What the DCEU gets right that the MCU gets wrong

The Marvel vs. DC debate has been going on for decades, and it will likely never stop. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a veritable juggernaut of modern cinema, and Warner Bros.' DC Expanded Universe has been playing catch-up to them since day one. When it comes to both box office and critical acclaim, the MCU comes out on top over the DCEU's box office take and critical reception. However, that doesn't mean that the MCU is perfect or that it does everything better than the DCEU. Rather contrary, there are a few things the DCEU excels at that the MCU could take some notes on. 

Directors don't stick to a formula

Marvel movies are great. We love them. One thing you can't really deny though is that over the course of the last ten years the franchise's powers that be has found a narrative formula that works for them and stuck to it. There's very little narrative difference between Iron Man, Ant-Man, and, say, Doctor Strange. They all follow the same general sort of plot and story beats.

The DCEU, on the other hand, has given their directors a bit more freedom to break away from a formula over the course of their films. This isn't to say that they don't follow familiar beats or a standard three-act structure, but the way the films play out doesn't feel nearly so rehearsed or predetermined as it does in a Marvel film. In fact, the one that feels the most formulaic is Justice League, which is the one that most clearly tries to replicate the Marvel formula. You could chalk that up to the MCU being more than 15 movies into their universe while the DCEU is less than ten. Nevertheless, it's a noticeable difference and something that, at the least, makes the DC films more compelling in their own way.

Great cinematography

With a few exceptions—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok come to mind—one of the most noticeable differences between Marvel and DC movies is that DC has a leg up on Marvel in the cinematography department. For all of his issues as a director, Zack Snyder opened up the DC universe in a visually stylish fashion, and that has carried over into every single movie in the DCEU. While there may not be bright colors in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, there's a deliberate palette being utilized by the films. Add to this Wonder Woman's visual flair and Justice League getting the best of Snyder's eye for framing a shot and a brighter color scheme, and that style becomes even more intriguing to the eye. 

Marvel's films tend to lack any discernible visual signature. Much has been said about their washed-out color grading that comes across far more as a lack of attention to detail than it does an artistic choice. It doesn't help that there are movies in the MCU that don't just lack good cinematography but have actively bad cinematography (The Avengers, for example, is shot like a TV pilot until the big third act). Even with Marvel's recent improvements (the aforementioned GotGv2 and Thor movies), they've still got a long way to go before their films possess any visual signature.

Not flooding the market

One of the joys of early Marvel films was the anticipation that came with them. We only got one or two per year, and the stretches between those films were filled with anticipation, a palpable eagerness to see what the next one would bring, both in terms of story and setting up a larger cinematic universe. We've lost that over the last few years, with two movies per year being the standard since 2013, and, perhaps worse, 2017 marking the first of three years in a row in which we'd be getting three Marvel movies per year. With a few months instead of a few years between movies, the films feel less like events and more like episodes of a TV show that come on every five months or so.

Warner Bros. admittedly had some trouble getting the DCEU off the ground, with Green Lantern's flop forcing them to start over from square one with Man of Steel. However, this has turned out to be something of an advantage for the DCEU. It's stopped them from full-on flooding the market over the last few years the way Marvel has. Their films still feel like events, not check marks on a list that lead to the first Crisis movie or something. That being said, 2019 and 2020 each have two films slated per year for the DCEU. Let's hope that's not a prelude to them adopting the MCU's three-movie schedule.

Big themes and hard questions

Almost every Marvel movie comes down to one question: What does it mean to be a hero? It's the lynchpin of every single origin story the MCU has told over the last ten years and often carries into sequels and team movies. It's a fair question, one that is ultimately at the core of most superhero stories in any medium. The problem is that with rare exception it's the only real theme behind the MCU. With films like Iron Man 3 focusing on PTSD and the media's culpability in the perpetuation of terrorism or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 exploring the complexities of family dynamics, it shows Marvel can stray from their basic premise, yet they rarely do. 

Warner Bros., on the other hand, has allowed their DC Comics filmmakers to center each film around central questions that are unique to each film. Man of Steel explores alienation and "destiny versus choice." Batman v. Superman explores Superman's place in a very real modern age of pessimism and skepticism. And, as simple as it may be, Wonder Woman's entire story is anchored around the theme of love and the idea that humankind is inherently good and worth fighting for. These films may tackle these ideas with varying degrees of success; they might not provide the "right" answers to the questions they pose, but rarely does a DC film fail to at least try to engage its audience on a level beyond the one that every single superhero movie from the last 20 years has. 

Their shared universe already exists

The slow build to The Avengers worked in the MCU's favor. It was hard to not be excited to finally see the characters we'd spent four years getting to know team up for the first time. However, there was one detail that slightly dented our suspension of disbelief during that buildup: there's absolutely no way Tony Stark wouldn't have been on site the second a cosmic god fell out of the sky. Furthermore, if a giant green rage creature had ravaged even one city, it's hard to believe it never would have come up in conversation between Jane Foster and Thor. It became weird to think that it took these characters this long to meet up when there were plenty of chances for them to do so beforehand.

The DCEU instead tackled the realistic side of a cinematic universe: it doesn't need to be built if it's already there. Batman v. Superman deals with the direct aftermath of its predecessor by addressing the idea that if the events of Man of Steel happened, other characters within the DCEU would notice. There would be no slow build to a cinematic universe. It would happen instantaneously. This is furthered through Wonder Woman's origin story, through the suit of a dead Robin on display in the Batcave. When your cinematic universe already exists, there's no need to build to it. You can get right to the thing that viewers come for: seeing their favorite heroes team up and interact in a shared world.

Acknowledging fan complaints

A funny thing happened when the first trailer for Justice League dropped at San Diego ComicCon. The trailer had jokes. It's funny. There's a lightness to it. Having jokes in a summer blockbuster might not seem too revolutionary a move, but it's important to remember that, until that moment, the biggest complaint about the DCEU had been its overly dour tone. This moment was significant, not just because it marked a change for the DCEU but because it meant they had listened. And the finished product proved that it wasn't just the trailer. There's an unmistakable lightness of tone to both Justice League and its predecessor Wonder Woman. It's reasonable to say that Warner Bros. wouldn't have come around if not for vocal fans. 

On the other hand, there have been a number of fan complaints over the years regarding the MCU that remain unaddressed. Unlike Warner Bros., Marvel has largely ignored those complaints and moved along accordingly. There have been no efforts to adjust the franchise's epidemic of bland villains who are too often an evil mirror of the hero, present in everything from the Iron Man trilogy to Ant-Man. Similar complaints regarding the lack of high stakes in most of their films remain unaddressed. The choice to ignore these valid criticisms are especially evident now in the wake of Warner Bros.' course corrections and adjustments to the DCEU in the wake of fan complaints. All Marvel fans can do is hope their concerns are addressed in the imminent Phase Four

Diversity is a priority

The MCU has been going strong for over 15 films. Every single one of those films has been headlined by one of the same eight white male characters. Yes, Black Panther marks the first MCU film not only starring a black man but featuring an almost-entirely black cast. Similarly, 2019 will see the first female-led Marvel film in Captain Marvel. However, we've got to be honest here: the MCU should have started prioritizing diversity a long time ago.

Warner Bros., on the other hand, had a woman in a starring role by their fourth DC movie (and their third had the very feminine Harley Quinn ostensibly as one of the two leads). Their sixth film will star Jason Momoa, a Hawaiian, in its lead role. Cyborg, due out in 2020, will mark their first black lead, seven years after launching their cinematic universe and before hitting their ten-movie mark if it's released on schedule. And that's not even taking into consideration their behind-the-scenes talent, which includes female and Asian directors.

The DCEU has been putting diversity in the spotlight far more than Marvel. DC has also put diverse directors behind the camera; it took the MCU seventeen films to put a person of color in the director's chair, with Taika Waititi being the first. Diversity isn't a competition, but this is perhaps the single most egregious folly in the MCU's existence. It's gradually being righted. Yet, it's not a complaint we've really ever been able to make about the DCEU. 

Exceptional soundtracks

The MCU has employed no shortage of excellent composers. Titans including Alan Silvestri, Patrick Doyle, and Tyler Bates have all made their mark on the franchise. The only problem is that for all of the work these talented individuals have put in, no Marvel movie has a particularly memorable score, short of maybe The Avengers (though we're admittedly quite partial to the Ant-Man soundtrack). It's hard to un-notice once you realize it. Iconic scores are very much a staple of superhero media, from the iconic Superman: The Movie theme to the X-Men: The Animated Series opening titles. Out of all of their films, the only truly iconic musical cue in a Marvel movie is the use of "Hooked on a Feeling" in Guardians of the Galaxy.

The DCEU on the other hand has very much made memorable, character-defining scores a priority in their cinematic universe. This is thanks in no small part to composer Hans Zimmer, whose themes for both Superman and Wonder Woman aren't just imperative parts of the films in which they're featured, they're memorable outside of them as well, the sort of music you could find stuck in your head or humming out loud to yourself. Music can amplify a moment in a film tremendously, and the MCU's lack of great scores has very much worked to its detriment over the last several years. It's a bummer, because when they do use it properly it can be truly special.

Not being afraid to try something new

Suicide Squad may not have been a huge critical hit, but how cool is it that the movie happened to begin with? In the decades since superhero movies became popular, not once has there been a movie that focused entirely on a group of villains, especially not a group of mostly B-list (at best—looking at you, El Diablo) villains. And how cool was it when a cinematic universe was launched with a movie wherein the most famous superhero of all time had his origin story told as a nonlinear sci-fi epic with coming-of-age undertones? 

The DCEU may have had varying degrees of success, but they're taking some risks. That alone is commendable.

The MCU, on the other hand, plays it far safer. Their films follow trajectories we expect from superhero stories, from origins to sequels that expand upon the world to now-inevitable team-up movies. The last MCU film that felt like a risk was The Avengers—which was genuinely groundbreaking at the time—but that was over five years ago at this point. Even their most bombastic team-up movies at this point feel like safe bets. Bold storytelling decisions counteract stagnancy, and the MCU is reaching a point where, if they don't take some of the risks (and to be clear, they can absolutely afford to) and the DCEU does, the Marvel Universe is going to become something worse than uneven, it'll become boring.

Not letting humor stifle the drama

From Tony Stark's quips to the Guardians' perpetual squabbling, the MCU's humor has been one of its finest qualities since day one. The problem is they never reel it in. Thor: Ragnarok may have been the first example of humor becoming overbearing in a Marvel movie. With so many jokes, the humor begins to undercut some of the film's drama, and even in a comedy you need drama to ground the story. Ragnarok felt afraid of letting the audience become genuinely invested. Its climax contains one of the most important moments in the history of the MCU—the death of Asgard—and the moment is played for laughs. It undercuts the drama of the moment in a way that's jarring.

Yes, the DCEU could use some comic relief, but, on the other hand, think about the franchise's most affecting moments. For example, watch the above "No Man's Land" scene from Wonder Woman. Notice how no jokes distract from its resonance. The filmmakers lean into the emotion of the sequence entirely, and the result is the best superhero movie moment of 2017. The DCEU actually does humor pretty well sometimes, even in moments of dramatic significance, but their humorous moments never happen at the expense of drama. Because of this, some moments in DCEU movies just feel more important, more memorable than anything that happens in MCU films. We're not saying the MCU should go all "Full Dark, No Stars," but they could certainly learn from DC in this respect.