Fate Vs. Chance in Marvel and DC

One of the topics that’s always coming up in comic blogs or in magazines is the question of “What’s the difference between DC and Marvel.” A lot of the distinctions that have been brought up are rather trivial, such as saying that Marvel is grittier and darker, while DC is more colorful, but 20 years ago it was the opposite. The other thing brought up is that Marvel is more action based while DC is more insistent on story, but if you go back to Marvel’s conception, you’ll see at that point in time Marvel had a much stronger emphasis on stories than Golden or Silver age DC. After giving this some thought, the biggest difference I can see between the companies is this: in DC, it’s as if the characters are fated to be heroes, while in Marvel many of the heroes got to be where they are through chance or freak accident.

scanned cover to Action Comics #1

To give you an idea of what I mean, look at the Big Three at DC (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman). Superman was destined to be a hero the moment he was sent to Earth with heavy-handed messages from Jor-El. Bruce Wayne seeing his parents murdered at an early age gave him no choice but to fight crime. Wonder Woman (I don’t fully understand her origin story) was apparently crafted from the earth itself by Amazons, so what else could she be but a warrior princess?

Compare those origins to the characters created by Stan Lee. Peter Parker just happens to be standing around in the right place when a radioactive spider bites him. Some guy just happens to walk onto an a-bomb testing site where Bruce Banner has to rush out and save him, thus becoming the Hulk. Even the X-Men are the products of a chance combination of genetic material.

The other distinction I’d like to point out is that with the origins of many of the famous DC characters, there’s an event that takes place either in childhood or adolescence that forever changes them, while in Marvel, the characters often have tramautic experiences as teenagers. Examples: Bruce sees his parents killed, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) sees his father’s plane crash, or with post-Final Crisis Barry Allen his mother was murdered when he was at a young age. With Marvel characters, they’re often older: Peter Parker is a teen when Uncle Ben dies. Rogue accidentally kills a boy by kissing him, Bobby Drake (Iceman) discovers his powers while on a date where he ends up being hounded by an angry mob.

You might be wondering, “Well, so what? What difference does it make?”

I would say the big difference is this: the DC heroes are fated to be heroes, and have very little choice in the matter. With the Marvel Universe, there’s the possibility of heroes being reluctant.

That’s the reason why I point out the age disparity. Bruce Wayne witnesses something in his formative years; their deaths are very much a part of him. With a lot of the major DC characters, they are who they are until death–there’s no option of retirement. Look at the JSA: first generation superheroes still active in the field. They can’t retire from soemthing they have no choice in.

With Marvel it’s a different story. While not many characters actually retire from their superhero gigs, many threaten to do so. The most obvious example is Spiderman. Anyone who’s read a lot of Spiderman books knows by now that Pete threatens retirement every few months. At the most, he’ll retire for a few months, let a few other people hog the spotlight, then come back to huge fanfare, like Jay-Z or Cher. With DC characters, it takes huge events to give them a retirement: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were only allowed 1 year off to find themselves thanks to Infinite Crisis, and Wally West was given downtime at the price of The Spectre erasing Flash’s memory from thousands of people.

The significance?

I don’t want to make this into a debate over what’s better or worse, rather I want to point out on both sides it’s the backgrounds that make them interesting. That Spiderman can get beat up horribly, have his first girlfriend and even his unborn child killed by Green Goblin attests to his heroism by having him choose not to entirely give up. That Batman can only devote himself to fighting crime is a big part of his appeal as a hero as well, when we read about what sacrifices he makes to continue living this way (for an example, check out Superman/Batman: Torment or RIP).

Also, with the Marvel Universe being so much a product of chance, it allows for grey area: characters can go from being villains to heroes. Punisher and Deadpool both started as villains. DC has tried many times to have their popular villains switch sides, but those series don’t last. I think on one level the fans of DC like the idea of a universe where fate plays such a large role.

The exceptions:

Of course, with any rule there are exceptions. In this case, the exceptions only make the case itself more interesting. For instance, in the DC Universe, the only character I can think of who effectively retired and stayed retired is Jack Knight (Starman). He in many ways exemplified traits of the Marvel hero more than the DC one: he was already an adult when given the power rod. As he chose to weild it, he could choose to pass it on.

In Marvel, one of my favorite all-time comic runs was J.M. Stracynzki’s time writing for Spiderman. In that story, he developed a plot that made it seem like Peter Parker was himself chosen to inherit the spider’s power, making it fate that he became the way he is. This didn’t sit well with fans, and Brand New Day (an event I still hate) effectively wished it out of existence. Fans have to see Peter as a man who has chosen to fight.

Read other essays and opinions.

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I’ve published a book titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook. Click on the image below to see it on Amazon.

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