At the multiplex, the age-old battle between DC Comics and Marvel Comics -– between the House of Superman and Batman and the House of Spider-Man and Iron Man –- there's no question that Marvel has been winning decisively for nearly two decades. But what about the battle between the two superhero universes on TV?
On the small screen, DC seems to be on top, as it has since virtually the dawn of television. Just in terms of sheer numbers, DC has four current primetime series ("Arrow," "The Flash," "Gotham," and "Constantine"), compared to just one for Marvel ("Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.").
A recent article at Salon pointed out this discrepancy, which naturally got the author in trouble with the Marvel faithful. Marvel defenders will tell you that "S.H.I.E.L.D." is much improved in its second season over its first, and that the DC characters, storylines, and even visuals seem thin by comparison. But both the article and its detractors fail to acknowledge that DC has been winning the TV battle for 60 years, much less to address the reasons why.
It's not enough to chalk it up to the cultural differences between the two publishers. Yes, DC is known for iconic figures without distinct personalities who inhabit a fantasy universe loosely based on our own, while Marvel is known for heroes with human foibles and neuroses who live in a universe ostensibly our own. And yet, it's DC's less naturalistic, more abstract characters who have thrived on the supposedly more realistic medium of television, while Marvel's often smaller-than-life flawed heroes have worked better on the larger-than-life, fantasy-prone medium of theatrical film.
In fact, it may be Marvel and DC's differences from the rest of their TV and movie rivals that have made them successful in their respective media. Unlike other superhero films and action spectacles, Marvel movies manage to combine the everyday and the extraordinary to create their epic narratives. They really do seem to take care to develop character and not just plot. Meanwhile, on TV, DC beats other adventure fare by presenting heroes and heroines who are almost too big for the small screen. In a plot-driven medium where characters tend to grow and evolve over time, the DC archetypes remain refreshingly familiar and immune to change.
And yet, within those archetypes, there remains plenty of room for creative writers to play around. Think of all the shows that have been based on DC's Superman. There's the stolid, untroubled George Reeves version from the 1950s' "Adventures of Superman," the romantic striver played by Dean Cain in the 1990s' "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," and the alienated teen in search of his identity played for a decade by Tom Welling on "Smallville." Or think about Batman, from the campy Adam West version in the 1960s to the brooding young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) on the current "Gotham."
But a lot of DC's TV success is due simply to smart business. It beat Marvel to Hollywood, with short-film serials of Superman and Batman in the 1940s. When TV came along, DC launched "The Adventures of Superman" in 1952, a good decade and a half before the first Marvel characters appeared on TV. And while Marvel had success with animated versions of its characters (starting in the mid-'60s with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four) on Saturday mornings, it was still lagging behind DC, whose 1970s "Super Friends" (featuring such DC all-stars as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Aquaman) remains the hallmark superhero cartoon of that decade. (Spider-Man, meanwhile, was relegated to brief segments on PBS' educational show "The Electric Company" and a short-lived live-action series on CBS.) DC and Marvel both had one memorable primetime series in the 1970s ("Wonder Woman" and "The Incredible Hulk," respectively), but DC managed to keep the streak going ("Swamp Thing," "Lois & Clark," "Smallville"), while Marvel had little to offer primetime viewers between the demise of "Hulk" in 1982 and the debut of "S.H.I.E.L.D." 31 years later.
Corporate synergy has certainly been a factor for both companies. DC and Warner Bros. became sister companies in the early 1970s, leading to the big-screen "Superman" franchise starring Christopher Reeve and the "Batman" film franchise launched by director Tim Burton in 1989. Each one petered out after four films, each having strayed far afield from its initial vision. Still, that beat Marvel's output during the period, highlighted by the landmark flop "Howard the Duck" (1986).
Nonetheless, it was in movies where DC and Warners began to drift, while the unaffiliated Marvel, first under Avi Arad and then Kevin Feige, developed the vision and strategy that made the comics publisher a box office power. Developing their own films and licensing them to the Hollywood studios for distribution, Marvel started striking gold with 1998's "Blade," then "X-Men" (2000), and then "Spider-Man" (2002). These successful franchises led to the launch of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (the series of interrelated movies that began with "Iron Man" and has extended so far through "The Avengers" and "Guardians of the Galaxy") and Marvel's $4 billion purchase by Disney.
The debut of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." last year, then, wasn't just an extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe onto the small screen, but also an act of corporate synergy, a way of feeding Marvel content to Disney-owned ABC. Again, DC had been there first, with "Smallville" on the Warners-owned WB and later CW networks. Of today's DC primetime shows, all four are made by Warner Bros. Television, and two air on the CW, with "The Flash" being a direct spin-off of "Arrow." It's not quite as elaborate a narrative lattice as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at least there's an acknowledgement that several of these shows take place in the same realm.
Of course, Marvel plans to flood the zone as well, with the debut next year of "Agent Carter" on ABC (it'll have Hayley Atwell reprising her character from the first "Captain America" movie) and with four new upcoming Netflix series: "Daredevil," "Luke Cage," "Iron Fist," and "Jessica Jones." These live-action shows, all set in New York's Hell's Kitchen, will culminate, Marvel Cinematic Universe-style, in a group mini-series called "Defenders."
If Marvel is finally figuring out how to extend its winning movie strategy to TV, it could mean that DC's six-decade dominance over the small screen is nearly at an end. Then again, with such DC-based shows as "iZombie" (premiering next year on the CW) and "Supergirl" (due next year on CBS) in the works, the spandex war could continue on TV for years to come. If the improved storytelling in "S.H.I.E.L.D." and even in newbies "Gotham" and "The Flash" are any indication, all superhero fans could be winners.
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