Marvel Sells Characters, DC Sells Heroes

A new study, reported by Adweek, breaks down a key difference in the movies being released based on Marvel Comics characters and those from DC: Audiences immediately, when the trailers are released, connect with Marvel characters on an emotional level they just don’t with DC characters. Here’s the key graf:

ZappiStore says the data shows the DC trailers received a positive response from their special effects and explosive action, rather than from their characters. However, fans show a strong affinity toward Marvel’s superheroes and react positively toward its trailers’ humor, driving the higher levels of emotional engagement with its trailers.

What’s interesting about the results of the study is that this sounds so familiar. If you’re at all aware of the history of Marvel Comics, you’ll know that Stan Lee (and plenty of others, including Jack Kirby) set out to create characters that were very different than the heroes published by DC Comics at the time. Those heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Shazam, Hawkman and others – were seen as being too godlike to be relatable. They were a kind of new Roman Pantheon, great and powerful beings who could do anything, without the kinds of real-world issues and personalities people could easily relate to.

So as Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men and other members of Marvel’s first years were developed the goal of Lee and his collaborators was to ground them. They didn’t live in fictional cities like Gotham, Metropolis or Coast City, they operated largely in New York City, with locations the reader could recognize and possibly even walk past. Peter Parker struggled to make ends meet and with self-esteem issues. Members of the FF squabble amongst each other but then always came together as a family. The original X-Men were teenagers grappling with their changing bodies.

This kind of dichotomy between the approaches of two companies has widened and narrowed – and even reversed – at various times in the last 50+ years. But as the cinematic representations of the characters emerged the same dynamic and difference was established. Where Iron Man opened by knocking Tony Stark off his pedestal and showing him embracing responsibility, Man of Steel immediately showed Superman as someone conflicted over using his powers. Where Captain America uses internal strength to stand up to bullies and protect the week, Batman’s hubris keeps him from seeing anyone’s point of view as flawed and dangerous unless it conforms with his own.

That’s why the overwrought Christ metaphors in Man of Steel seemed so tired and why the empathy and love motivating Wonder Woman were such a relief. In both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Superman wrestles so much with whether he should be saving people, where Wonder Woman barely hesitates to step out of the trench to cover the other soldiers. Even in some of the less-than-great Spider-Man movies, he never hesitates to jump into danger in order to save those in danger.

The difference in how the audience connects emotionally with the marketing of DC and Marvel films isn’t surprising. There are very different tacks being taken in how those movies are being created. Those differences have their roots, then, in how the characters were originally conceived back when their adventures cost $.05 a month to read in four colors.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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