Marvel vs. DC: Whose Universe is it Anyway?

By: Daniel Reynolds

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to universe construction: the seven day method and the Big Bang. The former defines itself as a thoughtful process with a note of fantastical whimsy. The latter works–but damn if it isn’t loud and messy.

After this year’s San Diego Comic Con, DC Comics made clear it favours the Big Bang. They recently revealed two film trailers, one each for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, to explode the idea of a shared DC film universe into the minds of the general public. The films are set for release in March and August of 2016, respectively, and together represent DC’s first tangible attempt to achieve this end. The reason for this new direction is obvious. DC just spent much of the last decade losing ground to their rival, Marvel Comics.

DC's best hope against their rivals at Marvel.

DC’s best hope against their rivals at Marvel.

These days Marvel’s success as a film studio appears as a mere formality. They announce a movie and sometime later hordes of people around the world dutifully pay to see it. Since 2008’s Iron Man, each new Marvel film now builds on the success of the one before it while buttressing the creative scaffold for the next. Marvel’s eventual decision to make films this way should not come as a surprise. Their shared comic universe was, at least in some small part, the source of the company’s original success in the 1960s.

The principles of Marvel’s shared universe are simple to explain and intrinsic to the nature of many comic books, including DC’s. First, explain who these characters are, and second, outline how they relate to each other. In this way, comics can engender an investment of emotion over time from the reader and entice an audience to come back for more as events fold outwards. That this idea marries well with a modern film studio’s desire for financial certainty and repeatable success over time feels obvious. We’re seven years into a process which Marvel has declared will carry them into 2019 (and presumably beyond). There’s an implicit trust at work here–they’ve established the characters and are now showing us how they relate to one another. But considering it only took God seven days to make the world, there is also some serious time and labour involved.

DC’s big reveal at Comic Con, meanwhile, feels like an attempt to speed up this process. After Christopher Nolan’s self-contained Batman trilogy ended in 2012, DC unofficially kick-started its own shared universe with 2013’s Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. While it exists apart from Nolan’s trilogy, Snyder’s Superman piggybacks on its darker tone. This, it announces, is to be DC’s visual and thematic palette moving forward. While Marvel has been content with a lighter touch, DC wants to be epic and operatic. It’s painfully easy to find fault with this direction, especially given Superman’s status as the original primary colour superhero. But what’s been shown of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad so far gets at a larger problem.

Both trailers are, in a word, overwhelming. For Dawn, we see images of Henry Cavill’s return as Superman, Ben Affleck’s new Batman, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, General Zod’s corpse, Robin’s graffiti-ed costume, and, deep breath, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. This feels like a lot for two and a half hours. The role call for Suicide Squad—featuring Will Smith and actual operatics—is even longer.

Now, some of these glimpsed moments, taken in isolation, are quite powerful. Dawn of Justice promises a stand-off between two of the most iconic fictional characters of all time. It also appears, not incidentally, to use some of Frank Miller’s famous The Dark Knight Returns as a visual touchstone. It’s a smart play, even if we’re left to wonder how, for example, Wonder Woman fits in. This is where DC’s decisions start to feel creaky. While Marvel stokes anticipation in-film, DC makes rather large assumptions outside of it. For Wonder Woman’s presence to make sense in Dawn, it will require some pre-existing knowledge of the character. She’s decidedly not the focal point of the film—it says so right in the title. Her importance is inferred only by the knowledge of a standalone Wonder Woman film planned for 2017. A follow-up Justice League movie—uniting the trio of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman—is then supposed to ignite the expansion of DC’s shared universe into which the rest of its roster of characters will appear. It’s bold, but also backward.

Since movie trailers are all tease, DC’s plan looks sound on the surface. The trailers imply a unified galaxy of worlds filled with a multitude of stars set for their own solo adventures. Dawn of Justice features the company’s three biggest characters, while Suicide Squad looks to build, in one quick flurry, an entire constellation of villains. DC has it all scheduled out after that. It’s quite a feat, considering the quick turnaround time. But through all that noise, it disregards the necessary emotional under-girding inherent to proper comic book storytelling. Who are these superheroes and villains? Why are they fighting? And why should we care about, say, Aquaman in 2017 when his story will only be told in full in 2018? In their race to compete with Marvel, DC has disregarded those aforementioned universal tenets. Now the gigantic scope makes sense—these films are designed to be too big to fail.

The Avengers getting interrupted by the demands of narrative.

The Avengers getting interrupted by the demands of narrative.

To fight against the franchising of Hollywood now is a losing battle. And while it feels strange to commend one corporate behemoth over another, this is the film universe we live in. To its credit, Marvel’s grand design does not prevent their individual films from standing on their own. They breathe in places and even leave room for a laugh or two. The most memorable sequence of the latest Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, is not the climactic robot battle but rather when the gang just hangs out. Here the audience’s investment in these fictional characters pays off. We know who these people are. The film leverages that well-earned familiarity, and its cast of charismatic actors, into a moment of cinematic pleasure. Everyone has fun.

That we get lashed to an expository rocket ship afterwards is besides the point—in DC’s new universe, all we’ll be getting is the ride. It may provide for a bigger bang, but it could also blow up in somebody’s face.

142 responses to “Marvel vs. DC: Whose Universe is it Anyway?

  1. Reblogged this on elirazcon and commented:
    I think the Hollywood movie industry is short of income because, they are making different versions of the same movie, which the Hollywood movie industry believes will increase their revenue.

    • Oh Hitler, they are not short on money just because they are cutting costs. The person who knows how to make money lives off the interest and doesn’t spend a whole hell of lot of it after the initial investment.

      There was a (television) writers strike years ago… and now they don’t pay writers for new stories. Comic books are easy. They are already storyboarded, full of action and carried by cliched dialogue. They are cheap and Hollywood never made dough on intellectual or art films no matter what “Birdman” tried to do and got Kudos for with a non stop pan-take. Hollywood has plenty of money. It doesn’t have to care about the stories. It has commercial franchising to think about instead.

      The author is right that it’s “Too Big to Fail” as that is how you push any super-power meme that isn’t true, but that runs the day.

      • I was referring that the Hollywood movie industry is with out money but compared to the past the Hollywood movie industry is not making as much money, as you wrote yourself, “and now they don’t pay writer for new stories,” you just proven the last comment. The Hollywood movie industry aren’t sure about how much revenue the new movie will generate by the new stories from the writers but they know the commercial commics are still some what popular.

      • No that’s not what I’m saying, Hitler. They are sure about their money. They don’t have to actually rely on the merits of a film itself. They only have to understand marketing. Rich people keep their money by not spending it. That why they are always blocking a hike in their taxes for example. So what I’m saying is Hollywood is full of illusions. One of them is that it’s about the film itself. It’s about fashion designers, and pop music industry and it’s about marketing toys that are the comic book heroes and making video games… particularly interactive ones. It’s about the amusement park rides that mimic the movies as well. It’s the halloween costumes. It’s the advertising laced into films so that you see their logos all the time… and then there is the underside where the vast majority of money made by major media companies is on porn. They do not worry about funding what “bread and circus” the masses are currently willing to buy and feed on. They understand business. They understand how to make virtual reality “gambling” on college sports when casinos fail. They know how to sell sports and gladiators and tits and ass.

        There isn’t a lack of money. Not paying writers means that some people get to keep more of the money and it’s not writers.

        I’m not proving your point at all. I’m telling you about what is the entertainment industry.

        They struggle to get people into theaters but they are finding ways to get their cash. Cable T.V. to DVD to rental stores, to netflix to whatever… they are finding ways. Mostly through porn like I mentioned, but still…

        Hollywood actresses aren’t treated well… and it’s still racist as hell, but yes, Hollywood is doing just fine.

        Hope that clears it up for you.

  2. Have you heard of the Top Cow comic called Genius? The first issue came out in 2014… and has a strong black female character. Now that’d be a movie to see.

  3. Reblogged this on I am. Are you? and commented:
    Answer: If you want big booms and bright colors and a hint of the irreverent, you are Team Marvel. If you are into angst and sorrow and sucking all of the joy out of life, DC is the perfect destination. As they are so fond of pointing out ad nauseum, they “are not Marvel.” I guess that makes them the Anti-Marvel?

  4. I still think the Marvel films are better, they just seem to have the knack of making individual films that also work cohesively as a whole. The DC films seem to be pulling out all the stops to catch up, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad trailers would seem to indicate they are building up a more closely knit universe like Marvel have for their characters. Its going to be interesting to see how it all pans out, but I still think the Marvel films will have the edge.

  5. I think a lot depends on what you grew up with, and who you love more – the League, or the Avengers. DC are catering to their hardcore fans: the kids – and not-so-kids – who read the comics and know the score, and for whom half the fun of a movie is working out “Oh, who’s playing Mera?”

  6. Interesting, now that I have read it I can see how big the stake is for DC Cinematic Universe. However, don’t you think we might have seen the success of MCU so long we think their method is inherently the best? I think in a way making a first appearance not in a stand alone film could actually reduce the risk for audience to not care about a certain character. By putting Wonder Woman in Dawn of Justice for example, audience who watch the film will surely watch her and see what’s the deal with Wonder Woman. The certainty to make non-Wonder Women fans at least got a gist of her action thus be curious about her movie is higher than when we market a stand alone movie first like an early marketing. The advantage of this model is there rather than making a stand alone movie with a really non-popular character and hope audience loves them enough so they will anticipate a big movie with lots of superheroes later. And personally, for the sake of better superheroes movies, I hope DCCU model works

  7. Reblogged this on Kemdirim Okezie and commented:
    I wanted to reblog this post, since I was just discussing this with my siblings yesterday; we were watching the trailer to Suicide Squad and commenting on how dark DC comics are compared to Marvel.

    I’m excited seeing some of my favourite characters come to life like Harley Quinn, her craziness is funny. Then I love Supergirl and am excitedly waiting to see the first series starring Marley from Glee (Melissa Benoist).

    I love so much of DC Comics shows – like Arrow, and would love it if Diggle would be in Suicide Squad since he’s in it in the Arrow series, but I don’t know whether I will like Suicide Squad unless it is true to form because something about planting a kill chip inside a criminal is a risk as big as the morality issue and I’m not sure just how dark DC Comics is prepared to get. Can you imagine?! I think I am probably sub-consciously concerned about how true these issues are to real life. Whose to say this kill-chip action isn’t happening, where evil exists – this stuff happens, and I’d rather the good guys be in charge of the administration of it even though my suspicious heart sighs and whispers: “Who are you kidding girl?!”

    Gotham was my main mind twister, as dark as can be and as much as I love it I am a little tormented by it’s horror at times. The characters are amazing, and the story-lines are terrific, but it’s gloomy fascia is quite frightening on the face of it. My little sister, rightfully so, calls Gotham too creepy. Now that Jada Pinkett Smith has gone, I don’t think my sister will watch it again; she’s always loved the devious female characters but Gotham is generally too much, even for her. Flash is something that my siblings and I love though – and I noticed the Big Bang Theory support comments made by Cisco Ramon, the mechanical engineering genius from S.T.A.R Labs. Then the slight challenging reference by Arrow’s Diggle in the Arrow and Flash collaboration episode. DC Comics is a dark reality with too many twisted nasties gaining ground – compared to the shiny ‘good over evil’ God-loving and highly successful commercially attractive and accepted (and lucrative) world of Marvel; but having said that, I LOVE them both, I REALLY DO. DC Comics and Marvel Comics are responsible for bringing so much happiness to my generation – that cannot be denied. However, I do find Marvel more suitable for the younger kids. I asked my 8 year old sister the question of which she prefers and she said it’s a hard one, but she prefers DC. (*sighs knowing this means my family have to work even harder to keep this little girl grounded. lol) Seriously though, we’ll always want good to win, and I’m a firm child of God, it’s a given – (even my Bible is illustrated by Sergio Cariello, ( who works for both Marvel and DC) and I guess I just love the fantasy and supernatural action of my favourite comic characters brought to life – even if some of them are evil; getting to know them before seeing them defeated is a reality of life – these guys are amazing characters that made bad choices and I love that we get to see the consequences of those bad choices coming to life on our screen. Anyway, enjoy this post! I did!! 🙂

  8. DC’s Shazam movie might be the only one that’ll have that ‘fun-zinger’ in it.
    Not that I have a problem with darker stuff.Making gritty superhero movies isn’t wrong.They just have to be grounded in realism.That’s why Nolan’ Batman worked so well. Man of Steel didn’t quiet get it right.

  9. People say now that they like Marvel better simply because they have had a lot of time being told to like Marvel. There has been an influx of Marvel Universe related films in the last five years and people have had a lot of time to familiarize themselves with the universe. There hasn’t been any direct competition from DC since Marvel started their phases. The exception being Christopher Nolan’s infamous Batman Trilogy. Even these though haven’t attempted to do what Marvel has been doing.
    Until now. Once people have a chance to see Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad a lot of people will begin to change your tune.

    Both universes have their merits. If you like to see heroes with morals who want to save the planet from their advesaries than Marvel is for you. But if you’re like me and root for a good villain to have their dayat last than DC is for you. Marvel has great heroes I won’t dispute that. However, it sorely lacks great villains save for maybe Loki. DC has the villains that I love. And it’s much more dark because of it. Considering the majority of them have spent time in Arkham Asylum. Some of us prefer chaos over morals.

    “The only sensible way to live is without rules ” -The Joker, and let me tell ya, Marvel has a lot of rules.

  10. Although I’ve always loved the Batman films, as you said in the past 10 years I have fallen in love with the Marvel Universe (mostly thanks to Joss Whedon’s involvement) and they have done a fantastic job building the characters and intertwining stories. (just as a caveat, I don’t read comic books but surely do love comic-based movies) I’m really not sure about the direction DC is going…it will be interesting to see how the box office returns compare to The Avengers series.

  11. Why can’t they co-exist? They have, in print, for decades. DC has longer history of live-action media and it is only recently that they have lagged a bit–with the exception of the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, which was nothing short of brilliant. While I enjoy the Marvel films, I am a life-long reader of DC comics. I was intrigued by the trailers and am looking forward to seeing these live action films.

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