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.
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.
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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