Marvel vs DC: Is the race back on?

Marvel vs DC: Is the race back on?

What caused Marvel’s position as the unrivalled cinematic dominator to be challenged, and what could ever redeem DC on the big screen after Zack Synder took the reins?
02 Sep, 2023

When thinking of the age-old Marvel versus DC debate, especially from a cinematic perspective, it’s safe to say ever since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel’s been comfortably dominating.

DC’s situation with its whole Zack Synder-ification certainly didn’t help its case, but still, all credit should go to Marvel’s strength instead of DC’s weaknesses. Even as a diehard DC fan who — perhaps immaturely — refused to give Marvel a chance, that era changed me. I don’t think it’s controversial to say Marvel reigned in the live-action blockbusters department while DC’s greatness lay in its animated universe.

However, with the state of Marvel’s phase four and five, compared to the absolute reset of the DCEU, well, we have to talk about that, right?

Or more specifically, we have to talk about what exactly caused their roles in the mainstream “who’s better” debate to…not switch exactly, but become unstable. This era could be a paradigm shift in terms of who’s on top, and the main question we all have is “why?!”

Character vs Plot

Pre 2020

If there had to be a single reason explaining why the average viewer’s interest in the MCU was, and to some extent still is, so much higher than their interest in the DCEU, it would all boil down to one thing — character.

You see, if you ask any storyteller of any form whether they deem character or plot more important, the majority will always tell you it’s character. For a story to be properly compelling and meaningful, the storyteller has to care about, value and build up their characters. Some people have this perception that Marvel films are just superficial cash grabs meant for a good time with no real depth, but I would argue otherwise. Marvel, for all its big CGI climaxes and somewhat bizarre plotlines, wouldn’t sacrifice their characters’ consistency, depth or arcs.

The best example would be Iron Man’s character right from his very first movie to Civil War. Tony Stark, at the beginning of Iron Man, genuinely seemed unfazed by the fact that he facilitated thousands of deaths. However, as his own films and the larger cinematic universe as a whole progressed and he saw firsthand the terrible effects of his actions, he bettered himself. He did a number of things to try and make amends, like shutting down the production of weapons at his company and refusing to sell his Iron Man suits, starting to become more responsible and caring about the world. It enabled his character to reach a state where, in Civil War, when he discovers he is partially responsible for just one person’s death, it sends him into a spiral of grief, driving his motivation for the rest of the film.

We don’t question it, because it’s so in line with the character of Iron Man Marvel carefully built up. The development doesn’t feel forced because they’ve done the legwork to earn the right for their character to become compelling. Iron Man’s development naturally led to a phenomenal plot and conflict in Civil War, and although Marvel isn’t guilty of mistakes in character writing cough Iron Man’s retirement cough, this is their standard. Or at least, it was before Phase Four.

Think of it like this — sure, we’re attracted to a first-watch due to the promise of a good time and quality production, but we stay for the characters. Fans come back for them. This is something the old DC, and Phase Four of the MCU, got completely wrong.

With the DCEU, a good example of their standard is Ben Affleck’s Batman. In Batman vs Superman, the character of Batman is the darkest live-action version of the character to have ever been depicted. He is old and bitter, never smiles and always goes for the kill. While many, including me, have strong opinions about that creative decision, those opinions ended up becoming entirely irrelevant because, when Justice League came around the corner, you guessed it, plot over character.

After establishing an incredibly dark character in one movie, they immediately compromised Batman in the very next film, making him a sassy rich guy who’s partially the comic relief of the film. Some call this off-screen character development, which is quite frankly the most bizarre defence I’ve ever heard. If you can see a dark, brooding killer turn into a charming, witty hot guy offscreen and call it character development, that’s pure delusion. DC made a drastic, unearned change to their character simply because they wanted to push a specific aspect of their plot forward, really underlining why their characters were so uncompelling.

If the storytellers don’t value their characters, neither will the audience.

Marvel used to treat their characters like actual human beings, with their own personalities and beliefs, making the audience see them as people, and it was those things that ended up creating plot. DC created a plot first and then bent their characters in whatever way they needed to fit said plot, treating them like tools and, in turn, making the audience see them as tools.

Now, however, the roles seem to have reversed.

The current state

Since we all know the basics, I’ll just get right into it — DC, especially after the release of The Batman, seems to have learned its lesson. Although I can’t say much on their character consistency since they haven’t really made any direct sequel movie recently apart from Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which many found to be a rehash of the same plot over character issue, The Batman was a game changer for DC, especially in terms of character writing.

The Batman, at its core, was the journey of Bruce Wayne and Batman as two separate entities, eventually culminating in their amalgamation and thus, finally, letting Batman become a hero. It was the journey of a vigilante whose goals changed from eradicating evil to protecting good, and through that arc he manages to start his journey of not just self-healing, but healing Gotham. It’s the character that drives the plot, and everything surrounding the story has been made with the character in mind, creating, in my opinion, the best cinematic Batman to date. Not the greatest Batman film, mind you, the Dark Knight Trilogy still exists, but the greatest Batman himself, the greatest version of the character. Within the movie, he is consistent and not only has an internal conflict driving his character arc, but one that connects and drives that external conflict. He isn’t just a tool to generate hype, or even ‘just’ Batman or just Bruce Wayne.

He’s a person. And the audience loves him for it.

Now, compare that to the Marvel films released around the same time — Spiderman: No Way Home was the only critical success and, despite still being in the top 10 highest grossing movies, was beneath both The Batman and the worst Marvel movie of the year, Thor: Love and Thunder.

That movie was almost unanimously hated amongst audiences and critics alike, simply because it broke Marvel’s sacred rule and absolutely butchered Thor’s character. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) himself said the tone of Love and Thunder had to change if he’s going to return.

Marvel’s decision to turn Thor into a lazy goofball is baffling, considering where he was in Infinity War. It’s a completely unexplained switch from where we last saw him in Endgame. How is the audience supposed to believe that this is the same Thor? The Thor who watched his father, brother and best friend die, watched his sister and Asgard be destroyed, failed to stop Thanos, which left him with endless amounts of guilt, how does that Thor end up being the Thor we see in this film? It makes no sense, and is a prime example of where the MCU is going wrong; they’ve started moulding their characters to fit a predetermined plot.

Audience expectations and experiences

While I do believe the storytelling shift is the main reason why the positions of both production houses has become shaky, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole other list of factors to consider, such as the difference in expectations fans have from both.

When going into a Marvel movie, audiences have this predetermined expectation of a standard of quality, wanting a good story with good characters and a great time.

When a movie doesn’t hit the mark, which is inevitable from time to time, the disappointment is much more severe than any criticism towards DCEU movies of similar quality since inconsistency from them is expected. Even before Phase Four, some Marvel Movies falling short of expectations wasn’t anything too bad because there was always a line of good or great movies with the more flawed ones scattered sparsely in between.

Now, with the entirety of Phase Four and the beginning of Phase Five’s movie roster only having two unanimously good movies out of seven — Spiderman: No Way Home and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 — it becomes a lot more difficult to bury the bad with the good.

With DC, The Batman has undoubtedly been their best recent film, but the rest of their movie roster quality is largely inconsistent. However, unlike with Marvel, this isn’t actually a problem because, once again, audiences don’t really expect much from the DCEU.

That, plus the fact they have a better, if still inconsistent, critical success-to-failure ratio compared to Marvel, creates a much better image for DC while Marvel’s reliability is falling, despite the fact that both studios are in roughly the same boat when it comes to inconsistency of quality in recent years.

Think of it this way — audiences watch Marvel movies with the expectation of a set standard of quality, and when that bar isn’t met, they feel cheated. With DC, people don’t expect anything special, so if it actually does end up surpassing expectations, well, hooray, they’re getting more than they bargained for.

All of this, along with how recent Marvel films more often than not seem to be lecturing the audience instead of discussing with them, isn’t doing them any favours. No one likes to be talked down to, especially not a bunch of frustrated fans uncertain about the franchise’s future. Pairing that with the lack of basic nuance, AKA the black and white portrayal of their themes, certainly hasn’t helped. All of this isn’t even considering the whole narrative de-escalation aspect, but you get the gist.

Quality over quantity, business over story

To wrap things up, I’ll end with the most frustrating issue — Marvel’s oversaturation.

The Marvel shows themselves aren’t all bad, but most are treated as a dumping ground for movie ideas that didn’t make the cut — because stretching a ‘not good enough for the big screen’ idea to fill eight hours instead of two is sooo smart. Regardless, since we’re technically only comparing the live-action movies, the main problem with this continuity is that to fully understand a movie you have to watch a whole eight hours of content beforehand, most of which isn’t available in Pakistan or most developing countries, for that matter. Take Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness as an example — the main antagonist of the movie wouldn’t make sense unless viewers had seen Wandavision beforehand. DC, with its fresh, new narrative upheavals, doesn’t have this issue. Or not yet, anyway. While Warner Brothers has let DC have its breathing room so far, Disney certainly isn’t the only money-hungry platform desperate for streamable content in this game.

Point being, for the first time since 2008, the power positions of the world’s two superhero giants are unstable and while I’m not making any claims, I am saying that if there ever was a chance for the superhero scale to shift, it’s now. So sit back, grab some popcorn and pick your favourite contender — it’s going to be an interesting next few years.