Marvel & DC: Culture & Design

Well, two months have passed since my last blog post. Partially I can claim that I was distracted by NaNoWriMo, which I’m still working on. (Got to my target word count just fine, but the project still needs a lot of TLC to get it in the right shape.)

In light of the recent trailers that have dropped for Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the discussion of Marvel and DC is especially high right now. I ended up writing a couple posts on a forum about them, which I think I can edit together into a rough blog post for posterity’s sake.

In general, I’m loathe to delve into a DC vs. Marvel discussion, I think there’s some interesting points of comparison. Especially since a lot of the naysayers seem to be saying that General Audiences aren’t going to care about the BatSoup fight or eventual teamup.

There’s obvious differences between the Marvel and DC setup for their shared universes. Marvel started with a series of solo films, laying bits of groundwork in each of them, essentially seeding the teamup film over the course of four previous. DC did a solo film and now they’re pushing forward with the teamup in the sequel. And, really, neither of these approaches is better than the other. I’d argue that in their own ways they’re both the best for the characters presented.

Marvel, circa 10 years ago, wanted to get their film slate rolling, but had to deal with the fact that the characters they controlled were not especially well known. Captain America is, but Thor and Iron Man are just some dudes that people may have heard of. So while Avengers might be the end-game, they need to create the setup and make sure people know the characters first. They drop Avengers by itself, or too early in the process, and they probably give people the impression that the Avengers are mostly like the X-Men: heroes that almost always tend to fight as a team, or perhaps are Wolverine/Iron-Man and their Amazing Friends.

So, do individual films and then the team-up. In the process, get the cultural knowledge out there and establish Iron Man, Cap, and Thor as bigger heroes. Good strategy. It worked. Thumbs up Marvel.

Now over at DC, they also want to get their shared world rolling. But while they have some disadvantages (such as doing so after Marvel already has), they have some significant advantages, as well. Namely, Batman, Superman, and (to a lesser degree) Wonder Woman are cultural icons. They are well known and recognized characters, up there with some of the biggest of the 20th century (like Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, and Darth Vader.)

Cultural knowledge is an interesting beast. It’s long on presence though short on specifics. If you look at the cultural knowledge of Batman, you get a shorthand: dead parents, Gotham City, Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, etc. For Superman you get Krypton, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Daily Planet, Metropolis, Smallville farm, and so forth. It’s really broad strokes of the pieces, and how those pieces fit together isn’t defined, but here’s the kicker: it doesn’t really matter.

Because Batman and Superman are so well known, DC has the advantage that they can basically take a short cut and just say “you know who these guys are, here’s a teamup.” And while this might be maddening for people who are invested in Marvel’s build-up strategy, it actually does work. The audience member who doesn’t really know comics minutia isn’t coming into this wondering where Batman came from. She already knows Batman in broad strokes, and that’s enough. Some of the details might be fudged around, but there’s a loose enough picture.

Basically, once you do the ground work, you can take it as a given that some things will be known. At this point, Marvel very much does the same thing. Over the years from 2008 to 2012, their characters entered cultural memory a bit, so it was fine when far more people saw The Avengers than saw any of the preceding films.

Now, despite these base differences, the two do approach storytelling in a similar manner. Superhero stories tend to be cut from the same basic cloth. There are tropes endemic to the genre that will play whether you’re telling a story about Iron Man or Superman. That’s part of the charm and appeal and why most people tend to just like superheroes rather than falling on one side of the Big Two or the other.

However, in terms of design, there are vast gulfs. Marvel has built up a fairly specific aesthetic. On one hand, their costume designs evoke the look from the comics very closely. They aren’t exact copies, but it gives a very real sense of the superheroes come to life. However, beyond that is a very real attempt to make it seem real world. This is a conceit that goes back to the comics themselves: the Marvel Earth is basically our Earth, just that some people can shoot lasers out of their eyes. While that might falter when you apply some logical scrutiny, it serves a purpose: the world has an easy access point.

DC tends not to do this. For one, their world is littered with cities that don’t exist. Unlike Marvel, which mostly takes place in recognizable New York, each DC hero has their own abode, all of which have very strong and specific design ticks. Superman’s Metropolis is Art Deco through-and-through while Batman’s Gotham has gothic roots. And that’s informing the presentation we got in Man of Steel and is showing up here. As a friend wonderfully put it, this is “Apocalyptic Golden Age SF”.

The design choices are informative, because it’s a statement that the DC world works differently. The presence of Thor on Marvel Earth hasn’t had a great effect. For most people, it’s business as normal, just watch out of the occasional falling Ultron bot. But for the DC Earth, Superman’s presence is an indication of great change. The worlds that Man of Steel showed (Earth and Krypton) had different looks and feels, but now that’s blending, which pulls us away from the familiar into this more fantastical place.

Neither of these approaches are right or wrong. They both work, and they specifically work for their respective heroes. Marvel in the 60s established their universe as grounded in human feelings and frailties. DC’s roots are from the 40s, and their universe and heroes have a more iconic status. (The latter, somewhat interestingly, allows for variations on the characters to be easier to accept.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *