If you’re a comic fan no doubt you’ve been exposed to the Marvel vs DC debate on some level. Of course there will always be people who prefer one universe to the other, there are also those among us, myself included, that appreciate both giant comic producers and the work they put out. This article isn’t about a direct faceoff between the two super teams but instead a look at why Warner Bros. studios and DC Comics has a huge task ahead of themselves heading into next year’s Justice League film and why Marvel has had such incredible success with the Avengers.
Brief history lesson: In the 1980’s and 1990’s Marvel ran into some financial difficulties, as a result they sold off the film rights to a number of their biggest properties, namely; X-men, Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Daredevil. So in the early 2000’s when people started making semi-decent comic book films Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox were the one’s making all the money from Spider-man and X-men films. To this day Fox still holds control of Fantastic Four and the X-men, which extends to myriad characters and concepts that influence other areas of Marvel’s universe. For example: Marvel can’t call any characters Mutants, they had to change Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron to “enhanced beings” to get around that legal obstacle.
Despite the obvious issue of Marvel’s biggest and most popular heroes being under the control of someone else, Marvel studios still endeavoured to create films out of the remaining characters they had access to, enter the surprise hit Iron Man in 2008. What was supposed to be a tiny piece of fan service in Samuel L Jackson’s post credit appearance as Nick Fury, ended up kick starting a project that has reshaped blockbuster film as we know it; the shared universe. As a result of Iron Man’s hugely positive reception Marvel studios launched a series of films that built toward a single massive team-up event, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk set the stage for the biggest achievement in superhero film history; 2012’s The Avengers.
So why did it work? Ironically, it worked because Marvel was using characters that, while popular among fans, were not the treasured pieces of pop-cultural mythology that guys like Spider-man and Batman are. Sure some Iron Man fans might’ve been upset that Tony Stark never displayed the rampant alcoholism he had in the comics, but in general audiences weren’t as used to these characters which meant filmmakers could tell new and interesting stories without needing to worry about excessive fan backlash because “it wasn’t the specific version of a decades old character that I wanted”. Thanks to this creative leeway Marvel Studios was able to make genuinely interesting and enjoyable films and because of that people kept watching them and continue to keep watching them.
As a result of utilising lesser known characters, Marvel had the freedom to build to the defining point of their shared universe project which has paid dividends as a result. In addition to this, the success of their original idea has allowed them to bring an even greater number of niche characters into the film world with Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Doctor Strange having films in production. Where larger than life characters like Wolverine and Peter Parker would’ve heavily restricted the creative freedom, characters like Thor were free to be exposed to new ideas and concepts sorely lacking in some of the more well-known characters films. Which leads us to the difficulties Warner Bros. and DC Comics have ahead of them.
The Justice League is basically the antithesis to the Avengers; were the Avengers is made up of Marvel’s mid-card characters, the Justice League is the biggest names in DC’s superhero roster. The three founding members; Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are also the companies three biggest sellers and immediately after them Aquaman, Green Lantern and The Flash round out the top six. Comparatively Captain America, Thor and Iron Man are lucky if their sales numbers make up half of the monthly Spider-man purchases. This is where the difficulty comes in for the creative team behind the Justice League film; how do you interpret such a huge number of classic characters in a way that will be faithful to the source material without also stifling your own creativity?
This the issue Marvel was able to avoid, but whether DC can is another story. In 2013 Man Of Steel launched the current DC shared universe project, if you look at the criticism directed at MoS one of the biggest complaints was that “Superman didn’t behave like Superman”, that’s the big difficulty with using these larger than life characters; as I mentioned before people have a set idea of what they should be, regardless of creative license. These same criticisms have been lobbed at the latest part of the DC filmverse in Batman V Superman, some people are annoyed that Batman kills, despite Batman blowing up a building full of people in Batman Begins (For the record I hate The Dark Knight trilogy). As mentioned in my review from a few weeks ago, I liked BvS quite a bit and feel the criticism is unfounded, for the most part.
You can already see DC’s decision to present fairly new takes on these classic characters; Jason Momoa’s casting as Aquaman has received a lot of positive reception because of his “darker” look. I personally can’t stand it because 1.) It reminds me of 90’s Aquaman with the stupid hook for a hand and the beard and 2.) My favourite Aquaman has always been the goofy orange and green guy who talks to sea creatures and fights ghost pirates. What I’ve just described in the last paragraph is exactly the problem I’m highlighting, no one has a favourite interpretation of Captain America, because really the character hasn’t changed in the 75 years he’s been in syndication. But guys like Superman, The Flash and Batman have so many different characterisations it’s hard to make a version that everyone will enjoy.
With all that said, DC also has the added difficulty of being behind the curve when it comes to shared universe films. Marvel’s got a 6 year head start and while DC is certainly catching up their grittier style has made the overall reception of their films somewhat more divisive than the seemingly universally adored Marvel films. Hopefully by next year when we’ll have had three more films in the DC filmverse the picture will be clearer, until then though the best we can do is hope!
Okay so just for fun I theorised a battle between the Avengers and the Justice League;
Avengers: VS Justice League:
Hulk VS Superman
Iron Man VS Green Lantern
Captain America VS Batman
Thor VS Wonder Woman
Vision VS Martian Manhunter
Scarlet Witch VS Aquaman
Quicksilver VS The Flash
Winner: Me, because seriously how cool would each of those battles be?