Unless you’re living under a rock, you have probably heard some talk in recent years of The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and possibly Tony Stark. The “comic book” genre has been taking over the summer blockbuster and has even started to infiltrate live action television. The main two players in this game are, of course, DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Between both of these companies, they control 80% of the comic book industry, and they have both become generators of pop culture phenomena.
Though there is a rivalry between the two companies, I’m not here to get into that fight.
In general, it seems that DC’s TV game is stronger than Marvel’s and Marvel’s movie game is stronger than DC’s (the exception, of course, being Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy). With the influx of Marvel movies coming out in the next few years, a new TV series featuring The Flash, and Batman’s 75th birthday last week, if you aren’t in the know, you’re going to be left behind.
What I present to you here is a who’s who of the major players in the comic book genre today, which players belong in which camp, and where you can see them.
So adjust your capes.
Started in 1934, the ‘DC’ in ‘DC Comics’ stands for the popular “Detective Comics” series where Batman first appeared. DC Comics is the publishing unit of DC Entertainment, which is now owned by Time Warner.
The main players in the DC universe are the members of the “Justice League.” Today the current incarnations of the Justice League are published in “The New 52” series and “Justice League of America.” The original lineup was:
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter. Green Arrow, Black Canary, and a host of others rotated in. The longest running version of the Justice League as an animated series, was the Super Friends, which aired between 1973 to 1986. There have been numerous versions featuring particular characters over the years. Cartoon Network, aired a version of the Justice League in 2001 and the Justice League Unlimited in 2004. They also aired Young Justice, which focused on a group of teenagers being mentored by the Justice League. Live action shows have focused on particular heroes, and I’ll get into some of these below.
Superman: If you know any superhero, you probably know Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent–the mild-mannered reporter who is actually an alien from the planet Krypton. He’s faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, and he’s been around since 1938.
The Adventures of Superman aired in the 1950s starring George Reeve as Superman. In my lifetime, there have been two live action television shows featuring Mr. Kent: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (featuring Dean Cain) and Smallville (featuring Tom Welling). Smallville focused on a young Clark Kent, and a version of The Justice League appeared in season six. The most recent incarnation of Superman came in the form of Henry Cavill in the movie Man of Steel. We all know how I felt about this movie, so…moving on.
Superman’s love interest is Lois Lane, though, some speculation about the power of his super sperm has called this into question.
You can next see Superman in Batman vs. Superman (working title?) which has been pushed back to a 2016 release. This will be the first time Superman and Batman will meet on the big screen. Interesting casting note: playing Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor will be Jesse Eisenberg.
Batman: The other big DC superhero that nearly everyone knows is Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne was an orphan turned billionaire philanthropist. He is known as “the Caped Crusader” and “the World’s Greatest Detective.” He doesn’t actually have superpowers, but he is a genius, a martial artist, and a master with high-tech equipment. He is assisted by his awesome butler Alfred Pennyworth, who tends to the Batcave.
Adam West played Batman on television in the 1960s, but the most recent Batman incarnations have been movies. These are the biggest grossing of the DC films. The latest was the Dark Knight Trilogy starring Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises). These movies lost some of the comic book campiness that was in the previous movies, but they delved wonderfully into Batman’s history and psychology (and manpain). The next time you see Batman will be in Batman vs. Superman, where Ben Affleck will don the Batsuit. Batman’s notable sidekick is Robin, most recently played by Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises.
Batman spawned a lot of the famous villains you have heard of: The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Two Face, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, and Ra’s al Ghul. But more on Ra’s al Ghul later.
Note: There was a really bad Catwoman movie starring Halle Berry that came out a few years ago. The world tends to collectively pretend that it didn’t exist. This is for the best.
Wonder Woman: Wonder Woman was another original member of the Justice League. She was an Amazonian with super strength and masterful fighting skills who bought her identity from an Army nurse named Diana Prince. She wields a Lasso of Truth and since 1960 has been able to fly. She was played on TV by Lynda Carter in the 1970s. A recent pilot for a TV show was filmed by never aired.
Reportedly Wonder Woman will appear in Batman vs. Superman.
Green Lantern: Green Lantern was one of the founding members of the Justice League. Multiple men have adopted the moniker, first Alan Scott and then Hal Jordan, which is the most common incarnation. Green Lantern gets his powers from a power ring, and he can basically manipulate the space-time continuum and create solid constructs with the ring.
Green Lantern’s masters are the Guardians of the Universe (not to be confused with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) who are the leaders of the Green Lantern Corps. They are a group of blue aliens who basically police the universe and try to keep things in order.
There was recently a live action movie starring Ryan Reynolds using the Hal Jordan identity, but he likely won’t reprise the role.
Flash: Another founding member of the Justice League is the Flash. Four different men have assumed the identity of the Flash, who possesses superhuman speed, though the most famous is Barry Allen. Barry was a police scientist who got his superspeed after being bathed in chemicals and struck by lightning. In the comics, currently Barry Allen is one incarnation along with Bart Allen, his grandson. Flash is often friends with the Green Lantern.
There was a live action TV show of The Flash in 1990. More recently, a young Barry Allen had a guest appearance on the CW show, Arrow, and he will be getting a spinoff show of his own later this year. Grant Gustin will be playing Barry.
Green Arrow: Sometimes appearing as a member of the Justice League is Green Arrow a.k.a. Oliver Queen. Oliver Queen is a billionaire who is a masterful archer (who can shoot 29 arrows a minute) and martial artist, who by night hunts down bad guys in Star City. In the comics, he invents trick arrows, and he was sort of a gritty vigilante, and less concerned with the greater good as the Justice League founders.
The current (and awesome) TV show Arrow on the CW is based on “The Green Arrow” comics. It reinterprets the comic books in creative ways. It brings in a lot of Green Arrow’s sidekicks, include the Black Canary (Green Arrow’s love interest and serious badass unto herself) and Speedy a.k.a. Red Arrow a.k.a. Roy Harper, Oliver Queen’s ward.
Some of the famous Green Arrow villains that have come up on Arrow are Merlyn (a fellow archer and one of the Seven Men of Death), Count Vertigo, Deathstroke a.k.a. Slade Wilson, Professor Ivo, and Brother Blood. I’m still waiting for Lady Shiva to appear.
Also mentioned on the show Arrow are the League of Assassins, who are led by Ra’s al Ghul, yes, that Ra’s al Ghul, Batman’s nemesis.
See? It all comes full circle. Stephen Amell, who plays Arrow, has mentioned wanting the Justice League to happen on the show, which would kick ass.
Other “Justice League” Members: The other original members of the Justice League are Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. Aquaman is probably never going to get his own TV show or movie because he is generally considered kind of lame, but his powers involve superstrength, telepathy, enhanced senses and swimming abilities. He can also manipulate marine life, which is actually kind of awesome. You also never hear anything about Martian Manhunter, even though he basically has every power ever and is super awesome. Mars knows how to raise ’em.
I also have to mention my favorite member of the DC family and occasional member of the Justice League: The Question a.k.a. Charles Victor Szasz a.k.a. Vic Sage. He appeared most recently in the 2004-2006 cartoon version Justice League Unlimited. He is basically this enigmatic philosopher/shaman who can intimidate criminals into confessing. My dream is to play Question on Arrow. (Can you hear me, Arrow writers?)
I also mention Question because (bit of trivia here) he was the model for Rorschach in Watchmen.
Watchmen: I would be remiss not to mention Watchmen in this rundown even though Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, had a HUGE ownership dispute with DC and refuses to associate with it anymore. Watchmen is a notable player in the DC verse. It was originally published as a 12-issue series and has since been released as a “graphic novel.”
What made Watchmen so awesome and revolutionary was that Alan Moore didn’t employ a good vs. evil, spreading justice to all mentality and didn’t use a linear narrative. It takes place in an alternate reality wherein costumed crimefighters are a reality, and the characters are flawed and give their own perspective to morality and justice. There are six main characters: The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Silk Spectre. There are a host of minor characters as well.
A live action movie was made of this in 2009, but my recommendation is to read the comics instead. There is just too much in that world and those characters to capture in two hours.
Started in 1939 as Timely Publications, now Marvel Worldwide Inc. is the other major comic book publisher and rival to DC. They became Marvel in 1961, with the launch of The Fantastic Four, and the company is now owned by Disney. The main thing you need to know about Marvel is that Stan Lee is the mastermind behind most of your beloved Marvel characters, collaborating with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Stan Lee’s characters often have relatable backgrounds that are construed in a realistic setting. Also worthy of note: Stan Lee has a cameo in every movie. (Well, nearly, he’s missed a couple of the X-Men films.)
The Marvel universe is a single universe, and there seem to be four franchises currently (which occasionally overlap) churning out movies.
The Fantastic Four: I, admittedly, know very little about The Fantastic Four, but they are worthy of mention because a reboot (for unknown reasons) is happening in 2015. They are also Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s first superhero team.
The Fantastic Four include: Mister Fantastic (who possesses super stretchiness), the Invisible Woman (who, in addition to invisibility, can project force fields), the Human Torch (who generates fire on his body and can fly), and Thing (who has superstrength and stony flesh). They all received their powers after being exposed to cosmic rays during a mission to outer space, which is ridiculous, because cosmic rays are actually slowly killing us all.
The supervillains they face include Doctor Doom, Galactus (who is kind of awesome), and Silver Surfer, who was named in the title of the 2007 sequel, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Spider-Man: First and foremost, it is crucial that you get the spelling right. It’s not ‘Spiderman’. Spider-Man is also known as Peter Parker, a teenager when he comes into his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. These powers include the proportional strength and agility of a spider. He swings from webs and has a tingly spider-sense and struggles to help his Aunt May make rent.
His nemeses include Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Venom, and a lot of others with animal names who came into being because of science gone awry.
The 1970s brought a live action Spider-Man to TV, but since then Tobey Maguire played Spider-Man in trilogy, and for more unknown reasons ($$$), they decided a reboot was necessary. The Amazing Spider-Man is now being played by Andrew Garfield. The sequel comes out in May 2014.
The X-Men: One of the major Marvel super teams is the X-Men. The X-Men are a group of genetic mutants led by Professor Xavier who trains them in his mansion. The X-Men frequently go up against the Brotherhood of Mutants led by Magneto.
There was a trilogy of X-Men movies made in the early 2000s, and then a prequel of sorts that gave us the Wolverine origin story. That was followed by a prequel of the X-Men (which was supposed to be the Magneto origin story) in which we see Charles and Eric as friends before forming the X-Men and the Brotherhood, respectively. Sometimes the X-Men and the Brotherhood team up, and the lines between “good” and “evil” are blurred. See: X-Men: X2, where they have to fight against mutant extinction at the hand of Colonel Stryker.
Professor X: Leader and founder of the X-Men, Charles Xavier, is a telepath and a genius who can control other people’s minds. In spite of being paraplegic, the telepathy makes him a force to be reckoned with. He is a pacifist, unlike most superheroes who use violence even for the sake of good.
In the X-Men trilogy, he was played by Patrick Stewart. The younger version is played by James McAvoy.
Magneto: Also known as Erik Lensherr (or Max Eisenhardt, depending on who you ask), Magneto is a mutant who can generate magnetic fields. He had no back story for awhile, but ultimately it came out that he was a Holocaust survivor. His motivation is protecting mutants from similar horrors (though originally it was to have mutants take over and dominate over humans).
He met Charles at a clinic for Holocaust survivors, and they were once friends who bonded over their mutant powers. Idealistic differences turn him against Professor X, and he forms his own band of merry mutants, including Toad and Sabretooth.
In the movie trilogy, he was played by Ian McKellan, and his younger incarnation was played by Michael Fassbender.
Wolverine: The only mutant to get his own origin film is Wolverine. He is a loner, Dottie, a rebel. He is an antihero type known as Logan, even though his real name is James Howlett. His mutant abilities include enhanced animal senses and super fast healing. He was not a Stan Lee creation. He first appeared in the comics with the Incredible Hulk, though he is often found with the X-Men, as he was in the trilogy, played by Hugh Jackman. he joined the X-Men later and was not one of those who trained with Professor Xavier.
While I’m here, I should mention Deadpool, a mouthy mercenary who sometimes teams up with Wolverine. Presumably he’s getting his own movie starring Green Lantern, er, Ryan Reynolds. Wait. Is that allowed?
Other X-Men: Storm (who can manipulate the weather), Cyclops (who literally shoots lasers out of his eyes), Beast (who had superhuman strength and transforms into a blue, well, beast), Iceman (who can freeze anything), and Rogue (who absorbs people’s memories, skills, and lives through skin-to-skin contact).
Rogue is often allied with the Brotherhood of Mutants, so I’m still waiting for her to go bad. Speaking of ambiguous characters, Phoenix/Jean Grey (who is telekinetic) also also appears in the films. She has a “Dark Phoenix” storyline, and this was sort of played out in the film trilogy. (Just let your characters be dark, Disney.)
Other Brotherhood of Mutants: Mystique (a shapeshifter with super agility and healing), and, you know, the movies don’t really play them up much. I already mentioned Toad and Sabretooth.
You can next see the X-Men in X-Men: Days of Future Past, opening in 2014, which includes both the younger and older versions of your favorite characters, i.e., Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are reunited and it will be awesome.
The Avengers: The other major Marvel team making a splash right now is the Avengers. In the comic books, the original Avengers were Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and a thawed Captain America (as in the current film incarnation). They were joined by the Wasp and Ant-Man (who is supposedly getting a movie of his own in 2015). They found themselves under a common threat and teamed up, er, assembled to fight the enemy.
In the current ‘verse, the Avengers are the brainchild of S.H.I.E.L.D. (what this stands for varies), led by Nick Fury. Nick Fury was a WWII hero who turned into the leader of the espionage agency. (I don’t think the movies address this, but he takes the Infinity Formula so he doesn’t age, much like Samuel L. Jackson, the actor who plays him. Curious.)
On the television series, titled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Phil Coulson leads the way. Incidentally, Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) was written for the film and only afterward went on to appear in the comics. There are tie-ins and plot threads that flow throughout both the TV show and the films, which is an ingenious marketing ploy. The sequel, Age of Ultron, comes out in 2015. The Avengers Line-Up in the films:
Iron Man: Iron Man is the alter ego of Tony Stark–billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, genius. He sustained a chest injury while being captured by terrorists who asked him to build a weapon of mass destruction. Instead, he built the Iron Man suit, which can fly at supersonic speeds and provides regenerative life support. This incident causes him to re-evaluate his stance on weapons manufacturing.
He got his own movie in 2008, and there has sense been two more to complete the trilogy. At this point, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark is Iron Man. The world has just accepted this fact.
Thor: Thor is the alien of the bunch, as he hails from Asgard. He is based on the Norse god of the same name. In the comics, his father Odin sends him to Earth to teach him humility and puts him in the body of medical student, Donald Blake. The films (starring Chris Hemsworth who looks so much like Thor it’s eerie) change this, instead having Odin exile Thor for being a petulant, disobedient child (but whatever). Thor is superhuman, and with the help of his hammer (not a euphemism), he can fly and control the weather and electricity.
You can’t mention Thor without mentioning Loki, Thor’s adopted brother. Loki has been reimagined a few times in the comics. Most recently, Loki is going to get his(?) own series in which his bisexuality and gender fluidity will be explored. Loki is a trickster. In the films, he’s certainly not a hero, not an avenger, but he’s not a traditional villain. He was frequently exiled from Asgard, but Thor seems to have a soft spot for him.
In the films, he is played by Tom Hiddleston who steals every scene and is an absolute treasure.
The Hulk: The Hulk is a large, green behemoth with super strength who is basically impervious to everything. The Hulk came into being when Bruce Banner, a physicist, was exposed to gamma rays. Much of his storyline involves him grappling with controlling the transformation into the Hulk, which happens when he is particularly stressed.
Hulk was actually the first of the Avengers to get a movie. He was played by Eric Bana in version we all collectively ignore and then rebooted with Ed Norton taking over in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk. Ed Norton re-wrote the script and made it more in line with the comic books, where Bruce Banner is part of an experiment attempting to make humans immune to gamma rays. Mark Ruffalo took over the role in The Avengers.
The Incredible Hulk is the only one of the Marvel characters to have a successful TV show (that show lasted FIVE seasons), where the Hulk was played by Lou Ferrigno…who needed no CGI.
Captain America: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, is the oldest of the Avengers, first appearing in 1941. He was a puny soldier who was given a serum that made him a super soldier in peak human condition, designed to help fight the Axis powers in WWII. At the end of the first movie, you find out that Captain America has been kept frozen for 70 years and reawakens in the present. A lot of jokes get made at his expense because of the time jump. Also important, in that movie, you get introduced to HYDRA, the terrorist organization that runs counter to S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Red Skull, who was Captain America’s nemesis in the comics.
The sequel to Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, came out in April 2014, with Chris Evans reprising the role. Also returning was his sidekick Bucky Barnes. In recent incarnations of Bucky, it is discovered that he was also preserved and turned into an assassin known as the “winter soldier.” Sebastian Stan plays this role in the films, and he signed on to nine films, so his storyline is likely to get carried on.
Also noteworthy is The Falcon, a sometimes Avenger, who was also introduced in The Winter Soldier and played by Anthony Mackie. The Falcon is also known as Samuel Wilson. In the films, he is portrayed as an army vet who was specially trained as a flying pararescueman. But in the comics, he was actually mentally fused with a falcon named Redwing on Exile Island. Oh, and he trained pigeons as a child.
Hawkeye: In the comics, Hawkeye was added to the Avengers shortly after Captain America joined them. He is the alter ego of Clint Barton, an orphan from Iowa who became a master archer with a traveling circus. The films give little back story for him, but in the comics, he saw Iron Man as a kid and was inspired by him, but when he tried to emulate him, he accidentally got mistaken for a criminal. While on the run, he met the Black Widow, with whom he fell in love.
He is played by Jeremy Renner in the films, and I need him and Black Widow to have a movie together like I need air. So far, they have teased about something going down in Budapest. But what? I must know.
Black Widow: Natasha Romanova (sometimes Romanoff) is the only female member in the movie version of the Avengers (for now). Like Hawkeye, she doesn’t have superpowers, rather, she is an assassin and first introduced in the comics as Tony Stark’s antagonist who later defected to the U.S. to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.
In the films, she is played by Scarlett Johansson, and (at least to me) they do a good job of portraying her as being guided by her own internal system of ethics instead of the “we fight evil” mentality. She most recently had a starring role alongside Captain America in The Winter Soldier. If they don’t give her her own movie, I will riot.
Related characters worthy of mention are:
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Guardians of the Galaxy are not a Stan Lee creation and are very new to the Marvel universe, first appearing in 2008. There is a movie coming out later in 2014 that was teased at the end of Thor 2. It stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (later assuming the moniker Star-Lord) who becomes an astronaut who then gets caught up in the world of space crime. The Guardians, then, are a team of misfits heroes that Quill recruits to help him. The previews for the film seem to be playing it up as a comedy, so we shall see how this new band of heroes turns out.
Finally, if you stayed to the end of The Winter Soldier (and you should always stay through the credits of a Marvel movie. ALWAYS.), you got a glimpse of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who (in the comics at least) eventually join the Avengers. Quicksilver is a mutant with superhuman speed and the Scarlet Witch is a mutant who can basically bend reality and manipulate probability. Incidentally (or not incidentally at all), they are the children of Magneto. Cool, huh?
Now, go fight among yourselves about DC vs. Marvel in the comments!