In the last few years, comic book culture has invaded pop culture with the rise of the superhero movie genre. The bulk of these movies are using characters from two separate publishers each with their own fictional universes: DC Comics and Marvel.

At first glance these universes seem quite similar – and in the modern era they are – but it hasn’t always been this way and if you look closer the underlying differences are still apparent.

The DC and Marvel comics superhero universes have each existed for a long time: DC since 1938 when Superman crashed onto the scene in Action Comics with Batman then following a year later in Detective Comics; the Marvel Universe began with the Fantastic Four in 1961 with Hulk and Spiderman following the next year.

Admiration vs Suspicion

These are both universes filled with superheroes and they have plenty of similarities. But there are also some deep differences. These differences haven’t been as apparent since the mid-1980s when DC restarted and redefined their universe and became more like Marvel, yet even still they remain embedded in the logic of each universe.

The DC Universe loves and admires its heroes. Metropolis loves Superman. The Daily Planet can’t wait to get the scoop, the headline, the interview. But DC heroes aren’t just great ones who just effortlessly do the right thing. When they do the right thing they’re rewarded for it. Superman saves the day and gets a statue and glowing front-page story. Superman is a hero and the Daily Planet wants everyone to know it. Keystone City, the fictional city where the Flash lives, loves the Flash. Flash saves the day and they build a museum dedicated to him.

In the Marvel Universe, far from being loved and admired, heroes are feared and hated. The X-Men are sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them, Avengers mansion is regularly picketed and J. Jonah Jameson from the Daily Bugle wields his newspaper and advertising billboards in a battle to discredit Spiderman as a “Menace!”

Gift vs Curse

In the DC universe heroes receive their powers as a gift and they use them for truth, justice and the American Way (whatever that is). Superman is the ultimate immigrant who loses everything when his home planet explodes but he arrives at his new home and happens to become the most powerful being on the planet and decides to use his powers to help people.

For Marvel’s heroes, their powers aren’t so much a gift as they are a burden, and in some cases a curse. The Hulk becomes “the strongest one there is” but he also becomes an ugly green monster who wanders in the desert while hounded by the U.S. army. In contrast to Superman’s almost giddy, “This is a job … for Superman!” we have Spiderman’s mournful, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

DC heroes are constructed and presented as the pinnacle of their power set. As an example, take the two speedsters: Marvel’s Quicksilver can run really fast, at something like the speed of sound, but DC’s Flash can run faster than the speed of light – and so faster than time! He’s so far above and beyond it’s hard to even conceptualize it. DC’s heroes are unimaginably powerful idealistic heroes in idealistic settings; almost pure archetype. They represent an ideal for us to attain.

Ideal vs Struggle

This brings us to the fundamental difference between the two universes: the DC universe is all about the ideal and the iconic whereas Marvel’s is about the struggle to live up to the ideal. DC’s universe is idealistic and aspirational; their heroes are great ones, they’re the beautiful people and they do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing.

Hal Jordan becomes Green Lantern when an alien member of the Green Lantern Corps – think “Space Police” – crashes his spaceship on Earth and needs to find someone to replace him who is “utterly honest and born without fear.” That’s Hal Jordan. He’s utterly honest, and so receives a power ring that can make real anything he can think up (using magic green space energy) and so he chooses to go out and do good and help people.

This all brings us to Marvel. If the key word for the DC universe is aspirational then the key word for Marvel is relatable. Marvel’s characters are fundamentally flawed; they’re heroes with feet of clay in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Tony Stark is an ex-weapons manufacturer who struggles with alcoholism. When Peter Parker uses his powers for wealth and popularity his selfishness leads to the murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter is now driven by that guilt forever and is continually making stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes while worrying about being able to pay the rent.

Sure, Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but those weaknesses are weaknesses in their powers, they’re not character flaws. In the Marvel universe, their powers aren’t off the scale and the characters are imperfect, they struggle, make mistakes and need to grow. In other words, they’re like us. Yes, they have superpowers, and maybe they’re slightly better than I am in some ways, but they’re relatable. They’re struggling to live up to their ideals just like we are.

“Vs” misses the point

We can relate to Marvel heroes. We can aspire to DC heroes. DC’s heroes are more iconic and ‘other’ while Marvel’s heroes are more relatable. Using these differences to judge which universe is better misses the point. We need both. I need someone who understands the struggle but I also need more than just someone who’s with me in it. I need someone above it who can help me out of it. The god-like DC heroes are there for us to look up to and admire. We strive to be like them while knowing that we’re not. Marvel’s heroes we relate to in the struggle and as I see them persevere in their struggle, as they face what I face and deal with failure like I do it helps me to continue in my struggle.

Jesus sets an example for me to follow that I will never in this life attain. I will never navigate life like he did and be able to pull it off perfectly. But his example is one for me to strive to imitate; he left us “an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). And yet I need more than an example. Jesus is also the Stronger Man who has bound the Strong Man and does for me what I could never hope to do for myself (Mark 3:27). Jesus is one who is impossibly powerful, God-like and achieves feats that are difficult to comprehend and that I will never come close to. Yet at the same time as being the all-powerful Lord of creation, he is also my Great High Priest who knows what it’s like to live the human life, feel the struggle and can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:14-16).

The underlying logic of these superhero universes reflects and resonates different facets of the One who in himself joins and holds all things together.