Marvel vs. DC: Which Has a Better Track Record with Its Movie Villains?
A hero, they say, is only as good as his or her villain. Likewise, superheroes need compelling supervillains to challenge them and propel their stories forward. Over the years, Marvel and DC have both seen some of their very best baddies adapted remarkably to the screen.
Marvel fans have gotten iconic characters like Spider-Man 2‘s Doctor Octopus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki, and the X-Men franchise’s Magneto. Meanwhile, DC fans have been gifted several legendary Joker performances, along with Superman: The Movie‘s Lex Luthor and, most recently, Birds of Prey‘s Black Mask.
But which comic book empire has done a better job adapting its best villains for the big screen? Let’s take a look at both Marvel and DC’s track records.
DC has been making movies longer, but Marvel has greater output
To start with, comparing DC and Marvel movie output is a tricky thing for one simple reason. Until the 2010s, DC’s only real franchises involved Batman and Superman. Only after The Dark Knight did DC truly make an effort to create a shared cinematic universe. If Green Lantern had worked, it would have kicked it off. But instead, fans had to wait until Man of Steel.
Meanwhile, Marvel doesn’t have the history DC had, at least with its two most famous heroes. Only a handful of live-action movies based on Marvel titles were made prior to the late 1990s. But when Blade and especially X-Men hit it big, every studio with Marvel movie rights exercised them as soon as possible. So the years between Spider-Man and Iron Man were rich.
This disparity has only grown in the past decade. While the DC Extended Universe has made eight movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made nearly triple that amount. This output is important to note. Marvel has taken more shots at nailing its villains, but we’re looking at the consistency of those adaptations as a whole.
The weakest villains are just shallow recreations of the heroes they face
For both companies, the weakest villains are usually those who are simply an evil version of the hero. Marvel’s Iron Man has faced more than one dark reflection of himself. In fact, just about all his heroes represent twisted versions of a part of himself. Likewise, Superman tends to only fight Kryptonian criminals or powerful creatures created by Lex Luthor.
Only in rare cases does a character transcend this dynamic. Black Panther‘s Killmonger is absolutely an exception, as is Batman Returns‘ Catwoman. These baddies shine a light on what the heroes could have been under different circumstances. And as such, they challenge the hero’s perspective on himself as much as they push his intellect and physicality to their limits.
The MCU has come to rely heavily on power-hungry villain clichés. While the performances sometimes make these characters fun to watch, there’s often little development to truly latch onto. Thanos is one case in which viewers understand the villain as much as the hero. But Red Skull, Ronan the Accuser, Yellowjacket, and Malekith are essentially non-entities.
Even DC’s failures are interesting choices, even if they are divisive
Meanwhile, DC has made fewer films overall. But when they do, the villains are far less forgettable. In addition to Batman’s library of foes, the movies have successfully introduced Zod, Dr. Sivana, and Ocean Master into the fold. And even less popular interpretations like Suicide Squad‘s Joker and Batman v Superman‘s Lex Luthor provide bold, albeit divisive, new ground.
Perhaps because DC hasn’t made as many films, it hasn’t had a chance to botch too many of its biggest villains. Sure, Green Lantern was a flop, but Sinestro was hardly the problem. Likewise, the DCEU never got the chance to effectively cover Darkseid — arguably its most powerful villain — just yet. But Marvel movies have made some horrific decisions for its villains.
Galactus, Doctor Doom, and many of the X-Men baddies (Emma Frost, Dark Phoenix, Sabretooth) have all been mishandled in Fox’s hands. Similarly, most fans believe Sony’s Spider-Man films dropped the ball on Venom, Green Goblin, Rhino, and Electro at various points. Yet, Marvel Studios itself hasn’t misfired quite as much on its own. So that’s something.
Fans will, of course, come to their own conclusions on whether Marvel or DC villains have made the best leap from page to screen. The fact remains Marvel movies delivered more outright disappointments. But it’s a numbers game. With Marvel making more movies, the odds are stacked against it. In time, perhaps both Marvel and DC can really up their villain games.