Much furor and hype has been expended on the current state of competition between Marvel and DC, with their respective cinematic and television endeavors. What’s playing out now on screens, however, has striking precedent in print. The competitive dynamics of superhero films in the 21st century closely resemble the comic book revolution fifty years ago. Call it the New Silver Age.
In the world of comic book superheroes, DC was the older and more established business, starting with Superman and Batman in the late 1930s and running through the Justice League at the tail end of the 1950s. Marvel had Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, enjoying strong success during the World War II era and a brief revival in the mid-50s, but it trailed DC in sales and was teetering on the edge of collapse as the 1960s dawned. Then it happened: the Silver Age.
In an explosion of creativity in the early 60s, the Marvel universe burst into existence. In less than three years, the ten major titles of the Mighty Marvel Checklist were established and the central characters became fixed in the comic book firmament. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil, the Black Widow – all introduced in rapid succession, together with a gallery of memorable villains and an eclectic web of supporting characters, and placed in a milieu of interactive action, angst, humor, drama and controversy. Marvel broke the comic book mold and the world went nuts.
The initial wave of comic hero titles from the 30s to the 50s constitute the Golden Age. The 1960s, then, became the Silver Age, and was unquestionably dominated by the Marvel renaissance. DC was still around, indeed was still considered the industry standard, but it was slow to react and adopt the new paradigm. By the late 60s, DC started to ride the wave of “relevance” in its story lines, and the visual style followed Marvel’s innovative lead. In those days, Jack Kirby was the pivotal artist and creative force in comics, and when he left Marvel for DC in 1970 the gravity shifted and the Silver Age came to an end.
Consider, then, what we’ve seen in superhero cinema. The modern era begins with Superman in 1978, the original DC trademark hero reborn with advances in special effects. Around the time the Christopher Reeves series peters out after four offerings, Tim Burton reboots Batman and starts another four-film series that lasts into the late 90s. Like in the Golden Age of comics, DC carried a couple decades with its two central brand name characters. Marvel, meanwhile, was struggling as a business, and even went through a bankruptcy proceeding in 1996.
So the New Silver Age starts with the X-Men movie in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002. Two major Marvel franchises, done right, both wildly successful. Suddenly Hollywood is alive again with superhero possibilities. This was a longer fuse than the comic book revolution in the 1960s, with some faltering steps by Marvel in the mid-aughts and a solid answer by DC in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman starting in 2005. But once Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, it’s been a rocket ride for Marvel that has left DC far behind and scrambling to catch up, basically the same position where it found itself fifty years ago.
Since then, Marvel has presided over an unprecedented cascade of box office blockbusters, but for a Fox flop in the Fantastic Four – a dozen MCU hits, four X-Men from Fox and a couple new Spider-Mans from Sony. In the same span, DC has put forward the last Nolan chapter of Batman, a Green Lantern fizzle and a Superman reboot. Sure, nearly a decade into the wave, DC is gearing up for bigger things, but it’s where Blockbuster Video was around the time the MCU took off, late to adapt while Netflix redefined the industry. In a few years, DC hopes to be where Marvel was five years ago. Meanwhile, Marvel still has a foot on the accelerator, stepping up the Hollywood releases, expanding its presence on network TV and opening a new frontier on, naturally, Netflix.
What could possibly go wrong now? The first Silver Age ended in 1970 when the greatest artist the medium ever spawned, Jack “King” Kirby, defected from Marvel to DC. If Marvel wants to avoid a similar fate in the New Silver Age, the lesson is clear: whatever you do, don’t let Kevin Feige get away.