Why everyone is wrong about the differences between Marvel and DC

There are a few things that every comics fan knows like an article of faith, and one of them is this: DC is DC and Marvel is Marvel, and never the twain shall meet. As Chris Sims put it, DC characters are limitless, while Marvel characters are defined by their limitations. And of course they are: the classic Marvel characters originated as twists on the traditional superhero genre — what if people had amazing powers, but

And this was true for quite some time, and still sort of is. For decades, it was clear: the big three at DC were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, while the big three at Marvel were Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Even if they weren’t always those publishers’ most popular characters — the X-Men came and went, and during the 80s I’m sure the Punisher was in there — they were the most definitively Marvel-like.

But the world of comics is ever-changing. Most obviously, DC has been attempting to imitate the Marvel formula for almost as long as there have been Marvel books. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t: the John Rogers run on Blue Beetle is a great DC-ification of the Spider-Man premise in a modern setting; the Len Wein run on Blue Beetle, not so much (although I love it forever and will fight you). New Teen Titans was clearly an attempt to create a DC equivalent of X-Men, but the result was a bizarre, er, mutant that could only have existed at DC.

Two kid sidekicks, a science experiment, a half-robot, a demon or something, an alien, and a walking continuity error. Why not?

So DC keeps trying to be Marvel — what else is new? Fortunately, the tug-of-war between the company’s different creative priorities keeps producing interesting material as often as misfires. But what about Marvel? Well, despite what I’ve said above, and despite the fact that they’ve been Kings of the Beach for at least the last decade or so, I contend that Marvel’s image, particularly among casual comics fans, is as DC-like at the moment as it’s ever been.

Remember when I said that the three iconic Marvel titles were Spider-ManX-Men and Fantastic Four? Well, it’s exactly because of their popularity that those characters’ film rights wound up being sold away, leaving Marvel with less popular characters like Thor, Iron Man and Captain America. And yet, of course, the success of those movies means that these are the characters most people associate with Marvel these days.

But they’re quite … DC-like characters, aren’t they? Captain America, another product of the Golden Age, is all slam-bang action and a relatively uncomplicated view of heroism. Iron Man is gee-whiz tech, with the character’s main flaw, his alcoholism, downplayed. And Thor is just … well, honestly, Thor fits rather more neatly into the DC Universe than the Marvel one (which is what makes him such an enjoyable Marvel character, but that’s another story).

There’s a reason this guy was the most convincing Amalgam character.

So DC’s been Marvelizing its setting and characters forever, while the MCU — as the default superhero universe outside of comics — drifts toward “typical,” that is DC-like, heroics. And as the films go, so goes Marvel — at least a little.

And, of course, that’s without talking about the crossover of artists and writers between the two. How many genre-defining moments happened because DC looted Marvel UK to the floorboards in the 80s, for instance?

Ultimately, I’m not denying there are differences between the Big Two. But when we compare two things, we naturally tend to exaggerate their differences and ignore their similarities. And I think we may be at a period when the similarities between the House of Ideas and its Distinguished Competition are as important, if not more, than the differences.

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