In more than eight decades as the world’s two largest comic book publishers, Marvel and DC have forged many traditions – perhaps none more obvious and recurring than their absolute delight in ripping off one another.
A perennial question runs through all of pop culture: “Who would win?” That’s why we’re devoting an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, television, and games, for better and for worse. Prepare for Polygon’s Who Would Win week.
Many famous heroes started with the same controversy. Are the Fantastic Four really Marvel’s first family, or are they just a retread of Jack Kirby’s previous DC work, The Challengers of the Unknown? In the minds of their creators, the X-Men or the Doom Patrol, who was born first? And in the current era, with comics sitting at the top of the pop culture stack, fueled by the massive success of the MCU, Nolan Batman movies, and the box-office juggernaut that is sequential storytelling, there’s an infamous knockoff pairing that’s shaped the Hollywood landscape as we know them: Thanos vs. Darkseid.
It all began – like so many monumental comic book moments – in the mind of Jack “King” Kirby.
Once in a fourth world, far, far away
To say that Jack Kirby’s art and vision was a force of nature in superhero comics is an understatement. He scored his first hit in 1941 with Captain America at Timely Comics – now better known as Marvel – and while there he helped create such iconic heroes as the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the Avengers and more. In the late ’60s, he craved more creative freedom, so he targeted Marvel’s most famous competition and made the leap to DC Comics to create a modern day mythology known as the Fourth World.
Though it’s hard to believe, now that he’s one of the most powerful villains in comic book history, Darkseid made his debut in 1970 Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, a humble and utterly savage cosmic version of Superman’s beast. The Big Bad was created to be the overarching villain of Kirby’s Fourth World, essentially a crossover between all of the books Kirby made at DC. Unfortunately, Kirby would not see that vision fulfilled, as the Fourth World never became successful enough to garner long-term support from the powers that be at DC. But the impact of the Fourth World and its new gods caused ripples in the industry and soon reached Marvel Comics.
At the competition, a young cartoonist named Jim Starlin was just getting started and making waves at the publisher by pushing the limits of weirdness and pathos he would allow in the pages of his comics. After reading Kirby’s Fourth World and becoming a huge fan, Starlin was inspired to create his own master villain. What happened next is common comic knowledge, as Starlin decided to mold his new antagonist around a member of the New Gods. But it might surprise you that his original chosen inspiration wasn’t Darkseid. In fact, Starlin wanted to reinterpret Metron – read this as a rip-off – the super-smart explorer and defector who often switched back and forth between the warring factions of the Fourth World. Marvel Editor Roy Thomas had other ideas. “Open it! If you want to steal one of the New Gods, then at least tear down Darkseid, the real good guy!” Thomas told Starlin. And so Thanos was born in the pages of late 1972 Ironman #55.
Ironically, impersonating Starlin would fulfill his pre-Darkseid crossover destiny. Thanos, the Mad Titan, pursued the Cosmic Cube in a tag team battle between the avenger series and Marvel two-in-onewhich eventually ended in Thanos’ death in 1977.
During this time of the creation and death of Thanos, Jack Kirby was on his own voyage of discovery. In 1975 he returned to Marvel as an artist and writer. Along with notable runs on Captain America and Black Pantherhe created them too eternal, devil dinosaurand machine man, but his time there was once again short-lived. His final work with Marvel was the company’s first graphic novel, a Silver Surfer collaboration with Stan Lee, published in 1978. The creator took a break from Big Two comics and dipped into animation in 1979. It would be that medium and a return to Darkseid that would bring him back to DC.
As the reputation of both the Fourth World and Kirby’s career grew in the 1980s, DC Comics invited the legendary artist to be part of its Kenner toy line, the Super Powers Collection. It wanted Darkseid as the big villain for the new action figures, and that bled into them super friends Animated series and a new comic book under the Super Powers brand. The comics drew on the artistic genius of the king himself, as the storyteller was heavily involved in their creation. This marketing push led to a commercialization of the ruler of Apokolips; Kids could even take home a Darkseid mug from Burger King in 1988. However, it was only a taste of the wide commercial success that Thanos would have decades later.
Like Kirby before him, Starlin left Marvel for DC in the 1980s. During his time at DC, he saw great success with the Batman titles. But Starlin found himself drawn to the cosmos again and put his own spin on Darkseid and the Fourth World in the miniseries Cosmic Odyssey.
Marvel Studios makes an inevitable decision
Founded in 1996, Marvel Studios was a last-ditch effort to save the failed publisher from bankruptcy. Licensing and packaging films such as blade, x men, and many more to outside studios gave Marvel a foothold in the film industry. Then, in 2003, a producer named David Maisel suggested that Marvel Studios make their own films. That was the spark that ignited the MCU’s fire, but those earlier licensing deals meant the company didn’t have access to its most famous heroes, including Daredevil, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. And that forced the studio to re-imagine who might be an A-list hero in its burgeoning cinematic universe.
In 2022, it’s clear that Marvel Studios has done so with incredible success, recasting lower-level comic book heroes like Tony Stark, the Avengers, and Captain America as Earth’s greatest superheroes. But the licensing deals also left the company with a lack of villains. Galactus, Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the Spider-Man villains were all elsewhere. But while that may have influenced the choice, ultimately choosing Thanos as the MCU’s big bad makes a lot of sense. If you want to make a series of comic book event films, why not use Marvel’s top-grossing comic book event as a reference?
Thanos’ smiling face would popularize the now-anticipated mid-credits and post-credits scenes of MCU films. Originally portrayed by Damien Poiter, the Mad Titan was later redesigned by Feige and co. to be played by Josh Brolin. From there, he became a cosmic puppet master, controlling the fates and enemies of the Avengers until the inevitable bang came in 2018 Avengers: Infinity War
In the four decades since the pair’s debut, Darkseid and Thanos have taken major hits against each other, the comics industry, and Hollywood. But in an MCU-saturated world, there’s only one winner: Thanos. Not only is he still a force to be reckoned with on comic book shelves, but he’s also arguably the most famous on-screen villain of the 21st century. While Darkseid has carved its way into the comic book fan consciousness with several successful animated adaptations in the DC Animated Universe and even in recent years Harley Quinn Show, he doesn’t have the same immediate recognition. Most members of your family probably know who Thanos is, but those same family members probably wouldn’t pronounce Darkseid’s name correctly the first time. There’s also the Disney merchandising machine, which cannot be underestimated in this fight. You can go into each objective and likely pick up a bunch of different comic-accurate versions of Thanos. The same cannot be said for Darkseid, whose merchandising boom was over decades ago.
It’s important to note that DC couldn’t bring some of the most dynamic and poetic ideas the Fourth World had to offer to the big screen because they had already inspired one of the greatest film franchises of all time. Star Wars draws heavily on the lore and legends that Kirby established in the Fourth World. The power? Well, in the Fourth World there is an energy that connects all living beings called Source. Not only are Darth Vader and Darkseid similar aesthetically, but they are both evil overlords with tragic backstories and estranged sons. Heck, even Darkseid’s name became Star Wars canon on the evil dark side. Lucas is a well-known comic book fan and here his inspirations are clear. But that means that if DC had had the opportunity to explore the Fourth World himself, his ideas would have come out as a derivative.
The history of comics and pop culture shows us that Thanos vs. Darkseid is not an isolated case. Two publishers vying for dominance in a niche industry means publishers, books, authors and fans are in constant dialogue with one another. But in the case of Thanos and Darkseid, there was a voice loud enough to be heard across the cosmos – and box office history – and it belongs to the lovestruck purple alien known as Mad Titan.