The editors at All Ears don’t know what they’ve done. They’ve asked me to write an innocent pop culture article, not knowing that they’re forcing me to pick between two beloved children.
Marvel and Star Wars are two enormous, sprawling franchises that have shaped pop culture for generations. Deciding which is better? That’s going to require one heck of a deep dive. Buckle up, everyone!
First off, deciding which one is better is purely subjective. Disclaimer, disclaimer, please don’t come to my house brandishing lightsabers and foam Mjolnirs. However, we can break things down into categories to make things a little bit more objective.
To tackle this task of cosmic proportions we’ll be breaking each franchise down into five categories: Film, Television, Print, Theme Parks, and Video Games/Merchandise.
Superheroes and Jedi Knights will face off in an epic battle for truth and justice, and we’ll see which reigns supreme!
Round One: Film
At first blush, I thought this would be obvious. Star Wars has shaped cinema. It’s what elevated science fiction from the realm of drive-in camp to a mainstream art form. The MCU wouldn’t even exist without Star Wars.
The original Star Wars trilogy changed the way we told stories. It was the original Summer Blockbuster. It was so popular that it launched the movie merchandising craze before there was even merchandise for it (more on that below). It wasn’t the first film trilogy, but it established the trilogy (and the long-form saga) as profitable models for film studios, paving the way for works like The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and The Matrix. If Star Wars flopped, we’d be looking at a very different pop-culture landscape…
…But we can’t discount the work that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done.
The pre-MCU stuff was admittedly, hit or miss with films like Spider-Man and the X-Men trilogy meeting critical acclaim and films like Elektra… not so much. But it was Iron Man that really kicked things off with that iconic post-credits scene.
Marvel Comics have been big on interconnectivity, with their biggest stories involving heroes from multiple comics. Civil War, Age of Ultron, The Infinity Gauntlet: all three are classic comic stories that could have never existed without an established framework to build on. Most superhero movies before The Avengers focused on a single hero, their origin story, and a battle with a major nemesis. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed that by introducing and establishing a core cast of characters on their own adventures before bringing them together for an epic finale. The result is a storyteller’s toybox, allowing for different arcs to blend and interact to create a saga that, in just over a decade, has become one of the most compelling franchises in film.
So making a choice is hard… fortunately, we don’t have to. The court of public opinion has already made a decision for us! Rotten Tomatoes has gathered reviews of every single Star Wars and MCU film into an aggregate score, so with the power of math we can figure out an average freshness rating for all of them. We’ll be skipping the television shows for now.
Star Wars has a total of eleven films: the nine Skywalker saga films, plus Rogue One and Solo. The MCU has a whopping twenty-three films, with more on the docket. This isn’t counting pre-Disney marvel films like the X-Men trilogy, as Disney doesn’t have the rights to those.
Averaging the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes gives the entire Star Wars saga a score of approximately 77% freshness. This doesn’t change even if we only focus on the films released after the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. The entire MCU gets a total of approximately 85%. Moreover, the two lowest ranking films of the MCU (Thor: The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk) both rank noticeably higher than the two lowest ranking films of the Star Wars Saga (The Rise of Skywalker and The Phantom Menace). Marvel also beat Star Wars on the high end, with Black Panther scoring a whopping 97% freshness. However, considering the sheer number of films Marvel has produced, Star Wars isn’t far behind on quality. It just seems like Star Wars‘ lows are much more severe than Marvel’s, while their highs are roughly equivalent. Is Star Wars a victim of its own popularity? Perhaps, but for now we’re going to give Marvel the win.
Round 2: Television
Once again, this is tricky because there is a wealth of pre-Disney media out there. Marvel has produced a lot of TV shows, from the classic Incredible Hulk series with Lou Ferrigno to the cult classic X-Men Evolution. Though for every gem, there’s also a plethora of forgettable animated adaptations. Star Wars has also produced some pre-Disney TV, which…
…Yeah, let’s just focus on the Disney stuff.
Marvel has produced a few noteworthy series under the MCU, including Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Daredevil, and Runaways. However, they’ve not embedded themselves into the cultural zeitgeist in the same way some other shows have. Also, some of the MCU’s worst projects have been in the TV division, including Inhumans (an awkward attempt to leverage a less-popular super team into an X-Men style niche) and Iron Fist (a rich white guy learns magic karate). Both shows have horrendously low ratings, with Inhumans hitting an astonishing 11%. There have been some epic highs… but also some major lows. Still, nothing here has been enough to majorly affect the franchise.
Star Wars, on the other hand, has practically been carried by its television division. Many fans credit Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars series as single-handedly redeeming the entire prequel trilogy, massively boosting repeat viewership and stimulating major interest in an era that many fans were quick to reject. The Mandalorian, as the first live-action television project, has also entered the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Not only does this show contain an adorable mascot, but it’s just a genuinely good Star Wars story that moves the focus away from rebellions and ancient destinies and onto the gritty, used-future aesthetic that often gets overlooked. Rebels is also a major gem, with an incredible 98% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. Many fans credit Rebels with expanding one of the most popular eras of the franchise, and the cast of lovable characters (plus continuity with Clone Wars and The Mandalorian) makes it a must-watch for any Star Wars fan.
WINNER: STAR WARS
ROUND 3: PRINT
This one just isn’t fair. It seriously is not fair.
So let’s just get this out of the way: Star Wars has some amazing literature out there. In fact, for decades, print media was the only way to get new Star Wars. The expanded universe novels were a fixture on any fan’s bookshelf, with works like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy even making it into the animated canon. For a while, Star Wars was a wacky universe written by a thousand different authors… then Disney bought it.
Overnight, the majority of those books have been exiled into “Legends” canon, marking them as mere tales told in the backrooms of Oga’s Cantina by drunken smugglers. Beloved characters like Mara Jade would be wiped away in favor of the new cast, which bred contempt for the new trilogy from long-term fans. Of course, some would argue this is a good thing; wrangling existing canon would be a nightmare, and some elements from the expanded universe are better left untouched. However, overall it was a major loss.
That’s not to say newer works like A Crash of Fate aren’t good. It’s just that working with the new canon is inherently more limiting. Everything must be part of the new canon now. Nothing can be outside of it. It makes things a bit tricky.
Conversely, the MCU has always been separate from the comics continuities; partially to allow for fresh takes on origin stories, but also because reconciling decades of comics would be a nightmare. Marvel doesn’t even have a single continuity, and the “main” universe has been reset enough times to send the mole from Animal Crossing into hysterical tears.
However, this also means that no story has ever really been invalidated. Disney has already pulled from multiple major crossover events to inspire their films, with details changed to better fit the film medium. (Pro-tip: If you want to continue to like Iron Man as a character, maybe skip the comic version of Civil War). Meanwhile, while elements of the films have bled into comics (Nick Fury has become much more Samuel L. Jackson-esque), the comics are still their own separate thing. This combination of raw potential, creative freedom, and a MASSIVE backlog of amazing stories gives Marvel the win here, hands down.
Round 4: Theme Parks
Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure looks like it is going to be amazing: a multiverse of adventure crammed into a single location, with chances to team up with all your favorite heroes. We cannot wait for it to open. Unfortunately, the one in DCA might be the only one we get Stateside due to pre-existing licensing deals. Floridians will have to settle for the less-impressive Marvel Superhero Island at Universal, which mostly features flat rides with a Marvel overlay (though The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Adventures of Spider-Man are both solid, if less technically impressive rides). Other Marvel attractions exist at international Disney Parks (including the amazing Stark Expo at Hong Kong Disneyland), but the relative youth of Disney’s ownership means that things are limited for now.
For Star Wars, that theme park future is already here. Galaxy’s Edge is one of the most immersive theme park experiences in the world, and attractions like Rise of the Resistance have changed the way we view themed entertainment.
Even at places where Galaxy’s Edge hasn’t landed, rides like Star Tours have been repping the galactic experience for years. For now, Star Wars takes the win… though depending on how creative Disney gets with Avengers Campus, that could easily change.
WINNER: STAR WARS
Round 5: Video Games and Merchandise
This one is tough because both franchises have produced a lot of stuff. However, once again, I’m inclined to give this one to Star Wars.
On the merchandise angle, Star Wars is infamous for its merchandise. The hottest Christmas gift when A New Hope opened was a voucher for toys that didn’t exist yet. Entire museums have been dedicated to Star Wars merchandise. Force Friday is a thing that exists. Also, don’t lie and say you’ve never at least considered buying a lightsaber.
Marvel has its own amazing collection of toys and merch, but there’s not the same level of focused appeal that Star Wars has. Honestly, the biggest toy to come out of Marvel was Hulk Hands. Do you remember Hulk Hands? Do they still make Hulk Hands?
So… what about video games? It’s true that Marvel has produced a lot of amazing video games, especially in the 2D era. Some, like Marvel vs. Capcom, remain major ongoing franchises. Plus, newer works like the Spider-Man video game have been popular enough to make a Miles Morales-focused sequel one of the most hyped launch titles for the Playstation 5. However, once again, Star Wars takes the lead. Games like Rogue Squadron, Knights of the Old Republic, and Battlefront are staples in gaming canon, with remakes and sequels generating major hype years later.
WINNER: STAR WARS
Our final score has Star Wars edge out Marvel by one point! Case settled, everyone go hommmmme…
…Okay, well… not necessarily. The franchise you love the most depends on which category you weigh the most heavily. Obviously, cool action figures aren’t on the same level as good movies for most people. You might value comics more than TV. Or you could be like me and obsess over the theme park aspect. It’s all subjective.
So with that in mind… I guess we can call it a draw for now?
Too unsatisfying? Alright, how about this: let us know which franchise you think should win and why in the comments. May the best franchise win!