DC v Marvel War: What is it Good For?
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is now under two months away, and the number one question looming is, “Who will win the fight?” This should be the historic payoff of a timeless comic book conundrum. But even with a growing sense of positive sentiment toward the film over the past few months, this question nevertheless remains shorthand for, “How will DC Comics’ first committed foray into its own shared cinematic universe measure up to the cultural phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe?”
The MCU needs no introduction; it has indisputably changed the way blockbuster films work. Because of it, questions about the future of superhero films have largely been replaced by questions about future superhero films. Rocket Raccoon has arguably become more mainstream than Wonder Woman. Beyond superheroes, every blockbuster franchise believes it is required to have its own shared cinematic universe, and corporations are scrambling to piece together whatever brands they can.
Naturally, this pressure is most directed at DC Comics, not only Marvel’s most “distinguished” competitor, but also its most direct competitor. And only now, almost eight agonizing years since Iron Man, is its response finally imminent. Many DC fans are haunted by this pressure, and await DC’s response with trepidation. Despite its wealth of characters, DC has had trouble bringing many of them beyond Batman to the big screen. Even the Last Son of Krypton, DC’s flagship superhero, is still popularly considered by moviegoers to be inherently boring. On top of that, DC’s initially stoic public relations response to the Marvel Studios model of filmmaking exuded ambivalence, and the announcement of Batman v Superman gave many people the impression that Batman was being used as a crutch. Now, as Marvel Studios’ Phase Three gears up with Captain America: Civil War, DC’s maiden voyage into its own shared cinematic universe is being directly measured against a major installment in the tried-and-true MCU. Everyone wants to know, “Who will win this historic commercial and critical fight?” Let’s take the plunge to think this question through, and try to get to the bottom of it in time for the lights going down.
The Box Office
Both Civil War and Batman v Superman will be undisputed successes. On the Marvel side, all Marvel Studios movies are successes. More than that, Civil War will feature most of its universe’s established superheroes, premiere several new ones, and is an adaptation of a story that is as well-known as it is seminal. On the DC side, as others have pointed out, not only are Batman and Superman universal icons, and not only does Batman v Superman draw from an even more seminal story, but Batman v Superman is also even more of an event movie. It is the first to feature the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel together, and the first official step into the DC shared film universe. As the overwhelmingly positive response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens has demonstrated, when a movie is sufficiently an event, little else is required to skyrocket it toward box office success. And among all the successes of Marvel Studios, the Avengers films have been its most financially significant movies to date. 1 Thus, both Batman v Superman and Civil War will succeed, and have the opportunity to surpass one another, with, well, flying colors.
It’s always hard to tell what movie critics will enjoy. Sometimes story is important, sometimes not. Some brands are derided, while others are embraced. Opinions change. These days, in the age of clickbait, some critics just stick with what seems popular. In any case, Civil War will most certainly be the safer movie. The heroes in both Batman v Superman and Civil War will be fighting for a license, but the MCU already has one. Marvel has a successful stylistic formula and sticks with it, even if it has to lose filmmakers along the way. Audiences have tremendously enjoyed the MCU’s lighthearted and familiar tone, and its popularity has overtaken its critics.
DC, meanwhile, has a lot going against it on the critical front. For one thing, Man of Steel received infamously divisive reviews. More significantly, the primary demographics of superhero movies have been raised on Marvel media, and believe DC to be inherently lackluster in comparison. There has been a palpable culture over the last several years dismissing DC Comics to the outskirts—the running joke on the popular YouTube channel CinemaSins, in which DC movies always get a point marked against them, is very emblematic of this atmosphere. 2 3 On another level, even though Civil War will be adapting just as many source concepts into a new context as Batman v Superman (the iconic catalysts for the respective battles in the comics differed from those that will be in the films), any awkward rearrangements of those concepts will be more distinct in the first impression that is Batman v Superman.
DC is also a separate brand from Marvel, and thus has its own identity. Although DC has a lot of fans in other markets, it may take time for its presence to settle among blockbusters. An additional obstacle will be its filmmakers’ individual styles. It looks as though DC supports more distinct styles among its directors, intending for each movie to stand more prominently as its own cinematic, or at least authorial, experience, from Batman v Superman to Suicide Squad to Wonder Woman. This could initially be distracting for some audiences used to the more uniform MCU experience. Furthermore, much like the relationship between Lois and Clark in Man of Steel, DC has confounded the public with its decision to bypass the traditional universe building audiences have come to expect from blockbusters. Rather than building stories about individual characters who sometimes intersect, DC is building stories of a universe.
But as Marvel’s success has proven, safety does not determine the future of a market, and with movies, uncertainty is short-term. It’s likely that many audiences will respond to the concrete aftermath that Batman v Superman will present for the next chapter of the DC cinematic story. Like all successful companies, including Marvel, DC is trying not just to give audiences what they want, but to also stay ahead and challenge them, and the status quo—and it is worth noting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been drifting into the status quo.
So after taking this brief step back, who emerges victorious? In this case, both movies come from powerhouses honing strategies that will be successful no matter what. A lot of people are going to see these movies and their sequels as long as they are made, whether or not all of the movies themselves are critically esteemed. Most victories will surely be insignificant in the long run. Instead, right now, there is something to learn from both Batman v Superman and Civil War. Like all fights between superheroes, there is an underlying issue lurking in the shadows; our own metahuman civil war. The real question on so many people’s minds is whether Marvel Studios is inherently better than anything DC Comics can produce. This did not develop because all audiences have read everything that DC Comics has to offer, but rather because DC Comics is largely unfamiliar in movies beyond Batman. Now, the success of Arrow, The Flash, 4 and Supergirl 5 on television demonstrates that mass audiences are finding greater affection for DC Comics characters. The question as to which is inherently better than the other is shortsighted and brings a pall over the experience of movies, from premiere to legacy—a remnant of an unwinnable war that needs to be set aside.
To paraphrase Lois Lane in Man of Steel, this contributor is done measuring, and will just see both movies on their own. Like the heroes we admire, it is important to remain on our toes and widen our questions about the very powerful perceptions around us and our responses to them. If Batman can accept Superman, and the DC Universe, maybe audiences will, too.
- See where they rank among the highest grossing movies of all time: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/ ↩
- CinemaSins. “Everything Wrong With Man of Steel in 8 Minutes or Less.” YouTube. 26 Nov. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Cl5FzEIjY ↩
- “DC Comics?” CinemaSins Reddit thread. Begun 12 Nov. 2014. https://www.reddit.com/r/CinemaSins/comments/2m0vxf/dc_comics/ ↩
- O’Connell, Michael. “TV Ratings: The Flash Premiere Gives CW a 5-Year Best.” The Hollywood Reporter. 8 Oct. 2014. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/tv-ratings-flash-premiere-gives-739170 ↩
- Kissell, Rick. “CBS’ Supergirl Premiere Ratings Strong: Top New Show of the Fall.” Variety. 27 Oct. 2015. http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/supergirl-premiere-ratings-1201626577/ ↩
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