One of the best games fans of geek culture play is the thought experiment about their favorite characters. Who is faster: Flash or Superman? Could the Scarlet Witch beat Voldemort?
For today’s young geeks (and us older ones, too) there is one big one hanging over the culture: Marvel vs Star Wars. They can be questions about if Darth Vader’s lightsaber could cut through the Hulk’s skin or a comparison of the two mega-franchises’ effect on pop culture. It’s that latter one that most interests us, because never before has Star Wars had a franchise that could compete with it like Marvel can, at least for the hearts and minds of kids. A lot of times, fandoms are generational. Comics are passed down from father to son. Mothers take daughters to the latest movie, even if they prefer Princess Leia to Padmé Amidala. Parents and kids bond over these adventures. And, like the mythic oral histories of old, each generation finds the story.
When talking about just the film franchises, Marvel vs Star Wars isn’t really a contest. There are 40 years of Star Wars films (though at least six times fewer in number than all the Marvel Comics movies). For much of the first decade Star Wars existed, the movies would run at theaters for years. The rise of home video saw video tape and laser disc editions bringing the saga into people’s homes. Network television paid handsomely to rerun the films, and even produced a few made-for-TV films about Ewoks. There were other big cultural moments involving geek franchises. The Terminator was big and Star Trek had a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet nothing reached the heights of Star Wars, at least until the Marvel Cinematic Universe happened.
Marvel vs Star Wars Starts Not with Story but Special Effects
Image via Lucasfilm
The ongoing debate over Martin Scorsese saying Marvel movies aren’t cinema (including the counterargument that superhero movies are saving cinema) centers on the artistic value of these stories. Those of us who defend the genre say that the stories are the most important thing about these films. While that’s still true, the films wouldn’t exist if not for the “theme park” element of these films. Put another way, neither Star Wars nor the Marvel movies would work if they weren’t believable. George Lucas knew this, and by creating Industrial Light and Magic, he advanced the technology of film special effects incredibly. An ironic part of the Marvel vs Star Wars debate is that without the latter, the former may never have even happened.
For Star Wars, the special effects quality is one of trial-and-error. Famously, George Lucas updated the special effects of those early films using modern technology. For Marvel movies, the technology not only existed to bring these characters to life but in 2008 when they started, it wasn’t as expensive as it once was. In years previous, the ability to make Iron Man or the Hulk believable might have existed, but no studio wanted to make that investment. Yet, since Marvel Studios owned all their characters, it was worth it. Just looking at the Spider-Man films, the exponential improvements in digital imaging technology can be seen just by how closely we are able to follow Spidey as he swings around New York.
It’s difficult to imagine special effects technology improving so much more that the Marvel films will look dated. So, Marvel fans will never have to through the frustration of “Special Editions.” They will go down as having gotten it right the first time.
Marvel vs Star Wars Ends With the Stories and How They Resonate
It’s impossible to fairly debate Marvel vs Star Wars based on their stories. One is a saga focused on the effect of one family’s religious drama while the other is a loose collection of individual tales that culminate in two films. Nonetheless, there are comparisons we can draw.
Marvel Stories vs Star Wars Stories
Image via Lucasfilm
In Star Wars’ case, the narrative at the core of the series is blatantly allegorical. The simple good vs evil conflict in the original trilogy of films is timeless (by design). The narrative in the prequels is one about how blind devotion to dogma corrupts institutions and fear of loss can turn good people into authoritarian nightmares. In fact, the current realities in the age of President Trump shows that Star Wars prequels’ political themes are as relevant as ever. The final trilogy, it seems, is about how it’s often up to successive generations to fix mistakes created by the previous one, even if they are well-intentioned. Also, they have the added bonus of John Williams’ score, which through music tells the same emotional stories found in the films themselves. Take the music away, and Star Wars doesn’t work as well.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, conversely, doesn’t tell a single story throughout its films. Rather it’s a collection of individual tales about various characters, with connective tissue to a larger narrative placed throughout. In some cases, like in Captain America: The First Avenger or Thor: The Dark World, those connections are tenuous. In others, like the first Guardians of the Galaxy, the story is closely related to the larger threat. This means that some fans feel more strongly about some characters than others. For example, my daughter adores the movies featuring Captain America, but really could care less what happens to Iron Man when he’s not with the Avengers. Thus, the Marvel movies work for casual fans and those who obsessively watch the entire Infinity Saga.
How These Stories Resonate With Their Audiences
Image via Marvel Studios
Star Wars and Marvel both tell morality tales, often featuring big action set pieces. They give us heroes and villains, along with plenty of unanswered questions and things to debate. These are all the things that keep fandoms alive when there isn’t a new movie in theaters. (Though, with Marvel, we’ve not had a period with less than two films per year since they started making them.) Interestingly, both of these franchises are born from the old-school cinema serial days, where crazy sci-fi sagas unfolded in multiple installments.
Marvel fans, especially now, live in a world where they are part of a large, ongoing story. They enjoy the films they get, but it always comes with a “what’s next?” at the end. If they were to close up shop tomorrow, there is no question the Marvel Cinematic Universe would live on as an incredible achievement. Yet, especially if the characters are rebooted, will this story endure in the hearts of fans the way the Skywalker saga has?
The Star Wars films, conversely, have ended two times already. Return of the Jedi was the end, then Revenge of the Sith was going to be the last one we got. Now, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker claims to definitively end the Skywalker saga. Sure, Star Wars will endure, but the connected narrative fans have followed for years will come to an end, at least for certain characters. It seems more than possible that this new generation of actors will reprise their roles for a new saga in the late 2020s. Still, the story involving Anakin Skywalker, his friends, enemies, and children will come to a close. Yet, the past 40 years have proven that even without new projects on the horizon, the Star Wars story will stay alive with its fans.
The Kids Who Grew Up With Both Will Decide This One
Image by Pikawil via Wikimedia Commons
In all honesty, the Marvel vs Star Wars debate will not be answered by any adult today. While I personally love both franchises, I grew up with Star Wars. I am impervious to being disappointed by those films, and Marvel hasn’t even really made a tough-to-love installment (yet). Those of use who grew up with Star Wars will likely always love it just a little bit more, because we saw (some of) those movies as kids. The question now will be if the Skywalker saga will capture the hearts and imaginations of kids who grew up with them alongside the Marvel movies.
Because as much as I love Star Wars, my daughter will always love it less. She actually wasn’t a fan of Star Wars at all until the sequel trilogy. Wanting to see The Force Awakens encouraged her to watch the saga in total, and she appreciated it unlike before. (Though, she’s still not a big fan of the prequels.) For her, Marvel films likely hold the special place in her heart that Star Wars occupied in mine. These are the films we went to the theater to see together over the past ten years. The Marvel films are the movies that she can use to track her various stages of development, from little kid who played with action figures to college freshman.
Nostalgia plays a big role when we talk about which fandom franchise is “better” than another. That means that it will take a generation (or two) to truly see which of these franchises endures the most in the culture. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer of which one is “better” remains just as much based on personal preference as it does today.
What do you think about Marvel vs Star Wars? Which franchise is your favorite? Which one do you think will endure the longest in pop culture? Share your reasons in the comments below, because this is an ongoing discussion. (And part of the fun of fandom!)
Featured images via Disney
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.