For nearly a century, superheroes have been a common theme in the American lifestyle. Generations of Americans have idolized Superman, and longed to swing through the air with Spiderman. Many 90s kids remember watching X-men: The Animated Series on Saturday mornings and have a favorite Batman actor. Whether you’re a comic book fan or not, there’s no denying superheroes have a special place in our hearts—and our entertainment—or that when it comes to superheroes, the rivalry between Marvel and DC is real.
While Marvel is the obvious top dog in this cinematic duel, DC still holds it’s own. No matter which side of the comic divide you find yourself on, there are lessons to be learned from both companies.
Playing the Long Game
Marvel excels at breaking down the big picture into bite size pieces that keep fans coming back for more. The company’s set up of introducing characters individually, interlacing storylines and building out the MCU has paid off. Fans’ love of big names characters like Thor and Captain America have propelled movies and shows featuring minor characters to success. From Ant Man to WandaVision, fans continue to show up for the franchise because they know what to expect: great story lines, lots of action and humor, a couple cameos, and a sneak peek of what’s next after the credits.
What’s more, Marvel continues to add to the MCU, building on characters and events of past films to keep us “in the story”. Every movie and show has a continuation or overlap that makes us recall what happened (or go back and watch if we missed that movie). Gaps in time are acknowledged and filled, and reminders are often written into the script so we don’t forget details about a character’s past. Marvel is no doubt playing the long game and its fans are more than okay with it.
Strengths and Diversity
DC may not have the movie count Marvel does, but the company more than makes up for it when it comes to television. Where Marvel focuses on continuity, DC concentrates on adaptability. One of the best examples of this is the show Smallville, which revamped the Superman franchise (Cramer, 2017). introducing the world to a teenage Clark Kent. The show was a success and became the longest running superhero series of all time, airing from 2000-2011. In a similiar lane, DC released the DC Super Hero Girls animated series, portraying Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Bumblebee, Batgirl, Zatanna, and Green Lantern as they attend Metropolis High School and learn to hone their powers. Personally, I love that DC geared a series toward young girls and dialed back the costumes a bit. All 3 of my girls love the show and Nick and I love that they have their own superhero show to identify with.
Not all changes have been successful though. One of the biggest downfalls of DC movies is the DC Extended University (DCEU) is in a constant state of flux; characters and backgrounds vary depending on which series you’re viewing, though little backstory is explained. Where Marvel when for the slow burn approach, starting small and gaining momentum, DC has opted for the big bang right out of the gate. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was meant to be the rock that starts the ripple of success, however many fans felt disconnected from the characters without having “met” them in an independent feature before hand. Similarly, Suicide Squad introduced a whole group of characters without giving audiences an idea of what to expect or why they should invest in them.
While DC and Marvel will probably be locked in proverbial combat for many years to come, there are some ways DC can tip the scales in their favor. Let me first say that there’s nothing wrong with using a reactive strategy, however it won’t be enough to surpass a giant like Marvel. So how does DC build up steam to meet or beat Marvel? By changing the game.
Embrace who you are
DC is known to be more on the dark and gritty side, both thematically and stylistically. Embracing this fact is crucial. Marvel is known for being fun and bright, but there are plenty of fans out there that love DC’s edgier side. Additionally, DC’s tactic of adapting series to appeal to a larger audience is an amazing ability and can be used to maximize brand awareness and reach new audiences.
Streamline and think long-term
Another major complaint about the DCEU is that there are so many movies that are either out of sync or irrelevant; series have major timeline gaps and events that are spoken of but never shown. Narrowing the focus and reverse-engineering the end goal would help to create a flow to future films. Whether or not this would involve starting from scratch is a major debate and one DC would need to thoroughly consider given the amount of funds, time and emotional investment already made in the DCEU.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Superheroes are popular for a reason: they all have qualities we want to see more of. Superman is good and loves humanity, Batman is brooding and mysterious, Wonder Woman is strong and just. Departing too much from their know personas makes the characters feel unfamiliar and leaves the audience confused. That’s not to say that Superman needs to stay stuck in the 1950s, but taking him too far away from the character we know and love would be a disservice. On the other hand, a fall from grace and eventual redemption…fans could probably handle that over time.
Up the hype
We know Batman is secretive, but when it comes to releasing a new movie it’s time to be a bit more forthcoming. Starting early with trailers and interviews will help build awareness and interest in upcoming features. No one wants spoilers, but playing it too close to the chest is also a no-no; potential viewers need to why this movie is worth their time and money. Nurturing the audience builds repour, making them feel more connected and invested in the franchise.
Listen to your audience
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that regular temp checks save lives—and in this case, ratings. DC needs to really listen to their audience and figure out what’s working and what needs to be dropped or tweaked. Looking at what’s worked for other companies can help identify trends, but ultimately the company needs to rely on its differences to really set itself apart. Understanding what the audience wants and how to give it to them in a way that keeps them invested is the magic trick each company has to learn for itself.
Marvel’s proactive strategy of reinventing the superhero movie industry will always be part of its history. Focusing on family-friendly movies with characters that remind us of our own childhood make parents more likely to share the movies with their kids, increasing the audience size and renown of the company. People know that when they watch a Marvel movie they will be entertained by great storylines, witty banter and awesome action sequences that will leave them ready and waiting for the next movie. In my opinion, this why Marvel reigns as top dog when it comes to superheroes. I’ll admit I’m biased toward Marvel since I’ve disliked (or fallen asleep through) every DC movie I’ve seen. I also have a not-so-secret crush on Captain America, so there’s that. DC is just a bit too gritty and serious for me since I like to see things in a more positive light. I do give it to DC for keeping harsh topics like mental health close to the surface, it’s just not my particular cup of tea.
Cramer, J. (2017, January 27). Marvel vs. DC: A case study. Medium. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://dayoneperspective.com/marvel-vs-dc-c90d56b982f8.
Elias, B. (2018, August 27). Marketing superheroes: Marketing strategy lessons from the Marvel v. DC rivalry: CG Life: Life Science and Healthcare Marketing Agency. CG Life | Life Science and Healthcare Marketing Agency. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://cglife.com/blog/marketing-superheroes-marketing-strategy-lessons-marvel-v-dc-rivalry/.