Over more than eight decades as the two biggest comic book publishers in the world, Marvel and DC have established many traditions — perhaps none more apparent and recurrent than their absolute delight in ripping each other off.
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?" That's why we're dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon's Who Would Win Week..
Many famed heroes began with the very 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? Who was birthed first in the minds of their creators, the X-Men or the Doom Patrol? And in the current era where comic books sit at the top of the pop culture pile fueled by the massive success of the MCU, Nolan Batman movies, and the box office juggernaut that is sequential storytelling, there’s one notorious knock-off pairing that shaped the Hollywood landscape as we know it: 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 the art and vision of Jack Kirby 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 went on to co-create such famous heroes as the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the Avengers, and more. By the late ’60s he was itching for more creative freedom, so he set his sights on Marvel’s most famous competition, making the leap over to DC Comics to create a modern mythology known as the Fourth World.
Though it might be hard to believe, now that he’s one of the most powerful villains in comic book history, Darkseid made his debut in 1970 in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, an unassuming and utterly wild cosmic take on Superman’s bestie. The big bad was created to be the overarching villain of Kirby’s Fourth World, essentially a crossover between all the books that Kirby was doing at DC. Sadly, Kirby wouldn’t see that vision fulfilled, as the Fourth World never became successful enough to see 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, soon reaching Marvel Comics.
At the competition, a young cartoonist named Jim Starlin was just getting his start, making waves at the publisher by pushing the boundaries of the weirdness and pathos that it would allow in the pages of its comics. After reading Kirby’s Fourth World and becoming a huge fan, Starlin was inspired to create a master villain of his own. What happened next is common comic book knowledge, as Starlin decided to shape his new antagonist around a member of the New Gods. But it might surprise you that his initial chosen inspiration wasn’t Darkseid. In fact, Starlin wanted to reinterpret — read that as rip off — Metron, the super smart explorer and turncoat who would often switch between the warring sides of the Fourth World. Marvel editor Roy Thomas had other ideas. “Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!” Thomas told Starlin. And thus Thanos was born in late 1972 in the pages of Iron Man #55.
Ironically, Starlin’s knock-off would fulfill his crossover destiny before Darkseid. Thanos, the Mad Titan, pursued the Cosmic Cube in a tag-team battle spread between the Avengers series and Marvel Two-In-One, ultimately ending in Thanos’ death in 1977.
During that period of the creation and death of Thanos, Jack Kirby was on his own journey of discovery. He returned to Marvel in 1975, as both artist and writer. Along with notable runs on Captain America and Black Panther, he also created the Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, and Machine Man, but his time there once again didn’t last. Burning out quickly on Marvel’s company culture — where editors would often pack the letters pages in the backs of his books with negative fan feedback — his final work with Marvel was the company’s first graphic novel, a Silver Surfer collaboration with Stan Lee released 1978. The creator took a break from Big Two comics, dipping 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 a part of its Kenner toyline, the Super Powers Collection. It wanted Darkseid as the big villain for the new action figures, and this bled over into the Super Friends cartoon series and a new comic book under the Super Powers brand. The comics relied 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. It was a mere taste of the broad commercial success that Thanos would have decades years later, however.
As Kirby did before him, Starlin left Marvel for DC in the 1980s. During his time with DC, he saw great success on the Batman titles. But Starlin was drawn to the cosmic once again, putting his own spin on Darkseid and the Fourth World in the miniseries Cosmic Odyssey. This experiment would prove fortuitous, as less than a year later Starlin would return to Marvel, revive Thanos, and soon center him in his own cosmic odyssey in the infamous and wildly popular miniseries known as The Infinity Gauntlet. Although there were no fast food toys to be had, Thanos and his quest for power laid the foundation for Marvel’s unending glut of crossover comics in the 1990s. And, of course, decades later, the popular comic would change the face of cinema forever.
Marvel Studios makes an inevitable decision
Founded in 1996, Marvel Studios was a last ditch attempt to save the failing publisher from bankruptcy. Licensing and packaging movies like Blade, X-Men, and many more to external studios gave Marvel a foothold in the film industry. Then in 2003, a producer named David Maisel pitched Marvel Studios on making its own movies. That was the spark that lit the fire of the MCU, but those previous 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 reimagine who could be an A-list hero in its burgeoning cinematic universe.
In 2022, it’s clear Marvel Studios did that to an unbelievable degree of success, recasting lower level comic book heroes like Tony Stark, the Avengers, and Captain America as the biggest superheroes on Earth. Yet the licensing deals also left the company with a dearth of villains. Galactus, Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the Spider-Man rogues were all elsewhere. But while that may have shaped the choice, ultimately choosing Thanos as the MCU’s big bad makes a lot of sense on its own. If you’re going to make a series of comic book event movies, why wouldn’t you use Marvel’s most successful comic book event as a template?
Thanos’ smiling face would popularize the now expected mid-credits and post-credits scenes of MCU films. Originally portrayed by Damien Poiter, the Mad Titan was later recast by Feige and co. to be played by Josh Brolin. From there, he became a cosmic puppet master controlling the Avengers’ fates and foes until the inevitable snap came in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. All the while, Darkseid was nowhere to be seen on the silver screen. While his existence was implied in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, during a sepia dream sequence where eagle-eyed comic book fans could spot the Omega symbol that signifies his home planet of Apokolips, he wouldn’t join the live-action DC fray until 2021 in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. There, viewers met him as the younger iteration of the intergalactic god known only as Uxis. And even then it likely seemed to many who weren’t familiar with the history that this strange omnipotent alien was nothing more than a Thanos knock-off. Oh, the irony.
In the four decades since the pair debuted, Darkseid and Thanos have taken big swings at 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 clawed his way into the comic fan consciousness with multiple successful animated adaptations in the DC Animated Universe and even the recent 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 likely wouldn’t pronounce Darkseid’s name right the first time. There’s also the Disney merchandising machine, which cannot be underestimated in this battle. You can walk into any Target and likely pick up a number of different comics-accurate versions of Thanos. The same is not to be said of Darkseid, whose merchandising boom was over decades ago.
It’s important to note that DC hasn’t been able to debut some of the most dynamic and poetic ideas that the Fourth World had to offer on the big screen because they had already inspired one of the biggest film franchises of all time. Star Wars takes heavily from the lore and legend established by Kirby in the Fourth World. The Force? Well, in the Fourth World there’s an energy that connects all living things called the Source. Darth Vader and Darkseid are not only similar aesthetically, but they’re both evil overlords with tragic backstories and estranged sons. Heck, even Darkseid’s name became Star Wars canon in the evil Dark Side. Lucas is a well known comic fan and here his inspirations are clear. But that means that if DC had the chance to explore the Fourth World itself, its ideas would have come off as derivative.
Comics and pop-culture history shows us that Thanos vs. Darkseid isn’t a one off. The nature of having two publishers vying for supremacy in a niche industry means that the publishers, books, creators, and fans are in constant conversation with each other. But in the case of Thanos and Darkseid, there was one voice which was loud enough to be heard throughout the cosmos — and box office history — and it belongs to the lovelorn purple alien known as the Mad Titan.