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Marvel and DC: The Endless Competition

David Kane ‘15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

There is a war raging between two media titans, and we are caught in the middle to gaze in awe at the spectacular products of their struggle. You know their names: Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

This competition has been going on for decades, beginning in the early 20th century and growing until the pair became casually named the “Big Two” of the comic book industry. These days, the Big Two prefer to place their names next to “Entertainment” rather than “Comics” as they both hope to reach a wider and more diverse audience in the 21st century.

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man.
Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man.

Marvel made the first move, ringing in the new century with X-Men in 2000. Audiences were amazed by the modern take on superheroes and the possibilities that visual effects enabled for their cinematic embodiment. Spider-Man, while done by Sony, followed in 2002, and then X2 in 2003. These names become poster children for Marvel’s colorful collection of characters that would soon flood the theatres for millions of people to enjoy.

DC’s first response to this rising threat was in 2005 when Christopher Nolan kicked off one of the most popular cinematic reboots with Batman Begins.  The Marvel movie that year was Fantastic 4, which flopped at the box office and among fans, allowing DC to make a statement that superhero movies could be complex and nuanced. This message strengthened in Nolan’s sequel, The Dark Knight, three years later. The darker take on a hero’s journey, the violent realism of the Joker, and the political undertones had critics and academics seriously reassessing the genre. The idea was going around that superheroes could make serious cinema, and DC was at its forefront. It seemed DC had taken several strides past Marvel with just one character in theatres.

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man.

Marvel was hard-pressed to stand up to this development. In the years following Batman Begins, their champion franchises were floundering with lackluster installments such as Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. But they were just getting started. The same summer that The Dark Knight amazed fans and critics, Marvel released the first film in a fresh new franchise: Iron Man.

While not as “world-changing” as Batman’s war on crime, Tony Stark’s introduction pleased many fans and promised a great many fun sequels. The big moment, however, came after the credits, when Samuel L. Jackson’s voice could be heard from the shadows and those two words were uttered that changed everything: “Avengers Initiative.”

Jump ahead six years and take a look at the lineup of theatrical releases in the summer of 2014: we have the second Captain America film, a seventh X-Men movie, the sequel to the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, and the first iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which will connect to the Avengers sequel, slated for release in 2015.

Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth in The Avengers. Photo Courtesy of Marvel.
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth in The Avengers. Photo Courtesy of Marvel.

Within those six years, Marvel has made an indelible mark on the direction of film. It was inconceivable that one movie could feature a team of characters each collected from their own franchises of movies. In 2012, Marvel appropriately blew everyone’s minds by pulling it off in The Avengers. There was no going back after that. The war had exploded, and the stakes had been drastically raised.

The newly dubbed Marvel Cinematic Universe spans various genres. The Iron Man films feature science-fiction technology used to fight modern day terrorism. The Incredible Hulk’s pays homage to the fugitive drama in the 70s TV series of the same name. Thor is an action-fantasy adventure that introduces magic and other worlds into the fray. Captain America: The First Avenger is a rollicking period flick in the vein of The Rocketeer.  Marvel Studios collected all of these heroes and pitted them against a grand threat to Earth in The Avengers, which starts off an entirely new franchise that will feature the eponymous super-squad in every installment. Marvel skyrocketed the expectation of the superhero genre the same year that Christopher Nolan capped off his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. DC had a lot of work on its hands if it wanted to get back on top without the help of Batman.

Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

In the years leading up to the Avengers explosion, DC had a few flops of their own: Jonah Hex and Green Lantern. These attempts at making a movie sans the Caped Crusader did not go very well, and DC seemed to grow paranoid and hesitant to crawl out of the Batcave.

Many people thought DC’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be an equally ambitious network of films that mirror DC’s already famous comic book mythos that constantly deals with alternate realities. But rather than hire some other badass actor to ominously say “Justice League” from the shadows of the fortress of solitude, DC kept it straightforward in 2013. Man of Steel, their first post-Batman venture, sought to redefine the character that started the company all those decades ago with mixed results from fans and critics.

While the film did well enough to get people excited for its very publicized sequel, it hasn’t been enough to push DC ahead of its competitor. Marvel’s “phase two” has been a wild success with several movies cranked out each year. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were hefty competition for Superman’s first flight (not counting all those others), and they generated more buzz for the coming storm of Marvel movies that will populate the rest of phase two and onward to phase three.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: The Dark World. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Marvel.
Chris Hemsworth in Thor: The Dark World. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Marvel.

It seems that Marvel has left DC in the dust, and that might very well be true, but only for the moment. The executives that refuse to make a Wonder Woman movie can very well make it back on top if they make smart choices in these next few years. Choices like making a Wonder Woman movie before Marvel beats them to the punch with Black Widow. With the Batman vs. Superman movie still a distant dream, DC has its current sights aimed at the audience through the lens of many other media, namely comic books and television.

The continuity overhaul in 2011—The New 52—has been a generally successful attempt to garner new fans and reinvigorate old ones. The company also has a glowing history on television with Batman and Superman each getting his own animated series on WB and teaming up on two Justice League shows. Smallville had been the only live-action superhero-based TV series since 2001, before Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. expanded the Marvel universe on ABC. DC seems insistent on keeping the title with Arrow going into its second season and Gotham scheduled for later in 2014. They’ve even corned the market on superhero video games, with the Arkham franchise beating out any Marvel owned title.

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo Credit: Marvel.
Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo Credit: Marvel.

The DC Universe Animated Original Movies project created by Warner Bros. Animation has been a huge hit with fans since the first film was released on DVD in 2007. The direct-to-video movies are based on popular stories from the comic books and have been self-contained until this year; DC plans to connect two of the three films per year following the 2014 release of Justice League: War, which is the first animated movie to be based on a New 52 storyline. This will be their practice session for an interlocking movie universe starring a fully formed Justice League. If they get it right, fans can look forward to the live-action one.

As Marvel cranks out movies every year like clockwork, bolstering their universe, DC entrenches the audience in content from every direction before planning to mirror it on the silver screen. The battle rages on, each side trailblazing a new world of entertainment fans had only dreamed of. The brand new trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy has masses of people gearing up for an action-packed summer that will launch us further into the era of the film where the superhero is king. Avengers are invading our streets left and right, and the Justice League plots its future reign from a faraway planet.

The outcome of the war is uncertain; DC and Marvel seem destined to be at each other’s throats for eternity. But as their battle blows out across the world for all to see, one this is certain: any fan of comic books will feel right at home in movie theatres for years to come.

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