To kick off our adventures in this series, I decided to start with two of quite possibly the best known brand names in the entertainment industry – Marvel and DC Comics. Both were founded in the 1930s, both have undergone changes in name, ownership and corporate structure and yet almost eighty years after their founding they remain hugely successful. Their products span all across the mediums of comics, television shows and films proving their ability to adapt to technological change. They have each produced some of the twentieth century’s most enduring fictional characters such as Batman, Captain America, Superman and the Incredible Hulk. In short, these guys are easily the Goliaths of the comic world.
Given how much they have in common (and this includes their revenue of millions), you may wonder just how different can they really be from one another? This is an excellent question, Wanderers, and one which entices us to explore the power of branding and how two companies who appear to produce quite similar products are able to market themselves in such a way that they are perceived to be distinct from each other. I should caveat this discussion from the outset by saying that I am no expert on comics or the industry, nor will I be exploring the historical relationship between the two brands. I feel that alone would merit an entire series! Instead, I’m going to be focusing on the current trends in branding between the two names and how this may alter fans’ and non-fans’ perspectives on the end-products.
The idea underlying this article was sparked by a conversation I had with another fan at a party over the festive season. After establishing that my new companion and I were both Whovians, we naturally began to expand our discussion into other fandoms. My new companion was enthusing about the virtues of The Dark Knight Rises – one of his favourite films whereupon I expressed a preference for the latest Marvel films. We smiled ruefully at one another, recognising without the need for further words that somehow we would not be attending the same films together anytime soon. And that was it my dear Wanderers, that was the moment I began to question why without any need for further discussion we perceived ourselves to have such contrasting tastes?
A quick Google search of Marvel versus DC Comics later (much later – not at the party, I’m dedicated, Ed, but not that dedicated) and I had begun to find some possible answers. In recent years, Marvel has achieved phenomenal success through a number of films building up a very specific film verse. Whilst previous films focused on perhaps the more famous characters of the Marvel world e.g. X-Men and the Fantastic Four, these latest cinematic offerings have been exploring the potential of what could be labelled as ‘B-list’ names. Whilst Tony Stark/Iron Man and Thor did indeed have committed and fiercely loyal fandoms, it is fair to say that their names were not as well-known. After a string of box office hits including the marvellous Avengers film which brought together a number of superheroes and one very memorable villain, it’s safe to say that their names are burned into the imagination of more fans they have ever been before. Marvel very cleverly not only branded these individual comic book characters with their own style in terms of costume, set design, music and even language but they have also clearly put considerable effort into creating an overarching brand bringing them all together. There are sneaky little references in each one to the other films, plots which weave in together, characters which cross over the films and provide a sense of continuity and let’s not forget Marvel’s rather delightful habit of providing an extra scene or two during/after the credits. Furthermore, Marvel tends to keep their film offerings relatively light even when dealing with serious events such as World War Two by including a substantial amount of comic relief and action sequences.
Contrast this with DC’s film ventures which have notably focused on two of the most iconic and loved superheroes of all time – Batman and Superman. Given the extent of these characters’ fame and the fact that they have both already enjoyed a considerable amount of cinema time over the decades, it would have been natural to assume that there wasn’t much scope left for any reboots. It appears that DC have made a deliberate and carefully calculated move away from their past of colourful, sometimes cheesy and fun films. Words like dark, gritty and powerful are often used to describe the Batman trilogy. There is relatively little humour in the new franchise, a notable lack of tights or pants worn over them and the villains are played less for kicks than for chills. The decision to hire Christopher Nolan as director for Man of Steel was a sign of DC’s commitment in pursuing a darker, more edgy style of story-telling than the offerings of their supposed rival Marvel those films tend towards more comedy-action rather than critically acclaimed thrillers. However, this is not to say that the two brands cannot learn from each other’s successes. DC’s forthcoming Batman vs Superman may well be a sign that they have paid close attention to Marvel’s triumph with the Avengers franchise.
This article is sadly just skimming the surface of the branding dynamics taking place within and between these two epic names but hopefully it has provided you with some food for thought. Given that they both cover such a diverse range of talent, ideas and mediums, it would be impossible for either Marvel or DC to have one overall branding strategy which could cover every eventuality. Such uniformity would not necessarily work in their favour and as their recent hits and misses prove the reactions of critics and fandoms alike are not always easy to predict. DC took a risk and found that their reboot of Superman in Man of Steel failed to garner the critical success of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Marvel weren’t expecting Tom Hiddleston’s villainous but charming Loki to prove such a hit with fans. Perhaps, all this goes to show that however much effort these companies put into generating a particular brand, ultimately the balance of power still resides within the fandoms.
Red Hamilton (wanted to be Batgirl when growing up because capes are awesome.)