In a digital age where everyone is a content creator looking for their big break, there have proven to be a few cheat codes. These are topics that generate crazy levels of engagement regardless of quality. Things like politics, complaining about the Star Wars sequels, and compilations of Ben Shapiro Owning Libtards With Facts and Logic. But perhaps the biggest cheat code of all is arguing about which comic book film franchise is superior: the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe. Nothing gets the Internet riled up like a good nerd fight. You might think that this debate would be easily settled at the box office, with the four Avengers movies alone grossing more than the entire DCEU, but you’d be grossly (sorry) mistaken. The DCEU fanbase is incredibly large and incredibly vocal. Enough so that Warner Brothers spent $70 million on Justice League reshoots just because Twitter wouldn’t shut up about it. There have been a million think pieces about why one is better than the other, but I’ve yet to see anyone talk about what I believe is the main factor setting them apart: risk-taking.
To start off, it’s important to understand the foundation of these two franchises. The MCU is the brainchild of Kevin Feige, who controls the direction of the entire franchise. And while DC has a creative director in a similar role, it’s widely accepted that the DCEU has been based on the vision of director Zack Snyder. So much so that people often refer to it as the “Snyderverse”. This is the first key difference. Feige determines the overarching themes and storylines, but he’s much more hands-off with individual movies, allowing for an incredible diversity of styles. But because Snyder directs the DCEU’s most important movies himself, they end up feeling very samey. Because he directed the first two films, Snyder sort of established the major themes and tone of the entire universe based on his own style. This is great if you love Zack Snyder movies, but it’s really limited the franchise’s appeal. His hyper-specific vision of what these movies should be, including his lack of understanding of its most important characters, alienated everyone but the core audience. Feige’s hands-off mentality allowed him to establish a variety of tones through what I believe is the most important difference between the two: the directors.
While Snyder controlled the DCEU, Marvel split up individual properties among multiple directors. Their first round of hires included some big names with proven track records. Captain America went to Joe Johnston, director of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji, and Thor went to Kenneth Branagh, the king of Shakespeare adaptations. But the most puzzling choice was the very first one. For Iron Man, the catalyst for the entire franchise, they hired Jon Favreau. He wasn’t an unknown by any means, but his only major directorial projects at the time were Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure. Both are great movies, but not what you think of when you picture a superhero movie. But the risk paid off. Iron Man didn’t just dominate the box office, it ended up being by far the best of the Phase One films. The others ranged from bland but entertaining to downright boring. And yes, I’m including the original Avengers in that list. It was groundbreaking at the time, but on rewatch it’s nothing special. Phase Two is where the MCU really started to branch out. Feige started to dip into the world of television, bringing on Alan Taylor, who worked on some of the biggest shows in TV history, to direct the Thor sequel. Unfortunately, Thor: The Dark World ended up being the consensus low point of the franchise, even if it never reached the same lows as DC. Thankfully Feige didn’t give up on TV altogether, hiring the lesser-known team of Anthony and Joe Russo to make the follow-up to Captain America. At the time the duo had no experience with Hollywood blockbusters. What little notoriety they had came from their extended work on two of the biggest cult classic shows of all time: Arrested Development and Community. Once again, the gamble paid off. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still one of the most well-regarded films in the MCU, partly because it had such a different style. Instead of following the established superhero movie formula, the Russo Brothers made a classic spy thriller, beginning the trend of directors adding their own flair to these movies. However, what came next made sure that trend was here to stay.
On August 1st, 2014, Marvel took their biggest gamble yet, releasing a movie about characters nobody had ever heard of directed by a man whose biggest role to date was as a writer on the live-action Scooby-Doo movies. Guardians of the Galaxy grossed over $773 million worldwide and became a pop culture phenomenon. James Gunn’s inventive, weird as hell space comedy came out of nowhere to prove that there was a massive desire for high-quality superhero movies. They didn’t have to follow the Transformers model of making the same garbage movie over and over, they could find talented people who were passionate about what they do. Because of how long movies take to make, this philosophy didn’t take hold right away. It didn’t happen early enough to stop them from letting Joss Whedon make the worst Avengers movie or firing the visionary Edgar Wright from Ant-Man. But Feige saw where the future was, and he dove right in.
Phase Three is where things really took off. The Russo Brothers and Gunn kept doing their thing, with the Russos taking over the Avengers series from Whedon. They also added two new up-and-coming directorial stars to head up some of the flagship properties. Jon Watts, who spent his career directing music videos and content for The Onion, was in charge of creating the MCU’s version of Spiderman, while the indie comedy darling Taika Waititi was given the monumental tasking of reviving the Thor series. As you know by now, both were a smashing success, with Thor: Ragnarok being such a masterpiece that it saved the character from near-certain death in Avengers: Endgame. By the end of Phase Three, hiring talented indie directors was as much a part of the MCU blueprint as anything else.
Let’s check in with the DCEU and see what they were up to during those yea- oh my god it’s already a train wreck. The first two Snyder films had all the same flaws as the early Marvel movies but without any of the fun, Justice League turned into Frankenstein’s monster with an even scarier face, and then there’s Suicide Squad. That movie is the perfect example of the difference between the two studios. Suicide Squad originally followed the dark and gritty tone of the other DC movies and focused primarily on the abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn. But then Guardians of the Galaxy came out. Warner Brothers stepped in and basically said “we want that”, taking the final cut away from director David Ayer and handing it to, and I’m not joking about this, a movie trailer company. While Marvel was taking huge risks on little-known creators with outlandish ideas, Warner Brothers was hiring literal advertising firms to rip them off completely. This more than anything encapsulates the importance of taking a risk.
So, what does the future look like for these two titans of entertainment? Well, it’s a lot more interesting than I thought it would be a few years ago. The fallout of Justice League’s reported $60 million flop forced Warner Brothers to change for the better. Most of the DCEU movies that followed have been much better and have been made by, surprise surprise, smaller indie directors. David Sandberg, director of easily the best DCEU movie in Shazam! got noticed by uploading Swedish animated short films onto YouTube. They’ve also realized that not everything needs to be a part of some interconnected extended universe. Despite its weird place as a cultural lightning rod, Joker made over a billion dollars to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and it was made by the guy from The Hangover. Matt Reeves’ The Batman was supposed to be part of the DCEU but split off after Bat-Fleck left the project and judging from the trailer it looks like it’ll be incredible. Warner Brothers also took advantage of one of the dumbest firings of all time and brought in James Gunn himself to reboot Suicide Squad, and it already looks a million times better than the original. Meanwhile, Marvel is facing its toughest challenge yet. Not only do they have to overcome franchise fatigue, but now we’ve all gone over two years without any new MCU movies, and a lot of people are realizing they didn’t really miss them. The timing was also brutal, as it just put even more separation between the ending of the excellent Infinity Saga and the beginning of the new era. Will millions of people continue to follow the story of the MCU after Endgame provided such a logical and satisfying finale? Only time will tell. What matters most is that Kevin Feige and Marvel continue to take risks. They can’t afford to fall into the trap of making safe, bland origin stories like those in Phase One, especially with all the X-Men properties entering the fold. Because taking risks on talented artists is what has set them apart so far, and it’s what turned the MCU into the cultural juggernaut that it is today.