The Success of Marvel Movies and Why DC Falls Short

Just before the advent of the 21st century, comic book movies have graced the silver screen: directors and artists possessing commendable qualities have adapted our favourite superheroes to film, resulting in popular works ranging from Batman (1989) to Blade (1998). The year 2000 saw Bryan Singer’s X-Men hit the theatres, spawning a franchise of its own, and 2002 ushered in Raimi’s Spider-Man, but a clear-cut competition between the two comic giants in the realm of film perhaps hadn’t materialized fully until after 2005, when both started churning out quality films of note. In 2005, DC released the first of a series known as “The Dark Knight Trilogy”, Batman films by Christopher Nolan that would eventually become their greatest asset. It could be said that DC had a head start in injecting itself into public consciousness: the only other Marvel film released in that year was 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four, which was critically panned despite being a commercial success. Within the next two years the two aforementioned Marvel-owned franchises would find their end after a disastrous third film, leaving Marvel in a seemingly hopeless position of defeat. The relatable characters Marvel had on the table became silly and tacky, and the public had since gone on to appreciate Nolan’s grittier universe that retained the heart of action blockbusters.

However, 2008 came in: and this is where everything began.

Now that the background of comic book movies in the early 21st century is covered, the successes of both comic giants and their respective hits and misses can be analyzed. Throughout this article, success will be defined in three particular ways, two of which may overlap slightly but the third is otherwise clear-cut. The first mode of success that is instantly recognizable and coveted by the two eponymous entertainment companies is profit. A film invested in by a studio should be a box-office success. The second is that of critical success- and is otherwise reflective of cinematic quality: are the characters fleshed out? Are the action set pieces engaging? Does the central conflict cause the audience to be emotionally invested? Finally, of course, there’s audience satisfaction, which is inherently tied to those two definitions of success but are not limited to them.

Let’s fast-forward to 2016

DC’s just released their “ace-in-the-hole”, the critically panned Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. DC’s Marvel-inversed attempt at taking off in Hollywood, however, spells serious trouble for the studio should they continue to produce movies that are lacking in quality. After the franchise which has earned them the most cash concluded (The Dark Knight) and a couple of moderate hits and box-office bombs, DC has banked everything they’ve got on a title for a film that is sure to make them the money they so desperately need. Two of the studios’ most well known franchises and most acclaimed heroes are at one another’s throats, culminating in a fight between two titanic figures of comic book history. How could that NOT make money?

It did, but this approach: the creation of a film that is flawed and full of plot-holes, hoping that such holes would be filled by future films, is inherently problematic, and more importantly, spells trouble for the studio. Unlike Marvel, who has slowly built its fan base, filmography and earnings step-by-step, with individual movies dedicated to individual characters whilst hoping that they are earning financially, DC’s approach is banked on the continued consumption of their films, which cannot be ensured. They have already utilized the two most financially viable characters they possess, and must now individually recreate the success Marvel has had with their lesser-known characters that allows for the continued creation of films that add to the DC universe. Suicide Squad, though objectively a box-office success, was similarly critically panned by both critics and audiences alike, and is an excellent example of DC’s mistaken approach: by simply grouping characters together into a movie without fleshing out their backstories, the products are cardboard cut-outs that utterly lack depth or nuance.

What, then, is the issue that DC is facing?

Should DC studios continue creating movies that fail to appeal to the general public, it would follow that its fan base would be substantially smaller than that of Marvel, and thus earn less money. Other factors such as word-of-mouth, inadequate marketing and simply the professional standard of films play a large part in the production of financial profit.

It’s fairly easy to see the disparity by comparing films from both studios in 2011.

Marvel, who has only just picked up steam from their unexpected success with Iron Man in 2008, dished out two movies of characters still fairly lacking in recognition in Hollywood. Before Iron Man, the most well-known Marvel characters didn’t belong to the studio, they were Spider-Man (successful till the third) and X-Men (<), yet, by comparing Thor with Green Lantern, it is apparent that Marvel’s approach to the development of their universe is far more feasible.

Thor, a relatively unknown Marvel character to those who don’t regularly read comics, somehow managed to attain a 299.3 million profit, whereas Captain America, an equally obscure character to the mainstream public, scored a 230.6 million profit.

Green Lantern, which is arguably the next most recognisable DC superhero after Superman and Batman, reaped only a meagre 2 million profit. Conversely, Man of Steel received a stunning profit of 443 million, a commendable feat for a standalone film, but once more, DC is utilising its big names to garner cash, which increasingly becomes a problem when their main moneymaking characters have to make way for lesser-known figures.

Two of the Studios' greatest assets go head to head
Two of the Studios’ greatest assets go head to head.

In 2016: Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice earned an estimated 623.3m profit, with an aggregate score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas Suicide Squad earned a 570.6m profit with a score of 26. They still are box-office successes, but are severely panned in areas of critical acclaim and audience satisfaction, whereas Civil War earned an estimated 900m profit with a 75% approval and Doctor Strange earned a roughly 479.5m profit with a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Both conglomerates are earning profits, no doubt, but Marvel is enjoying the critical success, audience satisfaction and intricate world-building that feels real and relatable to the viewer.

In DC’s ideal situation, they are able to continue a moneymaking streak through Suicide Squad, all the way till Justice League Part 2 in 2019, which is almost impossible if their films continue to be of a quality seen in BvS. Simply put, there would be no proper incentive to discover these characters individually since we know that they end up altogether in Justice League: part of the allure in watching Thor and Captain America was in finding out, at the very least, the part they play and how they eventually fit into the Avengers. There would be no such incentive with the DC universe. By charting BvS far into the future, what they are hoping for is that we will be intrigued enough by the plot holes and mysteries created within the films to watch these characters’ individual films, and their stories before the Justice League.

Wonder Woman (2017) is attempting to do precisely this: connect us to a character that we’ve already seen, and whilst I have no doubt this will be a box-office success (Wonder Woman is a fairly big name), it’s safe to say that DC’s backtracking approach will not prove successful for them. Justice League (2017) will introduce us to a whole set of characters the audience has not met before: they have only been fed short, 2-minute introductions of their origin stories in BvS.

These plot holes and unclear characters are precisely the aspects that are making their current films so flawed, among other things. In some foolish, cyclical manner, the continued dwindling quality of DC films will no doubt cause a significant part of their current fan base to leave but also will not attract new audiences with lesser known characters such as Cyborg or Shazam.

What can DC do?

As mentioned above, DC can wait it out. It’s current titles seem grabbing enough and perhaps there will be no doubt that Wonder Woman and JL Part 1 will earn massive amounts of profit, but that cannot be ensured nor promised, unless DC does something unthinkable.

Make good films. If there’s anything the public must have learned, it’s that DC needs good directors. Desperately. More than their money, they need creators who know their characters well, can direct and flesh a character out properly, and create a good villain. Before constructing an immersive fictional universe, one must first construct a good film. And with DC’s recent output, they’ve made decent, acceptable films, but nothing good nor amazing. They’ve banked enough on their big names and characters which will become exhaustive in time. They need to start increasing their fan base, show the general populace and audience that they can be trusted to make good films, or at the very least satisfactory ones. Marvel was known to make bad films before, but since Iron Man, their output has ranged between acceptably mediocre yet still enjoyable, to formidable and great, wonderful fun. DC doesn’t have that. It’s most successful franchise owes itself to a good director, Christopher Nolan, and a gritty, dark tone and a second film with an outstanding villain. There’s no telling if such a success can be recreated again, and no answer as to whether or not DC will be able to tide the coming storm: an increasing unreliability to their audience and the diminishing popularity of their main men (or women).

What Next for Comic Book Movies?

It’s perhaps too early to say whether or not Marvel will continue to have the upper hand, as we have seen with Civil War that there is a similar fatigue experienced by moviegoers watching a Marvel movie. David Ehrlich, in his review of Civil War, comments that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is “so immense and self-perpetuating that a plot’s greatest possible conflict is no longer the end of the world, but rather the end of the brand.” This is the problem Marvel is facing now: a feel of repetition, a lack of risk or high stakes (Entertainment platform Cracked posted a video detailing why “Death needs to matter in the Marvel Universe”, whilst on a more technical level, youtube channel Every Frame a Painting expounds on the simplicity of Marvel’s music choices). The industry is experiencing genre fatigue here: the villains become repetitive or boring, lack stakes in the film, or simply act as jumping boards for the heroes themselves, which detracts from their vulnerability. These are the issues that confront Marvel. If DC can achieve success where Marvel has failed, then they might have a chance. However, as mentioned before, if DC continues with their streak with Snyder, their tonal inconsistencies, and bad directors, it’s likely they’ll be cemented in history as constantly second to Marvel’s output.

Works Cited

Ehrlich, David. “Review: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ Shows the Best and Worst of Marvel Movies.” IndieWire. N.p., 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

Cracked. “Why Death Needs To Matter in The Marvel Universe.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

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  1. Syble

    DC needs to market their characters on other mediums like cartoons and videogames. IE In the 90’s Marvel had the x-men cartoon and the x-men videogames both were very successful. Then came the success of all the capcom vs marvel series, to include streetfighter vs x-men. For a lot a kids who grew up in the 90’s, this was our first introduction to comicbooks.

  2. Upton

    Marvel/Disney, whether or not they make a bad film or not, are willing to take risks. I mean, the Guardians of the Galaxy in a standalone movie, if you like them or not, is an insanely ballsy move.

  3. Dyan Bach

    DC’s video games > Marvel’s. Yes, I realize that the only good games DC really has is the Arkham series. I stick by my statement.

  4. there are a couple of points I disagree with you on but I think those would be my ‘inner-fanboy’ ramblings. I really did like BvS and I still don’t understand why the audience are hell-bent on accepting a character only if done their way. Now I think we can all agree that no Marvel movie has a portrayed a villain as fierce as how Shannon did General Zod. That is not my inner-fanboy speaking. That is a fact.

  5. m-cubed

    You know DC’s messed up when Batroc the Leaper was in a live-action film before Black Canary, Nightwing (my personal favorite because personality/humor/thematic relevance/social commentary/intriguing interpersonal relations, I could go on), Starfire, John Stewart/Guy Gardener GL, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter, etc., etc., etc. They have sooooo many great characters but stick with the Trinity and mainstream Justice League, and then end up neglecting or perverting the best stories for some semblance of creativity? Combining Death of Superman with TDKR was not a good move creatively. Why pick big/boring Doomsday while Hush, Talon, and Mr. Bloom remain untouched? Why is there a Black Adam movie planned? Why is Cyborg, arguably a character less compelling than most DC characters, getting a solo film (correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he’s ever had particularly noteworthy story lines)? There are so many good options, the storytelling plan just seems incomprehensible at this point.

    • m-cubed

      I wrote that and then found out like an hour later that DC is planning a Nightwing movie. If they dare destroy my child I will be on the warpath; plan for that if Zack ‘Edgy Grimdark’ Snyder is involved.

  6. Bustos

    People just seem to like the Marvel characters more. And they’re advertised alot more than DC’s.

  7. Lilliam

    Marvel sold their properties to several companies so they’re desperate to produce as much as possible such that they don’t lose the rights.

    marvel studios itself is only a small studios which only produces marvel movies.

    DC’s movies all belong to WB and WB have lots of franchises that are profitable. Lord of the rings, harry potter, sherlock holmes, hangover.

    So they are not in a rush to put out as many superhero movies as possible.

  8. Gregg

    I think DC has done bad films for the better.

  9. Mosby

    Clearly Marvel has more blockbuster movies going for them right now. So, what does DC have to do to be on Marvels level? To me DC is coming out with more bulls**t movies

  10. yoon

    I say it’s because DC is only putting out a movie a year and Marvel is tossing two to three.

    • m-cubed

      By that logic DC should have objectively better films because there’s more care put into them, which unfortunately is not the case (coming from someone who usually likes DC more). I think they prioritize the wrong things. Marketing for SS was great, but then they neglected…the rest of it. If you look at the CG Behind-the-Scenes for BvS, they put a ton of work into Doomsday’s ‘birth’ scene, but neglected the actual STORY and PLOT (and design of Doomsday for that matter… I don’t care how good your textures are if your monster looks generic/boring). They devote more time to each film, but that doesn’t make them better, even though it should.

  11. Munjeera

    That’s right. Marvel rules!

  12. sergent

    Marvel’s movies are better because movies are best suited to characters, and Marvel’s characters tend to be more personalized, so there’s more of a story to tell about those characters.

  13. Khadij

    DC needs WB to take a leap of faith. That’s all it needs and bam! and Marvel needs to take a leap of faith on their animation

  14. Bree Keating

    Only DC film I’ve watched in recent times is Green Lantern, which was a let down. But their Batman trilogy (watched the first two, still yet to watch TDKR, don’t shoot me 😛 ) have been a success. Maybe not as popular as the Avenger’s film but still better than being considered a flop. To be honest, I don’t think DC’s problem is having to many flops as some people state, but maybe the fact they don’t have that much material (movie wise) in comparison to Marvel. At the moment I find Marvel dominating the movie scene in comics….as much as I regret saying this, I was hoping DC to bring out a better response to Marvels popularity. TDKR might of helped a bit but they need more in my opinion..

  15. Crain

    Marvel’s beating DC in movies because, DC is already beating them in comics which is there main thing of those two companies

  16. mjumrah

    DC needs to embrace the fact that they are a comic book company and that their characters will never star in a Citizen Kane quality flick.

    • m-cubed

      They definitely could. Despite the inherent silliness of most comic book characters, many have great depth and themes to explore (Dick Grayson, whom I will never shut up about, is very complex and interesting, despite originally donning a mullet and 80s-style suit. His storyline is the best way I’ve seen the inherent dichotomy of youth and growth explored. I can definitely see an action-art house hybrid film with him in the lead). The problem is that DC (mainly Snyder) is equating the ‘grimdark’ style and ‘edginess’ with depth, along with the basic elements of an Intro-to-Philosophy course. They think heavy-handed Jesus imagery makes a film deep and artistic, while it actually makes it more stupid when unearned and blatantly shoved in. The weird pseudo-Christian narrative Snyder has been forcing is the problem, rather than the source material defying complexity. Take a look at ANAD Moon Knight, Watchmen, TDKR. Even Red Hood Rebirth has some themes going on. Comic books can undoubtedly be deep and complex, just not in the way DC has been forcing it.

  17. picard

    DC needs more movies that appeal to younger kids. Not many kids are excited to see Batman as they are to Iron Man, Thor, Avengers, and so on. Why is that? Perhaps because the funny scenes and big explosions. Action packed scenes. Hard to explain. DC is probably better with plots and adding details to their works. Marvel wants explosions, humor, likable characters, and so on.

  18. Arron

    Finacial backing from Disney is essential.

    • m-cubed

      Yes, but take a look at BvS’ budget, especially its marketing budget. It’s not as if they aren’t getting a ton from WB.

  19. Lau

    To me, there is no Marvel vs DC as far as fandom in movies. I want to see good movies from both places. A successful Marvel movie means that DC has incentive to put a movie out. The competitions is good, but they are also in the same industry and also feed off each other.

  20. While, I have not seen any of the films in the current DC universe, I can certainly agree that there needs to be work done to create appeal that not only appeals to DC comic fans but also to movie-goers. This way that these movies can reach the same success as Marvel has done in the past eight years.

  21. I never really thought about the differences between Marvel and DC in regards to world building. Marvel does extremely well at connecting all of its films into one giant timeline, whereas DC does more stand-alone films. Personally, I get way more excited when I see a Marvel trailer than when I see a DC one.

  22. I’m a fan of both marvel and DC and I believe they both do really well in comics. Personally I get excited for both.

  23. Box

    DC just likes to focus on Superman/Batman in movies, sure they branched out with GL and could branch out more with other characters. The problem though is, lots of characters are in comics which not very many know about them whereas while Superman/Batman started in comics, soon after they were also put on screen in movies and tv shows and all that whereas all the other characters have just been shown in comics.

  24. Think of it this way: Marvel and D.C. Comics have always been fighting one another. One group of producers just signed the contract first with what some consider the first real comic world, Marvel. Of course it’s going to seem to have better quality. They have more to work with and a higher fan base to play out too.

    • Matchbox

      Yes, their competition has been going on in their early days, as there would’ve been much talk about plagiarism and whether or not one character was derived from the other. But to simply dismiss Marvel’s success as due to them having first signed a contract with the producers… I cannot agree. If you’ve read carefully the point of the article was to detail that even though both conglomerates have had equal opportunities at appealing to the masses, it was Marvel that came out on top.

      Marvel’s films don’t SEEM to have better quality. They HAVE better quality. And that last excuse just doesn’t cut it.

      Both companies have equal elements to work with: by saying that you’re underplaying DC’s comic universe. Let’s not even talk about the big names, let’s discuss the smaller ones: Teen Titans? Captain Atom? The Spectre? Higher fan base? I’d wager that both conglomerates have had fanbases of similar size for the length of their rivalry. So let’s not use products of Marvel’s hard work as reasons for their success. Let’s give credit where it’s due.

  25. boldlygone

    Agreed–DC is riding on the back of Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise, and is trying to recreate that look and feel in each of the successive movies, Green Lantern being the exception. What audiences are showing though, is that they’d rather have something that’s closer to what Green Lantern attempted to get at–a relatable, fun, character driven movie. That’s what made Marvel’s movies successful. That, and the fact that their movies feel, on the whole, to be fleshed out, well thought out, and made by people that enjoy the characters as much as we do. DC needs to step up its game and stop trying to remake the whole cinematic universe in the image and tone of the failed New 52.

  26. I remember going to watch Avengers in theatres, and the theatre was packed with people of all ages and I have never had so much fun watching a movie in theatres, Marvel won me over that day!

  27. I’ve always enjoyed and respected Marvel’s movies more than DC’s. In every case except The Dark Knight, Marvel’s movies were more broadly appealing, produced more impressively, and had more engaging stories. I think people watching superhero films look more for universal appeal and relatable characters or stories. DC has a harder time with this in my opinion.

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