What's the difference between Marvel and DC?

Marvel characters and DC characters combined
(Image credit: DC / Marvel Comics)

Why doesn't Superman join the Avengers? Will She-Hulk ever join the Justice League? What's the difference between Marvel and DC, anyway?

If you're just getting into superheroes, these may be the kind of questions you've been asking. And if you're a long time fan, you're probably used to answering them.

Marvel Comics and DC are both comic book publishers whose stories feature well-known superheroes, many of whom have been adapted to movies, TV, and games in recent years.

But what’s the difference, really? And why don’t they ever mix and match?

Here’s everything you need to know about the big differences between Marvel and DC.

What is the difference between Marvel and DC?

JLA/Avengers Hero Initiative printing cover excerpt

(Image credit: Marvel Comics/DC)

Answering the question of the difference between Marvel and DC is a bit complicated - and it involves the different characters, stories, and settings of each of the two publishers. 

But the heart of the matter, and the one that keeps characters like Batman and Superman from meeting up with Spider-Man and Wolverine (and least regularly), is that Marvel and DC are separate publishers, owned by different parent companies.

Simply put, this means they're competitors in the marketplace of superhero comics - though it's usually been a friendly rivalry. Still, this keeps the most famous and popular DC and Marvel superheroes from crossing paths outside of a few extremely rare official comic stories.

What is Marvel?

Avengers #1 cover by George Perez

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Marvel Comics started way back in 1941 under the name Timely Comics, publishing characters that are still famous today, like Captain America. In the '60s, the publisher changed its name to Marvel Comics and relaunched its line of superhero comics starting with the Fantastic Four, and quickly adding characters such as the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and more. 

Since the '60s, Marvel Comics has grown to include thousands of original characters and has steadily remained the number one comic book mainstream superhero comic book publisher in the United States. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics, leading to the creation of the Marvel Studios film studio, which releases the Avengers movies and streaming series.

What is DC?

Justice League of America #7 cover

(Image credit: DC)

DC originally started as National Comics and began publishing superhero comics in 1938 with Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, which is considered the first American superhero comic ever published. Since the '30s, DC has published the adventures of characters such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, later introducing the Justice League superhero team in 1960, kicking off the modern age of superhero comics that continues to this day.

In 1969, DC's parent company was purchased by Warner Bros., the film studio that has produced most of the movies based on DC superheroes since the '70s. DC is considered one of the 'Big Two' publishers of mainstream superhero comics in the United States, second only to Marvel Comics. Along with mainstream superheroes, DC is known for publishing stories such as Watchmen and The Sandman.

Which characters are Marvel?

Marvel Comics promotional art

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

For the last few years, Marvel's most popular characters have been the Avengers, a superhero team including Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and many more. 

Other popular Marvel characters include Spider-Man, who is often considered the publisher's top solo superhero; the X-Men, a team including characters such as Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, and Beast; the ultra-violent, wisecracking mercenary Deadpool; the blind hero Daredevil; and the superhero family the Fantastic Four.

In the last few years, some previously lesser-known Marvel heroes including She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, Loki, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become popular thanks to their well-received comics, movies, and streaming series.

Which characters are DC?

Justice cover by Alex Ross

(Image credit: DC)

DC's most popular heroes are the Justice League, a superhero team (much like Marvel's Avengers) that brings together the publisher's most beloved characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and more.

DC's most famous hero is Superman, who is considered the first American superhero ever. But Batman is a close second, and his villains, including the Joker, Harley Quinn, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman are also fan-favorites, some of whom even get their own villain-centric movies, streaming series, and comics alongside the heroes.

Which stories are Marvel?

Infinity Gauntlet #4 cover

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Marvel Comics has published thousands of comic books over the decades, but there are a few that have stood the test of time and been adapted into other media, becoming more popular than ever.

These include the classic comic book adventures Civil War, which formed the basis of the movie Captain America: Civil War; Infinity Gauntlet, which was adapted into the movies Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame; and Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, a classic '80s story which received a major sequel in 2015, and which is the inspiration for the upcoming movie Avengers: Secret Wars.

For a more in-depth guide to Marvel Comics, read up on the best Marvel Comics stories ever.

Which stories are DC?

Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special #1

(Image credit: DC)

Like Marvel, DC has its share of classic tales that have been adapted into movies, TV, and more, all based on the original comic books featuring Superman, Batman, and the Justice League.

Some of DC's best-known stories include Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which provided some inspiration for the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Batman: The Long Halloween, which inspired parts of The Batman; and The Death and Return of Superman, which also influenced Batman v Superman as well as the Justice League movie.

DC is also known for publishing graphic fiction stories including Watchmen and The Sandman which are mostly separate from the setting and continuity of their main superhero universe and are considered in many circles to be some of the best 20th-century literature of any genre or medium. 

For more timeless DC tales, read up on the best DC stories ever.

What is the Marvel Universe?

Adam Warlock in Marvel Comics

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The Marvel Universe is the name given to the world of stories presented in Marvel Comics. It includes all the characters we discussed above like the Avengers, the X-Men, Loki, and more, and it's the setting in which their adventures take place. For movies, the slightly different setting which adapts the stories of the comics is called the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What makes the Marvel Universe unique in superhero comics is that its stories take place primarily in fictionalized versions of real-world locations such as New York, with the addition of totally fake locations like Black Panther's home of Wakanda. The Marvel Universe is also a little bit more down-to-earth, with heroes often arguing and even clashing with each other almost as often as with their villainous enemies.

The Marvel Universe also bills itself as an unbroken narrative, with all its mainstream stories meant to take place on a single timeline (meant to take place over 10-15 years, though the timeframe has shifted to stay modern over the decades since the '60s) that has never been rewritten or rebooted.

What is the DC Universe?

World's Finest

(Image credit: DC)

The DC Universe is a little bit different from the Marvel Universe, though the terminology of their names may be similar. Even more than Marvel, DC embraces the idea of having multiple versions of heroes such as Batman and the Flash, whose adventures are not always directly connected. 

DC stories primarily take place in fictional locations such as Metropolis (the home of Superman) and Gotham City (the home of Batman) as well as mythical places such as Atlantis (the home of Aquaman) and Themiscyra (the home of Wonder Woman), giving the DC Universe a larger-than-life atmosphere of heroic legends.

Unlike the Marvel Universe, which despite being over 60 years old operates under the premise that most of its stories take place in a single timeline (what the comic book community refers to as 'continuity'), DC has restarted or 'rebooted' its continuity multiple times. In fact, these efforts to try to make narrative sense of DC's 80 years of history are the DC Universe's biggest distinguishing feature.

And there you have it, the answers to all your questions about the difference between Marvel and DC. Read on for more information on both publishers and their characters and stories:

The best Marvel Comics stories of all time

The best DC stories of all time

The best Marvel Comics characters ever

The most impactful DC events of all time

The most impactful Marvel events of all time

The best Marvel supervillains of all time

The best DC supervillains of all time

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)