Do you Prefer Superhero Strategy Lessons from DC Comics or Marvel?

When we were kids (yes, we had cars and televisions back then), there was no doubt that the DC universe of superheroes was cooler than the Marvel Universe.  DC had Batman and Superman, the two coolest crimefighters, plus we had the Justice League cartoons on Saturday mornings and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Women on TV.  DC Comics (yes, we bought them occasionally) attracted better artists and had better story lines.  Marvel Comics, in contrast, seemed childish and sometimes downright silly (remember Shazam!).

But clearly things have changed – today there is absolutely no doubt that the Marvel Universe is cooler.  In fact, it isn’t even close. So, what was it? How did Marvel overtake the DC heroes we knew and loved and leave them in the dust?  Scanning the internet, there are a surprising number of opinions (ok, maybe not that surprising), but we have distilled it down to six key themes, all with implications for how you should think about your business strategy.

  1. At least in the cinematic version of its universe, Marvel has an organized and planned sequence of movies that links storylines and characters.  While each movie stands on its own, the connections reward the avid viewer and enrich the development of what otherwise might be overlooked characters. 
    • Strategy lesson: Strategies need to be coherent and coordinated in their implementation – a bottom-up list of improvement plans is not enough.
  2. Marvel has kept its characters up to date as the audience changed.  Classic heroes like Iron Man and Captain America have been creatively reimagined in ways that engage younger audiences.  DC has been less effective, with its key heroes still rooted in origin stories that date to the 1930s.
    • Strategy Lesson: Strategies need to be revisited as markets and customer needs change. Don’t be afraid to break from what has worked in the past.
  3. Marvel has a wider variety of characters targeting different demographics and attitudinal segments.  In contrast, DC has focused mostly on Batman and Superman, trying to stretch their classic do-gooder image for broader appeal, but with limited success that recently resulted in a few truly awful movies (Justice League, Batman vs. Superman). 
    • Strategy Lesson: Don’t try to straddle segments.  If you want to target more than one segment, you need to do it with different offerings.
  4. In general, Marvel characters have better back-stories. In many cases, this makes the characters more human and therefore easier to relate to.  In fact, as far back as the 1970’s, Marvel characters were described as more ‘naturalistic,’ having human emotions like tempers and bad moods.  With the possible exception of the Wonder Woman movie, DC has struggled to bring anything new to its well know origin stories since we learned that Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the street thug who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in the very first modern Batman movie (Michael Keaton, 1989). 
    • Strategy Lesson: Don’t forget that strategies need to motivate people.  Strategies that connect to a clear and compelling purpose will be more likely to succeed.
  5. Marvel movies have generally done a better job of injecting humor, sometimes in generally light-hearted films like Antman. But there is often a humorous theme even in more serious movies – think Thor with a beer gut in Avengers: Endgame. 
    • Strategy Lesson: Don’t take yourself too seriously.  You can’t know everything about your market or about the future, yet at any given point in time, you need to make strategic choices. If you get it wrong no one dies.  And if you are monitoring your strategy appropriately, you can typically course correct before too much is lost.
  6. Finally, we can’t ignore that, up until his death in 2018 at age 95, Marvel had the unparalleled genius of Stan Lee.  Not only was he the creative force behind nearly all the great Marvel characters, but he was also able to imagine the unifying canvas that brought them all together and defined their interactions (and make his famous cameo appearances).  DC characters, on the other hand, generally were invented separately and evolved apart, only coming together for ‘corporate events’ like the Justice League which always felt a bit artificial.
    • Strategy Lesson: First, as we’ve said elsewhere, cherish your polymaths – that artist working in the corner sketching Spider-Man may actually have a broader vision to redefine your category.  Second, while strategy should be communicated broadly, strategy should probably have a single owner to coordinate various inputs and initiatives and ensure that the output is a coordinated set of priorities and actions.  You can’t count on strategy coming together magically at a once a year off-site.

When it comes to strategy, it should be clear that you can’t rest on your past success.  You may feel like Superman today, but a chunk of Kryptonite is never too far away. Companies that continuously revisit their strategies and have the courage to question previous assumptions and potentially even disrupt themselves will succeed and become the Marvel universe of their industries.  Those who fail to adapt risk waking up to find that their superpowers are no longer relevant.

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