How DC Defeats Marvel in Superhero TV

While the MCU rules the cinemas, DC mastered superhero tv first.

Green Lantern may be one of the most influential superhero movies of all time. Yes, I’m referring to 2011’s Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan and Mark Strong as Sinestro. Yes, really, I’m talking about the movie in which the hero first uses his superpowers to beat up blue-collar workers who he angered when his decision to show off lost them their jobs. 

To see that influence, you need to look not at the big screen, but at the small screen. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Green Lantern co-writer Greg Berlanti put it plainly. “[W]hile it was heartbreaking on the film side,” Berlanti said of the movie’s failure; “it ultimately led to wonderful things on the television side.” In other words, had Green Lantern been a success, Berlanti would have been stuck continuing work on DC movies, instead of creating the Arrowverse.

Of course, DC and Marvel have had their share of television hits and failures. But with the Arrowverse, DC has a series of shows that replicated the interconnected serialized storytelling of its comic books. Even as movies based on DC properties tend to do worse at the box office than their MCU counterparts, the Distinguished Competition repeatedly beats the House of Ideas on the small screen.

DC Perfected the Shared Universe

Before The Avengers hit theaters in 2012, pundits were skeptical that the movie could successfully assemble multiple blockbuster films. By the time The Avengers finished its $1.519 billion run on the box office, doubters fell silent and studio execs salivated. “Shared universe” became the watchword among studios, including Warner Brothers. Just weeks after the Superman origin movie Man of Steel released to theaters in 2013, director Zack Snyder announced to rabid fans at San Diego Comic-Con that the sequel would inaugurate the studio’s own shared universe. But despite the film’s grandiose title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to launch a franchise to rival the MCU.

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For longtime DC fans, the DCEU’s struggles have been a bit baffling. DC already had its own shared universe in the “Timm-verse,” named for Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm. Spinning out of that acclaimed 1992’s series, the Timm-verse included Superman: The Animated Series, Static Shock, Batman Beyond, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and numerous movies. So successful was the Timm-verse, that one cannot help but wonder if it helped prime the children who watched it to accept the Marvel Cinematic Universe when they became adults.

Six months after The Avengers hit theaters, Arrow debuted on the CW Network. For its first two seasons, Arrow felt very different from the universe it eventually spawned, taking a (relatively) grounded approach to the story of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), a rich young man who becomes a superb archer after being stranded on a desert island. Heavily influenced by Lost and Batman Begins, the series steered away from superhero storytelling. Elements from the comics were present, but often in a very different form. For example, parts of season two found Ollie captured on a ship called the Amazo, a reference to the classic android antagonist of the Justice League, and Sebastian Blood appeared as a mad politician instead of the evil cult leader Brother Blood. Oliver didn’t even take the name Green Arrow until season four. 

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But from that slow start, Arrow inaugurated a world of shows that fully embraced their superhero roots. With the coming of The Flash in 2014, proper superpowers entered the Arrowverse, starting with Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) super speed, but eventually including the ice powers of Killer Frost (Danielle Panabaker) and Vibe’s (Carlos Valdes) interdimensional hopping. Soon to follow were Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, Batwoman, and Superman & Lois. As these shows filled the airwaves, so also did increasingly obscure characters from DC’s comic books. Little-loved C-listers such as Vibe, Wild Dog, and Commander Steel became fan favorites when portrayed by Valdes, Rick Gonzalez, and Nick Zano.

As its name suggests, the Arrowverse is a coherent live-action universe, one that brings together all of its heroes. Crossovers happen regularly within the Arrowverse, putting multiple heroes, stars of their own series but not members of a team, in primary roles. In episodes such as “All Star Team Up” (Flash season one) and “World’s Finest” (Supergirl season one), heroes from other shows appeared not just in cameos, but as key players in ongoing plots.

Around the same time, Marvel began launching its own shared universe on television, an extension of the cinematic universe it did so well on the big screen. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD premiered in 2013, starring Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson. In 2015, Agent Carter premiered, which followed Hayley Atwell’s character doing super spy stuff before the founding of SHIELD. 

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While neither series received the attention from the MCU that one would hope – the former got a plot motivation after the revelations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and an older version of Howard Stark’s butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy) appeared in Avengers: Endgame – the bigger problem was that they rarely seemed to relate to each other. In fact, outside of a few concepts, the closest sense of a shared universe occurred when time-traveling Agents of SHIELD encountered Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter.

The six Netflix MCU series certainly had a more coherent vision, as the five primary characters – Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and the Punisher – largely worked in the same section of New York and encountered one another regularly. Rosario Dawson’s night nurse Claire Temple provided connected tissue between the series, as did their similar aesthetics. Despite this internal cohesion, the Netflix series felt sequestered from not only the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but even fellow tv shows Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. Series that followed, such as Hulu’s Runaways and Cloak and Dagger, felt more like the completely unrelated X-Men shows Legion and Gifted than they did extensions of the MCU.

But while the Netflix series did pull off a shared universe, few would find it as thrilling or effective as those in the Arrowverse. While the first Arrowverse major crossover “Crisis on Earth X” offered thrilling action that invigorated the franchise, the Netflix crossover series Defenders signaled the end of the experiment, resulting in a muted response to the otherwise very good third season of Daredevil and second season of The Punisher. The streamer quietly shuffled the characters off to the bowels of the streaming service until recent MCU rumblings revived it.

DC Did the Multimedia Multiverse First

Over the past few months, moviegoers have returned to theaters to see actors from previous superhero movies reprise their roles in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Season One of Loki paired the titular villain with an alternate version of himself in an adventure across realities. Anticipation for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness has only intensified with a trailer cameo by Patrick Stewart as Professor X. Increasingly, the MCU is being defined as a shared universe of superhero team-ups, time-travel adventures, and multiverse-spanning stories that dig into the history of comics, television, and cinema.

But DC did the multiverse first. Comic book multiverses were first popularized in the pages of The Flash, beginning with “The Flash of Two Worlds” from 1961’s Flash #161. That story introduced the idea that superheroes from DC Comics’ WWII-era Golden Age existed on Earth-Two, while the modern-day heroes of the time existed on Earth-One. From this conceit came a bevy of stories, not just bringing together the members of Earth-Two’s Justice Society with Earth-One’s Justice League, but also featuring other worlds. Earth-Three featured evil versions of the Justice League, while Earth-S and Earth-Four became the homes of heroes DC acquired from Fawcett Comics and Charlton Comics, respectively.

Appropriately, the first live-action superhero depiction of the multiverse came in The Flash, with the 2016 two-parter “Welcome to Earth-Two.” Those two episodes not only featured a world with slightly different versions of familiar characters and a reference to Supergirl, which took place in a separate Earth from The Flash and Arrow, but also a glimpse of John Wesley Shipp as the Flash, the character he played in the 1990 series

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Over the next few years, the Arrowverse would increasingly indulge not only multiversal stories but also callbacks that rewarded longtime fans. Shipp became a regular fixture on the series, first as Jay Garrick the Flash of an alternate Earth, and then once more for his swan song as Barry Allen himself. The mega-crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths brought together all of the Arrowverse heroes, as well as stars and characters from many previous live-action incarnations. The crossover saw cameos from Burt Ward as Robin from the 1966 Batman series, Robert Wuhl returning as his Batman 1989 character Alexander Knox, and Ashley Scott as Huntress from Birds of Prey. Kevin Conroy made his first live-action appearance as Bruce Wayne, while Brandon Routh played Superman again for the first time since Superman Returns

As the MCU begins to bring in alternate versions of its characters, it will face a question from fans. What counts? Which version of Peter Parker is the real Spidey? Crisis on Infinite Earths answered that question by adopting the “Hypertime” concept from the comics. “Crisis” resolved that all versions of DC characters are canon, even if they exist in different ways and in different universes. Under this banner, for example, the Harley Quinns of Batman: The Animated Series, the adult-oriented HBO Max cartoon, and the Suicide Squad movies are all equally the “real” Harley Quinn. No version has precedence over the other in canon. They all count.

DC Goes Beyond the Shared Universe

Today, things may seem more balanced. The Arrowverse has been stripped down to Legends of Tomorrow (still unrenewed, but not yet canceled), Batwoman, and Superman & Lois.  Marvel, on the other hand, has expanded its television influence with its MCU shows on Disney+. Series such as WandaVision, Loki, and Moon Knight boast blockbuster movie storylines, characters, and (crucially) budgets. These achievements have won more viewers and critical acclaim than even well-regarded Marvel series such as Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that DC has lost television. Where the MCU treats its shows as mini-movies, addendums to its cinematic universe, DC has embraced a both/and approach to storytelling. While the Arrowverse continues to tell tales within a shared universe, shows such as Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn stand-alone, each with their own very different tones. Although neither are officially part of the Arrowverse, CW series Naomi counts among its creative team acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Stargirl remains a fan favorite. Bruce Timm will be returning to cartoon Gotham city, bringing along J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves as producers, with this year’s Batman: The Caped Crusader cartoon series, which joins ongoing kids shows Teen Titans Go! and DC Super Hero Girls. Hot off the success of The Suicide Squad spin-off Peacemaker, HBO Max will have at least one more tv show that builds on a movie, this time The Penguin, starring The Batman’s Colin Farrell. And to bring everything full circle, production continues on a Green Lantern series.

Will these shows be enough to continue DC’s television dominance over Marvel? Time will tell. But one thing is not in question: these shows are a heck of a lot better than the Green Lantern movie.