There are spoilers for The Justice League. If for some reason you care about that, probably stop reading. Don’t care about that, it’s not worth it, the movie isn’t very good.
I think it’s obvious that Marvel has figured out something about making movies that DC has missed. There are a lot of clues showing that. The biggest one is that people actually seem to like Marvel movies, and for the most part, they don’t like DC movies.
Because I’m a huge nerd this is something I’ve given far more thought than I should. So, the biggest thing is personality. Yes, DC heroes do have personalities, but not really. Batman is grimdark. Superman is conflicted by dutiful. Wonder Woman has some layers, some depth, a bit of a sense of fun. Interestingly her solo movie is the best received DC movie to date. Even the new characters have a bit of this issue. The Flash is actually a fun character, but he’s badly misused. He is, however, entertaining. I wanted to like Aquaman, but they made him too 90’s edgy, which makes sense since 90’s edgy is kind of where Zach Snyder is emotionally. Cyborg had no real personality. He was just… there. They substituted the old “Am I still human?” angst for actual character development.
So, basically, nobody in the DCEU has a personality at all.
Now, let’s look at Marvel. Tony Stark is brash, arrogant, brilliant, caring, likeable, a bit paranoid, kind-hearted, he isn’t just a cliche trying to be a personality. There are layers, and sometimes he acts in ways that are internally inconsistent, almost like a person. Thor is adventurous, larger than life, dedicated, glory seeking, vain, kind of dumb. He’s not a deep person, but his characterization has depth. He plays a big dumb nice guy extremely well. Black Widow has all kinds of depth. She’s like sixteen people in one, and her backstory justifies that. She’s also always looking for redemption. Even Captain America, theoretically the most wooden boyscout of all possible characters ends up being an interesting person.
Okay, they didn’t give Hawkeye depth until Age of Ultron, but when they did he went from being the least interesting Avenger to actually having a personality, actually being someone people cared about.
When we watch a Marvel movie we know what we are getting, but we want that. When we watch a DC movie we hope to get something different. We hope to get people we can care about.
I used to think it was stakes that made the difference, but then I realised, no, the stakes in Marvel movies actually sometimes work against them. They are too big, too bombastic. I don’t take the threat to earth seriously, but when it looked like Tony Stark was going to die, I took that seriously. I have a reason to care about the characters in Marvel movies, there just isn’t enough person to care about in DC movies.
Mind you, in Justice League, it never even felt like there was a threat. Steppenwolf never felt like he actually had a chance against the team. It felt like if they just let Flash use his powers he would destroy Steppenwolf. Add in Superman and it was more of a question of why the rest of the team was even there. I guess to save that nice Russian family.
So, DC has no characters (okay, two – Wonder Woman and The Flash qualify). Marvel makes sure that even the most minor of its heroes who will never get a solo film end up being fully fleshed out characters that we care about.
Character beats spectacle every time.