I'm not big on comparisons. I think that when you compare similar things and judge them in a vacuum, you can lose sight of what makes each one special in terms of the things that they do differently than the other. That being said, even if you like and respect what everyone does in a particular genre you can still have favorites or preferences for who is doing it a certain way.
Such is the case when talking about the two most high profile comic book shared cinematic universes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. I've made no apologies for the fact that while I like and enjoy both, I favor the DCEU. Heavily. I don't hate the MCU at all, despite the overbearing arrogance and lazy trolling perpetuated by its most ardent fans, many of whom write movie reviews and run news blogs. Unlike those "pundits" who believe that Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige can do no wrong, I am very aware of exactly what his shared cinematic universe DOES do wrong......in my opinion.
Can we just get that out of the way right now? This isn't a news article because I do not run a news site. This is all my opinion, completely subjective and up to me, just as ALL opinions are subjective and up to the individual. The point here is that if this post "triggers" you, it's your own fault not only for reading it, but for allowing it to toy with your emotions in such a way. I understand if it does because it happens to the best of us including me, but if I have to get over the constant barrage of DCEU hatred that is tossed out on social media and blogs almost daily, then you can get over this ONE piece of DCEU appreciation.
Getting back to the matter at hand, neither the DCEU or the MCU are "perfect" franchises by any stretch of the imagination, but just because neither is perfect doesn't mean that either one of them are bad. In many cases, it's unfair to even compare them right now literally because of the disparity between movie count. The MCU has been around since 2008 and is 15 movies in at this point, while the DCEU arguably didn't start until last year when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad joined with Man of Steel's narrative beginning. So you have one franchise that held a monopoly on shared cinematic comic book universes for eight years going against one that really just started a year ago. How could the "young" upstart franchise possibly be doing anything that makes it superior to the "veteran" giant franchise? Well, let's get into it. Here's what the DCEU does better than the MCU:
1 - CINEMATOGRAPHY
This is strictly defined as "the art of making motion pictures," but there is far more to it than that on an artistic level and in terms of technique, creativity and aesthetic. A LOT goes into how an image looks on screen before a camera even records it and that's one area that the DCEU has rightly conquered from the beginning. It's not that Marvel's cinematography is bad, it's just that DC's is better and more comprehensive. Case in point:
These are scenes from the climactic battles of BvS and Captain America: Civil War. It would be easy to pick a tighter shot from the BvS fight to make this point, but to be fair I chose one that is still a wide angle to emphasize this point about negative space. Look at how empty the Airport Scene in Civil War looks. It's supposed to be a big huge battle between Tony Stark's forces and Steve Rogers' forces, but it's so hollow and badly blocked that it looks like a pickup shot or something that wasn't planned very well. You don't get a sense of danger or the gravity of what this fight means for the movie at this point because it's not very well shot.
The beginning of the battle between Batman and Superman however, uses negative space to paint a picture of just how serious that fight is. It's at night, it's raining, the ground is muddy and wet and even though there is just two combatants, you see how serious they take each other's presence because of the distance they give each other to start. It gets much closer once the combat begins, but the setup is so well put together that a ton of dialogue isn't even necessary for the scene and there shouldn't be. Movies are a matter of "show, don't tell" and where the DCEU excels is in the department of showing you what is happening rather than telling you exactly what is happening with a speech or other expositional dialogue as commonly found in the MCU. There are several examples of this all over both franchises, but since this is only the first point we will move on.
2 - AESTHETIC
The DCEU through its crew members and directors to this point, Zack Snyder and David Ayer have found an incredible balance between merging the actual comic book look and feel with that of a real world dynamic, especially in climactic sequences. Trying to blend two different visual mediums into one frame is difficult enough as it is, but trying to do so while still maintaining the integrity of your world-building is even more difficult. In Marvel's case, they have really crafted a world that is very much framed and built like our own which keeps everything more grounded even when the crazy action starts. It's not that the action in the MCU isn't intense and well designed most of the time, it just looks like it's definitively an action movie. The DCEU on the other hand looks like an image that jumps right off the page of a comic book many times, not just in terms of visual effects and composition but also in the case of perspective and easter eggs about certain characters, like this one from Suicide Squad:
Maybe the general audience doesn't know or care about this Easter egg tribute to Alex Ross' iconic artwork of The Joker and Harley Quinn, but this is the kind of thing you just don't see in a Marvel movie most of the time and it's cool to see because it really gives you the feeling that your favorite characters from the comics are literally coming to life instead of just being adapted, even though they are.
3 - STORY DEPTH AND RISKS
When I watch a DCEU movie, I'm enamored with the depth of the storytelling involved, which is why I think it's hilarious when people try to claim that it is badly written. There is a level of mythological symbolism and character depth inherent in all of the DCEU movies that is simply unmatched by the MCU. The reason it goes unnoticed by so many though is because it's also risky storytelling, in the sense that so far we have seen some true deconstruction of our heroes like Superman and Batman, right down to the very essence of what makes them who they are as people before establishing who they are as heroes. The problem is that people who are set in their ways about these characters are genuinely unwilling to see a fresh take. Superman for the first time ever on screen is a character that is humanized and evolves accordingly. Batman for the first time ever on the big screen is given a strong taste of his darker side and fights his way back to the light through Superman's example of what it means to truly be a man. We see a group of notorious villains, each one more damaged and morally bankrupt than the next fighting through constant manipulation from their villainous handler to actually do the right thing in hopes of earning some personal form of atonement for sins they know they have committed.
I'm sure someone could find a real insightful and metaphysical way of explaining the story depth of Avengers: Age of Ultron or Thor: The Dark World, but aside from Tony Stark's three-film personal arc of the Iron Man solo movies that was squashed and all but forgotten since Age of Ultron and the complex spy thriller narrative of the S.H.I.E.L.D.-HYDRA twist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there's not much meat on the bones of the MCU when it comes to symbolism and in-depth stories or character development......and every story they tell is pretty safe and family-friendly. There's not much to talk about with a Marvel movie afterwards, is there? No symbolism or allegories inherent in the motivations of different characters for the most part? For all of the people that tell me comic book movies are not that deep, they're right about Marvel, but not so much about DC.
4 - WOMEN AND DIVERSITY
Suicide Squad featured an African-American lead actor in a main cast that had three women as part of the squad, one of whom is Japanese, an African-American female villain, a Latino member of the squad and an Australian member. That's all in the DCEU's third movie. The fourth movie, this year's Wonder Woman will be the first comic book shared cinematic universe film with a female lead in Gal Gadot's Diana of Themiscyra. Jason Momoa, who is of Native Hawaiian descent will play Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman in Justice League, the fifth DCEU film, alongside African-American actor Ray Fisher who will play Cyborg. That's just major characters and heroes. Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Harry Lennix as General Calvin Swanwick, Antje Traue as Zod's second in command Faora, Holly Hunter as Senator Finch and Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secondary characters that make up what has been a noticeably diverse cast for the DCEU.
The MCU has certainly embraced diversity as well, however through its 15 films the only major minority characters that re-occurred were Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Don Cheadle's Colonel James Rhodes, Idris Elba's Heimdall, and Zoe Saldana's Gamora, and none of them were Avengers. Up until the eleventh movie of the franchise, Age of Ultron, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow was the only female Avenger and was never entertained a solo movie of her own. Age of Ultron also saw the first minority Avengers with both Rhodes' War Machine and Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson/Falcon joining the ranks along with Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, but we won't see an MCU movie led by a minority character until 2018's Black Panther, the 18th film in the franchise, or one led by a woman until actress Brie Larson plays Captain Marvel in 2019 in what will be the 20th MCU movie.
Diversity and representation for women and minorities is not a matter of keeping score or count, but it does say something for the DCEU that it has managed to embrace diversity with its main characters without much hesitation from the creation of its shared universe. There is a wealth of female and minority characters for both Marvel and DC to use in their films and it's refreshing to see DC gravitate toward theirs as quickly as they have.
5 - VILLAINS
This might be the most damning argument I have in favor of the DCEU over the MCU, but it's amazing how many people would actually fight me on it. It's no secret to many people that the MCU really does have a villain problem in that most of them outside of Loki and Hydra are just not very strong at all. To say that MCU villains are largely one-dimensional and underdeveloped for the stories being told would be pretty accurate. Tom Hiddleston's Loki had the benefit of being the brother of Chris Hemsworth's Thor and played a pivotal role in the first Thor movie with regard to his motivations and connection to Thor that made his angst personal. Add Hiddleston's strong performance and he's clearly the best villain the MCU has produced. After that, who is the next strongest? James Spader's Ultron? Perhaps, but that's not saying much if you have to go to your 11th film yet again to find the next strongest example of something in your franchise. What about all of the villains you had before then outside of Loki?
It's not like Marvel Studios hires bad actors for their villains either. Jeff Bridges, Tim Roth, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Eccleston, Corey Stoll, Daniel Bruhl and Mads Mikkelsen have all either already played great villains in other movies or are capable of playing great villains. In the MCU, they are plot devices and that's about it. No other depth or complexity to them other than moving the plot of their movie along, which is also part of their job but there is almost nothing memorable about them that resonates beyond the movie. For the record, this largely remains true for Marvel Studios' latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The villain, who I won't name because the movie is still in theaters at the time of this post and I still respect spoilers, is still just someone that moves the plot forward despite his or her personal connections to the heroes.
That's simply not the case with the villains in the DCEU, with the exception of Cara Delevigne's Enchantress in Suicide Squad. She IS an MCU-style plot device villain without question, but she's intended to be as just one more manipulated individual in the master plan of the movie's true villain, Amanda Waller. From the beginning of the movie when she uses the death of Superman and the threat of meta-humans to persuade the government to allow her to build Task Force X, to the observation of her most prized possession Enchantress and her capabilities of building an army at will, to the cold-blooded nature of her murdering the very agents under her command, "The Wall" proves herself a masterfully manipulative and maniacally murderous villain at the heart of Suicide Squad. She has the finger on the button of the lives of her entire team and never wants them to forget it and that is made abundantly clear throughout the movie.
Now how about the most polarizing villain of the DCEU? Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. All he does is spend an entire movie proving himself to be the genius that he knows himself to be both on the screen and in the comics for all these years. Superman's presence is a very threat to his ideology, as is that of the other meta-humans that he knows exist in the world and he engineers a brilliant plan to tear Superman down not only in the public eye but with the aid of the very world that Superman belongs to by manipulating an emotionally damaged and distraught Batman into killing him for the "good of mankind." It almost works to perfection, but when it doesn't he still has his Plan B to make sure Superman dies at the hands of a Doomsday construct and Luthor actually SUCCEEDS in his task. He goes to prison, but with the smug satisfaction of knowing that he has killed the hero. He has won in the long term, especially in seeing how wounded Metropolis and much of the world is after Superman's death. Putting aside any bias toward Eisenberg's acting style, it was a fantastic performance because it was unlike anything we had seen before on the big screen with Lex Luthor. Instead of playing him as the standard megalomaniacal CEO of LexCorp or an equally megalomaniacal criminal genius on the run looking for a land grab, he is played as he would exist in today's world, as an egotistical, pretentious tech savvy "millenial" with erratic behavior and prone to fits of rage. Ask yourself which one would be more common to see in today's world? I say the latter, for sure.
When you really get down to it though, the crown jewel of villains in the DCEU and possibly in all of the shared comic book universe movies is Michael Shannon's General Zod. Here is a villain whose motivations and intentions are clearly laid out before we even see our hero on screen. His appearance on Earth is logical, terrifying and calculated. He believes he is doing what is in the best interests of his people and merely sees humanity as an obstacle in the way of that. His villainy is part of what he considers a "great act" for Kryptonians and it is not until his plan is completely destroyed by Superman that he becomes unhinged and seeks out vengeance for being completely robbed of his purpose for existence. It is a masterclass on how to build a villain properly in a comic book movie today and Shannon's performance is simply brilliant. High praise yes, but well deserved. No MCU villain, even Loki, comes close to that.
6 - MUSICAL SCORES
Some of the best composers in the business, Alan Silvestri, Tyler Bates, Henry Jackman, Patrick Doyle, Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino just to name a few, have all scored music for the MCU and it has largely remained without a memorable theme outside of Silvestri's composition for The Avengers. That's not to say that the orchestral music in the MCU is bad, but it is lacking an emotional component that people are apt to remember in their heads after leaving the theater. It feels as though the composers are told to do their job, but only in the window that Marvel Studios gives them to do it in.
The DCEU has had just three composers in Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL and Steven Price. Unfortunately, Price's score for Suicide Squad was overshadowed by the soundtrack, so when it comes to memorable themes you've got either Superman's theme introduced in Man of Steel or Batman's theme introduced in BvS.
Let's not kid ourselves though, when it comes to memorable themes it's all about this:
DCEU wins. Sorry. When Wonder Woman appeared in full costume during the Doomsday battle in BvS and her now signature theme started playing, the crowd at my theater erupted on opening night. It is arguably the most memorable and notable piece of music from any of the comic book movie shared universes right now, and it is a product of the freedom that DCEU composers at least on the surface appear to enjoy that MCU composers don't appear to get. I could be wrong about this, but that's how it looks to me.
7 - FREEDOM
Marvel Studios has used a tried and true formula to build their shared cinematic universe that has certainly been successful while also making their movies pretty uniform in nature. While there are bonus scenes in the end credits that do connect the movies together on an almost regular basis, each MCU movie is pretty self-contained from the rest in terms of plot and character motivations. They are also shot with the same digital cameras, color graded in a similar fashion and structured in a similar way that aside from genre differences, displays a lot of uniformity and visual blandness among the movies. Now, many would say that this is necessary for a shared cinematic universe to be properly built because all of the movies have to connect and be the same on some level in order for it to work properly. The thing is, there's no precedent for that since Marvel Studios did it first and just because they have done it one way does not make other attempts foolhardy or lesser than theirs. They have a winning formula, but it seems clear that the creators are told to stick to it, no matter what.
Even though the DCEU has only had two directors among three movies, there is a very different vibe and feel between Zack Snyder's work with MoS and BvS, and David Ayer's work with Suicide Squad. All three movies very much move in a linear fashion and are definitively connected to each other through shared characters, events and reaction to those events, but visual styles and creative choices made for each film are different and emblematic of the director and his or her crew. Judging from trailers and TV spots, this appears to be the same with Wonder Woman and WB has stated before that they believe in a director-driven approach, even with Geoff Johns and Jon Berg at the helm of the DC Films division. It really seems that the formula of the DCEU is in fact creative freedom for its cast and crew, at least for now. Whether or not that changes depends on the success of the coming DCEU films, but at this point the stronger and more nuanced work is coming from the movies with the freedom bestowed on the cast and crew. Here's hoping that continues.
So that is my ultimate case for why I believe the DCEU to be superior to the MCU and once again, I want to make it clear that I don't hate or even dislike the MCU. I have no fanboy animosity toward Marvel Studios or their product and the only issues I have ever had come from the narratives perpetuated by the bloggers and fans who want to start fights and talk crap over social media whenever someone says they prefer the DCEU. If you are allowed to think and believe that the MCU is better, then I and others allowed to believe that DCEU is better. That's how opinions work, on a platform of mutual respect. Both franchises are viable, successful, entertaining, profitable and here for the long haul no matter what anyone says, and there is more than enough room for both of them to exist even if each of us has a preference for one or the other. Please remember that.
For the record, in case someone wants to bring up Marvel Netflix or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that is part of the TV discussion. This is purely the big screen movies we are talking about here. I'm sure plenty of Marvel Studios fans would love to include The Defenders, their villains and their storylines in this discussion, but it is simply not the same thing despite the "connection" that they have to the movies. Besides, the term connection is used loosely since it only seems to be one way with the movies being referenced heavily in the shows, but the shows never being referenced directly in the movies. That's my stance on it. If you disagree, write your own blog post about it. Anyone can do it these days, just ask Collider, Uproxx or Slate.