The unmitigated success of Captain America: Civil War coupled with Batman v. Superman being seen as something of a disappointment has Marvel yet again standing above DC Comics in not only the box office race, but in the realm of critical and audience acceptance. Obviously, the former matters more to both studios than the latter, but the disparity between the two brands at this point is palpable. It seems that in many ways Marvel has found the key while DC continues to pound on the door.
We’re living in a golden age of comic book movies with more characters making their way to the big screen than ever before.
But years ago, comic book movies were a rarity. The critically slammed 1997 “Batman & Robin“put the genre on ice for some time. If a movie was based on a comic book, studios were less than forthcoming with that information. The next high-profile comic franchise was 2000’s “X-Men,” which reinvigorated this style of movie; Sony’s“Spider-Man“ solidified that superheroes could be viable in film again.
Now, Marvel Comics in particular is driving this trend. Though popular Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk have starred in films and TV shows since the 1960s, the publisher has dug into its portfolio over the past few years to make stars out of lesser-known characters like Iron Man and Daredevil. And as more characters become box-office draws, they’ve continued to exist in the same interconnected movie and TV universe.
If it isn’t The Avengers being both a box office and merchandising cash cow, then it could be Guardians of the Galaxy, any of the stand-alone Iron Man films, or the anticipation of films like Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Contrast this with DC movies and for every Christopher Nolan incarnation of Batman, you’ve got a Green Lantern, a Watchmen or a Superman Returns.
Many people seem to think that either Wonder Woman or Justice League will help elevate DC. And they very well might…But has any studio, with such a track record, ever had this much box office anxiety with seemingly slam dunk franchises?
Ever since Marvel Comics first managed to challenge their crosstown competitors (who enjoyed two decades of dominance) with superhero successes like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in the 1960s, legions of fans on both sides of the Marvel/DC divide have spilled tons of ink regarding which company they think is better. The reality, of course, is that both comic producers—commonly known as the “Big Two”—have created their share of brilliance and garbage, and they both continue to do so. But for a certain type of comic book fan, DC will always hold more appeal, and there’s one word to describe why that is so.
In other words, DC superheroes are larger than life, and I love it.
Of course, this larger-than-life status is what turns a lot of people off about DC Comics. It is, in fact, the very thing Stan Lee rebelled against in the ’60s when he created super-everymen like Spider-Man and the X-Men, who could be you or me, just with powers. This thinking goes that when you have a character so far removed from humanity—like, say, Superman—he’s too unrelatable to be interesting. But just because a character’s hard to relate to doesn’t mean he’s boring. In fact, one could argue that the effect that character has on the world around him is where the real compelling story material exists.
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Consider that if somehow superheroes were real, our world would probably end up looking more like DC’s than Marvel’s. Beings with that sort of power would seem above us, untouchable. Politics, economics, and even ethics would change around the globe to accommodate these seemingly impossible beings. Superheroes wouldn’t be part of us… they’d be somewhat frightening to others, we’d have to deal with if we wanted to continue our own lives.
The DC Universe is perfectly set up to portray a scenario just like this. At the top, you have the gods… Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and everyone else who’s somehow beyond human. At the bottom, there are the regular people who have to react to this world—the Lex Luthors (who hate them), the Lois Lanes (who fall in love), the Bruce Waynes who… well, we’ll get to that in a minute. In the middle, you have the legacy heroes, regular people offered a seat on Mount Olympus through chance or hard work—your Hal Jordans, your Barry Allens, and anyone else who “worked their way up.” This is where the really interesting superhero drama comes in at DC. One of the best characters they ever had was Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, a double-legacy… not only was he a regular human being (a freelance artist!) who inherited godlike power, but he also had to live up to the legacy of Hal Jordan, everyone’s favorite Green Lantern. There is a lot of great character work to be done with someone like that, an average guy who suddenly has to stand alongside the most powerful beings in the universe. This is a situation the DC Universe is designed to create; it doesn’t really happen at Marvel.
But back to Bruce Wayne… the true greatness of the DC Universe is best found in the relationship between its two largest characters, Superman and Batman. It’s really a perfect dynamic, and basically any sort of superhero story can be told because of it. Put simply,Superman is a god who wishes he was a man, and Batman is a man who wishes he was a god. DC’s best writers, like Joe Kelly, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison, understand that this is the relationship around which the DCU turns. Physically and mentally, Batman represents the perfect human— in theory, you could be him if you worked hard enough. On the other hand, Superman presents an unattainable ideal. We can all strive to act like Superman, especially morally, but we’ll never be able to do the things he does. But still, in some ways Superman wishes he was just like us. Perhaps because of that, Superman’s a bright, sunny, and pleasant guy, someone you’d want to hang out with—and Batman’s kind of a jerk. Sometimes it seems he almost resents the things that make Superman super… what would Bruce Wayne do if he had those Kryptonian powers?
In theory, the ideal hero exists somewhere between these two poles, and DC’s incredibly lucky that they have two such perfect characters to explore this concept with. The best Marvel can offer —and it’s certainly good—is a synthesis between them in Spider-Man. But so much more is gained by having the exact opposites of Superman and Batman be teammates and sometimes friends. It lets us play out a (super)human drama on many brightly colored pages a month. It’s pretty awesome.
While many Marvel characters have become scattered between Marvel Studios, 20th Century Fox, and Sony, Warner Bros. has access to every single DC character that they could ever want to use.This particular fact has become one of Marvel’s biggest Achilles heels in recent years. Marvel had to aggressively sell audiences on B-list characters like Iron Man and Ant-Man because they couldn’t give us more popular heroes like Wolverine and Spider-Man at first. On the other hand, DC can come out of the gate sprinting with heroes like Batman and Superman, and still give us B and C-listers with movies like Suicide Squad. Second-tier characters can still tell great stories, but the icons are a guaranteed box office draw. Imagine how much Batman v Superman would’ve earned if it was Green Arrow vs the Flash, certainly not as much as it did. To Understand it in a more Marvel way, the 2002 Spiderman movie made more than 800 million US dollars, compare than to the first Iron Man Movie in 2008, which earned less than 600 million US dollars. Even the disastrous, The Amazing Spiderman made about 757 million US dollars.
In closing: many of DC Comics’ most iconic superheroes are basically gods. Rather than make them boring, it actually makes the rest of the world around them much more interesting, because it’s the closest fictional approximation to what our world might really look like with superheroes. We can imagine how someone like Bruce Wayne… a regular (albeit rich) guy… would react to the existence of someone like Superman, and we can put ourselves in his shoes. The imaginative/emotional/creative payoff that results is, at least in this writer’s opinion, much more satisfying. In many ways, Superman’s status as the earliest superhero has guaranteed that all others that follow in some way have to live up to him. Take that, Spider-Man. (my 2nd favorite super hero).