With a new superhero movie coming out every month, Cormac Lehnen tells us why Marvel are miles ahead of DC’s league.
We’re living in a golden age of superhero films with more comic book characters making their cinematic debuts than ever before. This has led to public scrutiny over the fight between Marvel and DC, with Marvel seemingly coming out on top as DC is often criticised for emphasising spectacle over story and straying too far from the roots of the original, beloved characters. Historically speaking, DC is credited with the invention of superheroes, and arguably boasts a greater cast of more complex and interesting villains such as Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the most famous of them all, the Joker. To explore why the DC comics have consistently faltered on the big screen in recent years further, we may look to its rival for answers.
Cast your mind back to 2008, when within a few months of each other Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight represented Marvel and DC in cinemas respectively, receiving a rapturous reception from both critics and audiences; but Marvel had a plan that was already in action, as Iron Man pioneered Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America; The First Avenger all followed over the next four years and by 2012, The Avengers dominated the box office becoming the highest-grossing film of the year. Its success bears testament to how audiences were invested in the characters and engrossed in their unfolding stories.
By 2013, DC was still playing catch up as it released the first film of its extended universe, Man of Steel. With Watchmen director Zach Snyder on board, the project seemed promising. Although it received mixed reviews, it was a success at the box office. However, within the three years it took for their next release, Marvel had already made five additions to their cinematic universe, including Guardians of the Galaxy and an Avengers sequel. Essentially, DC was missing the opportunity that Marvel saw in world-building. But quality over quantity, right? Maybe this could be forgiven if audiences were being given films that did justice to their favourite superheroes. Maybe 2016 was going to be the year of DC, but then Batman v Superman happened, followed by Suicide Squad which was one of the biggest cinematic let-downs and shock disappointments in recent years. These additions to the DC Extended Universe were heavily panned by critics. Plagued by lacklustre to outright laughable performances, jarring editing choices, and an overall forgettability, Warner Brothers seemed to be digging their DC Universe its grave. By the time Justice League was released in 2017, so little had been done in the way of world-building that the cinematic experience felt thin and audience investment had wavered compared to Marvel who had successfully created a world that felt ‘lived in’.
The Marvel name has also had a few duds in not so distant memory. One need only remember 2015’s Fantastic Four, unfaithful to its comic book roots and plagued by bitter conflict between director Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox. With that said, Disney’s strict formula over its Marvel films runs the risk of creating a cookie-cutter cinematic experience, while although being entertaining and accessible, might limit the scope of filmic possibility.
Going forward for DC, it seems it’s trying to amend some of the criticism it received for overly-relying on the success of "the big three": Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. DC is turning its focus towards stand-alone films like the recent Aquaman, and upcoming Shazam, and Birds of Prey, giving other heroes a chance to shine. Marvel’s future ventures include Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home, all set for 2019 releases- all highly anticipated to be both box office and critical successes.
Now, with a superhero film coming at us from every direction, it really is no question which comic group are the better producers. One cannot deny that DC have created some truly exceptional characters that bounce off the comic book page. However, other than Christopher Nolan, it seems as though no one can do them justice on the big screen. DC’s obsession with creating an aesthetically alluring world full of delinquents, sex and power with absolutely no depth to the narrative or the characters, is just not good enough. As opposed to Marvel, who have portrayed their never-ending string of rounded, empathetic and inspiring characters played by more than able actors who help to rise Marvel to a level of quality DC can’t even see. Marvel do not waste all of their time and energy on guiding money-paying audiences to cinemas, they focus on what happens after the lights go dark and the screen comes on.