I know, I know. I have high ambitions for my first editorial. Looking forward to reading those well thought-out and considerate comments!
It is a battle with divisions deeper than the Middle East conflict. Marvel Comics against Detective Comics. Marvel vs DC. Day vs Night. Yeah, I went there. With origins separated by almost 3 decades, Marvel and DC quickly became rivals in the huge American comic book industry, and still today the typical image of the superhero is ingrained in the characters each company offers to its readers. While much has been and continues to be said and debated over the individual merits and flaws of each company’s franchise, fictional histories, and business strategy, I’m here to go into a specific market of each company, one out of many yet probably the most prominent aspect of each entity today.
I’m going to compare their cinematic universes.
Now, at first it may seem very unfair, given that the MCU is on its 16th film with several network television and Netflix series under its belt, while the so-called DCEU is only 3 films in. But fret not, I’m not here to bash. I am going to point out the deficiencies in each one, sure, but this being a full comparison means that I’m going to provide as clear a picture as I can of the unique flavor of both franchises, and how each reflects the core heart of each company’s approach to the American superhero.
So, where do we start? How about the beginning? Why yes, invisible twin! Let’s start at the beginning: 2008.
MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, known colloquially by fans as the MCU, was the brainchild of Kevin Feige, who in 2005 as the newly-formed Marvel Studios’ second-in-command under Avi Arad, envisioned an interconnected series of superhero films based around the only big characters Marvel still held film rights to: the Avengers. Shortly after becoming Chief Producer with Arad’s departure, Feige oversaw the formation of a committee designed to ensure creative integrity and continuity in the universe. This committee included Marvel Studios co-President Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Comics President of Publishing Dan Buckley, Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, writer Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel Entertainment President Alan Fine, and Feige himself. Together, these six would begin crafting a broad, arching storyline that would form the basis for the MCU, which officially started with Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Armored Avenger, Tony Stark.
Despite the nearly three-year preparation and formation of the MCU, this wasn’t a very well-known fact at the time among normal moviegoers; with only a short post-credits stinger introducing Samuel L. Jackson as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, as any indication that a larger universe lay ahead, Iron Man was very much a standalone superhero flick, concerned with establishing its character first before introducing the universe at large.
This theme of the slow reveal continued throughout the MCU’s Phase One, with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger containing smaller references to the world at large, mostly in the form of background easter eggs, plot devices, and of course, the omnipresent stinger, which by now has become a Marvel trademark. Not until 2012’s The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, did the MCU explode into full frame, with an ensemble assortment of characters, a storyline that reached deep into the Marvel toybox, and plot points that set up the next two Phases of films.
As pioneering as this approach to world-building as this was, critics and audiences had reservations as well as hope, particularly in the cinematic styles of the films themselves. Looking at the Marvel output, one gets a sense that everything just looks almost the same, and there is truth to that statement. Despite Phase One containing diverse directorial talent from Kenneth Branaugh and Joe Johnston to newcomers Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier, only Whedon seems to have been afforded a semblance of visual freedom, electing to shoot Avengers in an uncommon 1.85:1 ratio which greatly opens up the big action pieces that are the lynchpin of his film. Everything else, even when factoring in the signature trademarks of each helmer, feels as if it has all been sanitized into a one-size-fits-all box of cinematography.
While this continues into Phase Two at first, the influx of new filmmakers into the mix began to show. With names like Shane Black, James Gunn, and the Russo Brothers, Phase Two is where the MCU really started to hit its stride. The films began to take on more and more of their ancestral formulas; the Russos’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier borrowed heavily from 1970s spy and conspiracy thrillers, while Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a visual and auditory explosion of saccharine, presenting a colorful cosmos set to hit music from the ’70s and ’80s. Even Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, while thematically as safe as Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, is an eclectic mix of heist movies and Golden Age sci-fi, able to tangle with the bigger hits of the summer easily.
Phase Two also brought the MCU into television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and the Netflix shows, starting with Daredevil. While the ABC series have definitely hit roadblocks in terms of their writing (and in the sad case of Agent Carter, cancellation), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still airing, with many more on the way such as The Inhumans, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, and the just-announced New Warriors. However, it is the Netflix shows where the MCU shines on the small screen, with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist acting as a sort of R-rated Avengers, setting up a highly-anticipated miniseries called The Defenders in November of this year.
With the MCU now in its Third Phase of films and approaching a turning point with the third and fourth Avengers films in 2018 and 2019, it seems like the sky is no longer the limit for Marvel as they continue to rake in profits, bolstered by an ever-increasing critical support for their films.
DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE
While the MCU was in the process of carving out its name in pop culture, Warner Brothers was still in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Itself a massive monetary and critical success for their company, the trilogy however was not conducive to beginning a shared continuity due to its heavy basis in realism and the whims of Nolan’s creative fancy. During the Nolan years, several attempts were made at rebooting the series, with the project closest to becoming a reality being George Miller’s Justice League Mortal. Without getting too much into it, this picture failed to be made, and instead, a new film focusing a reboot of Superman was pitched, written, and shot instead, guided in the scripting phase by Dark Knight alums David S. Goyer and Nolan himself, and then handed off to Zack Snyder.
While containing several references to other DC characters such as Batman, Man of Steel was made more as a “backdoor pilot” to a new shared universe, one that could stand alone if not successful but launch a franchise if so. Meanwhile, Warner’s television holdings began to air several series revolving around DC comics characters, beginning with Arrow in 2012. This started three distinct continuitues, with Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow sharing one, Gotham, a Batman prequel series centered on Detective Jim Gordon, and Supergirl contained within their own universes. Due to the hard sci-fi nature of The Flash and Legends, these shows have still crossed over several times, but never with any DC films at the time of this writing.
After the modest success of Man of Steel, DC announced in 2014 a slate of ten upcoming films sharing continuity with the new Superman, and a year later finally placed a name on this continuity: the DC Extended Universe. Including the television series as separate universes, the DCEU functions as a multiverse, with different realities containing the various properties. This was done in order to include the television series without having to keep to their continuity, allowing the films to start fresh with only Man of Steel to have to honor.
The film portion of the DCEU began in earnest with the March release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Introducing the new Batman, and for the first time on film, Wonder Woman, BVS did eventually become a blockbuster hit, but not after taking a savage pounding by critics and inducing a polarizing effect on the fanbase with its lackluster script and treatment of its characters. Later that year, Suicide Squad joined the ranks of the DCEU, presenting a team-up of DC villains that was even more polarizing than BVS, simultaneously earning low marks in reviews while winning an Oscar for makeup effects. It would not be until Wonder Woman‘s June release of this year that the DCEU earned near-unanimous praise, and not a moment too soon, with Justice League, its first high-profile team up film, dropping in November.
SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Now, before I start, there seems to be some contention on whether it is even appropriate to compare the two franchises, let alone where to make the comparison. Do only the early Marvel films count, since the DCEU is 4 films in while the MCU is packing 16? I’m actually going to throw caution to the wind and open up the playing field for all the films, because, and let’s face it, the DCEU may be new, but they had the advantage of paying attention to Marvel and learning from their mistakes. So there it is.
Some of the more obvious visual differences are easy to spot, such as the DCEU’s usage of film over digital since BVS, which affords those films a more natural and dynamic look as opposed to the brighter, cleaner-looking Marvel offerings. There’s also the fact that Warner has full control over all characters in the DC Comics, having never had to experience the bankruptcy and selling off of film rights that Marvel did in the 1990s.
The audio experience of each franchise is also worlds apart, specifically in the musical motifs. While Marvel films have consistently proficient and even wonderful scores, the continuity of themes are virtually nonexistent, with sequels rarely carrying over the music of the previous installment. Really, only Alan Silvestri’s Avengers themes are brought back at all. Compare this with the grand and graceful work of Hans Zimmer, who is said to have composed the main themes for every Justice League member, and there’s another point for the DCEU.
However, the advantages start to taper off for the DCEU right about here. The biggest disadvantage that the DCEU has is it’s writing, pure and simple. From BVS on, there has been a persistent deficiency of even passable writing, from character motivations and development, to basic story structure, and it has greatly hurt the infant franchise. To illustrate this, I’ll be specifically comparing BVS with Civil War.
Released only two months apart, BVS and CW both feature conflicts between superheroes considered by audiences at large to be friends and partners, motivated by deep philosophical and moral rifts between them. CW, being the first of Marvel’s Phase Three and the 13th film overall in the series, had the enormous advantage of the established story before it. Here, Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with Stark supporting the Sokovia Accords, an international treaty governing the actions of superheroes, and Rogers opposing it to keep his friend, Bucky, out of an armored cell. Their arrival at these two different ends of the ideological spectrum had been evolving throughout the entire series, with Stark beginning very much distrustful of authority and Rogers firmly supportive of it. Their backgrounds reflected this as well: Rogers as a WWII veteran and super soldier, Stark as a freewheeling billionaire playboy who had been fighting off a government wanting to appropriate his weaponized armor for years. The events of the series slowly change them; Stark’s growing PTSD leads him to create Ultron in an attempt to secure world piece, only to backfire horrifically when Ultron goes rogue and kills thousands of people, while Rogers witnesses S.H.I.E.L.D., the clandestine spy agency he serves, grow more and more authoritarian until it is revealed that his worst enemy, the HYDRA organization, had hijacked it decades ago, and infested the entire world’s political infrastructure. The journeys these characters have taken are logical and conducive to good drama, culminating in an emotional slugfest when Stark, who’s already-strong self-destructive streak is at its peak, makes a snap-decision to murder Bucky for killing his parents while under HYDRA control.
BVS, on the other hand, had only one film before it to set up any characters, and that was a solo Superman film. Thus, Clark Kent is the only character that receives enough backstory to understand, but even that is no help in reasons that will become clearer in a moment. The new Bruce Wayne of the film, played with a suave and masterful swagger by Ben Affleck, is nevertheless an enigma; he is an older Batman, having already suffered the loss of Robin years ago, an event that seemingly pushed him over the edge into killing criminals, a decision that alienated many fans. This is the only semblance of any character building with Batman that leaves audiences unfamiliar with him, and hampers any connection we can make with him.
This doesn’t get any better when we realize that almost nothing the characters do actually contributes to the story. If it is true that the typical story act ends when a character makes a fateful and irrevocable decision, than BVS must have a two-hour-long act, followed by an ten-minute one, when Batman decides to kill Superman over flimsy fears that he will turn bad, and then decides to let him live over one of the most poorly-executed scenes ever filmed.
You know the one, don’t ask.
And sure, Lex Luthor decides to kill Superman, using Batman to do it, but we never see this choice go down–he has decided to do it already when the film begins. Batman’s attempts to recover the kryptonite from Luthor and find out what he is doing with it are useless, as an action sequence involving the Batmobile ends with him failing to recover it, and later scene of Bruce infiltrating Luthor’s ball also ends with him losing the data to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, so what was the point of those 20 minutes of precious screentime?
And then comes the big fight. Luthor holds hostage Clark’s mother Martha, forcing him to deliver Batman’s head if he wants her to live. Resolving to try to enlist the Batman’s help, as he reveals to Lois Lane, Superman heads to their confrontation, and tries to reason with Bruce…all of two times. By the third booby-trap Batman has sprung on him, Clark suddenly decides that he’d rather fight this man who needs advanced armor just to survive one of his blows rather than save his mother, and this is before he gets hit with kryptonite. It’s such a petty and out-of-character moment for Superman that it obliterates all of the development he had in the previous film. Remember how angrily he attacked Zod when he threatened his mother? Or how devastated he was at having to take Zod’s life to save others? Well here, he turns his back on both of those plot points, and its only to give us a Batman vs Superman fight, because Goddammit, it’s right there in the title!
Combine this with a role for Wonder Woman that only exists to give us a third leg in the Doomsday fight (and to open up a laptop with a Justice League trailer on it), and you get a mighty mess that leaves Nolan happy he didn’t have his name attached to it. With all of the emphasis on action scenes and pointless philosophical discussions that go nowhere, what should have been a solid Superman sequel with Batman as the antagonist quickly becomes an exercise on how not to write a script.
But why did this happen? Well, the most obvious explanation is that Warner wanted to catch up quickly to Marvel by putting out team-up films early, and capitalize on the Nolan-inspired wave of smarter blockbusters by injecting a directionless intellectual bent into a story with only enough meat for an hour of movie. This is Warner’s biggest weakness compared to Marvel: they simply don’t have a plan, and couldn’t be bothered to take the time to come up with one.
Remember, the MCU is guided by Kevin Feige and a committee of comic veterans who are experienced in plotting multi-issue story arcs that last years. Warner did not take this approach, only appointing Geoff Johns to Creative Head after the BVS fiasco. Even then, there is still no main story thread in place, as opposed to Marvel’s ongoing Infinity Stones storyline, which offers a basic framework while the characters evolve and grow on their way to the ultimate battle. The DCEU is very much a rudderless speedboat, employing a selection of its own first-rate filmmakers but not capitalizing on their strengths.
Another weakness of Warner’s franchise is the fact that they still assume more control over creative decisions. Within Marvel, Feige is free to direct the MCU as he sees fit, with minimal interference from the parent company (shocking that Disney would leave them alone, isn’t it?). There are still exertions of control over the filmmakers, most evident in the feud between Feige and Whedon during Age of Ultron, and the departures of Sally Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, but on the whole, this has been more the exception than the rule. Meanwhile, after BVS fell short of its projections, the heads of Warner stepped in, demanding extensive changes to the next film, Suicide Squad. Their alterations resulted in an even worse mess, with a film bearing an even more nonsensical storyline and no real growth from any character, essentially amounting to a video game level on film. In short, Marvel and Warner both meddle in the creative process, but to a lesser extent in the MCU and before the cameras roll, ensuring a more coherent product will hit the screens.
So with that, MCU is definitely the more solid franchise, but that doesn’t mean the DCEU should be given up on. While the MCU’s television series tie in with the films, allowing for smaller side stories within the universe, the DC offerings are consistently higher-rated, and have the converse advantage of being able to go where they want to go, regardless of the film series. The DCEU has taken many more risks with its character portrayals, while the MCU is starting to feel stagnant in the fact that characters hardly die or face real danger. And when it comes down to it, Warner may be learning from their mistakes, if Wonder Woman is any indication.
So let’s say the DCEU rights itself, and become a real contender to Marvel’s dominance. How can it get there? Well, I know a little something of DC comics as well, for through most of my teen years I favored them more than the capeless denizens of Marvel. And I believe that the best way for that to happen is for DC’s runners and writers to recognize how different their heroes and stories are. Marvel makes topical entertainment, catering to whatever is hip and happening today. They’re entirely well-made pieces that will continue to captivate and offer up philosophical fodder for my sleepless nights, but they’ll never be as timeless as the worldly rage of Batman, or the lonely compassion of Superman. DC heroes and heroines harken back to the Golden Age of Comic Books, the introductory period of superhumans, and as such, the films should shift tone to reflect that heritage. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are self-destructive creatures, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over in front of us as a testament to our darker desires, while Diana Prince and J’onn J’onns see only the good in humanity, and fight to protect it.
In short, Marvel is riding a renaissance of cynicalism. It will be the job of DC to usher in the era of human optimism. This is their potential, and it’s high time they realize it.
Well, here it comes. I can’t wait to hear the polite and friendly responses to this accusing me of being a Marvel kiss-up or a DC puke, and let’s face it, I am much more of a Marvel fan right now, they are simply doing it better. But I really would like to see the DCEU succeed, so comparing the two and discovering the weaknesses and strengths of each is still a worthy endeavor. Am I crazy or am I onto something with this analysis? Let me know, I can take it.
As I flinch in the corner.