"Superman vs. Batman." "Captain America: Civil War." Summer 2016 is a season of epic battles in the world of comics, but one epic stalemate endures: the decades-old struggle between Marvel Comics and DC Comics.
Identical superpowers, different names
Since the 1930s, the behemoth comic book publishers have been in a race to capture the attention of readers young and old, but their tactics have been suspect. When one publisher released a character with unique powers, the other released a similar character with nearly identical powers and a different name. The result — each character seemingly has a doppelganger in a parallel universe. These equivalents are almost everywhere you look: for Deadpool, it’s Deathstroke; for Catwoman, it’s Black Cat; and for Magneto, it was Dr. Polaris.
But while their powers could be used for good or evil, we’re more interested in the power of their names.
What makes a great superhero name, anyway? Is it the same as what makes a great product name? Can we compare superhero names as we would competing brands like Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb?
This is the comparison we recently completed, studying characters from both the Marvel Comics and DC Comics worlds. Whether it’s about branding or superheroes, good naming is always about the power of suggestion, depth of character and the role the name plays in the bigger story. When it comes to competitive run-ups, one name is always superior to another. Let’s be honest, Lyft, as a name, when compared to Uber, isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling. A Lyft is just a lift. An Uber is a better way. This is true for superhero names too. Electro isn’t nearly as compelling or powerful sounding as Black Lightning.
A superhero by any other name
In the spirit of epic battles, we pitted the most notable superheroes from both universes against each other. As a template of scrutiny, we used the same kind of criteria we’d use to create product brand names. The winner isn’t the hero who is faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but the hero with the name that, from a brand perspective is:
More than just a label or sound-alike name
Viscerally or emotionally compelling in and of itself
Able to paint a dramatically compelling and expansive picture in people’s minds
Linguistically advantageous, when applicable
Let the battle begin!
Captain America (Marvel) vs. Commander Steel (DC)
The term "captain" always pulls rank on "commander." Captain America is also more memorable and moving than Commander Steel, because it offers more specific imagery and richer and more diverse associations. In red, white and blue, Captain America paints a dramatically rich picture in your mind. Though the image of steel is vivid, it’s more abstract, cold and two-dimensional. The Marvel name takes the prize.
Ant-Man (Marvel) vs. Atom (DC)
Both names play off the idea that a lot of power can come in a small package. But associations with the word "ant" are weak in comparison to associations with the word "atom." When it comes to superpowers, which name paints the most dramatically compelling picture in your mind? I bet it’s Atom. Nothing like an atomic blast to blow your enemies away! The DC name prevails.
Dark Knight (a k a Batman, DC) vs. Moon Knight (Marvel)
The clear winner here is Dark Knight. Talk about a compelling name. His name is a measure of his bad attitude, which is his greatest and most feared strength. Dark Knight is more hard-hitting than Moon Knight, because "dark" is the more ominous, bold word. The word "moon" has a softer sound than dark, so it’s less effective, linguistically. Paired with "dark," the word "knight" offers richer, more expansive imagery than "moon." All said, Moon Knight just sounds like a cheap knockoff of Dark Knight. The DC name wins.
Flash (DC) vs. Quicksilver (Marvel)
Both names are solid, but Flash is better. Both mean fast, but linguistically and semantically, Flash is fastest. Also, the simple, suggestive nature of the name Flash is more elegant and more dramatically engaging than Quicksilver, which feels forced in comparison. The DC name gets the gold star.
Aquaman (DC) vs. Namor (Marvel)
As a name, Namor (no pun intended) crushes Aquaman. Yes, being a water man may be compelling to some, but there’s just no drama in this ho-hum name. Namor, though we may not know exactly what it means, intrinsically sounds more powerful, foreboding and mysterious than Aquaman. The only downside to Namor is that it’s not as memorable as Aquaman, which paints a more vivid and specific image in your mind. But Marvel still takes this naming trophy.
Cyborg (DC) vs. Deathlok (Marvel)
Cyborg. If you want to be a superhero, or have one on your side, Cyborg instantly provokes the more desirable and tangible image in your mind. His name is a well-defined, well-understood, image-rich word. It not only suggests power, as Deathlok does in a more primitive way, but it also suggests advanced technology. This implies that Cyborg’s power is smarter and more sophisticated than Deathlok’s. Score another win for a DC name.
Hawkeye (Marvel) vs. Green Arrow (DC)
Hawkeye. His name is more dramatically compelling. As mere humans, we would much rather have the super-powerful vision of a hawk than an arrow. Plus, arrows are pretty lame when fighting aliens, mutants, and humans with super powers or the best weapons money can buy (Batman). The Marvel name triumphs.
Superman (DC) vs. Hyperion (Marvel)
And last, but not least, Superman is best! There’s no drama in the name Hyperion. It’s just not compelling. If you’re going to be a superhero with the ability to fly, see through walls, shoot heat rays from your eyes, and have superhuman strength, you can’t get much better than an apex name like Superman. Except maybe super, superman. The DC name overpowers the Marvel name.
Naming victory for DC
When it comes to creating super-hero brand names, DC delivers a crushing 5-to-3 win based on our naming criteria. The question is, can DC effectively leverage the power of its superhero brand names to alter the course of the ongoing war to win over audiences?