Before today’s era of cinematic universes, the war between Marvel and DC Comics was fictitious, held only within the imagination of fandom. To the creators, it inspired competition to lead the comic book industry, and the “rivalry” spilled out in friendly office softball games. But now, a new standard is dominating the television and movie landscape, and San Diego Comic-Con has become ground zero for Marvel and DC’s publicity race to the top.
No company is crowned “Best Brand” on the Sunday evening of the convention like it’s The Hunger Games (though with the madness that comes with Comic-Con, it might as well be). But it isn’t unreasonable to review how the Big Two perform at one of the biggest pop-culture hooplas on the West Coast. So with Comic-Con 2016 finished, it’s time to assess the damage. So how did Marvel and DC compare?
Marvel: Diversity in the Family
The crux of Marvel’s announcements at Comic-Con happened during the Marvel Studios panel Saturday, which debuted trailers for Doctor Strange and a handful of sneak peeks for James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 set for next May. There was also a great deal made about Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, despite the lack of trailers (Black Panther does not even start shooting until January). On the TV front, Marvel presented Luke Cage with Netflix on Thursday while Friday had the reveal of Ghost Rider (Robbie Reyes) on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one of the first major superheroes to appear on the ABC series.
Across the board, Marvel’s push for diversity was clear: Luke Cage looks like another exciting entry in the new subgenre of gritty superhero noir, made popular by none other than Marvel and Netflix. As one of the most prominent black heroes in Marvel, it’s easy to be excited for a series that its showrunner, Cheo Coker, calls the “Wu-Tangification of the Marvel Universe.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., meanwhile, is ignoring Johnny Blaze and instead will cast Gabriel Luna as Robbie Reyes, a young Latino man from L.A. who becomes Ghost Rider after a street race gone awry, leading to a bond with the spirit of a serial killer. On the other side of the country, in Queens, New York is being represented in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which sports one of Marvel’s most diverse cast, pretty much ever. Headlined by Tom Holland, Peter Parker’s classmates include Zendaya, Tony Revolori, and Jacob Batalon (who looks like he’s playing the real Ganke Lee, even though that’s Michael Barbieri’s role somehow?).
While the continued muddying of the Ancient One keeps Doctor Strange from truly adding to Marvel’s progress, it was the cast of Black Panther that showed Marvel isn’t messing around; many of Hollywood’s up-and-coming black actors like Lupita N’yongo, Michael B. Jordan, and Danai Gurira stood in the spotlight at Hall H. Of all the movies Marvel has up its sleeve, Black Panther is easily the most exciting.
Diversity remains Hollywood’s biggest weakness. For every step forward there’s always one or two big steps back. Marvel isn’t impervious to mistakes, but its presence at Comic-Con 2016 was pretty, for the most part, pretty “woke.”
DC: A New, Ambitious Outlook
DC is an old guard compared to Marvel. That’s not a dig on the Distinguished Competition: Old-fashioned can be good, especially when it’s willing to re-imagine. See pretty much all DC: Rebirth for how well DC can reinvent old wheels as new.
But DC came into Comic-Con with a lot of baggage. The disappointment of Batman v Superman endangered a worthy franchise that could rival the Disney-backed Marvel, but the surprise preview of Justice League and the premiere of the inspiring Wonder Woman trailer was enough to think DC has turned itself around. The new tone signaled to fans that the brand is willing to listen, willing to sell them a movie for which they can root and believe in – instead of merely witnessing characters pummel each other with detachment.
DC TV, on the other hand, was never at much risk, and every reveal out of The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow showed how much DC is willing to embrace its heritage. We’re going to see Dr. Mid-Nite and Mister Terrific next fall. That’s kind of insane.
Arrow has a lot to improve upon after it stumbled this past year, while The Flash risks losing in its ambitious “Flashpoint” arc. Supergirl had a successful freshman year, but as it welcomes Tyler Hoechlin as the Man of Steel, it’s worth pondering just how much Supergirl will still belong to Supergirl.
But all the DC shows are doing one mega crossover — Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow — which is groundbreaking for the TV medium. It’s a missed chance none of these shows disclosed the plot nor explained how these disparate universes will actually cross-over. But as we’re well into the era of “Peak TV,” we have never seen anything on the scale DC will be attempting this fall. It’s the medium’s new frontier. It might suck, it might rock. Either way, the rules of superhero TV may never be the same after October.