the library or second hand stores until I was a teen . . . and then I just borrowed friends' comics and they usually read out of the Marvel universe. I like the troubled lives of the Marvel's heroes, but I think that there is some of that in the DC universe as well - like with Batman, and the Teen Titans (yes, I had to mention them). However, it has always bugged me that the DC universe is based on Earth but not Earth - I've always wanted it to be actual Earth or not Earth at all. Anyway, mixed thoughts.

  10. Good analysis. Marvel is better at movies. Think Avengers. Enough said.

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