It is the eternal question among fanboys and fans alike right now. A battle royale that has been brewing for some time now and has only just started to materialize on the big screen as Hollywood begins to embrace the "Shared Universe" concept of moviemaking. In 2008 Marvel Studios started its long form storytelling experiment with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Now, eight years, 13 movies and over $10 billion in box office sales later, The Marvel Cinematic Universe is hailed as a resounding success and the model for what all big budget franchises, especially comic book adaptations, should aspire to.
In 2013, DC threw its hat into the ring with the first of its shared universe movies, Man of Steel. Critically split down the middle, it started DC's latest attempt to build their own cinematic universe, now called the DC Extended Universe. Earlier this year saw the release of its second movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that was critically panned and derided, but still garnered a lot of positive buzz from the audience despite what critics and bloggers would have us all think.
We all know this stuff already and it's not anything new, so what are we doing here today? Today we are looking at what makes both franchises tick, good and bad. This year is the first time that the MCU and the DCEU have gone head-to-head with major movie releases, Captain America: Civil War coming out just five weeks after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did. While the former won the battle of the box office with $1.15 billion worldwide to BvS's $872.2 million, it wasn't without its share of detractors and debaters along with BvS, and the raging conflict on social media has everyone fighting about which franchise we spend our money on is better at what they do. So right now, let's take a look at both franchises side by side.
Now, first off let's lay out the two big criteria here that cancel each other out off the bat with this debate:
MARVEL DOESN'T OWN ALL OF ITS PROPERTIES AND CHARACTERS
A lot of us know about the legalities and past bankruptcy of Marvel that led to characters and franchises going elsewhere. For those that don't, FOX owns X-Men, Deadpool and Fantastic Four, and Sony owns Spider-Man. The reason we saw Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War is because of a deal brokered between Disney/Marvel and Sony to make it happen. Sony still owns his character rights, though. FOX is sitting on $4.3 billion in box office sales from X-Men/Deadpool, which includes $509.1 million from the critically blasted X-Men: Apocalypse, so don't expect any deals between FOX and Disney/Marvel for those rights any time soon. Fantastic Four is possible, but not if producer Simon Kinberg really wants to do another movie like he has said he wants to. Yikes.
DC IS SEVERAL MOVIES BEHIND MARVEL WITH ITS SHARED UNIVERSE
The same year that the MCU began with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk was also the year that Warner Bros. and DC released the highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, which was the middle movie of director Christopher Nolan's Bat-Trilogy. At the time, it was the single most successful comic book movie in history and is still considered by many to be the greatest comic book movie of all-time. It would be another five years and five more MCU movies before Man of Steel came out, already putting DC behind the 8-ball in terms of volume for its new shared universe, and another five MCU movies were released in the three years between Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so Marvel is very much ahead in their franchise with 13 total movies now as opposed to just two from the DCEU. Even after Suicide Squad comes out this August for DC and Doctor Strange in November for Marvel, the gap won't close at all, with Marvel ending 2016 at 14 movies to DC's three.
So neither of those criteria will be used against the other in this analysis. Let's take a look at Marvel first:
WHAT IT DOES WELL:
CASTING: They hit a home run right off the bat with Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark and he's led the way ever since. Chris Evans has been spectacular as Steve Rogers/Captain America in a role that allowed him to completely erase his time as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies. Mark Ruffalo didn't start out as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, but since his first appearance in The Avengers he has become a fan favorite in the role, and everyone loves Chris Hemsworth as Thor. The rest of the A-List actors that have been cast in the MCU speak for themselves and continue to make the franchise as a whole extremely vibrant.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY: There isn't a single MCU movie that you can't take your kids to go see, even the PG-13 rated ones. All of them are appropriate to see with your family or with your group of adult friends who love the comics and want to see our heroes come to life on the big screen. That's big for audiences and the box office numbers.
LONG FORM STORYTELLING: Even though each movie in some way stands on its own as a separate story, they all do a solid job of building upon a cohesive narrative structure that carries on from movie to movie. You can see the character development and the impact of events in past movies on current and future movies very clearly. This is most evident in Civil War where literally everything from The Avengers to Ant-Man has culminated in what happens in the movie. It's a great reward for fans who have watched the whole series and look forward to more.
DIFFERENT GENRES IN ONE FRANCHISE: Marvel has been able to do several different kinds of movies under the MCU umbrella. Iron Man is a character origin movie. Captain America: The First Avenger is a period piece. Thor and Thor: The Dark World are fantasy epics. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spy-thriller with a twist. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera and Ant-Man is a heist movie. The MCU runs the whole gamut of movie genres and allow themselves to get the attention of many different types of moviegoers as a result.
WHAT IT DOESN'T DO SO WELL:
UNIFORMITY: Despite the different genres of movies within the MCU, all of them seem to use the same shots, cameras, editing and style, which really makes these movies seem like they are made on an assembly line a lot of the time. There isn't a great deal of variety in the production, cinematography and editing as a whole, and maybe that's done intentionally so as to make each movie tonally fit within its universe, but it doesn't leave a lot for individuality with the storytelling. That's something that we have heard from directors as well like Edgar Wright who left Ant-Man, and Ave Duvernay who was first approached for Black Panther. Marvel has a formula and they might only let a director or film crew stray so far away from it.
WEAK VILLAINS: Outside of Loki, Ultron, Hydra itself and maybe Aldrich Killian, the villains of the MCU have been largely forgettable. It's not because of the actors either, they have cast some great actors in those roles, they just don't wow anyone with how they are written. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane was decent, but Mickey Rourke's Whiplash was disappointing and Christopher Eccleston's Malekith the Accursed left a lot to be desired as well, just to name a few. Even Daniel Bruhl's Zemo wasn't particularly memorable in Civil War. Now, to be fair the MCU has yet to truly showcase its grand villain, Josh Brolin's Thanos, but again we have now been waiting the better part of four years to see him finally take center stage and that's not really going to happen until the next Avengers movie in 2018, so we've still got some waiting to do.
DEATH MEANS NOTHING: The Marvel movies have a real problem with death of their characters. Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes died in The First Avenger only to come back as the murderous Winter Soldier in the next Captain America movie. Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson died in the Avengers, but was brought back to life in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts died in Iron Man 3 and came back to life 10 minutes later to save Tony from Killian. Loki died in Thor: the Dark World, only to be shown alive and well and masquerading as Odin at the end of the movie, and Nick Fury died in Winter Soldier as part of a "fake out" to make S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra believe he was dead so he could show up later alive and well at the end of the movie. That's five movies in a row from the end of MCU Phase 1 into the middle of MCU Phase 2 where characters die but don't stay dead. So when a character dies in the next MCU movies, how are we supposed to take it seriously? Good question.
And now, for DC:
WHAT IT DOES WELL:
CASTING: DC shares this ability with Marvel. Henry Cavill has been strong Superman, Amy Adams has been a solid Lois Lane, Gal Gadot has impressed as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman so far and despite protests and a ton of concerns, Ben Affleck has been dynamite as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Then you again add great support from big names like Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Jeremy Irons and Alfred and so forth. We're only two movies in, so expect this to become even bigger an asset down the road.
VISUAL STYLE: There's something about DC's visual effects that just seem way too real in a good way. It's not that Marvel looks fake at all, but the epic quality and even the darker shades of the visual effects in both Man of Steel and BvS are just visceral and breathtaking. Incredible mix of green screen and practical effects.
VILLAINS: Just as in the comics, DC has better villains to this point. Michael Shannon's General Zod was very good in Man of Steel and say what you want about Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, he is memorable and has a vibrantly unique personality. Love him or hate, you can't forget him. We all expect incredible things from Jared Leto's Joker in Suicide Squad and there's no doubt about the fact that DC has set the bar high for its villains right off the bat.
SUBTLE EXPOSITION: One of the strongest qualities of the DCEU right now is the fact that none of the movies are blatantly obvious with what the message is. A lot of the subtext and emotional beats are not dialogue but actual action, facial cues, things you see on screen. The DCEU right now does a great job of showing and not telling, and we will see where that goes once other directors like David Ayer, Patty Jenkins and James Wan start presenting their movies.
MYTHOLOGY AND THE COMIC BOOK AESTHETIC: It is clear that the mythos of these heroes and characters is going to play a big role in the DCEU. We have already seen the grand scale, hero worship and extreme fear from the general public in regards to these heroes, one that makes them larger than life itself. It's quantified so well in what becomes a living, moving comic book on screen. The way events play out, the way characters behave and even speak exude right off the page if it were an actual comic.
MUSIC SCORE: This might be unfair because it's the same guy for both movies, but Hans Zimmer is vastly ahead of all of the composers for the MCU at this point. That's not to say that those composers are bad at all, but with the DCEU Zimmer and also Junkie XL, who worked on BvS with Zimmer and will score Justice League, are allowed a freedom and visceral storytelling nature that is much more epic and dramatic than any of the MCU scores to this point.
WHAT IT DOESN'T DO SO WELL:
WIDE AUDIENCE APPEAL: I wouldn't take a kid to see BvS unless I knew they wouldn't get scared or bothered by what they saw. It's not a gory movie, but it's definitely made for adults and older audiences. It's not a family movie by any means. Now, the tone of Justice League and other future DCEU movies will certainly be lighter in tone based on the direction of hope that the series had planned out from the beginning, but right now the DCEU is seen as a dark "murder-verse" and while that's unfair to judge after just two movies, it's still what the audience currently sees.
DIVERSITY OF STYLES: This is going to change as early as August 5 when Suicide Squad comes out because to this point, we have only seen one director do any DCEU movies so we only have one vision to look at. Soon we will have Ayer's vision to see, and later Patty Jenkins next year with Wonder Woman, and down the road James Wan's grand plan for Aquaman.
FINAL EDITS: I haven't seen the Ultimate Edition of BvS yet and I didn't have major issues with the theatrical edit either, but from what I have heard the extra 30 minutes added back to the movie makes all the difference in terms of structure and pacing, which leads me to wonder why WB was so afraid to release a three-hour long movie in late March. The highest grossing movie of all-time worldwide, Avatar, was over three hours and made billions, so what were they afraid of? Whatever it was, it's something that they might clearly have to get a handle on from here on out because if they keep undercutting their movies for the sake of marketing and theater time, they will cripple the DCEU's success.
So there you have it, a breakdown of the MCU and DCEU to this point, however uneven it might be. All of this is certain to change on both sides, especially with DC as more movies are made and become part of that shared universe, but for now as a fan of both, I say we just toss away the arguments and enjoy the fact that the geekiest of movie franchises are leading the way in our world today. It is truly a great time to be a geek.