If you ever wade into a discussion on the giants of comic books and superhero movies, you will undoubtedly encounter a debate about its two leaders – Marvel vs. DC.
These titans of the comic industry have been there since comics became more than a handful of panels in the funny-pages of the daily newspaper. Not only that, they have made their brands into pop culture icons. Their stories are currently dominating the silver screen of our summers, wrestling with Star Wars.
It’s a bit of an urban legend that these two are in a heated competition with each other. One of the surest ways of getting yourself isolated from the conversation is to argue that they are both the same.
So, to avoid such an embarrassment, here’s a look into the difference between Marvel and DC – and how you can avoid confusing the two without having to read through years of comics.
1. How Things Started
Both Marvel and DC trace their origins to the 1930s under different names.
Introduced in 1934, DC was initially known as “National Allied Publications”. NAP later merged with “Detective Comics Inc”. and the affiliated “All-American Publications”, and was named “National Comics”. It wasn’t until 1977 when the comic giant officially changed its name to “DC Comics”.
Detective Comics was a series of detective stories inspired by the noir crime genre, while Marvel Comics were outlandish tales of fantasy or science fiction.
First published in 1939, “Marvel” was a series of stories by Timely Publications, first featuring The Human Torch, and one of the wholesale survivors for Marvel of that age, Captain America.
Marvel performed a radical restructuring of itself due to lagging sales, going from being “Timely Publications” to “Atlas Magazines”. In the 1960s, however, it finally gained its name as we know it today – “Marvel Comics”.
2. Their Themes – An Overview
DC’s evolution from hard-boiled crime stories to the current “Gods Among Us” style came from adopting the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (yes, DC had their very own Captain Marvel) into their portfolio.
DC’s approach to superheroes was a modern imagining of Greek gods – superhuman warriors born in extraordinary circumstances that elevated them above normal humans. Great heroes with powers far beyond mere mortal men and women who believe in doing the right thing, protecting the innocent and exemplifying the remarkable qualities of the human condition.
“Superhuman warriors born in extraordinary circumstances”
Marvel tapped into a staple of hallmark science fiction and opened a door to a world of the strange and remarkable. A peek into the extraordinary, a world of flawed men and women alike you and me. They struggle to do right, balancing between the regular and the remarkable. And touched by the bizarre, their great power comes with a great cost.
3. The Theme of Realism
While both comic publishers present a make-believe universe, Marvel brings more realism to a fantasy world. In the words of Stan Lee, “I tried to merge the fantasy element with as much realism as I can put into the stories”.
Marvel characters have regular human problems that allow fans to “connect” with their stories.
Seeing troubled teens like Peter Parker or the cancer-stricken Wade Wilson suddenly endowed with superhuman powers offer a sense of realism and hopefulness. Tony Stark has an alcohol problem, while Peter Quill has daddy issues.
Marvel’s heroes are also from Earth and are granted special powers through science-gone-wrong (at least, most of the time), making their tales more plausible.
DC on the other hand, offers a mythical, far-fetched and fictitious universe.
Sure, there’s Batman, who deals with (somewhat) regular crimes in his city, but the majority of heroes, are either aliens, sea gods, or super geniuses – who let’s face it – aren’t really relatable to us and are more admirable in an otherworldly way.
4. How they Got Their Powers
Born Great vs. Becoming Great
This juxtaposition between the two origins – one with many born great, the other with many who become great also speaks volumes in terms of “realism”.
DC’s heroes are generally born with their phenomenal powers and it’s part of who they are – which is yet again, fantastical. But Marvel’s heroes gain their superhuman abilities through accidents and freak occurrences like radioactive spider-bites, genetic mutation, a super-soldier program, or being exposed to gamma rays.
Of course, there’s the exception of Thor, the God of Thunder.
How these superheroes use and live with great power can also be compared. DC’s characters are like Gods, naturally inclined to protect their worlds:
- Superman – the Messiah
- Wonder Woman – the daughter of Zeus
- Aquaman – Poseidon
- The Flash – Hermes
25+ Most Powerful DC Heroes – Ranked
Marvel’s heroes however, must acquire their powers to become Earth’s protectors:
- Captain America becomes a soldier in WWII
- The Hulk must learn to control his strength and anger
- Iron Man builds his own suit to become America’s greatest
5. Power and Corruption
“With great power comes great responsibility” are the immortal words of Benjamin Parker. If there is one defining example of how Marvel looks at what it means to have power, it is this line.
Marvel’s heroes know full well that great power is tempting to abuse. They often look upon the destruction they cause and regret just what they are capable of.
Remember the Stamford incident that killed 600 people?
Tony was slapped in the face and called a murderer by a grieving mother who then proceeded to rant about how the incident wouldn’t have happened if the Avengers didn’t present themselves as being able to do whatever they liked.
Tony was so guilt-ridden over this incident that three quarters of the Civil War arc was attributed to him desperately wanting to change the world for the better.
The heroes of DC’s universe seem unhindered by the dangers of the power they wield no matter how humble they seem.
While there are times when their power is put into question, it often takes an antagonist like Lex Luthor or Amanda Waller to make the heroes or others realize.
For the most part, DC’s figures are idolized and it seems to only be when the heroes go off the chain (such as in Injustice: Gods Among Us, A Better World or the many times Superman went rogue) that the actual danger of such power is really explored.
6. Character Backgrounds
While both series have plenty a mix of characters with wondrous or tragic origins (Superman being the last of his kind, Batman losing both his parents in an alley, Magneto surviving Auschwitz etc.), only the backgrounds for many of DC’s heroes are to some degree remarkable.
- Bruce Wayne’s family practically built Gotham
- Superman was regarded a last hope by his biological father
- Most of the Doom Patrol were celebrities before their accidents
- Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Raven, Hawkgirl and even Starfire are all royalty, if not straight up descendants of gods
Marvel’s key roster are far more likely to be ordinary people:
- Steven Strange was merely a top-class neurosurgeon
- Luke Cage was a young punk off the streets
- Bruce Banner was from a nondescript but abusive household
- Peter Parker had one of the most ordinary teenage lives
7. Character Reputations
Many DC heroes are widely respected in their universe. For the most part, the general public adore the existence of these heroes which includes monuments and commemorative buildings such as Central City’s Flash Museum.
Contrast this with a group like the X-Men, who seem to get a lot of scorn from the general public no matter what they do. Born different, the general attitude toward them has been of fear, revulsion or mistrust – something that can be a comic-book reflection of real-life racism and discrimination.
This even applies to individual heroes; the only time Batman really gets bad press is when he goes overboard, but Spider-Man will get a front-page smear from the Daily Bugle marking him as an accomplice to crime no matter what he does.
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8. Family Dynasties
Perhaps to relate to the idea of “Greek legends”, DC is home to the superhero dynasties. Superman’s got Kal-El, his father Jor-El, his cousin Kara-Zor-El, a clone brother Kor-El and Kal-El’s half-human son Jonathan Samuel Kent. Not to mention the lineage of the far future.
You also have the Bat family; several kinds of Robins, one Batgirl and Bruce Wayne’s illegitimate son. Captain Marvel’s ‘cousins’ could count as a family as they make up a nuclear family of a mom, dad, brother and sister. Also the Speedsters, who are a dynasty all on their own.
For Marvel however, you only really get this idea of lineages with Mutants, the Inhuman Royal Family and the Fantastic Four. But even most of these aren’t as homely or as representative as the DC super-families.
Magneto’s children, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch grew up separate from their father and the Pym family was more a series of partners and successors than an actual lineage. Hank didn’t even know he had a daughter with someone else until she turned up in his life.
The Summers could count in this lineup, although it’s very rare for the primary clan – Scott, Jean Grey, Cable and Hope – to all be in the same room together, so to a degree, they’re not entirely like a DC family.
9. Their Locations
Real vs. Fake Cities
One of the easy differences between Marvel and DC is that while the former heroes reside in American cities we know like Boston, New York, Houston and Los Angeles, the latter heroes call home to fictional cities that could be anywhere.
Gotham City? Metropolis? Coast City? Central City? Star City? These are supposedly prominent places in America, but where they are is often kept vague.
The idea was that, like the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield and its state capital of Capital City, they could be anywhere the reader imagines. Smallville could be the small town next to yours to add to that feeling this hero is local.
Marvel on the other hand, bases its heroes in real places, with prominence given to New York City. This gives an added grounding and readers can learn a lot about the places our heroes go. Marvel still takes liberties with local locations; there’s no real Baxter Building for instance, no New York paper called the Daily Bugle and Xavier’s Westchester estate is a bit nondescript.
Outside America, the two companies play a similar card, that of the fictional small country. There’s no Latveria in Europe, neither is there a Genosha Island off the coast of South Africa, and Qurac sounds like an odd mashup of Qatar and Iraq.
This was mostly done to avoid backlash in poor portrayals or “destroying” a real foreign country. These days, going to a country where the heroes cause chaos on the silver screen is often done with the consent of the nation in question, usually because it gives that nation publicity to have a superhero visit there. But back when the comics were new, it was better to play safe and make somewhere up than have the heroes smash stuff in a poorly-known foreign country.
Which is good, we wouldn’t have had Wakanda otherwise.
10. Their Movies
Before the 2000s, both Marvel and DC were in similar boats. What set them apart however was the direction they then took with three prominent figureheads: Christopher Nolan, Zach Snyder and Kevin Fiege.
The tone of this era of DC movies were defined by Christopher Nolan’s desire to take a more serious and gritty route with Batman, more like a crime noir than the wacky styles of Joel Schumacher (*coughs* the terrible Batman & Robin).
Then there’s Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel which tried to create a DC universe that felt a lot like the Nolan-era Batman trilogy but didn’t quite hit the same mark.
With Snyder’s departure after Justice League, this influence toned down and in came the brilliant Aquaman movie and Wonder Woman, which too had a serious and darker tone compared to its competing superhero films by Marvel. Let’s not even get started on the 2019 movie, The Joker, which is probably DC’s darkest and most disturbing yet.
Kevin Fiege’s career was climbing the ladder within Marvel Studios. While Nolan, Schumacher and Snyder come under the umbrella of “auteur” type directors, who defined the tone their way, Feige used his years within Marvel to create a setting that more closely aligned with the comics.
There’s fun (DC also has “fun”, but not quite like Marvel), there’s an aura of innocence and there’s even bubbly music (Guardians of the Galaxy) and curse words (Deadpool) to make it extremely welcoming to all kinds of fans.
As a result…
DC movies gained a reputation for being dark, serious and gritty while Marvel movies were much rather loved for being humorous, colorful and entertaining for both children and adults alike.
So, there you have it. A comparison between DC and Marvel – that’s our take, at least. What other differences between Marvel and DC have we left out? Let us know your thoughts on the competing comics in the comments below!
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Nicely done, but if you ever update the “Theme of Realism” section , given the state of the nation in 2021, consider addressing the issue of race and civil rights in Marvel’s realism. Marvel embraced that reality long before DC. (BTW, looking at the graphics for your article one could conclude only white humans occupy both universes.) Marvel’s willingness to bring race and civil rights into their comics long before DC, or any other major comics publisher, at the time set them apart ……at least to us black children reading comics in the 60s who rarely, if ever, saw ourselves, our communities, our concerns, anywhere in the comics universe….invisible… like we didn’t matter. It wasn’t just Black Panther. Marvel had ordinary black people as minor characters too. By my recollection DC didn’t really start to play catch up until Kirby got over there. I think what Marvel did in the 60s mattered and I think it’s worth mentioning/crediting when looking at the history of the two publishers . Just a thought from an old guy who remembers 10 cent comic books, the Yancy Street gang, and “It’s clobberin’ time!” Peace!