The Contrasting Visual Styles of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes

Comparing what DC’s doing with their cinematic universe to what Marvel’s up to isn’t just about critics’ reviews or quality of scripts. Marvel has the leg up, at least right now, on both accounts. But there’s a more interesting divide, one that shows a fundamentally different approach to how a comic should make the transition to screen.

Let’s start with DC. Their style, so vivid in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, goes back to Zack Snyder’s first comic book adaptation, 300, and his first DC adaptation, Watchmen. Say what you will about their other features, but both are visually extraordinary and, more important to the central difference between DC and Marvel, both look like comic books. This isn’t just obsessive use of comic panels in composing shots, though that’s part. It’s that these movies, wherever they’re set, aren’t our world. They happen in one of the weird places that exist somewhere else. The landscape isn’t ours, nor the architecture. The colors are “wrong.” The sounds, too. These movies take the visual language of their source material and make it move.

DC continued this with Snyder’s first two movies formally in the new cinematic universe. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have heavy color grading, stark lighting, conspicuously framed shots, and so on. The latter movie in particular feels often artificial, not in a negative sense (though some might argue it is a negative), but in the way that pencil and ink are artificial, that the art of someone like Jae Lee is artificial compared to the photographic style of Alex Ross or Timothy Bradstreet. The movie is explicitly designed to look like another world. It’s explicitly designed to look like a Batman comic book.

We might summarize DC’s approach as bringing comic books to the screen. The trailers for Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad look like it’s an approach they’re sticking with.

Marvel goes in the opposite direction. The Marvel Studios movies are shot to look like our world. In fact, they’re shot without much of a recognizable visual style, and they tend to attach directors not known for visual style, as good as they might be in other ways. Setting aside the few films that explicitly take place elsewhere (Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor movies), if you pulled the superheroes and the scifi tech out any given shot, you’d likely have no way of knowing you were watching a genre movie.

So if DC’s cinematic universe is intended to look like comic panels brought to life, Marvel’s style is showing what our world would look like if it had superheroes in it.

This of course fits each publisher. Marvel’s thing, going back to Stan Lee, is to present its heroes as regular people with super powers. DC’s characters — at least the most famous ones with the maybe exception of Batman — are instead creatures of myth, demigods not at all like mortal men.

This divide means the two universes are keyed to telling different sorts of stories, though I think Marvel’s approach better allows for the integration of cosmic level characters than DC’s allows for street level, personal stuff. Regardless, it’ll be fun to see how much this style continuity continues.