Street Fighter vs Mortal Kombat
WWF vs WCW
RoboCop vs Terminator
Mario vs Sonic
And, of course...
Marvel vs DC.
Certain pop culture rivalries are destined to stand the test of time. Some end with a decisive knock-out blow. Some linger on as the popularity of both sides dwindle in equal measure. Some end up as unlikely partnerships. In the case of Marvel vs DC, though, it's only gotten bigger in recent years.
What was once an argument that took place mostly over lunch tables in school cafeterias, centered mainly on comic books, has now spilled over into a fight that could swallow up all of Hollywood. The two comic book titans have taken their rivalry to such a level that the entire film industry lately seems to work around whatever they are doing. There are north of 40 superhero films currently in development. While DC and Marvel aren't responsible for all of them, there's no doubt in anyone's mind that they're the two top dogs battling for supremacy.
The thing is, I think the battle is all ready over. It's done, and Marvel has won. DC, and the fans that are so ready to love their upcoming slate of films, just haven't noticed it yet but this thing is over.
Why? Read on.
I. Who "Gets" It?
When it comes creating a cinematic brand that's going to bring in as much revenue as possible, create a loyal and rabid fan base, and appeal to as large an audience as possible it comes down to one word: Accessibility.
Marvel's films, for all the talk of how "softball" they are with their reliance on humor and gags, clearly understand that they're in the business of family entertainment. They make films that parents can bring their kids and even their own parents to. When you can create something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that a six year old boy and his grandpa can both enjoy for completely different reasons, you know you're onto something. When you put out a trailer that looks, sounds, and feels like this...
...you're clearly not going for families. You're going for 18-34, maybe 18-54. Which is fine. Those are considered key demographics in our industry. But by targeting them, you're also limiting your growth as a brand and as a company. Think about it: When did you first get into these kinds of characters? Were you 18? Or were you more like...8? In my case, I was four.
Making sure that your films appeal to small children means you're hooking people early. You're sinking your claws into them during their formative years and establishing a bond that will likely last well into their adulthood. By, instead, making films that are darker, more violent, and with themes that are more complex and mature, you're basically aiming to appeal to teens and adults who are already fans instead of luring in children and turning them into lifelong supporters. Cause that's the thing, the grown-up fans are going to come regardless when you have names like BATMAN and SUPERMAN in the title. The tricky part is getting people to come that wouldn't normally, and that's something DC doesn't seem to get.
It's why Marvel can take a gamble and put out a film like this:
Guardians of The Galaxy featured a bunch of characters that were virtually unknown to mainstream audiences, played by a cast of actors that hadn't yet become household names, had no obvious ties to the Avengers films, and was directed by someone who's biggest movie up to that point had made $327,716 bucks. Yet Guardians made over $100 million more than this movie:
Man of Steel was marketed heavily as "From The Men Behind The Dark Knight Trilogy," featured SUPERMAN, and a cast filled with names like Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Amy Adams. It also cost $55 million more to make than Guardians, yet it fell short of the Marvel film in every meaningful category: Box office, critical response, and fan reaction.
One was a lighthearted, goofy romp with enough heart and color to attract families. The other was a dark-toned, serious affair that showed a tormented superhero doing a bunch of cool-looking stuff against a bunch of angry, monochromatic bad guys.
Mind you, Man of Steel is the only film in the DC Cinematic Universe so far. I could've put it up against any of Marvel's 11 MCU films released so far, but I chose Guardians because if Superman should've been able to beat any of Marvel's films so far it should've been that one.
So who gets how to make and market a film that'll be a broad success? It's no contest.
DC had their chance when Marvel was in its infancy and people didn't know what to make of Edward Norton's The Incredible Hulk, but now Marvel is a well-oiled machine. Even the ho-hum Thor: The Dark World did comparable numbers to Man of Steel with a smaller budget and far less at stake.
II. Who's Your Daddy?
What adds to the sheer might of these two gladiators is who they have in their respective corners. Make no mistake about it. As much as we try to ignore who the parent companies are, we're looking at two Hollywood institutions that have been around a combined 179 years, and will be here long after we've said our last rationalizations about why Batman would beat Superman in a fight. We're speaking, of course, about Walt Disney and Warner Bros.
These two companies are the wild cards in all of this because they're the ones that'll make sure that this latest escalation of the rivalry has legs. Having these studios as their backers means both sides can sustain major blows and still not go down for the count.
But let's look at the companies themselves. Warner Bros has owned DC since the late 1960s, and the cinematic results of that purchase have been hit-or-miss at best. For every The Dark Knight there's been a Catwoman. For every Superman: The Movie there's been a Green Lantern. For all intents and purposes, in the nearly 50 years that Warner Bros has owned DC they didn't realize what kind of a potential gold mine they had under their noses until they saw what the folks at Marvel Studios were doing.
To look at what Marvel Studios has done in the last eight years since they became their own entity with a unified vision for a shared galaxy of films and TV shows, and contrast it with what Warner Bros has done with the DC property over the last five decades is staggering. The idea that DC is now desperately trying to play catch-up with a rival they had a forty year head start on really kind of says it all about the decision-makers at the two studios.
One other thing to think about when you look at who controls the pursestrings for Marvel and DC is Disney's track record. Disney knows how to build characters. Period. The company knows how to market, build, expand, and showcase specific characters to the point where they become household names. Mickey, Donald, Snow White, Simba, Woody, Nemo, and Dumbo are just a handful of characters that I can pull out of a hat that you can instantly picture in your head as you read their names. That's what Disney does. They turn characters into empires. And now they own Marvel, a company with a legion of three-dimensional characters with decades worth of stories to pull from. It's almost scary to think that they've only owned Marvel for six years.
Just imagine what Marvel and Disney are going to pull off together in the long run.
III. Who's Steering The Ship?
When it comes to Marvel Studios, everyone knows who the man at the top is: Kevin Feige. Even as he's let other big name filmmakers come in like Jon Favreau or, most notably, Joss Whedon come in and help carve out the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, we all know that Feige is the boss. He's the architect. The buck stops at his desk. It's a clout he's earned, since Marvel Studios has released 11 straight films that have turned a profit and turned the company into a global brand that prints money. The 42 year old producer has $8.3 billion in receipts to his name but, most importantly, he always knows just what to say.
Last week, I covered comments of his about the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. In that feature, he said:
"Stakes don’t need to be end of the world. Oftentimes, in our films, it is, and in our future films Thanos doesn’t work small. But sometimes the stakes can just be ‘Will this little girl grow up to be healthy and well put-together, or are there too many issues for her to overcome?’ That’s HUGE! That overrides a threat to reality itself. And I think Spider-Man straddles that line in a fun way in his comics. What we wanted was a movie where the stakes could be as high as ‘This bad person is going to do this bad thing, and a lot of people could die’ OR ‘You don’t get home in time and your aunt is going to figure this out, and your whole life is going to change."
In that quote alone, Feige demonstrates that he understands the nuances of telling a relatable, human story using the larger than life trappings of a comic book character. The medium of comic books has done so well over the years because the stories, powers, and obstacles they described were often allegories for real life, not just pure fantasy.
In another report on Spider-Man, I referred to a quote from the Marvel President, where Feige describes how/why he and the brass chose Jon Watts to direct the reboot:
"It was myself and Amy Pascal and Tom Rothman, and also Jeremy Latcham and Louis D’Esposito at Marvel were involved in that. We met with a lot of people and came down to a couple of very, very, very good final candidates. Jon just—we really liked his movie Cop Car, we met with him four, five, or six times, and each time he had more and more interesting things to say. And at Marvel, it always comes down to ultimately, 'We can make a movie with this person for two years, we could spend almost every day with this person for two years. Let’s go.'"
That's notable because it demonstrates a spirit of collaboration. They didn't go for a "safe" hire. They didn't try to land a big name just for "Wow" factor. They zeroed in on a director whose work they admire, who has something to say with the material, and who they think they can create some special together with. What more could you ask for?
Meanwhile, over at DC they have...well, who do they have? Who's running the show? Where does the buck stop? At one point, with the way Christopher Nolan's name was printed all over Man of Steel, it looked like he might be the Godfather behind Warner's DC plans. Now it looks like Zack Snyder is "the guy." Yet his exact role in DC's master plan, if there is one, is vague at best. He clearly has a lot of pull over there since WB/DC had him call Ezra Miller directly to recruit him to play The Flash for several films. They seem to trust him.
Most of the talent involved with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Justice League film point to Snyder's vision when they talk about those movies. So is he DC's Kevin Feige? Or is he their Joss Whedon? Regardless of how powerful he is, a few things are clear:
- His track record as a filmmaker is spotty. His highest-rated film was the 2004 zombie remake Dawn of The Dead which mustered only a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. His highest-grossing film is Man of Steel which, considering all that it had going for it, should've earned more than it did. And the only of his six features that he ever wrote was the critical and financial flop known as Sucker Punch.
- He doesn't "get" it. Snyder doesn't seem to understand the appeal of the kinds of movies he's being trusted to make. With Man of Steel, he made a dark, uneven film that sparked more debate than it did inspire euphoria. He took a beloved American icon and decided to tell a story where he has to question the cost of his heroism, snap someone's neck, and level most of a city. There was very little joy, very little hope, and very little warmth for a character that's meant to be a symbol of all the good that humanity is capable of.
That second issue remains apparent as we approach Batman v Superman. There's that trailer I used earlier on with all of its grim imagery, the troubling portrayal of Superman, and the idea that Batman and Superman would really want to hurt each other. And there's quotes like this, from Snyder himself:
"I was surprised [by the reaction to the destruction in 'Man of Steel'] because that’s the thesis of Superman for me, that you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences. [...] There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt. That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone? That’s what Watchmen was about in a lot of ways too. There was a scene, that scene where Dan and Laurie get mugged. They beat up the criminals. I was like the first guy, I want to show his arm get broken. I want a compound fracture. I don’t want it to be clean. I want you to go, ‘Oh my God, I guess you’re right. If you just beat up a guy in an alley he’s not going to just be lying on the ground. It’s going to be messy.”
Really, Mr. Snyder? That's what you want viewers to think? That's what you're hoping a kid that went to the movies that day to see Superman save people to think about? This is the foot you want to start DC's expanded universe on and get people excited for Justice League with? This tale of ethics, death, and consequences?
Or this choice quote from Ben Affleck, who's playing Batman:
"One of the things I liked was Zack’s idea of showing accountability and the consequences of violence and seeing that there are real people in those buildings. And in fact, one of those buildings was Bruce Wayne’s building so he knew people who died in that Black Zero event."
Wow. This sounds like so much fun. Sign me up! Will there be action figures of all the dismembered Wayne Enterprises employees, too?
They're just so lost.
As long as Snyder is the "creative mastermind" for DC, and Feige is the architect for Marvel, there's no doubt about the trajectory each of those ships are heading in.
PS. Marvel took a character who was just as uncool, just as square, just as much of an old-fashioned Boy Scout as Superman and somehow managed to make him a hit with audiences. His name is Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. It wasn't rocket science. They kept him pure and made the world and villains around him complex.
IV. What's The Plan?
Say what you will about the way Marvel micromanages their films, sometimes supposedly stifling the creativity of the directors they hired in order to make sure that a film fits into the master plan, but it should be comforting to see that it is just that: A Master Plan.
Marvel, with its Phases, its after-credit sequences that connect dots, and its ironclad release schedule, seems to have a firm belief in what its doing. So far, the results speak for themselves. Just look at what happened when DC announced Batman v Superman for May 6, 2016- a date that Marvel had all ready announced as being the release date for one of their films. Many fans went "Ooh! DC is throwing their weight around. What could Marvel have coming out on that date that could rival BATMAN VS SUPERMAN?!"
Then Marvel revealed it would be the third Captain America, which would be a direct sequel with the same creative team that made The Winter Soldier. Marvel stuck to its guns. They had a plan. That was their date. They were determined to proceed, business as usual, even with DC coming at them with a film called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. DC, through a combination of realizing that Marvel wasn't budging and their own spies likely getting wind that Captain America III was really Captain America: Civil War and would feature an Avengers-level mash-up of superheroes, wisely backed off of the date.
But that's kind of DC's thing, isn't it? They get hot and cold on things and don't seem to have a plan. Man of Steel was billed as a Chris Nolan joint. When that movie didn't do Nolan numbers, his name got scrubbed off of the sequel. They hired Michelle MacLaren to direct Wonder Woman, and then the two sides parted ways a few months later. The Hollywood Reporter once famously exposed that WB/DC's process for developing their movies is leading to uncertainty and chaos behind-the-scenes. They hire multiple writers to work on competing scripts for their already-announced slate of films, with the intent of then picking the "winning" script later on. Problem is, the parameters they give the writers for what they want seemingly keep changing. It leads to frustration, and it adds to a sense that DC is still very much just trying to figure stuff out.
Marvel may bump into trouble from time to time with its filmmakers (see: Jon Favreau and Edgar Wright), but the brand is thriving, the films are successful, and the machine continues to gain momentum. Feige and Co. seem to know exactly what they want, how they need to get there, and where they're hoping to end up.
Their "slow and steady" approach of building up characters in solo films, meticulously putting all the pieces together, and then making an epic film that ties it all together is resonating with audiences. DC's apparent plan, jumping from a solo film directly to a "vs" and then to a massive team-up in the span of three films doesn't seem nearly as destined for success. Especially when all three of those films are helmed by the same guy with the spotty record I dissected earlier on. Those are a lot of eggs inside one rickety basket.
When trying to win a war you need more than soldiers; You need more than weapons; You need a good strategy. This is yet another area where Marvel is wiping the floor with DC.
V. One Universe To Rule Them All
Have you seen Daredevil on Netflix? It's phenomenal. Did watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. add to your experience watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and vice-versa? I bet it did. Wasn't Agent Carter pretty cool? Are you stoked for the rest of the Netflix Marvel slate that includes the rest of The Defenders and now The Punisher? I am. Well, if you agree with any or all of these answers I have great news for you: It's all one shared universe. It all means something! It's not just a bunch of small clusters of stuff that you have to disregard whenever you want to see a movie or other TV show that features characters from that company.
There's a comfort in knowing that Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock could one day pop up in an Avengers movie. It's a comfort that DC fans will never feel. Why? Because DC has made the questionable decision to let their TV and film departments be completely separate from one another. This means that in a few years, assuming that The CW Network's The Flash series is still popular, there'll be a completely different version of The Flash in theaters with a different actor and a completely separate continuity!
And even amongst their TV properties there isn't cohesion. Gotham has nothing to do with Constantine, which has nothing to do with Arrow. But Arrow does have something to do with The Flash, and it seems like only a matter of time before those two characters cross paths with Supergirl who's on CBS. Gotham is poised to introduce a new take on The Joker- a character that Jared Leto is about to bring to life in Suicide Squad- while also building towards a Batman that is not the Batman being played by Ben Affleck.
It's just a mess. And as much as they'd love to have you believe it's because of some sort of company philosophy and that there's a well thought out reason behind it all, it just stems back to issue IV: Poor Planning. I'm sure they'd love to have everything connect in some way, but that would take time to work out and they want money and to cash-in on the superhero craze now. So that's that.
With the buzz created by Daredevil, Marvel has shown that they have yet another pillar built as they construct their empire. Just wait and see how creative the crossovers are going to get one day, when white-hot Marvel TV characters start showing up in Marvel's tentpole movies.
That title is true in two ways:
- The cinematic war between Marvel and DC is over before it even really got started.
- This editorial is over.
Ultimately, I have deemed Marvel the victor. DC may live to fight another day. They may release every film they promised they would, but they will never overtake the throne. Marvel is the King of Hollywood.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Regardless, I know Da7e is going to have something to say about this topic in his official rebuttal on Wednesday. He'll likely make the DC fans out there happy by attempting to act like Rome isn't burning. Me? I'm taking fiddle lessons, so I can skip around as the buildings collapse and hope for a better, smarter DC to rise from the ashes.
I look forward to your reply, good sir!