Marvel vs. DC: A Case Study

Inside the success of the world’s most iconic comic book brands.

Much to the delight (and possibly chagrin) of comic book lovers (*slowly raises hand*) everywhere, both Marvel and DC have made huge leaps over the past 15 years to establish themselves as mainstays in almost every form of popular content consumption. While both brands have managed to grow by leaps and bounds in the TV, Cinematic, and Gaming worlds, they’ve utilized different tactics and brand strategies to grow their super-powered empires. To get a better understanding of how each brand has cultivated its audience and identity, we decided to embark on a comparative case study.

Comparing Marvel vs. DC is an interesting endeavor. Both brands have a similar product and are competing for similar audiences which are made up (at least partially) of die hard purists. Both of these brands have branched out over the last 10–20 years and have grown their audiences and popularity by leaps and bounds. The question thus arises: what are the core differences in how these two giants are painting their brand stories to their current and new audiences, and how is that affecting their growth across different mediums?

There are a million slight (and some not so slight) differences in the way the two brands position their characters, verticals, and content across different channels, but for the sake of time we’ll take a look at 1 major core difference in their TV and Cinematic strategies over the last 15 years and how that’s impacted their growth and profitability.


Continuity vs. Diversity

The largest difference, and possibly the deciding factor over the last 15 years, seems to be Marvel’s dedication to continuity across its stories, characters, and universes vs. DC’s constant shifts towards rebrands and staying on the cutting edge of what audiences want. While both strategies have their merits, longevity creating long standing fans and rebranding/rebooting creating new ones, there seems to be a fairly clear picture of how they are matching up from a performance perspective over the last 15 years in both Film and TV.

Cinema — Continuity:

We start to get a bit of a clearer picture of how the two brand’s strategies are performing when we look at the top 10 worldwide grossing comic book movies of all time.

Red = Marvel | Blue = DC

Interestingly enough every one of them has come out over the last 15 years, (with the exception of the original Superman, which came out in 1978 and comes in at #3 all time), with 7 of those being from Marvel and 3 being from DC. This seems to be a pretty clear indication that Marvel is winning the war at the box office — but where does continuity play a role? If you dig a bit deeper you’ll see that all 7 of the top grossing Marvel movies belong to only 2 main story lines/franchises, with The Avengers team leading the charge with 4 films and Spiderman coming in a close second with 3.

Of course, a counterpoint could be made that these numbers are lopsided due to Marvel releasing more films over that period of time, approximately twice as many films in the 15 year period. However, when you look at the DC films that cracked the top 10 (aside from Superman) they are all part of one continuous story line and franchise: director Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots. From this data we can ascertain that continuity in a franchise helps to not only build new keep core fauns faithful, but also drives audience growth across the films.

In addition, we see Marvel doubling down on this strategy by keeping every film it releases as part of one continuous universe. This allows for recurring themes, villains, heroes, and cameos that keep fans excited about universe growth and interaction between familiar characters.

Television— Diversity:

When it comes to TV, the balance of power seems to shift a bit in favor of DC. If you look at the TV landscape since Marvel and DC started making shows in the 1950’s you’ll see that DC has not only released more shows, but has more seasons in each of their series. DC’s approach in the TV world has been to try as many different approaches as possible and to run with the series that stick and show potential. This run and gun mentality has paid off for DC in the TV world and given birth to some of the most iconic superhero series in history.

Red = Marvel | Blue = DC

The fact that DC has found success in the TV world with it’s quick “change and adapt” strategy shows that there is value in reinventing iconic brand staples to keep them fresh. Take, for example, their reinvention of the Superman TV franchise from the original Superman in the 50’s to the more modern and relatable Superman of Smallville in the early 2000’s (the longest running superhero series of all time).

All In All

Ultimately, it seems like the two behemoths are feeling things out as they go and have just recently started to take cues from each other’s successes. Marvel has started making a major push into the network TV space with shows such as S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as pushing out original series like Daredevil on subscription services such as Netflix. Keeping in line with its overarching strategy Marvel’s TV series align with its cinematic universes to create the continuity it’s fans have come to know and expect.

DC is looking to build cinematic continuity by introducing new movies and aligning them within the Justice League franchise — similar to Marvel’s Avengers. However they’re doing so with brand new versions of all of their characters, keeping in line with reinventing themselves to stay in line with their edgier persona.

What Does The Future Hold?

It seems there’s a healthy balance to be struck between constant innovation and brand continuity. We see see this in successful brands such as Apple, Nike, and Starbucks who have found equilibrium between a firm brand image/voice and constant innovation of new products and market strategy.

As these two giants move closer and closer to understanding each other’s successes, their strategies seem to be narrowing closer and closer to a common point. We’ve already seen Marvel rebrand their #1 franchise character Spiderman to better fit with the Avengers — and soon enough we may see DC’s television characters interacting with their Justice League cinematic teammates. There are as many differences between Marvel and DC as there are amazing characters, and it would be easier to outsmart Batman than to narrow their successes and strategies down to a single point.

We’re excited to see where these two iconic brands take their universes and how continuity and diversity play alternating hero and sidekick roles.

— Johnathon Cramer // Visuals by Eun Hee Kwon)

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