Avengers 2012 vs Justice League 2017: A Lesson in Narrative Storytelling

Following the success of Man of Steel back in 2013, the Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe arose in contention against the astronomically popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, debuting 5 years prior. Several installments into both franchises later, and fans of either universe have been wrought into conflict about which fabled fiction reigns supreme. Online forums have become battlegrounds for comic book nerds and movie casuals alike, to assert that their cinematic depiction of superheroes is superior. Whilst some fans argue on the grounds of box office profit, and others preach that their heroes would be victorious in actual battle, from a narrative perspective there is a clear supremacy between the two. Amidst the visual spectacles and prodigious Hans Zimmer music scores that the DC Extended Universe boasts, the character development of the individual members of the team in the MCU’s Avengers (2012) is head and shoulders above the current cinematic iteration of the Justice League. Potentially being an example in a narrative storytelling 101 class for future creative writing students, here are a couple examples of why Marvel’s narrative is ‘better’ than DC‘s:

Blurring the Lines Between Main and Minor Characters

The complete Avengers line up in the 2012

Typical incarnations of the Hero’s journey revolve around one central protagonist who sees a need, fulfills the quest, and is changed because of it. This narrative structure has been recycled throughout the decades, to the point where the outcome is predictable. Even franchises built around a cohort of heroes, the Hero’s journey seems to be primarily concerning one member of the team. Han Solo may have risen above his life as a smuggler to become a hero of the Rebellion, but Star Wars: A New Hope is ultimately about Luke destroying the Death Star. Hermione Granger may have grown to be a capable witch at Hogwarts, but the Harry Potter franchise revolves around the namesake character’s campaign against Voldemort and his Deatheaters. The ‘lord of the rings’ Sauron ultimately had to be defeated by Frodo Baggins casting the ring of power into Mount Doom, but it could be argued that Aragons’ journey from being Strider in the Prancing Pony, to leading one fractured half of the Fellowship to save Rohan, to claiming his identity as King of Gondor upon reforging the shards of Narsil, is what leads to Middle Earth’s defeat of Sauron’s armies. A stark contrast against this narrative precedent in modern literature is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s magnum opus is notoriously hard to explain within a reasonable amount of time, which is arguably a testament to the complexity of its narrative, an interwoven web of high-fantasy epics and political plot-lines. It’s most underrated attribute is its blurring of main and minor characters, something which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also accomplished, albeit less discreetly.

Each addition to the MCU is arguably it’s own stereotypical rendition of the Hero’s Journey, Thor is about Thor, Iron Man is about Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger… you get the idea. The masterclass of the MCU is through it’s culmination installments, the ‘Avenger’ films. Marking the end of each ‘phase’ of the MCU, they converge the storylines of each of the titular protagonists into one cinematic epic, in which all the characters are tested and transformed. Steve Rogers overcomes his past soldier lifestyle to adapt to battling extra-galactic enemies. Tony Stark uses his engineering prowess not to make WMDs but to save humanity. Bruce Banner overcomes the unpredictability of the Hulk to consciously use it to his advantage. Thor learns he is not head and shoulders above everyone in the universe and humbly works with a team to defeat his brother. The Avengers doesn’t tell the story of one main character with a cast of minor characters arising to the occasion, but a team of individuals who each have their own contribution to make to fulfill the quest.

Every member of Bruce’s formed team except the film’s deus ex machina

The structure of the DCEU lacks this interwoven complexity. The debut movie for the DCEU entails the rise of an extraterrestrial orphan who mistakenly found his way to earth, was raised by its inhabitants and subsequently protects its new home against antagonized members of its own species (not to be confused with Goku from Dragonball, a Japanese manga emerging some 30 years after the original comic book). The sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, released 3 years after, chronicles the world’s reaction to the emergence of a god-like being in the form of Superman, alongside the struggles of a seasoned Batman, who ultimately come to conflict over whether humanity should attempt to control this god-like figure. However, this conflict is dissolved by Superman having to defeat a genetically engineered monster created by Lex Luthor, effectively diminishing the attempt at solidifying another titular character whose importance could rival that of Superman’s, and instead cementing Superman’s sole significance to the city’s salvation, and the movie’s plot.

Justice League introduces a ensemble of heroes, each with their own tragic backstories, Barry Allen’s quest to restore the honour of his father, Arthur Curry’s rise to becoming the true king of Atlantis, Victor Stone’s struggles with walking through life as a spontaneously updating cyborg, with only Diana having a previous instalment in the franchise to flesh out her story, alongside Bruce Wayne from the Batman v Superman. So how do all of these character’s plot arcs converge in their cinematic union? Through having to resurrect Superman, in order to defeat the might of Steppenwolf. Despite having a team comprising an Amazonian World War heroine, the most advanced cyborg mankind had seen at the time, the future king of Atlantis and the one human being who stood toe to toe with Superman, their plan revolves around recruiting someone else. Where The Avengers develops its characters through their own individual contributions to defeating Loki, Justice League confirms that the only character in the franchise that can save the day is the Hero’s journey personified, the comic book Jesus, the walking deus ex machina himself, Superman.

Incremental Superteam Formation

The Justice League with their true leader, Superman

The assembling of the Avengers in the 2012 film was developed incrementally through a combination of the effect each individual had on the shared universe, alongside a third party’s stake in their potential use for mankind. Steve Rogers became Captain America through the American army’s attempt to create a supersoldier to defeat the Nazi threat of WW2. The rise of Hulk originated from a failed attempt at replicating this supersoldier process through gamma radiation. Tony Stark is already a prominent figure for the American military, having developed weapons for them during their campaign in the Middle East through his company, Stark Industries. Only Thor’s origin stands in isolation, having being exiled from Asgard to Earth, unexplained in the movie and could almost be assumed to be pure luck. It is the exile of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, also to Earth, that gathers the attention of the military, who initially investigate what to them is an other worldly object. Each individual hero had an impact on their universe’s timeline of Earth, established through their own movie.

The post-credits scene of the original Iron Man film, the first film in the emerging franchise, establishes that a mysterious figure called Nick Fury is attempting to recruit Iron Man into the ‘Avengers Initiative’. By the 2012 film, it is established that Nick Fury has been gathering extraordinary individuals investigated by the military to form a team to combat any alien threat. From the post-credits scene of the first film, the ground work for an epic franchise was laid. Each story was able to be told individually, and the narrative did not suffer from having to shoehorn in an attempt to connect any plot-line mid-movie entry. Each subsequent installment were not chronological sequels, but divergent storylines that deepened our understanding of the superhero team, not through flashback scenes like in other franchises, but through full-length adventures of their own, to build our bonds with the characters who would ultimately unite to become the Avengers.

Each main member of the Avengers in the 2012 film

The formation of the cinematic Justice League lacked the patience of individual installments. The 2017 film detailed how the death of Superman triggered the rise of Steppenwolf’s quest for the Mother Boxes, of which Diana as Wonder Woman came to know of through a message from her Amazons after Steppenwolf assaulted their home island. She makes her way to an old friend of hers, Bruce Wayne, and together they seek to find and recruit other ‘metahumans’ in an attempt to defeat Steppenwolf. A good portion of the second act of the film revolves around the attempt to form this team to combat an ancient god, only to devolve into attempt to resurrect someone else to defeat the threat by the end of the second act.

Bruce Wayne effectively becomes DC’s Nick Fury, but instead of having access to information about extraordinary individuals through working for a top-secret sect of the military (S.H.I.E.L.D), Bruce Wayne is able to discover metahumans through hacking top-secret military information because he’s rich. Diana and Bruce Wayne effectively become Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr from X-Men: First Class, recruiting different metahumans in their own dedicated scenes, except unlike Charles and Erik they happen to score three from three in their attempts. Bruce appeals to Arthur Curry’s previous interactions with Steppenwolf, Victor’s father’s death while working on the Mother Box sparks his interest in the team and Barry joins the team because he needs friends. While the potential for each DC character’s growth and depth is not to be disregarded, Marvel’s patient incremental development of each hero far outshines the attempt in Justice League to establish the significance of its characters.

These two examples illustrate the key narrative distinctions between the two films. Justice League’s attempt at establishing a film franchise through effectively chronicling Superman’s ability to save the planet pales in comparison to the incremental character development of the Avengers from a storytelling perspective. Whilst not often rewarded by box office revenue, the creative development of a story is integral to forming an effective relationship between the viewer and the characters, and taking the time and effort to establish this relationship ultimately pays off regarding viewer satisfaction. Something that Avengers has harmoniously executed, and that Justice League has not.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Edited by Misagh, Munjeera.

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  1. I remember back in 2012 when avengers first came out.

    I said to my friends, “Nah, I’m good. I’ll just wait for the Justice League movie.”

    Me in 2017:


  2. carry large

    I’m a DC fan, much more so than Marvel (except for John Byrne’s work in the 70’s-80’s on X-Men, FF, Alpha Flight and West Coast Avengers, Excalibur, and Simonson’s Thor run).

    Having said that I have to be honest. Avengers and Avengers Age of Ultron are much better superhero team films than Justice League.

    The action in JL isn’t bad, the heroes are pretty decent approximations of their comic book counterparts and there’s some humour. But that’s about it.

    I mean, Age of Ultron has at least 15 minutes that they could have cut out but it also has some really impressive action sequences and character development. JL’s action isn’t bad but not as memorable.

    For some reason the Avengers films create a lot more tension and drama than JL ( Loki, of course was great, Ultron wasn’t a great villain, but he’s a lot better than Steppenwolf, particularly in the cgi they used for him).

  3. Justice League was definitely better than Avengers: Age of Ultron, for what it’s worth.

    • Age of Ultron is pretty weak. But it had some genuinely great scenes like Visions birth and his final speech with Ultron. The party where they were taking turns to lift Mjolnir. Hulk vs Hulkbuster. The final battle where they fighting in a circle. Even Ultron, as unthreatening as he was, had some good dialogue and interesting thematics behind him.

      JL had the Amazon Relay and Superman. That’s it.

    • Hometaker

      Age of Ultron is underrated imo. It didn’t quite stick the landing, and some choices didn’t pan out, but on the whole it’s pretty much on par with the first Avengers for me. Besides all the great scenes already mentioned, it was just really satisfying to see the Avengers as a functional team together for a movie. Yeah, it’s more of a Saturday morning cartoon kinda movie compared to top tier MCU, but I still dig it.

      JL on the other hand I have no desire to ever rewatch.

  4. Arnetta

    “Justice League” is an example of what “The Avengers” would have been like if everything that could have gone wrong with that movie did.

  5. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    I will add that ‘Avengers’ is also what happens when you actually put a decent writer in charge (also one that has actual experience both in ensemble cinema writing, but in comic writing also). Part of the art of bringing the story lines of the different characters into balance is what made ‘Buffy’ such a successfully balanced television show, not to mention the powerful weaving present in ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity.’ Quite frankly I believe that without Joss Whedon’s hands at the wheel ‘Avengers’ would never have been the success it was.

  6. The first Avengers made me feel like I was 10 years old again. I even saw elderly couples cheering and laughing.

    Nothing comes close to that experience in the cinema.

    Well actually maybe Deadpool. Specifically the part where he tries to beat up Colossus. Literally every person in the room was crying with laughter.

  7. Avengers is still the most fun I’ve ever had watching a movie in theaters. The payoff after 4 years of world building was incredible.

    • I wish I could go back in time and attend the special early screening I won tickets for. Was one of the most fun events I’ve ever experienced. The excitement and hype was freaking so palpable you could cut it with a knife. They showed it on 8 screens and everyone walking out afterwards was geeking out and grinning ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat. It was a loooooooong one month wait to be able to see it again after that and to share in the fun with other friends.

  8. Justice League, beyond merely existing, offers nothing to warrant being compared to The Avengers.

    It does feel like karma though. From Snyder and all his comments about how B-list Marvel is, to David Ayer and Jason Momoa verbally sticking their middle finger at Marvel, to the legions of Snyder fans who continuously peddled conspiracy theories and slandered everyone and anyone who didn’t find Snyder’s work enticing, there was an air of grandiosity about this entire DCEU project.

  9. We live in a world where Thor Ragnarok > Justice League.

  10. Astrid Free

    Actually JUST watched Justice League.

    Both have very basic stories, and so much so that they almost have the same story, which is a bit of a strike against Justice League. That said, Avengers has strong subplots and consistent arcs that Justice League just… lacks.

    Justice League is, unlike Avengers, a true sequel whose stakes and references are only meaningful after experiencing previous films, but Avengers, while it functions as a standalone rightfully earned it’s spot as the team up defining film, as it essentially merged three different franchises into one, and created a new franchise-creating franchise out of them.

  11. While both are not great films at all, people feel the need to turn their brain off for a couple of hours and let something else fill the space

  12. Many good points. For completions sake, I would add that although it may not be spelled out in the first Thor movie, it’s not hard to work out Odin’s reasoning for choosing Earth for Thor’s exile. It was part of his hero’s journey, as you mentioned; he was supposed to learn about being a non-royal, non-god, non-jackass from people who wouldn’t recognize him as the God of Thunder. It wasn’t luck.

  13. Munjeera

    Always a Marvel girl but I have to admit Wonder Woman killed it.

  14. BarryMW

    For me, I think the people behind the DC films are both trying too hard to be “serious” superhero movies while simultaneously comparing themselves to the Marvel films.

  15. I feel like MCU films tend to struggle with re-watchability, especially of late. I think Justice League bears at least another viewing from me, to solidify my opinion if nothing else. For me, Justice League is just ‘fine’.

  16. JL is like a knock off Avengers. And it’s a crying shame.

    Thanks Snyder.

  17. I liked the fanservice in The Avengers. Justice League tried so hard. Superman here is almost entirely fanservice, and perhaps his entire ‘arc’ is delightful Whedon-esque love for the character. Colors are vivid, and he is temporarily neutralized by the thing that always does so for superman: distant imperiled nameless citizens. The end credits stinger swings even harder for the fences, which is why it misses so thoroughly. But Avengers, even when it sort of blahs on 616 is sort of an ultimate exercise in fanservice from its conception, and little bits, such as the teasing of Avengers Tower, Hulk’s first words, shout outs to LMDs actually work against that, making it seem as though they’re afraid of 616, but in the end… it’s a film that is about doing the superhero team up comic book style, an so it thrills fans in ways Justice League does not. After all, Barry Allen and Arthur Curry are original characters with silver age backstories. Not much service to be had there.

  18. Justice League was supposed to spawn a new era of DC super-hero films but it comes off more like a eulogy for the whole effort.

  19. here are some really genuine gags in Avengers, some so good that callbacks are still funny some years later, but while the humor in Avengers seems to pull down the stakes, the humor in Justice League seems like an awkward coping mechanism, which did not take me out of the movie, unless I remembered how joyless and anti-funny previous films were.

  20. The first half of Justice League just made me gain a whole new appreciation for the first act of the Avengers. Justice League shows you how it could’ve gone wrong.

  21. I believe that Justice League is on par with the lower tier MCU. And that is a considerable improvement.

    • hellwater

      It’s worse than every MCU film. On par with MoS for me. Has some solid moments and pieces but just doesn’t hang well at all.

  22. There are some really hard hits in Justice League that had me a little bit excited, but most of it is forgettable. Avengers gets you from Loki taking on SHIELD and by the time Iron MAn is fighting Thor, you’re invested, to say nothing of the Avengers bouncing off of each other effortlessly.

  23. Beaulieu

    It’s interesting to watch The Avengers and comparing it to JL. It definitely shows how different Synder/Whedon are in their works. Had Whedon been in complete control of JL it would’ve been a totally different story but Snyder wants to be a Whedon but he can’t quite accomplish it and thus JL misses a lot of the right moments.

  24. It’s clear that Marvel will continue to rule super-hero cinema for a long time to come!

  25. Both Avengers movies top Justice League. If you told my 10 year old self that I would feel like that I would have cursed you out.

  26. Its very much a shame that the creative force behind justice league had not done the characters justice (no pun intended), in that I believe whole-heartedly that Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonderwoman, The Flash and Cyborg has much more potential than Marvel’s avengers. Hear me out. Their powers are each unique and can be considered somewhat equal to each other’s despite being very different. There’s Superman who has the power to do almost anything he would want to do but with self-imposed limitations; Batman, a dual weapon who by night is able to fight mid-range villains (enough for the one city of Gotham) and by day controls humankind’s social circles as Bruce Wayne; Curry, who can control the entire element of water; the Flash, who has an advantage in time, a thing which makes fools of almost all men; Diana, a demi-god and even Cyborg makes sense, uniquely balancing the line between humanity and machinery. Overall, a very balanced team. Meanwhile, there’s Marvel, and I have a huge, huge problem with the power unbalance of their Avengers (although I realise this is what makes some people actually prefer Marvel). One major issue for me is Thor; he always seems to be underplayed. A demigod like Diana I can understand, but why would a full god, and a major god at that, constantly cohort with a better than average marksman, a female spy, a billionaire with a cool metal suit, a super soldier with a strong shield? The witch, Hulk and Vision I can understand, as they are beings with powers that are above mortals, but rich, smart or strong humans that are otherwise unremarkable almost seem a dime a dozen in the Marvel universe. I mean, using common sense, wouldn’t a divine being have far, far more power at his disposal? Marvel not even breaching half of this character’s potential seems to only spit upon Nordic legend. If we can only have Marvel’s storytelling with DC characters, but one can only wish.

  27. Thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful discussion of some important narrative differences between the movies. When you discussed how the different characters story lines came together in Avengers, I was impressed all over again. Everything works together.

  28. I really appreciate how this article brings to light these very relevant differences between the ways each franchise constructed their respective teams because it provides such a concise way to analyze the differences in how these narratives were laid out. When you look at it this way, it’s very obvious why the Avengers have been so successful!

  29. I’m waiting for the Avengers 4

  30. As being a fan to bring cinematic universes, I can conclude that both DC and Marvel done there jobs by letting us spend our money worths.

  31. Growing up, I was a big Batman fan. I appreciate the darkness of DC, of Batman and Gotham. (My best friend often proclaims that Marvel’s cinematic universe is “too Disney”, which, well, I mean . . .) The Dark Knight Trilogy was phenomenal, hands down. And, though I was already invested in Marvel by the time Batman VS Superman was announced, I /was/ excited for the potential of Justice League.
    I should mention here that I’ve never liked Superman. He’s a cliche and I hate him (read: “you’re tacky and I hate you”). And Amy Adams’ Lois Lane? Gag me. I have no real basis for this, I just feel as though she’s useless.
    After suffering the disappointment of BVS AND Suicide Squad (they forced those bonds /so hard/), I finally broke down after hearing the praise and watched Wonder Woman and fell in love (seriously, if Captain America: The First Avenger had done /that/–wow). I was above and beyond ready for JL to overthrow MCU.
    What I got was: easily assembled and the lame villain was easily defeated. And there was some strange forced humor? Like, Bruce Wayne went from this brooding, dark dude to like some lame dad, trying-to-hit-on-Diana-in- a-cringy-way old guy real quick. I cared about literally only Wonder Woman, and that was that.
    That being said, I remember going to see The Avengers when it came out in theaters. I was sixteen and the only Marvel character I’d really cared about previously was Spiderman and he wasn’t even in it, but I was ready to delve into this world. I loved those characters so much, just from their interactions with each other. And Loki, through and through, is one of my favorite villains/anti-heroes (?) by far.
    I mean, you said it all. Whichever way you watch the Marvel movies, those characters are flushed out. And ones that don’t have their own title movies, you’ve seen enough to–at least, in my case–care about. It’s the way the MCU builds its universe through links (like: Coulson and Fury and other heroes appearing in another hero’s movie). There’s conflict. Characters butt heads. They fail, they succeed, they have shortcomings.
    I’m going to cut myself off here before this becomes a 100 page paper nobody asked for and just say: very nice dissection of JL’s shortcomings and MCU’s wins.

  32. I never thought about the narrative shortcomings of Justice League. Now that you mention it, it’s kind of funny how the entire “team up” is just to resurrect Superman. Now, I will say that Zack Snyder’s original plans for the early DCEU was a five film Superman arc, but Joss Whedon and the studio disagreed. It’s all a fiasco.

    All that said, I do agree with you. Marvel’s films truly live up to the title “Universe”. It feels like a real world. Justice League was horribly rushed (though it did manage to be entertaining enough). Here’s hoping Flashpoint can fix it all.

  33. As a kid growing up in the early 2000’s, I grew up watching reruns and contemporary animated DC series of that time. While I loved the Avengers movies, I was always holding out for DC’s responses. My nostalgia is to blame for my affinity to the DC characters and stories, but with the exception of Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. has delivered nothing but disappointment after disappointment with each movie release. To me, there was always something in the DC universe that lacked in comparison to the Marvel universe that was hard for me to put into words, but this perfectly sums it up; the DCU lacks the world-building that gives MCU its flare. I can only wish WB had taken more time to fully develop these characters and their stories before trying to compete with Marvel. Hopefully, they learn from their mistakes and do better with the upcoming films, I’m willing to be more patient if quality is ensured. Crossing my fingers that it isn’t too late.

  34. Pamela Maria

    Great analysis! But I think there are some key comments that aren’t mentioned in your article. I would argue that a huge reason as to why MCU is more successful than DCU before even touching plot is the skeleton. MCU is very structured and organized. Each superhero has their own trilogy of development between sequences of Avenger movies. Each movie has a spoiler at the end that ties into the greater MCU. Finally, the release date between movies is very rigid as to keep suspense tight, but not overdrawn.

    MCU also puts a lot of money, time, and effort into their PR. I would argue that what also makes these characters so loveable is that the actors are so loveable. PR heavy initiatives mean the actors have great relationships with one another while being very active on social media which essentially acts as fan service.

    In terms of writing, MCU also manages to juggle complex world issues with comedy, making it a more rounded ‘family’ movie that everyone, regardless of age can enjoy. DCU on the other hand, has always been much darker and serious. Lacking that lightness, they cater to a very specific and mature audience.

    I completely agree with you that Superman has become to Deus Ex Machina of DCU, but another huge issue with DCU is their treatment of Batman. Batman versus Superman was an extremely high anticipated movie that didn’t deliver. Not only was the plot a flop, but they destroyed the essence of what makes Batman, Batman. Under no circumstances has Batman killed. Its crucial to his character that he refuses to take lives and comics where they have dabbled with a killer Batman have always been unpopular. After basically killing Batman’s character, they give Batman his famous Dark Knight Rises armour which although an excellent nod towards fans, was disappointing considering they butchered his characterization. Batman and Superman have always meant to be rivals, but more like parallels as opposed to complete foils where when represents light and the other darkness.

    Anyways, other than those points this was a great read and definitely helps bring incite as to why MCU is so outrageously popular compared to DCU movies. Well done!

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