Republican versus Democrat, Yankees versus Red Sox, Betty versus Veronica, Marvel versus DC. There are some debates in our country that seem like they will go on forever. The battle of Marvel versus DC is one that has raged since both companies were at their peaks of glory. For decades, fans have established their personal stance and aligned themselves with one publisher and one set of characters to define who they are and what they love. In the last 15 years, the battle between these two brands has evolved into movie theaters across the country. Comic book fans aren’t the only ones who debate the merits of Marvel versus DC as a whole new generation is introduced to these characters through movies and television. The debate can be a fun one, but new outbursts of vitriol leave me questioning how we reached this point, and whether or not the debate really matters.

Like many people my age, I cut my superhero teeth on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. My first loyalty was to DC Comics, full-stop, no question. When I set foot in my first comic book store a few years later, it was that love of Batman and DC characters that informed my purchases. Marvel, for me, was an impenetrable monolith of strange characters. I had watched the Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons, sure, but they didn’t appeal to me in the way the adventures of the Caped Crusader did.

My interest in comics grew to an obsession around the year 2000. That year, a film event that would shape the next 16 years of blockbusters was about to occur: the release of Bryan Singer’s first X-MEN film (worth noting, a lot of credit for the current comic book film bubble truly goes to the first BLADE film, but I was too young to see that movie at the time of its release. Also worth noting, that film is an underrated gem). For me, a die-hard DC fan, my knowledge of the X-Men was entirely based on watching an occasional episode of the cartoon series. However, that summer, the merry mutants were everywhere and my casual interest turned into an obsession. The X-Men have, and always will be, the perfect superheroes for the weirdo adolescent, and I fell in love with them accordingly.

Only real 2000s kids remember everything being cobalt.

So there I was: trapped between two worlds. I was the only person in my circle of friends who actually read comics. To them, there was no difference between the two companies, so I never had to choose a side. My DC love continued to grow, but I began to understand the appeal of Marvel as well. With the release of Sam Raimi’s first SPIDER-MAN film, I began to read monthly Spider-Man and X-Men comics alongside my purchases of Batman and Justice League books.

CLICK: For more inter-company harmony, check out a Marvel fan’s perspective on BATMAN V SUPERMAN

I say all of this because it’s important to establish to you, the reader, that I have no allegiances. Sure, I have my biases in terms of characters and creative decisions over the years, but I’m not a Marvel Zombie or a die-hard Batfan. I’m just a guy who loves comic book storytelling in whatever form it comes in. Because of my love for both companies, I’ve been able to see just how much they need one another—which makes the debate over which company is better completely pointless. In order to better grasp the symbiotic relationship of Marvel and DC, we have to go back to the birth of their rivalry—before the superheroes lit up the silver screens.

Since their beginning, Marvel and DC Comics fostered creativity through their rivalry. If the movies are going to continue to succeed and not cause the dreaded implosion of the blockbuster bubble, they need to rely on each other’s achievements in the way the comics have done for decades. For this reason, comic book fans need to set aside this hostility towards each company and recognize that one would not exist without the other. 

The Funny Book Wars

To begin, the very idea of a superhero came from Superman and his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. His first appearance in 1939’s ACTION COMICS #1 set off a cultural revolution that can still be seen influencing superhero comics years later. Anytime a superhero puts on a spandex outfit or a cape, Superman is, in some conscious or subconscious way, an influence. After giving birth to the superhero, DC also gave birth to the superhero team in the form of both the Justice Society and the Justice League of America. It was the latter that ended up being the most important to Marvel’s history.

The legend goes, according to Sean Howe’s book MARVEL: THE UNTOLD STORY, that it all began in 1961 with a game of golf. DC publisher Jack Liebowitz played a round with Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman, and Liebowitz discussed his sales success with the Justice League. Goodman went to writer Stan Lee and, in Howe’s words, asked him to “steal this idea and create a team of superheroes.” Marvel already had its own superheroes in the form of Namor, the Human Torch, and Captain America. Marvel had even seen success in a story featuring a showdown between Namor and the Human Torch. Instead of reusing these existing characters to create a team, as DC had done with the Justice League, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the brand new characters that would go on to be the first family of comics: The Fantastic Four. The birth of the Justice League begat the Fantastic Four in 1961. In other words, Marvel as we know it exists because of DC Comics.

First appearance of the Justice League which would inspire the creation of the Fantastic Four. It’s hard to deny the similarity between the two cover images. Sadly, the trend of giant, psychic, despot starfish aliens did not catch on (Art by: Mike Sekowsky, Murphy Anderson, and Jack Andler).

It was the success of the Fantastic Four that led to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation of the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. Lee and Steve Ditko created even more icons in Doctor Strange and, of course, Spider-Man. All of this culminated in the team-up of The Avengers in 1963, which shared more in common with the Justice League than its forebearer, the Fantastic Four. The new Marvel characters became icons in their own right, but remember that these are flames that came from the creative spark of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman and the creation of the Justice League at DC Comics.

CLICK: Like STAR WARS? Like comics? Duh, of course you do! Check out how STAR WARS was influenced by comics.

This symbiotic relationship would influence the direction DC would take its characters into the ’70s and ’80s. Part of Marvel’s popularity came from its fallible heroes. They were relatable, and their adventures were often trippy and cosmic but felt grounded in the real world. DC characters tended to be more mythic in scope. Their adventures were focused on fighting the bad guy rather than troubles in their personal lives. This focus on character made Marvel characters incredibly popular with the counterculture set. From Howe’s book:

“Roy Lichtenstein appropriated one of Kirby’s X-MEN panels for his painting Image Duplicator, and future Warhol collaborator Paul Morrisey made a ten-minute experimental film, The Origin of Captain America, in which an actor read from TALES OF SUSPENSE #63. There were scattered other comics in the background of Morrissey’s film and all of them were from Marvel.”

For better or for worse, Marvel made a creative mandate to inject realism into superhero comics. Peter Parker’s money troubles, romantic woes, and angst over his role as Spider-Man were legitimately groundbreaking for the time. DC responded to this storytelling style in 1970 by creating books like GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, where the two characters became mouth pieces for the conservative/liberal ideologies and debated about issues that faced America. 

The Modern Age of Comics

From that realism, DC took the first steps in taking the mature themes, subject matter, and tone of underground comix (some NSFW material in the link) and grafting them into superhero books. Works of superhero deconstruction in the ’80s, like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN, put depictions of sex and violence right alongside superheroes and villains. The popularity of these two books rocketed comics into the mainstream as adult entertainment. This new brand of “mature reader” comics proved so successful that in 1993 DC launched the mature readers imprint Vertigo. Without Marvel’s success at creating such well-rounded characters, DC would never have challenged its style of storytelling and Vertigo likely wouldn’t exist.

The comics published by Vertigo were creator-owned books. This meant that the writers and artists who created the series would maintain the rights to their characters. By granting creators these rights, comic book writers would see a greater profit on their characters’ popularity. Vertigo’s success in putting creators first would inspire the way both companies ran their businesses.

DC would start putting out books that were driven by the voice of the writers and artists rather than editorial mandate. Books like Garth Ennis’ HITMAN, Tom Peyer’s HOURMAN, or James Robinson’s STARMAN, were all products of the pure creative vision of their writers. Even more mainstream book like Geoff Johns’ JSA and THE FLASH came from the writer’s obsession with long forgotten DC continuity and minutiae. These books featured obscure or wholly original characters and brought them to the forefront with fun and creative storytelling. 

This creator-driven focus seemed to be the driving force of Marvel’s 2012 publishing initiative MARVEL NOW! and their 2015/2016 ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT initiative. These relaunches are reflections of DC’s efforts in the ’90s to the pre-New 52 2000s. DC would put out books with top talents behind them. Books like UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL and MS. MARVEL owe a debt to these idiosyncratic DC comics of the ’90s and 2000s.

CLICK: Constantine has blazed (eh? get it? HELLBLAZER?) his way through adaptations. Check ’em out here!

In 2016, Marvel is, for the first time in its history, investing in the idea of teen heroes and legacy. This is a concept that DC Comics has mined for decades, dating all the way back to the first appearance of Robin in 1940 up to the TEEN TITANS books of the ’60s and ’80s. Robin was a massive hit following his first appearance, and the TEEN TITANS has been a success in both comics and cartoons. Even when branded as YOUNG JUSTICE, DC’s conceit of young heroes and heroic legacy has been a part of its DNA for most of its history.

It would take over fifty years for Marvel to create its own team of legacy superheroes with the 2005 book YOUNG AVENGERS. It’s an idea that they should have experimented with sooner, as the Younger Avengers team and its various characters have become obscenely popular. So popular that characters like Hulkling, Wiccan, and Kate Bishop have become full-fledged Avengers and, in the case of Kate Bishop, taken over the title of their hero (HAWKEYE). 

Just as numerous DC heroes have passed on their mantles (Barry Allen to Wally West, the various Green Lanterns, all of the Blue Beetles), Marvel has begun to do the same with the current big titles featuring Jane Foster as Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Amadeus Cho as the Hulk, and the upcoming Riri Williams as Iron Man. Not to mention the runaway success of legacy characters like Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. These Marvel characters are taking on the mantle of their predecessors to create diversity and experiment with new types of superhero legacy stories that were once monopolized by DC Comics.

The best middle finger to racists since the cover of Captain America #1 (Art: Stuart Immonen).

The shared history of Marvel and DC proves that the publishing sides of these companies would falter without each other. Arguing about which one is better is like arguing which lung does a better job at breathing. They have pushed the boundaries and challenged each other to reach new creative heights. While the comics are undoubtedly indebted to one another, the rivalry has taken on a new dimension as the multi-million (and sometimes billion) dollar film franchises dominated the cultural conversation. It’s this overwhelming interest in superhero films that has taken the Marvel/DC rivalry in a startling direction.

Celluloid Heroes

Prior to 2008, DC had dominated the multiplexes. Richard Donner’s 1979 SUPERMAN film defined the Man of Steel and used, for the time, cutting edge effects to make us believe, as the poster promised, a man could fly. Jump ahead a decade and Tim Burton’s BATMAN single-handedly resurrected the Dark Knight from the campy clown to brooding vigilante in the eyes of the public. Only Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN films truly rivaled the successes that DC and Warner Brothers had in adapting superheroes to the big screen. The tug-of-cinematic-war would pull back toward DC when Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS debuted in 2005 and finally eclipsed all other comic book movies that came before it in 2008 with THE DARK KNIGHT.

CLICK: Check out our thoughts on THE LONG HALLOWEEN, the comic that inspired Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT

It can’t be understated what a massive year 2008 was for the comic book movie. THE DARK KNIGHT proved that non-comic book readers and astute critics of film could find value in tales of the Batman. THE DARK KNIGHT whipped fans of DC comics into a frenzy. This was it. The masterpiece film that would, for many fans, prove DC’s superiority. They even had the 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes as concrete, numerical evidence of the film’s quality.

It’s hard to deny that I was caught up in the hype, too. I still remember being at the midnight screening of the film. It seemed like everyone in my small New Jersey town was at the movies that night and the only film playing on every one of the theater’s ten screens was THE DARK KNIGHT. THE DARK KNIGHT and the fanatical praise surrounding it would be one part of the toxic mixture of the Marvel vs. DC debate. The other half would be a phrase uttered by Nick Fury in the post-credits scene of IRON MAN, released only two months before THE DARK KNIGHT: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative.”

And then we all crapped our pants.

Despite the excitement over Nick Fury’s appearance at the end of IRON MAN, THE DARK KNIGHT overshadowed any and all conversations about comic book movies (or really any genre of movie) that year. The film had reached a level of prestige unheard of by superhero films. Kevin Smith referred to it as “…the GODFATHER II of comic book films” and pretty much every comic book geek agreed with him. Even the Academy recognized Heath Ledger’s breathtaking performance as the Joker and awarded the actor with a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.

In his book THE CAPED CRUSADE, author Glen Weldon pointed out that THE DARK KNIGHT’s Oscar snub, and the subsequent reaction to it from both fanboys and critics, led to the Academy “doubl[ing] the size of the Best Picture Category from five to ten. The expansion came to be known as ‘the DARK KNIGHT Rule.'” THE DARK KNIGHT didn’t just matter to comic book movies, it mattered to movies period. DC fans were jubilant. Comics were finally a respected work of art.

However, Christopher Nolan’s Batman existed all on his own. We would never see his version of Batman standing alongside Superman, Wonder Woman, or any member of the Justice League. As more and more Marvel Studios films were released, each with connective threads, it became clear that, sweet fancy Moses, we’re gonna get an Avengers movie!

The excitement began to shift from Nolan’s Batman to the coming of the Avengers. Fans were no longer anticipating the movie coming out, but about what the movie coming out teased for the future. It’s as if, as time went on, the DC fans were Woody in TOY STORY. They rode high on all the love and praise until the new, flashy Buzz Lightyear (Iron Man) swooped in to steal away the popularity. For years, THE DARK KNIGHT stood as the gold standard of comic book movies, but THE AVENGERS gave Marvel fans a gold standard of their own.

In an article for the website The Dissolve, Matt Singer coins the phrase “teaser culture.” Much like the comics they’re based on, comic book movies are becoming equal parts story and set-up for future installments. This all started with IRON MAN and the promise of a future Avengers movie (because let’s be honest, before that movie, did anyone even know what a post-credit scene was?), and it fundamentally changed the way big blockbuster films were discussed online. The ugly war between fans has been driven by this “teaser culture” and the way fans interact through the internet. This excitement for the future is why the Marvel vs. DC debate is becoming so toxic.

Antici……pation.

IRON MAN’s promise of future films made people speculate like crazy. Soon each Marvel film would have its own post-credit scene, promising a new piece of the puzzle. Fans wanted to know what was going to happen next, and websites wanted clicks, so they obliged. Go to nearly any website that caters to a geek or nerd crowd and you’ll see hundreds of articles promising Easter eggs, talks of a second or third sequel before the first film is even released, or articles about some actor saying they want to play some character that hasn’t even been hinted at in films yet.

Fans get so riled up about the casting announcements, the secret names being used in place of the real character, the theory about who is playing who, the first images, the concept art, the first teaser for the teaser trailer, the first trailer, the second through 15th trailer, the TV spots, the supercut trailer where someone edits together every bit of footage released until they’ve practically put the whole movie online. Then come the reviews! Poor reaction to reviews is nothing new. In fact, the reviews for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES had comments sections filled with angry fans threatening anyone who dared besmirch the good name of a film they hadn’t even seen yet. It became so bad that Rotten Tomatoes shut down the comments on reviews for the film and eventually removed the ability to comment on individual reviews altogether.

Pictured above: Rotten Tomatoes comments on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES reviews.

Fans are so plugged in with every step of the production process that we can’t bring ourselves to admit that a movie is lousy because then we will have to admit we wasted so much time on pre-film garbage. The debate of Marvel vs. DC is no longer a debate about the quality of stories or characters, but a justification of spending an immense amount of time and effort to pick apart every aspect of a film before it’s even released.

Why We Fight

This overzealous desire to prove one side’s superiority over another makes all comic book fans look bad. This pointless bickering also stands in the way of making any real progress within fandom and pop culture. So what are the “real problems” that this debate hinders?

Firstly, slavish brand loyalty does nothing to improve the actual quality of a film. The release of SUICIDE SQUAD came with a ton of baggage from the critical response to the previous two DC films (BATMAN V SUPERMAN and MAN OF STEEL). The common refrain is that these films are made “for the fans” and that critics are “paid off” by companies like Disney to sully the name of DC films. The rivalry between DC and Marvel has caused fans to reject critical discourse entirely.

CLICK: Wanna know our thoughts on SUICIDE SQUAD? Click here!

I’m not placing the blame solely at the feet of DC fans here. If Marvel fans hadn’t spent years with gloating and “on your left” memes, DC fans wouldn’t have felt so burned. We never heard anything about critics being paid off when SUPERMAN RETURNS and GREEN LANTERN received poor to middling reviews. The reason for that is obvious: there was no superhero film arms race then. The competition hadn’t moved to the grand stage of mainstream film culture. This isn’t about getting good reviews anymore, it’s about “winning” at making superhero films, which goes against the productive creative competition DC and Marvel have shared for decades.

There’s nothing wrong if a fan likes a movie that critics don’t like, but sending vitriolic hatred towards those who disagree accomplishes nothing. Do we disagree with critics at times? Fine! Then we, as fans, should write about the film and contribute to the critical discussion to explain why we think the film has merit! Become critics ourselves! Criticism is a way to explain what works and what doesn’t about a film, and if someone loves it, share that love. Don’t threaten or question the legitimacy of someone’s, and I can’t stress this part enough, subjective opinion about a movie.

Next, the refusal to recognize the strengths of Marvel or DC because of brand allegiance means that any attempts at diversity are going to be halted. Modern internet discourse and culture criticism are heavily focused on representation. As such, superhero films, being the dominate type of blockbuster entertainment right now, has received criticism for its diversity in front of and behind the camera. I want to say this now: this is a good thing. However, there is, to use the parlance of our times, a problematic aspect to this cry for representation when it’s connected to brand loyalty.

Seriously, how did it take this long for this movie to finally happen?

It’s great that these massive studios are finally getting a fire lit under their asses to provide balanced gender and minority representation, but Marvel fans should not celebrate that they got a black superhero movie out “first” and DC fans should not celebrate that they got a female superhero movie out “first.” That’s treating representation like points on a scoreboard. Representation should not be a prop used to prove one side’s superiority. You have to equally support the idea of a Wonder Woman film and a Captain Marvel film. You have to equally support the idea of a Black Panther film and a Cyborg film.  

Do you have to blindly love each movie? Of course not! Part of normalizing representation in films is going to require us to be critical if something in the movie doesn’t work from a filmmaking standpoint regardless of how much representation is in the film. However, supporting and applauding casting choices and creative decisions no matter which company they come from will ensure that more female and minority-driven films get made on the whole.

CLICK: For more discussion on race and media representation, check out our round table discussion

It’s also not just about the faces you can see in front of the camera, but the ones behind it, too. Directorial and creative work on films is a field dominated by white dudes. Marvel has pushed back against this a little bit by hiring Ryan Coogler (CREED) to direct BLACK PANTHER and tapped Taika Waititi (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS) for THOR: RAGNAROK. DC has an incredibly diverse directorial line-up for its new film slate, as well, with Patty Jenkins (MONSTER) on WONDER WOMAN, Justin Lin (THE CONJURING) on AQUAMAN, and Rick Famuyiwa (DOPE) on THE FLASH.

Want to see a female director on CAPTAIN MARVEL? Support Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN. Want to see a black director on CYBORG or any of the one hundred Marvel movies that have come out since this article was published? Support Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER and Famuyiwa’s THE FLASH. Just as they did with the comics, the film sides of Marvel and DC will respond to the reaction to what the other company does. History has shown this to be true. Both sides are making improvements and both sides still make mistakes. Support the progress you want to see in films regardless of which studio is making the movie. When both sides succeed, we all win.

There’s that word again: “win.” The concept of winning has seeped its way into so many facets of American society. It’s currently destroying our politics, and it’s made the idea of criticism so polemic that it is poisoning us all. Art, much like politicos, should not be a competition. Art is our self-expression. It is the closest thing we have to seeing the human soul; there should not be a “winner” or “loser.” 

We love our superheroes in our art because they inspire us to do better. This is the lesson we forgot as we became swept up in the thrill of superhero popularity. Marvel versus DC doesn’t matter because they both need each other. Marvel needs DC to make great movies and vice verse. The average person doesn’t care about the difference between the two companies. If they start seeing bad superhero movies, they’ll stop going to all superhero movies.

Just like in the comics, the two companies thrive off of each other’s successes. They both have, can, and will do better, especially if we as fans are truly honest about what we like and don’t like about each company, rather than blinding taking sides. That is an area where we can all do better.

After completing this pin-up, George Perez’s drawing hand exploded (Art: George Perez).

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