Nov 09 2010
Caveat: Both companies have thousands of characters, so obviously there will be exceptions to every generalization. That said, here are some general differences between the two.
1. Marvel characters are more likely to come from relatively ordinary backgrounds than DC characters. For example, Spider-Man, Captain America and most of the X-Men had largely unremarkable lives before developing superpowers. In contrast, the three most prominent DC characters are a billionaire playboy/ninja, an extraterrestrial, and an Amazon princess that may be a CEO.
2. DC usually uses more epic superpowers. For example, Superman doesn’t just have eye-beams or incredible strength or incredible speed or the ability to fly, but all of those and more. In contrast, a lot of Marvel characters get just one (think Cyclops, the Hulk, Quicksilver, Angel, etc). Most Marvel characters usually have somewhat more ordinary capabilities. (The Sentry is a notable exception for Marvel).
3. DC characters were usually created earlier. Most of Marvel’s main characters date to the 1960s and 1970s, whereas most of DC’s date back to the late 1930s and 1940s.
- This is one reason Marvel has characters named [Modifier] Man/Woman/Boy/Lad: Iron Man, Spiderman and the Invisible Woman vs. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Aqua Lad, Hawkgirl and Hawkman, etc.
- Many major DC characters were introduced before superhero teams became commonplace*.
4. DC uses more magic/mythology, and it affects the main characters more. For example, at least 12 of the episodes of Justice League/JLU feature magic. In contrast, the lives and adventures of Marvel characters (particularly the main ones) are farther removed from magic/mythology. A few Marvel characters like Dr. Strange, Dr. Doom and Mephisto sometimes bring magic into otherwise nonmagical stories, but Marvel stories (particularly its movies) are usually more purely science-fiction.
5. Marvel usually focuses on light science fiction, whereas DC sometimes reaches for high sci-fi and/or fantasy and/or really out-there stuff. For example, the most strange stuff in Marvel’s Armored Adventures is a dragon (Fin Fang Foom) and a psychopathic science experiment (MODOK). In contrast, the first season of Justice League had (deep breath) an alien invasion, a war with Atlantis, a sorcerer blackmailing Amazons to release Hades from Tartarus, extraterrestrial slave traders, Gorilla Grodd attacking Gorilla City, a demon assisting the League to defeat a sorceress, a criminal outfit called the Injustice Gang, the League transported to a parallel comic book universe, and an immortal ex-caveman going back in time to help the Nazis win WWII. That was one season.
6. Marvel movies are somewhat better on average. Since 2000, Marvel’s movies have averaged 60% on Rotten Tomatoes and DC/WB’s movies have averaged 47%. My theory here is that the movie teams working on Marvel franchises have generally done a better job giving characters memorable and likable personalities, whereas DC/WB’s non-Nolan efforts have struggled there (e.g. Superman was a peeping tom and deadbeat dad in Superman Returns, Green Lantern was a man-child, and the Catwoman movie was so bad that I wrote a book about it). In contrast, Marvel characters sometimes do objectionable things, but generally execute it with enough style that the character comes across as more likable than not (e.g. Thor’s coffee scene, virtually any Tony Stark scene, Peter Parker letting the robber go, etc).
7. *Many prominent Marvel characters were designed for teams (the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, most of the Avengers, etc). In contrast, many prominent DC characters–particularly those introduced before the JSA’s creation in 1940–were introduced as loners or partners rather than teammates. Characters that are built for a team usually have fewer, simpler powers, because there isn’t as much space for each character. Additionally, writers designing a team can delegate powers and capabilities to different characters–for example, Reed Richards handles science, Ben Grimm is a pilot and the Invisible Woman does most of the team’s stealth work, but Batman usually does all of that himself.
8. Most Marvel characters have powers/capabilities that are easier to explain. For example, “Storm controls the weather and can fly” vs. “Superman is supertough, fast, has eye-rays, ice breath, incredible senses, the ability to fly, and can (at times) go back in time and erase memories.” “The Thing is supertough” vs. “Wonderwoman is supertough, can fly, and can force honesty.” Spiderman is an agile webslinger that can sense danger. Batman is a master detective, ninja, martial artist, gadgeteer and scientist that makes NASCAR look like go-karts.
9. DC’s heroic personas sometimes get adopted by new people. For example, Robin, the Flash, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, the Blue Beetle, Supergirl and Superboy have been different characters at different times. Besides Marvel’s short-lived attempt to slot in Ben Reilly as Spider-Man, you’d have to really dig for Marvel examples (like Johnny Ketch replacing Johnny Blaze as Ghost Rider from 1990-98). Additionally, both companies have used a few short-term substitutes while the original character is getting over a temporary case of death, like Azrael-as-Batman and Bucky-as-Captain America, but it rarely has much long-term bearing on the story.
COUNTEREXAMPLE: After this post was originally written, Marvel introduced Miles Morales as Spider-Man in Ultimate Marvel.
10. Marvel usually uses real locations (notably New York City), whereas DC mostly uses fictional cities that are pretty much New York City (both publishers are located in New York City and it frequently shows). For example, “Gotham” was a nickname for NYC at the time Batman was introduced and Metropolis isn’t fooling anybody.
11. Workload/quality of coffee. DC editors work on 4-8 series per month and Marvel editors work on maybe twice as many. Mercifully, Marvel has better coffee.
What do you think? What would you add or dispute?