Futility of Marvel vs. DC Fan Wars: A Retrospective of Live-Action Offerings

For many fans of live-action superhero-related entertainment, the battle lines have long been drawn.

In one corner, we have Marvel,the undisputed king.


In the opposite corner, we have DC, the emerging player in Hollywood whose top 3 characters are global pop cultural icons all on their own.


However, if you ask me, I am neutral in this war.


(This post is NOT at all Star Trek-related but just replace the street names in the image above with Marvel and DC. Thanks!)

Let's go back in time.


In Marvel's case, the X-Men and Spider-Man movies kicked off the 21st century and proved that superhero movies treated seriously could be a winning formula for the general audience and Hollywood executives.


There were some notorious duds in between that could have killed the genre. Fortunately, we were saved from the following:


However, 2008's Iron Man showed that there was plenty of untapped potential by introducing the Avengers Initiative. The rest is history since the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still running strong 8 years later and arguably changed the movie business forever. Hollywood was shown that it was possible to have a mega-franchise full of smaller mini-franchises whose characters all occupied the same universe and individual storylines organically interconnected to tell a larger epic tale.
Avengers, assemble!


The incredible success of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 proved that Marvel had become a household cinematic brand that could be trusted for quality entertainment. After all, it included main characters such as a talking racoon and a tree alien than even many hardcore comic book readers did not know too much about, myself included.


On the TV front, Marvel introduced Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter on ABC as a means to support their expanding movie universe. Then, it made the bold decision to create Netflix shows about street-level heroes in New York City. Daredevil and Jessica Jones demonstrated that the company could take risks to tell more mature stories in the vein of critically acclaimed cable dramas while still being in continuity with the unrestrained escapism of the Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy).


In a nutshell, Disney's $4 billion purchase of Marvel has more than paid off. The company's CEO, Bob Iger, even recently confirmed that Marvel movies would continue "forever"[1]. So, Marvel has it good on top of Mickey Mouse's sky-high mountain of cash backing it up.


So, the coast is clear and DC has absolutely no chance of playing catch up, right?


What is holding Marvel back is that it does NOT have the movie rights to all of its characters, namely the X-Men and Fantastic Four (in the latter's case, this might be only temporary though after the undeniable flop of the recent reboot). Many of the company's best characters lie between both properties; especially Wolverine, Dr. Doom, Reed Richards, Magneto, Storm, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Ben Grimm, the Skrulls and Deadpool (I have a lot to say about how Fox has handled its Marvel movie properties but that would be a separate blog post). As a result, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War are going to feel like less epic team-ups than they should.


In the case of Spider-Man, the creative rights were only returned recently even though Sony still technically owns the movie rights. Marvel has to re-introduce a new cinematic incarnation of the character that hopefully the general audience will connect to.


Moving on to DC.......


DC connected to a mainstream audience over 70 years ago. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman became pop cultural icons very quickly. After all, their creation occurred in a Depression-era America that was hungry for hope and champions (in Marvel's case, this could also be said for Captain America). The Superman radio show, the Max Fleischer animated shorts and movie serials were just the beginning. George Reeves, Adam West and Lynda Carter brought in new fans through television.


Then, a gifted actor named Christopher Reeve made many of us believe that a man could fly even in the cynical post-Watergate climate. Michael Keaton proved to a mainstream audience that Batman could be a dark urban avenger and move past the intentional silliness of the Adam West show. At the time, DC was clearly setting the standard for future superhero movies going forward.


By the same token, 1997's Batman and Robin nearly killed the entire superhero movie genre with its excessive campiness and the rapid-fire delivery of the worst puns imaginable, thanks to the horrible dialogue given to both Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy. Of course, one can never forget the following abomination:


Meanwhile, on the TV side, hope was alive for DC. Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Tom Welling were exposing Superman to an even newer generation. Lois and Clark along with Smallville aired for multiple seasons.


Batman was given another chance to strike at the big screen in the double-o decade. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy raised the bar for superhero movies in terms of dramatic potential for an audience that was struggling to define the moral boundaries for seeking justice in a post-9/11 world. Christian Bale gave Bruce Wayne new layers as a more physically fragile orphaned billionaire who pushed himself to the limits to inspire the citizens of Gotham to take back their city from the crime lords and corrupt. Heath Ledger's Joker was a frightening Oscar-winning portrayal of a modern-day anarchist
whose potential for violence was unpredictably limitless due to having no use for either wealth or power. Batman was a box office juggernaut once again.


Unfortunately, DC struggled in the movie adaptations for its other characters. Shaq's Steele, Halle Berry's Catwoman and Jonah Hex are not even worth talking about. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns may have been a hit with some critics but it did not connect for several different reasons despite an earnest attempt by Brandon Routh. Ryan Reynolds's Green Lantern was a colossal flop that still taints the character today unfortunately despite having had some of the best modern comic book stories to draw from.


DC's detractors generally question why it has taken so long to build a shared cinematic universe that is similar to Marvel's. I do believe that the first 2 movies of the Dark Knight trilogy could have been easily leveraged for this purpose. However, director Christopher Nolan was stubbornly against the entire concept of shared universes and firmly held the position that his "hyper-realistic" version of Batman should exist in an isolated continuity that lacked room for fantastical concepts such as modern-day alien gods, Amazon warriors, space cops and dimension-hopping speedsters. The 3rd movie in the trilogy, Dark Knight Rises, completely eliminated any chance of connecting to a Justice League franchise by permanently ending Bruce Wayne's crime fighting career relatively early. It may also have been DC's intention to have Green Lantern as the 1st building block for a bigger universe but the dismal box office performance ruled out that option. Plus, Warner Bros., the owner of DC, always prided itself on being a director-driven studio that gave its creative talent plenty of freedom without having to impose restrictions that would scare anyone away. Nolan, for instance, had already brought in 2 separate hits of his own for WB before the Dark Knight trilogy concluded; Prestige and Inception. So, why do anything that would send him running to another studio?


There was still an ever-reliable source of hope, however. The one who launched the entire superhero genre itself back in 1938.


Man of Steel was hotly anticipated in the wake of the Dark Knight trilogy's success. Unfortunately, the movie was very, very polarizing and debates about its merits still rage on today. I say this as someone who loved the movie overall. Critics were not entirely pleased but the general audience was somewhat satisfied. It was a hit unquestionably and WB was ready to move forward with the new DC Extended Universe. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was soon announced afterwards along with a new slate of movies that included solo flicks for the individual Justice League members and riskier projects that were villain-centric like Suicide Squad. The announcement of Wonder Woman's appearance in Batman V Superman before getting her own long overdue movie also generated excitement. Some of the buzz was eroded by controversial casting decisions such as Ben Affleck for Batman, Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg for Lex Luthor. From what I've seen from the marketing so far, Affleck and Gadot have impressed me. I remain more cautious about Eisenberg though.

![JusticeLeague] (http://static.srcdn.com/slir/w786-h393-q90-c786:393/wp-content/uploads/Justice-League-Movie-Team-Costume-Art.png)

On the brighter side, DC's TV business is on a hot streak at the moment. CW's Arrow and Flash are both going strong. Along with the new time-traveling series, Legends of Tomorrow; all 3 shows share the same continuity and reinforce each other's storylines. Supergirl on CBS is another new series from the same producers as the aforementioned 3. It successfully aims to be a superhero show that the entire family can watch together every week. Another major gripe about DC is the decision to keep the movie and TV universes separate. This philosophy was made clear when Ezra Miller was cast to play Flash in his solo movie and Justice League instead of Grant Gustin whose extremely likeable performance as the scarlet speedster on the TV show has been highly praised. DC's justification is that this allows A-List characters from the comics to be used by the TV writers without the pressure of conforming to their movie counterparts and vice versa. Going by DC's multiverse approach, it is possible for both Miller's and Gustin's versions to meet and race. One more thing, Gotham on Fox also has a following but since it takes place during Bruce Wayne's childhood, there is no clear connection to any of the aforementioned shows.


It's now time for Marvel and DC fans to attempt a group hug.


Peace on Earth

First of all, competition in any industry is good. Each player's efforts to be the best make the other one(s) try even harder. Both Marvel and DC keep the superhero movie genre alive.

Both companies have magnificent characters with intersecting mythologies that collectively convey a giant fantastical tale of a shared universe that is always moving forward.

Marvel's underlying premise is about humanity being upgraded and watching the fun that transpires after letting everyone loose. Of course, godly characters such as Thor are an exception to this general rule.


DC's approach involves humanizing modern-day gods and raising the stakes accordingly. The exception in this case would be street-level vigilantes such as Batman.


Both companies have struggled to expand their fan bases beyond just comic book readers over the past several decades as the previous paragraphs show. Marvel might be the king of superhero entertainment currently but that was not always the case. Again, the company's weakness is that it does not have the movie rights to all of its characters. This gives DC the advantage to go bigger and more epic since each and every single one of its characters is available for WB to push to the big screen.

Marvel may have gotten an earlier start when it comes to launching a shared movie universe but in DC's defense, Christopher Nolan's wishes were respected of keeping the Dark Knight trilogy in isolated continuity. Personally, I disagree with Nolan's stance but WB's director-friendly policy was prioritized in light of the trilogy's critical acclaim and massive box office revenue. Green Lantern was just a mess, granted (Looking into why would be the topic of a separate blog post).

Another worry is director Zack Snyder, the senior filmmaker behind DC's new movie universe. Many people are not comfortable with how he handled Man of Steel and are concerned with him directing both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. To address that, I would point out that he has the support of Oscar-winning Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio for the latter 2 movies. Snyder's talents are in visuals and special effects. With the right script, he can easily win over skeptics and I'm hoping that he will be able to do so with his next 2 movies. On top of that, Suicide Squad's David Ayers and Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins are far from slouches as filmmakers as well (Just look up their nice track records on IMDB). So, I would say that the DC Extended Unoverse is in good hands.

On the other hand, the main criticism leveled at Marvel is the more lighthearted tone of its movies as opposed to the relative grittiness of DC's offerings so far (namely, the Dark Knight trilogy). What is more important is telling a good story and getting the general audience to care about the characters. On this front, Marvel has succeeded marvelous-ly (pun intended) and to pigeonhole its approach as being just breezy would be unfair. The Netflix shows more than match the edginess of Nolan's Batman films. Captain America: Winter Soldier was a solid spy thriller. Even the first Iron Man flick was pretty grounded. Cap's next movie, Civil War, looks to be very character-driven as well. The Russo Brothers, the same directors behind that and Winter Soldier, are going to be tackling Avengers: Infinity War for anyone worried about Joss Whedon's style. For the record, I totally dig Whedon's brand of witty dialogue that made both Avengers movies fun theater experiences. Critics of Marvel's premier team franchise have argued that such laid back banter is out of place for people who are dealing with imminent life-and-death circumstances. However, even some soldiers will tell you that such relatively cheerful gallows humor is not uncommon during war in order to relieve tension. Agents of SHIELD is targeted by Marvel critics as well for its supposed campy flavor. However, anyone who watches past the first 16 episodes of Season 1 knows that the overarching plot takes a turn for the better and furthermore, that the Season 2 finale was one of television's finest moments period. DC has embraced a lighthearted tone for its shows on CW and CBS. This has more or less paid off in terms of fan interest and ratings. Going by the trailers, even Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad will include some charming levity to balance out the unfolding drama. In a nutshell, both the Marvel and DC cinematic universes have more than enough room for every kind of tone, depending on the specific characters and stories being told about them. To apply labels is a disservice to the versatility that both companies have exhibited.


Both Marvel and DC have come a long way when it comes to expanding their fan bases beyond comic book readership. Both companies are capable of capturing every kind of tone imaginable, depending on the specific characters and stories being presented. The level of talent at both is also impressive enough to keep an open mind. Arguing that one is better than the other is a waste of energy. Those of us who enjoy superhero-related entertainment should be ecstatic that we are living at a time when Hollywood is taking the genre seriously. Competition is a win-win for everyone.


Source for Pool Tournament image above: http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/11120/111202524/4261901-marvel-vs-dc-comic-characters-tension.jpg

  1. http://www.slashfilm.com/disney-ceo-bob-iger-says-well-get-marvel-movies-forever/ ↩︎