Marvel Universe vs. DC Universe–Political Underpinnings and Societal Understandings…

Caveat: Please note that I’m not a comics expert–and so this is just an interpretation based on the media that I’ve come across… I claim no expertise here and am TOTALLY open to enlightenment here by those who are more involved with the material.

So.. this post by Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress (which I first came across at Andrew Sullivan’s blog) got me to thinking…

What are the political and societal underpinnings for the two different comic book/superhero universes?  Now, it’s long been known that the two different universes of heroes have a different feel to them.  The DC Universe, as this website notes, is

“populated with hosts of nigh-invincible super-beings like Superman, Wonderwoman, Doomsday, Vision, the Anti-Monitor, and the Green Lantern. These folks have collectively battled through numerous galactic Crises (one was enough for me, thanks). And when all other heroes fail, there is always one being that stands above them all: Superman. Only two weaknesses could be a chink in the Man of Steel’s armor: kryptonite and his innate goodness…”

The Marvel Universe, the site notes, is rather different.  It is

“full of heroes legendary in their own right, but also flawed and mortal. Marvel characters, by design, are a bit more down to earth. Aside from the Hulk, you’d be hard-pressed to find many ultra-powered beings in the Marvel Universe. You do have super-powerful beings like Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Professor X, Thor, and Galactus easily capable of delivering a hefty blow to Superman and pals.”

In other words, you have a DC universe populated with a lot of characters who are often, quite close to being Gods.  Superman is godlike in almost every way–except for the plot device by the name of kryptonite–and he’s even nicer than the god you’ll find in the Bible.  Similarly, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder woman all have immense powers that make them superior to humans in most every way. Of course, there’s always Batman–who is merely a human here.. but he just happens to be pretty close to being a super-genius human and billionaire to boot–which makes him pretty godlike from an ordinary human’s point of view.

In contrast, I’ve yet to find a Marvel Hero who is so clearly and consistently “awesome” as the DC heroes are.  The fantastic four were the first marvel heroes–and they had family squabbles all the time.  Later huge heroes included The Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, the remaining cast of The Avengers, and the entire mutant world of the X-Men.

These characters do not come across as gods.  Even Thor, who is supposedly a Norse God, is not as godlike as the almost omnipotent Superman is.  Instead, you have characters who are always flawed and very, very human.  Peter Parker has the eternal burden of his uncle’s death from his own carelessness.  The Hulk is only a hero when he utterly loses control of himself.  The X-men are complete, and utter, freaks, who have to hide from the world far more than they can admit to being in it.

One observation at this point is that it seems clear that, more often than not, the DC characters are intended to be more like gods of a mythology, while the Marvel characters never really make it past the level of “hero” in a mythological sense.  Thus, while Superman is like Zeus, Ironman is more like Odysseus.

This distinction sets up two very different and interesting dynamics in the relationship between ordinary humans and the heroes.  On the one hand, in the DC Universe, you don’t see a lot of humans posing a major or existential threat to the heroes.  While Lex Luthor can be a menace, he is the exception to the rule and almost all ordinary humans have absolutely no chance against the Man of Steel–who can move faster than they can see, can lift up entire buildings, and can burn everything around them with his laser vision.  In addition, the storylines, from what I can tell in my somewhat limited exposure to the DC universe, often take on exceptionally grand characteristics. For example, the number of times that the fate of the entire world seems to be at stake in the DC universe seems to be a lot more common than in the marvel one.

Overall, what I’m trying to grok is how this kind of set up structures the way we think about our own society.  In the DC universe, there are individual figures that are entirely larger than life that are there to save us–and the problems are often so huge that only they really seem capable of it.

What does this say about the mindset of those writing the comics and characters?  Is this a kind of “Great White Dude” theory of the world?  Of course, one can bring up the whole storyline of Batman, which doesn’t fit this kind of theory as well as many of the others–he doesn’t have superpowers as the others do…–but not only does Batman seem like the exception (and a weak one–since he is ueber rich and super smart) that confirms the rule for this view, but he is also often described as the most “marvel-like” of the main DC characters.

But what of the Marvel Universe?  It’s a much more ambiguous and problematic place for our heroes.  Bruce Banner is on the run (at least in the TV show about The Hulk that I watched in the 1970’s..), and Spiderman is constantly on the edge of being seen as a total and utter failure in the real world despite–or maybe because of–his super abilities.  Tony Stark is very much a raging and spoiled asshole, who only learns over time to become a better human being.  This kind of “flawed” character description seems to be endemic to the heroes of the Marvel world–and it keeps them from ever being so unabashedly “good” as the DC heroes are often portrayed..

And then we have the X-men.  Not only are they usually flawed, but it is clear that they live in a world that usually fears and hates them… a world that often also creates huge institutions that want to exterminate or lock them up.

This hostility of the Marvel world towards superhuman characters is so ubiquitous that you have numerous and foundational storylines where Marvel characters either takeover or try to set up their own distinct countries so that they can get away from ordinary humans.

Unlike the Hall of Justice of the Justice League in the DC Universe–which clearly is  situated in the middle of some large US City (probably Washington or NY…), the X-men–WHO ARE ON THE SIDE OF THE GOOD GUYS–regularly have to hide out so as to not be locked up in cages. Their homebase, for example, is the X-Mansion–which needs secret passageways to be able to carry on its mission.

Obviously–there’s a very different understanding of society in the Marvel universe.  Rather than having all-powerful gods running around to save you from utter cataclysms that seem to crop up on a disturbingly regular basis, you have a motley assortment of freaks–and they are always freaks in some way–trying to find their way in the world and trying to do good in the process.

This is interesting to me… and I wonder if the creators consciously had an understanding about society that pushed them in these directions, or if it was more of a subconscious thing that just manifested itself.

One might think of the difference in terms of the spiderman rule–namely the idea that “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.”  This notion, which is handled in both universes, is nonetheless handled in very different ways.  In the DC universe–for the most part (Batman exception noted)–the “Great Responsibilty” seems to be a given that the characters don’t even have to think about.  They are powerful and good–therefore they do huge amounts of good stuff without question.

In the Marvel universe, however, the path is not as clear.  The “Great Responsibility” aspect is something that they struggle with.  Perhaps, it is because the great power that they have is not necessarily great enough to take on the responsibilities that are confronting them.  Or perhaps it is because the situations that are posed to them are a lot muddier/murkier/grayer than those posed in the DC world.  How do you save the country–and do you really want to–when the country appears to have a grand desire to lock you up in concentration camps???

One final point that I might note is that the origins and impact of superpowers often seem very different in the two universes.  In the DC universe, superpowers seem to be gifts that aren’t problematic in themselves.. whereas in the Marvel Universe–they seem more like curses.  This might reflect the kind of difference between “godlike powers” and the “gifts” to heroes that often lead them into trouble.

In any case, this was just an extended (and long) thought of mine.  Corrections/Additions/Alterations from all others are highly encouraged.

PS–one final thought–it seems to me that while the Star Trek storyline would easily fit into the DC universe–the Marvel Universe would be much more accomodating to the Re-visioned Battlestar Galactica situation.



About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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