In comic book related conversations, I often get asked the question: which do you like better, Marvel or DC?
At first, it seems like an odd question. Aren’t Marvel and DC both comic books that set out to do the same thing? What is the point in comparing them and favoring one over the other? But I think a good compare/contrast can be quite healthy in understanding how we tell stories in our culture.
It is no surprise that 2016 will be a HUGE year for comic books in the media. With 6 major films, new TV pilots, old shows renewed, and a slew of independent films, comic books will dominate entertainment media this year more so than any other previously. And it all looks really good, actually. But if you put them side by side, you will no doubt notice quite a few differences.
Let’s first examine Marvel and DC separately before sharing my opinion to this commonly asked question.
DC is where superheroes originated. With the creation of Superman in 1938, the world was introduced to a new form of storytelling through the superhero soap opera we call the comic book. When reading comics from the Golden Age of Comics (1938-1955), you notice a very “black and white” approach to good vs. evil. The heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc) are defined as the “good” while their villains (Lex Luthor, The Joker, etc.) are clearly “evil.” This was most likely influenced by the “good” Allies and the “evil” Axis powers in World War II. In fact, in this era, comic sales reached their peak during the war.
Ever since then, with a few exceptions (e.g. Watchmen), DC has carried on this “black and white,” good vs. evil approach to their storytelling. Yes, over time characters such as Batman have become more morally grey in their actions, but all in all he is still viewed as the necessary good to the great evils of Gotham. That necessary good that DC portrays through its heroes can be summed up in one word: Justice. This is the fundamental core principle that lies at the heart of nearly every DC story. It is what drives the characters most. There is a reason why these heroes join together and form the Justice League: to maintain justice throughout the universe.
As a result of this, DC tends to be more mythic and feel more epic than Marvel. The characters and stories of the DC universe have become our culture’s Greek Mythologies, illustrating the timeless conflict between good and evil, involving both gods and mortals. These new Greek myths are paired with more contemporary American ideals. Superman stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman is the rugged individualist, the self-made man. Wonder Woman wears American colors as a sign of good favor to the country she serves. Hal Jordan (one of the Green Lantern Corp.) is an American Air Force pilot turned god.
With the exception of the 1960’s, DC has always taken to a more adult and darker form of storytelling. This peeked most in the 1980’s with the creation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but there are countless other examples of this. And one needs to look no further for proof than in their media. Whether it be the “Timm verse” in the 1990’s with DC’s Animated Universe, their home movie and video game releases, or Nolan and Snyder’s gritty films, DC has always felt more mature than Marvel, even when they are targeting children. I think this is because there is no way to do “justice” (no pun intended) to their core theme without dealing with some heavy realities about life in general. I love how seriously DC takes their audience in this regard. However, at the end of the day, DC still draws clearly defined lines between good and evil in light of justice and injustice. This differs from Marvel’s approach, as we shall see.
Although Marvel started out around the same time as DC, they didn’t reach their peak until Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko joined forces to create a whole universe of new superheroes. Their approach, unlike DC, was to take mostly ordinary people (a dysfunctional family, a soldier, a teenager) and through science fiction and extraordinary circumstances turn them into superheroes (the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man).
Like DC, in order to understand Marvel, it helps to look at the time period they peeked in popularity. The Silver Age of Comics (1956-1970) was in the middle of several conflicts in American history, including the Cold War, the assassination of JFK, and the Civil Rights. As a result, although the good vs. evil approach was still intact, the culture (or should I say counter-culture) was reacting heavily against rigid “black and white” ideals that characterized the previous generation. For example, during World War II Americans were clearly on-board with the war and supported the government’s actions towards ridding the world of Nazi dictatorship. But the Cold War, and particularly the Vietnam conflict, was quite different. Many Americans did not support what appeared to be a useless war. Politicians and leaders weren’t always viewed as saviors, and were sometimes despised. This more “morally grey” worldview saturated Marvel’s comics.
Unlike DC, Marvel Comics are not unified by a core theme. Therefore, their characters are not bound to a set of ideals they must uphold, but rather change with the tides of times, with events and circumstances. The Incredible Hulk was a scientist turned monster that personified the potential dangers of nuclear war. The X-Men were social outcasts and persecuted because of how they were born (much like the Civil Rights movement). Through these and other stories, comic books became social commentary, and superheroes became more complex and diverse, reflecting the world around them. When this social commentary is used effectively in regards to its time period (in films such as X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger) the result is something very different from DC. DC stories are very “big” and universal in theme. They can be applied to pretty much any time period in history, like Greek mythology. But Marvel is much more rooted in its time, and that sets it apart from DC, making it more like Shakespeare. Similar to Shakespeare’s plays, Marvel’s characters are often misunderstood, tragic, and products of their time. Though many Marvel films take place in the present, thereby losing the brilliant social commentary that defined them (though there are exceptions to this), if you want to understand the world as it is in a particular time, then Marvel is the better place to look.
DC is often criticized for taking themselves too seriously. (After all, at the end of the day, they’re just comic books right?) Marvel definitely has a better balance in this regard. Whereas DC almost always feel more mature, Marvel caters to everything from young kids, to teens, and to families, in addition to adults. In fact, Marvel tends to do very few things purely for adults. But what’s extremely ironic is that while DC’s storytelling may be more “black and white” they are a lot more bold and creative in how they tell their stories (I’m speaking mostly about films). Even though nearly every DC story is a quest for justice, you will rarely ever see it done the exact same way. Marvel, on the other side, while boasting more “morally grey” characters, tends to be more safe and cookie-cutter in their storytelling, at least recently. I think a large part of this lies in the studios that they work with (DC with Warner Bros, Marvel with Disney). It’s also worth noting that many of Marvel’s great ideas (Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers) originated from ideas first coined by DC.
On one hand, I do enjoy how diverse Marvel can be with their tone and characters, especially since they always tell more intimate stories that have greater character development; but because they try to cater to too many different age groups (or too much of one particular age group), they lose some of the edginess and seriousness that DC offers. On the other hand, while I do love DC’s epic, grand stories and more serious tone, it can be hard to actually have fun and relax since the content is so heavy. Marvel tends to be more accessible and relatable while DC tends to be more grand and universal, though they both share influences from their Jewish writers’ roots (an article for another time).
Now before I give my answer, it’s helpful to know what I was raised on. I grew up in the ’90’s, and the comic book characters that were most famous through media in that time were unquestionably Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. These were and still are my 3 favorite. Batman has my favorite mythos, Spider-Man’s my favorite character, and X-Men has my favorite stories. Much has changed since I was a kid, especially since comic book movies are no longer seen as a joke.
In conclusion, my answer has to be twofold. First, I love DC more in their approach to comics. They created what we now know as the superhero, they have maintained integrity to their core theme of Justice no matter what era they are in, and they take their work very seriously. As a result, DC has the best animated features, video games, and may be on their way to having the better films (we’ll see by the end of this year).
But, when it comes to the characters and stories themselves, Marvel is the clear winner for me. Here’s why: Marvel, at the end of the day, has a more realistic outlook on the world. Though there is good and evil in this world, it tends to be played out more morally grey rather than black and white, since people of course are not perfect. As a result, their characters are layered with much more depth than DC’s. Spider-Man is a hero, but he cannot save his girlfriend Gwen Stacy from the evil Green Goblin (who’s his mentor). The twist is that while it was the GG who kidnapped her, what actually killed Gwen was Spidey’s attempt to save her. And now this character for the rest of his life must live with the guilt of not saving the one person he cared for most. That’s heavy! That’s deep! And it does what comics should do: be diverse. The Spider-Man stories leading up to it are quite fun and entertaining. And they continue to be. But these more darker moments really stand out more because this isn’t a “doom and gloom” universe like DC. Another great example is in Marvel’s villains. If the Joker is the best “black and white” villain, than Magneto is surely the best morally grey one. Given his background, I completely understand where he is coming from and why he acts the way he does. But unlike the Joker, he isn’t chained to that. Magneto can be good for a while and then go back to being a villain when things aren’t going his way. That’s rich. That’s interesting to me. And it’s Marvel’s wonderfully accurate commentary on society, while integrating timeless truths and principles, that gives me more admiration and enjoyment for their characters, stories, and namely, comics.
What are your thoughts? Are you more of a Marvel or more of a DC in terms of characters and storytelling? Sound off on the comments below! Excelsior!