If there’s really a competition between Marvel and DC, in recent years, we’ve been the winners. Both companies are ahead in different areas and sometimes they’re behind. In movies, with this week’s thrilling Avengers: Age of Ultron and an emerging shared universe of well-realised cinematic characters, Marvel is clearly ahead, with DC a few years behind in building a superhero universe off the back of a solid and confident Superman picture.
In TV, DC has recently had the edge with solid genre fare like Arrow and The Flash, though Marvel may have them beat with its dark, credible Daredevil series on Netflix. In comic books, I’d argue Marvel is ahead with the unconventional likes of Hawkeye, Spider-Gwen and Jonathan Hickman’s sci-fi epic in The Avengers, but even then, DC’s Batgirl, Batman and Grayson books represent some of the very best work in the medium—it’s a close-run thing for sure, and ultimately, both companies firing on all cylinders is better for fans, no matter what medium we’re talking about. Games are a very different deal. There’s no contest. DC is far ahead of Marvel, and it’s time for that to change.
Last week, Marvel announced plans to team up with Telltale Games for a project in 2017, or perhaps series of projects—the nature of it isn’t exactly clear. What was interesting to me from Polygon’s write-up of the announcement were the comments of Marvel Games’ creative director Bill Roseman on upcoming games involving characters from the publisher. Future Marvel games will feel “exquisite”, “sexy” and feel ‘well-built’ and ‘hand-crafted’, as Polygon reports. They will “strive for authenticity”. The suggestion is Roseman’s not just talking about Telltale’s titles, but games beyond that. It sounds like Marvel is taking the right steps to make itself competitive in triple-A.
I’ve enjoyed four, maybe five Marvel games in my entire life. I remember liking Neversoft’s Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 on PS2 which had a breathtaking swinging mechanic that no other game has been able to replicate, Deadpool (the script much more than the rote game, which has now vanished from Steam anyway) and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. I’m not much of a beat-’em-up guy, but the Marvel vs Capcom games are fun too. I haven’t played its recent free-to-play mobile games, but then I don’t think they’re really aimed at me.
There’s no real coherent plan there, though. These were all produced by licensees, as were the many piss-poor Marvel games over the years. Warner, which owns DC, by contrast, has the Arkham series, which has every one of those decent Marvel games thoroughly whipped. That series is not only a great open-world/narrative action game in its own right, it’s also an adaptation of Batman into games that extends just beyond retrofitting his world and abilities into an existing genre. It’s everything that Batman is, presented in a videogame: the detecting, the fighting, the gadgets, the extraordinary rogue’s gallery. That’s why it feels so credible and why people love it.
That’s the creative level Marvel needs to shoot for. It needs to treat its videogames exactly as Marvel Studios treats its movies: guided by a creative vision and a desire to do right by the essence of the character. Marvel needs a vision and the right people to make that happen. The Marvel movies aren’t just successful because they’re comic book movies. It’s because producer Kevin Feige has a plan to bring those characters to the big screen, a fundamental love for the material he’s working with, and world-class collaborators like Joss Whedon, James Gunn and the Russo brothers to help make it happen. Comic book movies are not all equal: people understand why The Avengers is a better superhero movie than Amazing Spider-Man 2. They don’t just buy movie tickets for the character. In the same way, we know the Arkham series is better than every Marvel game to date—people know the difference between a cheap licensed game and the passion that Rocksteady brings to the Dark Knight.
One obstacle is, Warner is a videogames publisher as well as a movie studio and Marvel is not. And it took Warner a long time to become what it is now. With Rocksteady, NetherRealm and TT Games, Warner has three studios that can make strong games based on DC characters—as far as I know, Marvel doesn’t own any developers (its parent company, Disney, does). And I can’t see them buying big studios to compete with that, because it doesn’t make sense for its comparably narrow remit. Warner’s studios aren’t just working on DC games, they’re dealing with big movie properties and existing series like Mortal Kombat, so that structure is more logical for them.
Instead, Marvel’s most sensible option is rounding up third-party collaborators—really good ones. Telltale could be the start of that: Marvel setting up a satellite of well-respected studios is exactly how it can make the most of their characters in the videogame space. But it can’t just be Telltale. New Marvel games need to occupy different genres. Show me an Avengers game with the same production values as Arkham Knight. That’s literally the competition. Show me a game that makes me as excited about Captain America as The Winter Soldier does. When the first part of Avengers: Infinity War gets here in 2018, allow me to play as Iron Man or Black Widow in something that’s worthy of those characters. Arkham shows you don’t need to directly adapt a movie, or a TV show—just demonstrate that you’ve captured the essence of those pop culture figures and the exciting world they inhabit. Marvel Games can be its own thing. It’s not impossible, but it requires a massive investment—but Marvel almost certainly knows this. And maybe that announcement, last week, and the attitude behind it, is how things start to change.