DC vs Marvel: When Cinematic Universes Collide
By Phil Boothman
Before we begin, I’d like to say that despite the title of the article this is not written about the baffling crossover comic book series that happened in the mid-90s which, I confess, was one of the first graphic novels I ever owned. While useful for giving a definitive answer to those pub-talk questions we’ve all asked (in case you’re wondering Aquaman beats Namor, Flash beats Quicksilver, Silver Surfer beats Green Lantern and Batman and Captain America team up), it is generally pretty awful and not really relevant to the discussion at hand.
Now that fun little geek-digression is out of the way, we can get on with the important nerdery at hand.
Recently it was announced that, following next year’s Superman vs Batman, also known as the sequel to last year’s Man of Steel, also known as ‘the film people believe is going to fail because of poor casting decisions that nobody can accurately judge but they all feel like judging anyway’, Zack Snyder would be directing a full-blown Justice League movie as a way of expanding the DC Cinematic Universe (abbreviated to DCCU for ease).
“A Justice League movie? No way, I wasn’t expecting that!”
Said nobody ever, partly due to the wealth (a generous description of what other people might call ‘over-stuffing’) of Justice League characters announced as appearing in Superman vs Batman. First there was the Batfleck announcement, followed closely by Gal Gadot being cast as Wonder Woman and, more recently, Ray Fisher as Cyborg; not to mention the endless speculation whenever someone tweeted about a meeting with DC/WB executives (I’m looking at you, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson!) or anything even vaguely DC-related.
But I’m not here to comment on fan reaction to news about comic book movies: I’ve done that twice before on this site and said roughly everything I have to say about it. I’m here to analyse DC’s choices in the superhero movie race, and in the current cinematic landscape it is nigh-impossible to do so without comparing them to those made by Marvel Studios in the foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short).
I’ll start off with a caveat: as anyone who reads my writing on here, or follows me on Twitter, or watches my YouTube show will know, I am something of a Marvel fanboy. That’s not to say I dislike DC, I’ve just always felt more affinity with the X-Men and the Avengers than I ever really did with Batman, Superman and the Justice League: it’s a personal preference rather than a belief that one is really better than the other. But with that in mind, I still believe that purely in terms of Cinematic Universes, Marvel is blowing DC out of the water.
Part of this is down to their differing approach to universe-building: Marvel started slow, and honestly took something of a risk with Iron Man back in 2008, then gradually built up a universe in which you could believe that a technological genius with a robot suit could stand side-by-side with a genuine Asgardian demigod, a super-soldier from the 40s who has been frozen in a glacier and thawed out and a mild-mannered scientist who turns into an enormous green rage monster whenever he gets too angry. Now they’re introducing talking, gun-toting raccoons and anthropomorphic trees into their cinematic canon, and yet it all feels like a cohesive universe in which all these weird and varied creatures can co-exist.
DC, on the other hand, seem to be somewhat rushing things: while I applaud their desire to take a different approach to Marvel and build their universe in a different way to the multiple standalone films, they are asking casual audiences to invest a lot of time and attention in a franchise which refuses to hold their hand and ease them into the weirdness of the universe, instead throwing them into the deep end. This isn’t to say that their approach won’t work, because there’s every chance it will, but they are expecting non-comics fans to engage with a series which leaps from a world containing a single godlike alien walking the Earth, to one which encompasses hardened vigilante detectives, Amazonian warriors, magic alien space cops, cyborgs and (potentially) the aquatic king of an undersea society, all in the space of a single film. It’s a lot to ask, and while taking risks sometimes pays off in the film industry, there are many other times when it alienates audiences and drastically lowers revenue.
The other major area where the two companies differ is in their relationships to their characters. DC have gone to great lengths, at least since the success of The Dark Knight trilogy, to try and ‘ground’ their universe in something akin to the real world; whereas Marvel have, particularly in the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dramatically altered the history and status quo of a universe which, at the beginning, closely resembled our own to allow their stories to occur. On paper, the former sounds like a superior way to allow audiences to engage with the stories being told on screen, whereas the latter makes it feel like the audience has to disconnect in order to engage with a fantasy world that is becoming further and further removed from their own.
In fact, Marvel’s method works better because it is focused on the characters rather than the universe, and characters are, by and large, what audiences really engage with. By making Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Thor fully fleshed-out, believable characters regardless of their fantastic origins, and then allowing them to shape the world they exist in, it creates a cinematic universe which may not be more realistic, but is more believable. DC, on the other hand, have created a realistic-feeling world and inserted weird, unrealistic characters into it: for example, men who run around and fight crime dressed as bats and super-powerful aliens dressed in blue spandex, with more outlandish characters to be introduced over the next few years. It creates an almost jarring effect which, in the pursuit of realism, actually threatens to disengage the audience and drive them away: besides, Man of Steel (which I actually liked a lot as a film) made Superman a little too angsty, and cinemagoers largely got over angsty protagonists after the final Twilight film was released.
Finally, a brief but important point: there is something that Marvel Studios executives truly understand, and I’m not convinced DC executives have quite gotten their heads around yet, which is that ‘superhero movie’ is not a genre in and of itself. As the films in MCU have shown, a superhero movie can also be a period action film, a techno-thriller or an espionage thriller: what makes it a ‘superhero movie’ is the characters involved, not the tone and themes of the film. On the other hand, while you can argue that The Dark Knight was almost a Godfather-like crime drama and The Dark Knight Rises had more in common with a revolutionary war film than a straightforward superhero movie, both Batman Begins and Man of Steel were just superhero movies. That’s not a bad thing for a standalone film, but when expanding that single film into a multi-limbed franchise that is designed to continue almost indefinitely (Marvel have rough plans for films up until 2028), variety is the key to keeping audiences, both casual and serious, coming back for more.
Taking these points into consideration, while it is a good thing that DC/WB are avoiding copying Marvel’s strategy beat-for-beat and taking a different path towards forming their own Cinematic Universe, their current bearing is an incredibly risky one which could threaten to alienate their core demographic of comic book readers and turn off the casual viewer in one fell swoop. Really, the success of the DCCU will be defined by how the multiple characters are handled in Superman vs Batman, and everything, this article included, is entirely based on speculation.
But as of right now, I know which side my money’s on.