The real difference between the film successes for Marvel and DC isn’t what most people think it is. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I think I can boil it down to a fundamental difference in the subject matter.
Not the writers, or directors, or actors, although those are factors as well. But, primarily, it is the characters themselves who are the real difference.
MCU / DCU Character Difference
DC heroes need a lot more story to make their heroes relatable. They need a TV series. The success of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Gotham, Smallville, Legends of Tomorrow, Lois & Clark, Constantine, and Lucifer as shows, are examples.
Marvel heroes are relatable right out of the title sequence. They make fine shows as well, but as feature films the average viewer can relate to them early.
“But why?” you’re asking. Well, it’s simple. Most of the DC heroes, as it turns out, are Marvel villains. Most of the Marvel heroes would be DC villains. “Hold on, back up, that’s crazy, David! Geeksplain that to me,” you say. Well that’s why I’m here. The Infinity Stone at the center of this is basically, ‘What’s the ego and what’s the alter-ego?’
Defining a DC Hero
DC heroes are all, well, super-human. But not just for their super powers. Their whole being is above regular people or intentionally separate from them. They have broody Bat-Caves, they’re aliens with immeasurable power, goddesses, and the like.
They separate themselves from regular people. They are Powers who have a secret identity where they sometimes pretend to be regular people. They do this so they continue to be superheroes, but they don’t really want to be regular people.
The villains in DC are more relatable to the masses than the heroes. Lex Luther is afraid of an alien invasion by a Power against which humanity is unable to defend itself. The Joker is a walking emotional breakdown in midlife crisis (though that changes based on the writer sometimes). Mr. Freeze wants to save his wife. Poison Ivy is defending the environment.
This of course doesn’t hold true for all of them. Doomsday, Darkseid, and the like are basically DC heroes by origin that happen to be on the wrong side of writer’s pen and are thus fighting DC heroes.
What Makes a Marvel Hero?
When we get to the real source code of what makes a Marvel hero, almost all of them are regular people who were thrown, against their will sometimes, into wild situations that turn them into Powers and then leave them with a conundrum. ‘I don’t want this responsibility. I want a regular life. I can’t let bad things happen if I have the power to help.’
- There’s Spider-Man: a boy who wants to learn some science, has a freak accident, experiences guilt, but just wants everyone to be safe and go back to being a nerd.
- Captain America: an artist who loves freedom and democracy, but there’s always some Nazis trying to ruin that.
- The Incredible Hulk: a scientist who saw a kid was going get killed on the test site, and now doesn’t want to be cursed with turning into a rage monster.
- The X-Men: born different, just want to be like everyone else.
- Iron Man: had to build himself an iron-lung.
- Doctor Strange: just wanted to be a surgeon.
Daredevil… Punisher… Silver Surfer… Fantastic Four… Even Thor, a literal Norse god, just wants to hang out with his girl and drink beer with his bro-gods. They are regular people with a secret identity where they sometimes have to be Powers. They would give it all up tomorrow if they could just stay in their apartment with MJ.
The first question to determine the potential of a super-hero movie is, “Which one’s the identity and which one’s the secret?” Sorting that out will go a long way towards priming you for what to expect as the movie unfolds.
It’s not necessarily fair to compare heroes from Marvel with those hailing from DC. The heroes are fundamentally different on at least this level regardless of how many similarities they might share. Give them both a fair shake on this metric and you might find that you enjoy one or the other more – depending on the preference you carry into the comparison in the first place!