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Marvel vs. DC: The key differences and distinctions between the two superhero and comics titans

How to identify the differences between Marvel and DC Comics

Marvel vs. DC Omnibus
Image credit: DC Comics / Marvel Comics

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What’s the deal with Marvel and DC? Both companies practically run the superhero industry, thanks to their iconic superheroes. DC and Marvel are also responsible for some of the biggest box-office hits of the past few decades. But how do you tell them apart? Why isn’t Batman in the Avengers movies? Is Spider-Man a Marvel or DC hero? Don’t be embarrassed if you aren’t sure. After all, navigating one universe is confusing enough, and these are two HUGE universes!

Not to worry, we’re here to help! This guide will help breakdown the differences between Marvel and DC, and answer all of your burning questions.

What is DC?

Justice League #41
Image credit: Jamal Campbell (DC)

DC is an entertainment company that produces comic books, films, television shows, and other forms of superhero media. When somebody mentions DC, they’re usually talking about DC Comics, the publishing group, or DC Studios, the film division. DC is a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Discovery, the entertainment company responsible for Warner Brs Entertainment, the streaming service Max, and the CNN cable channel.

The DC Universe is the fictitious shared universe that can be found in DC’s published media. Stories in the DC Universe primarily focus on superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League. However, the DC Universe is also filled with horror and fantasy characters, such as Swamp Thing and the Sandman. In other words, the DC Universe is not limited to one genre of storytelling.

It should be noted that the DC Universe found in the comics is a separate entity from the DC Universe found in their films. The DC Universe is comprised of multiple universes….a DC Multiverse. While there are occasional crossovers, the comics generally follow their own continuity, telling stories separate from the films. In other words, if you read a comic where Batman gets his arm chopped off, the Robert Pattinson Batman will still have two arms in the next movie.

What is Marvel?

Cropped image of Judgment Day cover featuring characters from the Marvel Universe
Image credit: Marvel Comics

Marvel is an entertainment company that produces comic books, films, television shows, and other forms of superhero media. When somebody mentions Marvel, they’re usually talking about Marvel Comics, the publishing group, or Marvel Studios, the film division. Marvel is owned by Disney, the entertainment giant that also owns Lucasfilm, Pixar, and some of the planet’s most iconic theme parks.

The Marvel Universe is the fictional shared universe where most of Marvel’s stories take place. Most of the Marvel Universe stories focus on their superheroes, such as Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, and the X-Men. However, Marvel has also been known to tell stories that take place outside the superhero genre. Howard the Duck is an irreverent comedy character, while Man-Thing is a fantasy-horror character. The Marvel Universe is not limited by genre.

When someone mentions the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’re referring to the films produced by Marvel Studios. Those movies are based on the comics, but they follow their own continuity. For example, Iron Man was killed in the 2019 film Avengers: Endgame, but the character is still alive in the comics. For more on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, check out this guide.

Which are the Marvel characters?

Iron Man
Image credit: Adi Granov (Marvel Comics)

The Marvel Universe is filled with many of pop culture’s most recognizable superheroes. This list doesn’t cover every Marvel character, but it’s a brief rundown of the most famous ones. These are Marvel’s biggest characters, the ones who can be found in birthday party decorations and children’s pajamas.

  • Spider-Man
  • Captain America
  • Iron Man
  • Hulk
  • Black Panther
  • Wolverine
  • Thor
  • Black Widow
  • Deadpool
  • Doctor Strange

Which are the Marvel superhero teams?

The Avengers
Image credit: Marvel Studios

The Marvel Universe is filled with a variety of superteams. Here is a short list of their most well-known ones…

  • Avengers
  • X-Men
  • Fantastic Four
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Defenders
  • New Warriors

If you see any of these teams, then you’re looking at a Marvel Comics product.

Which are the DC Characters?

Batman in The Animated Series
Image credit: Warner Bros.

The DC Universe is filled with many iconic characters. This isn’t a list of every DC character, but it’s a short roundup of the most well-known ones. These are the biggest DC characters, the ones who can be found in coloring books and t-shirts.

  • Superman
  • Batman
  • Wonder Woman
  • Aquaman
  • The Flash
  • Green Lantern
  • Green Arrow
  • Martian Manhunter
  • Cyborg
  • Harley Quinn

Which are the DC superhero teams?

Wonder Woman with various Justice League members
Image credit: Warner Bros. Animation

The DC Universe is filled with a variety of superteams. Here is a short list of their most well-known ones…

  • Justice League of America (aka the JLA)
  • Justice Society of America (aka the JSA)
  • Teen Titans
  • Young Justice
  • Suicide Squad
  • Legion of Super-Heroes

If you see these teams, you’re looking at a DC Universe product.

Is Captain Marvel a DC character or a Marvel character?

Captain Marvel Poster
Image credit: Marvel Studios

If you’re confused about Captain Marvel, don’t feel bad, because the situation is complicated. Both DC and Marvel have superheroes named Captain Marvel, and there is some weird legalese involved. Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1939 Fawcett Comics began publishing a character named Captain Marvel. This is the superhero with the red jumpsuit who yells ‘Shazam.’ DC Comics sued Fawcett, alleging that Captain Marvel was a rip-off of their creation Superman. The courts ruled in DC’s favor, and Fawcett cancelled their Captain Marvel titles. DC eventually gained the rights to Captain Marvel, but the character remained in limbo for years.

By 1967 Marvel Comics was riding high, thanks to the popularity of their various superhero titles. When they learned that the copyright to the name Captain Marvel had lapsed, the publisher saw a branding opportunity. They created their own version of Captain Marvel, and the character took off. This version of the character was a Kree warrior named Mar-Vell. He usually wears a red jumpsuit, but no cape. The identity would eventually be passed on to Carol Danvers, the character most people recognize as Captain Marvel today.

DC eventually brought Fawcett’s Captain Marvel out of limbo, but since Marvel Comics held the copyright, they had to title his comics Shazam. The character was allowed to be called Captain Marvel within the books themselves, but the name couldn’t appear on the title of the comic. DC eventually got around this problem by renaming the character Shazam in 2011.

If you still need help telling the characters apart, remember this – if you see a blonde woman with cosmic energy, that’s Marvel’s Captain Marvel. If you see a man in a red jumpsuit and a white cape, that’s DC’s Captain Marvel aka Shazam.

What are some of the biggest differences between Marvel and DC?

Lois Lane rips open Clark Kent's shirt
Image credit: DC Comics

The DC Universe and the Marvel Universe might feel similar, but as you read through their stories, you’ll begin to notice some differences in how they approach things. For instance, if you look at their superheroes, you’ll notice that many of DC’s characters have capes. Some Marvel heroes like Thor and Doctor Strange have capes, but DC greatly outnumbers Marvel in that department.

Many of DC’s heroes have secret identities, while most of Marvel’s heroes are open when it comes to their real names. Heroes like Captain America and Iron Man publicly revealed their identities years ago, while Batman and Superman prefer to remain anonymous.

DC’s heroes are also more spread out than Marvel’s. Most Marvel Universe stories take place in New York City, while many of DC’s heroes are based in their own fictional cities. For example, Batman is based in Gotham City, which doesn’t exist in the real world. Meanwhile, Spider-Man is based in New York City. Marvel has fictitious cities too, but they’re featured far less than DC’s fictional cities.

Marvel superheroes are generally seen as underdogs. For example, heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men are ostracized by society, and face challenges in and out of costume. In contrast, DC heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman are beloved. While there are stories where DC’s superheroes fall out of public favor, this isn’t the norm, and the status quo will typically be resolved once the storyline concludes.

None of these should be considered rules. You will occasionally find a Marvel hero who wears a cape, has a secret identity, and is based in a fictional city. Sometimes a Marvel story might feel like a DC story, or vice versa. This is due to the influence both publishers have on one another, and the fact that some writers and editors have worked for both companies. While a Marvel story and DC story each have distinctive feels, they aren’t afraid to break outside of their comfort zone.

Have Marvel and DC ever crossed over?

The Justice League and Avengers stand together
Image credit: DC Comics/Marvel Comics

DC and Marvel have crossed over on multiple occasions. The first time the two companies ever worked together was 1975, when the publishers collaborated on a comic book adaptation of MGM’s Wizard of Oz. However, their first true crossover came a year later when they co-published Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. This was the first time a DC hero and a Marvel hero had officially been in the same story.

There have been numerous crossovers over the years, including the 1996 mini-series DC vs. Marvel, which saw the biggest heroes from both universes duke it out. The problem with DC and Marvel crossovers is that they require a lot of cooperation between two publishing giants and their parent companies. As such, corporate politics have made crossovers less frequent. To date, Marvel and DC have never crossed over on film, but you never know what the future might hold.

What are DC’s essential stories?

Watchmen comic group
Image credit: DC Comics

If you’re looking for DC’s most essential storylines, here is a brief rundown. This list is meant to cover the DC books that are constantly being reprinted in trade paperback collections, and the storylines that fans still passionately discuss. This doesn’t cover EVERY popular DC storyline, but it’s a good sample of their best work.

This list is divided into two sections, one covering company-wide crossovers, and one covering character focused stories.

Crossover stories

Character-focused stories

Honorable mention: Watchmen doesn’t take place in the DC Universe, but the graphic novel is one of the most celebrated comics in history. Watchmen is a critically acclaimed best-seller, which is often discussed in college literature classes alongside classic novels. No rundown of essential DC Comics would be complete without mentioning it.

What are Marvel’s essential stories?

Secret Wars #1
Image credit: Marvel Comics

If you’re looking for Marvel’s most essential storylines, here is a brief rundown. This list is meant to cover the Marvel books that are constantly being reprinted in trade paperback collections, and the storylines that fans still passionately discuss. This doesn’t cover EVERY popular Marvel storyline, but it’s a good sample of their best work.

Like our DC breakdown, this list is divided into two sections, one covering company-wide crossovers, and one covering character focused stories.

Crossover stories

Character-focused stories

Are DC and Marvel related?

Amazing Spider-Man #45 cover
Image credit: Marvel

It depends on what you mean by related. The short answer is no, DC and Marvel are separate companies. While both companies are known for their superhero media, they are competitors. Think of them like the Coke and Pepsi of the comic book world.

If you’re using a broader definition of the question, then they’re related in the sense that they both provide similar forms of entertainment. Both Marvel and DC are comic book publishers. Both companies have their own film studios, which produce big budget comic book films. DC and Marvel also share talent. Comic book creators like Gail Simone and Chip Zdarsky have written for both companies. Filmmakers like James Gunn have produced films for both studios. Actors like Ben Affleck have starred in Marvel and DC films.

In that sense, they’re related. But if you’re using a strict definition of the term, DC and Marvel are not related. They’re two separate companies that are in competition with one another.

Why is DC not as popular as Marvel?

Cropped poster for Avengers film
Image credit: Marvel Studios

This is a tough question to answer because there are multiple ways to measure popularity. Do we look at box office numbers or comic book sales? Should we do a survey on school playgrounds, asking kids who their favorite superheroes are?

Popularity is a pendulum, and sometimes it swings in DC’s favor, and at other times it swings in Marvel’s favor. For example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently one of the biggest film franchises in the history of cinema. While their recent releases haven’t hit the same numbers they had during their golden age, a Marvel film generally sells more tickets than most other studio offerings.

DC’s film division is currently struggling. Their last five films (Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Blue Beetle, The Flash, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and Black Adam) all underperformed. Marvel movies have faced similar challenges. The 2023 release The Marvels underperformed at the box office. However, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 grossed $845 million at the box office, making it the most successful comic book film of the year.

Remember what I said about pendulums? In 2008 The Dark Knight became the first superhero film to surpass $1 billion at the box office. Three Marvel movies were released that year (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Punisher: War Zone), and their combined grosses don’t surpass The Dark Knight.

In other words, Marvel’s films have a better reputation now, but things change. And this is just their films. The same thing has happened with Marvel and DC’s television shows, video games, and comics.

Honestly, both DC and Marvel are popular.

Which is older, DC or Marvel?

Justice Society of America
Image credit: DC

DC Comics is a few years older than Marvel. DC was founded in 1935, but at the time the company was called National Allied Publications. The first comic book DC Comics ever published was New Fun Comics #1, an anthology title. Superman would debut in 1938 in Action Comics #1, and Batman made his first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics #27.

Marvel Comics was founded in 1939. The company was originally called Timely Comics, and the first title they ever published was an anthology series called Marvel Comics. The first issue of the series featured the debut of the Human Torch (a predecessor to the Fantastic Four character) and Namor the Sub-Mariner.

This should bring you up to speed on the two biggest publishers in the comic book industry!

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About the Author
Joshua Lapin-Bertone avatar

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Contributing writer

Joshua is a pop culture writer specializing in comic book media. His work has appeared on the official DC Comics website, the DC Universe subscription service, HBO Max promotional videos, the Batman Universe fansite, and more. In between traveling around the country to cover various comic conventions, Joshua resides in Florida where he binges superhero television and reads obscure comics from yesteryear.
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