DC vs. Marvel Part II: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
There was a time when “geek” was a mortal insult! And the comic book fans of yore heard this word a LOT. Yet today, comic book stories have taken over our screens and become just another part of our lives! Join us for the seventh episode of our series "How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture", where we're looking at how rivals DC and Marvel blazed trails into mainstream culture. For our series finale, we'll be covering the rise of superhero movies and shared universes from the 90s onward. We'll also be looking at how the definition of geek culture has changed over time. Is it even "geek" culture anymore? Is this popularization good, bad, both?

There was a time when “geek” was a mortal insult! Or at least a serious one. And the comic book fans of yore heard this word a LOT. Yet today, comic book stories have taken over our screens, and become just another part of our lives! What happened?

Welcome to WatchMojo’s series How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture, and today we’re looking at how rivals DC and Marvel blazed trails into mainstream culture. For our finale, “DC vs. Marvel Part II”, we’ll be covering the rise of superhero movies and shared universes from the 90s onward.

In our last episode of “DC vs. Marvel”, DC had a stronghold on superhero movies, Marvel was struggling to even make a watchable movie, and Batman had punched a shark while dangling from a helicopter. Will comics finally earn the respect they deserve? Can DC keep up its big-screen winning streak? Will Marvel ever get its act together? Is shark repellent spray real? Stay tuned to find out!

It’s surreal to think that Marvel, now one of the most recognizable names in media, seemed to be on its last legs back in the 90s. In 1992, Marvel lost several of its most prominent talents: Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino, who left to form Image Comics. Marvel kicked off 1996 by letting 275 employees go, and capped off the year filing for bankruptcy. To stay afloat, Marvel sold the rights to several heroes, including the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man.

While the future of Marvel was up in the air, DC was having trouble replicating the success of 1989’s “Batman.” After “Batman Returns” proved too dark to promote Happy Meals, the Dark Knight was made more lighthearted in “Batman Forever” and the franchise collapsed into itself with “Batman & Robin.” Meanwhile, “Steel” was an ill-fated attempt to make Shaq a superhero - and that Nicolas Cage Superman reboot just couldn’t get off the ground. Comic book movies appeared to be box office poison by the end of the 90s … until two films showed otherwise.

“Men in Black” was the third-highest-grossing film of 1997, making comic book movies look … pretty damn good again. “The Men in Black” was originally published by Aircel Comics, which was purchased by Malibu Comics, only to be bought by Marvel. So “MIB” was sort of like a stepchild; whereas 1998’s “Blade” had Marvel’s own blood surging through its veins. Although not a blockbuster, the film’s R-rated violence, stylish visuals, and Wesley Snipes’ dead-on portrayal breathed new life into the superhero genre. However, the modern age of comic book movies wouldn’t truly take off until the new century.

Released by Fox in 2000, “X-Men” changed everything for comics, cinema, geek culture, and pop culture. Opening with a flashback of a young Erik Lehnsherr during the Holocaust, the film set a mature tone from the getgo. After several years of mostly misfires, “X-Men” reminded audiences that superhero movies could be sophisticated, atmospheric, and even thought-provoking. Above all else, it demonstrated Marvel’s box office potential, grossing almost $300 million.

“X-Men” might have gotten the ball rolling again, but superhero fever really set in 2002’s “Spider-Man.” From the “Amazing Spider-Man” TV series to that amazingly bizarre Japanese series, many had assumed Spidey would never be done justice in live-action. If “Superman” made us believe that a man could fly, then “Spider-Man” made us believe that anything was possible in this modern era of filmmaking. With a box office total of $825 million, “Spider-Man” became the year’s biggest film, setting a new precedent for superheroes and summer blockbusters.

“Spider-Man 2” delved even deeper into the psychology of being a superhero. At the time, Roger Ebert called the Spidey sequel “the best superhero movie ever made.” Just as comic book movies appeared to hit their stride, however, the genre went through an awkward transitional period. For every “Sin City” or “V for Vendetta,” there was a “Catwoman” or “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” “Daredevil,” “Fantastic Four,” and “Ghost Rider,” while financially successful, received mixed to negative responses and struggled to ignite franchises. Even the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” films were losing touch with their fanbases, thanks to Emo Peter and Mouthless Deadpool.

Fortunately, in 2008, comic book movies not only got back on track, but emerged stronger than ever before. “The Dark Knight” was Christopher Nolan’s anticipated follow-up to “Batman Begins,” which grounded the titular hero in a gritty reality that paralleled our own. Nolan’s sequel took this one step further, earning a reputation as one of the greatest modern superhero movies, if not the greatest. There was an outcry among audiences and critics alike when the film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Heath Ledger did win a posthumous Oscar, though, for his transcendent performance as the Joker.

“Dark Knight” may have been 2008’s biggest blockbuster, but the year’s second-highest-grossing film domestically had an even more significant impact. “Iron Man” was not only a comeback for its star, Robert Downey Jr., but for Marvel movies as well. There was zero doubt the film would inspire a trilogy, but Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige had even grander ideas in mind. As hinted in a post-credit scene, “Iron Man” was intended to be the launching point for a Marvel Cinematic Universe. The venture seemed destined to fail for a variety of reasons. Namely, several of Marvel’s most popular characters were tied up in other studio contracts. Marvel still had a few well-known heroes under their umbrella, but would people really line up to see movies centered on the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, especially after their previous live-action interpretations? The answer … was a resounding yes!

As the Avengers prepared to assemble, Marvel formed a game-changing partnership with Disney. The latest phase in their plot to take over the world (or at least the entertainment world), the Mouse House acquired Marvel for $4.24 billion in 2009. While some comic book fans feared that their favorite heroes would be Disney-fied, Marvel prospered like never before under its new parent company. After “The Avengers” opened in 2012 to record numbers, shared universe crossovers went from a crazy idea to the new norm.

DC would try to catch up to the MCU with a cinematic universe of their own… with varying results. Between the highs of “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!”, the lows of “Suicide Squad,” and the rock bottom of that “Martha” moment, the DCEU remains a mixed bag. Meanwhile the MCU, even at its weakest, has yet to produce a genuine bomb. The MCU has become the most successful film franchise ever, popularizing comic book heroes for all audiences. Even once-obscure properties like “Guardians of the Galaxy” are now household names. Marvel’s winning streak culminated in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest-grossing film of all time.

Although some have argued that superheroes are a passing trend, for now they continue to diversify and win new audiences. From R-rated comedies like “Deadpool,” to socially relevant TV shows like “Watchmen,” to Best Picture nominees like “Black Panther” and “Joker,” the genre has never been more dominant or varied. Streaming services and shared TV universes like the MCU’s and the Arrowverse have ensured that comic book heroes are in every home. This popularity has also extended to screen adaptations of other comic book genres, graphic novels, and manga.

Entire YouTube channels are dedicated to superhero content. Comments sections and internet forums give fans another way to connect - and of course debate. Once based on letters and fanzines, and later cons, fandom is now much more nebulous and diverse - essentially just a click away.

But what does this sudden rise to fame and glory mean for geek culture? Is it even “geek” culture anymore?

For nearly a century, comics and superheroes belonged to the nerdy crowd. The net has since been cast much wider thanks to film, television, and the internet. Where many geeks are happy that they’re no longer being marginalized, others have concerns that they’ve lost a piece of their culture. In a 2018 article for Wired titled “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die”, actor and comedian Patton Oswalt complained that the internet “lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the '80s, you couldn't get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend.”

Journalist Noam Cohen made a similar point with the title of his article, “We’re All Nerds Now.” Where the relative popularity of the label “geek” has caused some who identify with the term to try and protect it from more casual fandom, this often causes rifts in the comic-loving community, where fans with a passing interest in comics and superheroes are ostracized by those who stake a larger claim to these properties. Software engineer David Auerbach argues that this mentality can have a negative impact, writing: “At its worst, real geek culture results in a dangerous elitism: the notion that you’re so much smarter and better than society that you can do without it.”

In a way, the evolution of geek culture parallels the evolution of superheroes. In the old days, you could tell somebody was a hero based on their costume and physique, not unlike how geeks were supposedly defined by glasses and squeaky voices. Our ideas about heroes and geeks have become more nuanced since then. Heroes can do bad things and villains can have understandable motivations. The archetypes who used to pick on people for reading comics now show up to Marvel movies on opening night. Meanwhile, people who once embraced everything geeky have grown increasingly critical of their own culture now that it’s mainstream. Point being, geek culture has evolved beyond a simple label.

This diversification is reflected in comics themselves. These days, you name it, there’s a comic about it - from fairytale characters in New York; to love and prejudice in space; to; to war refugees and inner demons.

The definition of geek culture is bound to keep changing over time, for better or worse. For now, the spectrum of geekdom casts a wider net than ever before, ranging all the way from the casual movie-goer to the intensely devoted comic historian. Whichever part of the spectrum you fall on, comics continue to provide the lifeforce for geek culture - and that won’t be changing anytime soon.