There are a lot of comic book superheroes onscreen these days. And between Marvel and DC there are filmic fights going down offscreen, too — so which studio has it right?
by Caitlin Petrakovitz and Iyaz Akhtar
e’re living in a golden age of comic book movies with more characters making their way to the big screen than ever before.
But years ago, comic book movies were a rarity. The critically slammed 1997 "Batman & Robin" put the genre on ice for some time. If a movie was based on a comic book, studios were less than forthcoming with that information. The next high-profile comic franchise was 2000’s "X-Men," which reinvigorated this style of movie; Sony’s "Spider-Man" solidified that superheroes could be viable in film again.
Now, Marvel Comics in particular is driving this trend. Though popular Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk have starred in films and TV shows since the 1960s, the publisher has dug into its portfolio over the past few years to make stars out of lesser-known characters like Iron Man and Daredevil. And as more characters become box-office draws, they’ve continued to exist in the same interconnected movie and TV universe.
Marvel’s biggest rival, DC Comics, is diving into the cinematic-universe-building business, too, but with a less cohesive strategy where its TV and movie worlds don’t intersect -- ever. Since there are only so many hours in a day, which universe should you invest your time and energy in? Let’s look at the players.
Both Marvel and DC’s approaches have their pros & cons.
Both Marvel and DC’s approaches have their pros and cons. The Marvel Cinematic Universe populated by the Avengers (a team of superheroes that includes Captain America and the Hulk) is filled with stories crossing from the big screen to the small, which makes it a lot of fun to get involved. But those hours and hours of stories to watch can get a little overwhelming -- miss a single episode or film and you may miss references to past events or inside jokes.
Unlike Marvel, you don’t have to watch years of movies to get to know DC’s new filmic universe. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" recently introduced a slew of characters at once. Future DC films will pick from that storehouse of heroes and focus on a single character each. While it’s possible this approach will be easier to follow, there’s a catch: DC’s TV programs like "Arrow" and "Gotham" have no connection to the movies. And because different actors will be playing the same role (at least in name) on TV and the big screen, that can get frustrating.
Just because a movie starts with a Marvel logo, doesn’t mean it’s part of the Avengers franchise.
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Before Walt Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, Marvel sold and licensed various film rights to a number of studios, prohibiting certain characters from appearing in each other’s movies. You wouldn’t see Spider-Man and the Hulk team up onscreen, for instance, because the character rights belonged to Sony and Universal, respectively.
It was an irritating arrangement for comic book fans -- they could read crossover stories with multiple Marvel characters, but couldn’t watch them on TV or film. Fortunately, fans were relieved when Disney’s purchase of Marvel and its associated film rights set the stage for an interconnected movie and TV universe that felt more like comic books.
Just consider Marvel’s larger Avengers universe, which began onscreen with 2008’s "Iron Man," where the combination of Robert Downey Jr.’s charm and the fun, lighthearted approach to superhero saviors (compared to films such as The Dark Knight trilogy, or 2006’s "Superman Returns") struck a chord with moviegoers. "Iron Man" was the starting point for a coming series of Disney and Marvel releases, like 2011’s "Thor" and "Captain America," that spotlighted individual Avengers characters. 2012’s "The Avengers" then brought all of these characters together in a good, old-fashioned Marvel comics team-up.
TV viewers also got in on the fun with 2013’s "Agents of SHIELD," which occasionally features storylines that tie directly into the Avengers films. The result is a rich and layered superhero world that gives you a real sense that all of these characters are connected. "Agent Carter" features similar related tie-ins, despite being set in the 1940s. Recently, Disney announced it will also produce a show called "Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger."
Netflix also has a partnership with Marvel, which led to 2015’s "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," as well as "Luke Cage" and "Iron Fist." In addition, a crossover miniseries featuring all four characters, called "The Defenders," will air on the streaming service. It’s obvious that Marvel is applying the same theory of its film universe to these Netflix productions: single-character introductory series followed by a large-scale crossover event. What remains to be seen is if these will remain tangential MCU properties or feature crossover storylines with the "proper" movies and shows.
Outside the MCU
Though Disney’s purchase brought the Avengers characters under one roof, competing studios still own the film rights to some high-profile Marvel characters. Fox makes the original and rebooted X-Men series plus the now-insanely-successful Deadpool movies; Sony retains rights to Spider-Man. That means characters in Fox movies won’t share screen time with any Avengers characters, and vice versa. And that’s a shame since X-Men’s Wolverine and Captain America go way back. But thanks to a deal between Disney and Sony, Spider Man makes his first MCU appearance in "Captain America: Civil War."
Just since the turn of the century, we’ve seen multiple studios get in on the action with eight X-Men films, (and more coming in the next few years), five Spider-Man films with two different lead actors (plus another coming soon), and many more you might not even realize were Marvel productions, like the Blade trilogy.
Upcoming Comic Book Movies
Batman & Superman
Disney rival Time Warner owns DC Comics, and the two have produced a number of movies based on DC characters already. Marvel’s approach to its Avengers universe influenced DC to create its own interconnected films, which began with 2013’s "Man of Steel." Before that, the Christopher Reeve Superman films, 1989’s Batman (and its sequels) and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy had no connection to each other, let alone any ties to the movies in DC’s current film universe.
The second installment in DC’s Extended Universe is "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." Instead of a gradual buildup of characters, we got a look at Batman and were introduced to Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman and the Flash. In one quick scene, we glimpsed a small portion of these heroes beginnings or powers. It was a risky approach to introduce viewers to these characters so hastily; after all, you’ve got a god (Wonder Woman), a sea king (Aquaman) and a cyborg (Cyborg) all existing in a world with a new Batman and an alien Boy Scout (Superman). It’s expected that the group’s origins will be explained in more detail in 2017’s "Justice League" film, but doing so coherently within the confines of one movie won’t be an easy task.
"Suicide Squad" will be the next movie in DC’s movie universe to be released, and will feature Batman in an unknown capacity. It is expected to fill in some back story of the new Batman while showing off lots of villains, including Harley Quinn, Deadshot and the Joker.
DC on TV
Unlike Marvel, DC’s TV programs don’t connect to its movie universe. Period.
DC refers to its shared movie universe as the DC Expanded Universe. As for its television shows, the name "DC Multiverse" is a popular moniker. According to "Batman v Superman" director Zack Snyder, however, the movie exists in "a multi-universe." You get all that?
On TV, 2012’s "Arrow" and its spinoff, "The Flash," share a world without connecting to the films. The actor who plays the Flash on the TV show (Grant Gustin), for instance, is not the same actor who was the Flash in "Batman v Superman" (Ezra Miller). On top of that, a second "Arrow" spinoff, "Legends of Tomorrow,” takes place in the same small-screen universe, while having no connection to the movie universe. Whoa.
Now there’s "Supergirl," which is produced by CBS, CNET’s parent company. Starring Melissa Benoist, the series is brighter and more lighthearted than recent DC films, and after a crossover with TV’s Flash, it now kind of exists in the same...er, realm, as the other TV shows. Thus far, though, its producers have made a point to avoid making any connection to a specific Superman.
Then there’s also "Gotham" which debuted in 2014 and focuses on Jim Gordon as a father figure to young Bruce Wayne. It has no connection to any other DC show on television. And zero connection to any current incarnation of the caped crusader.
Enjoy the fight
The upside is two-fold: You get a choice while enjoying the DC vs. Marvel battle many comic book fans have had for years. So, which is for you? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re a continuity junkie, Marvel’s Avengers universe is your pick. The Marvel universe is filled with stories crossing through all of their properties, from the big screen to the streaming one, which makes it a lot of fun to get involved. But sometimes it can get a little overwhelming, and without watching every single show and movie, you may miss some inside jokes or references to past events.
If you’re afraid a vast, sprawling film universe will mess with your favorite TV show, stick with DC. DC’s universes are more localized, and you can enjoy smaller TV properties without worrying about how it affects the big films. Since the main movies are just getting started, it’s hard to predict what we can expect in terms of interconnectivity. It’s possible that by introducing a multitude of characters at once it will be easier to follow each storyline as DC narrows each film by character.
Whatever you prefer, hours of fun from both give you a great deal of options to devour. Maybe one day comic book fans will finally get an intercompany crossover, say "Avengers vs. Justice League?" But don’t hold your breath.
Enjoy this read? Sign up to be notified anytime CNET adds new special reports:
About the authors
Iyaz Akhtar (@iyaz) is a lapsed comic book nerd and remembers when Marvel movies were a laughingstock. His prized possession is “The Incredible Hulk” issue 181, the first full appearance of Wolverine.