For anyone who doesn’t know, DC Comics is the home of superheroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Aquaman, which comprise a part of The Justice League of America. Marvel has properties like Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four and so on. It’s far too easy to assume that everyone would know that, so I had to get it out of the way.
DC has been owned by parent company Warner Brothers since the 1970’s while Marvel retained a self-ownership until it was sold to Disney just a few years ago. Both companies publish comic books with larger-than-life superheroes, but it wasn’t until the past decade or so that the technology has caught up with much of what would be required to do films for both the companies. The obvious exceptions would be the Superman and Batman franchises. For Marvel, there were a number of false starts like Howard the Duck, Captain America (direct-to-video), The Fantastic Four from 1994, which was never released and only filmed so New Horizons could hold onto its ownership, and The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, which was actually kind of good.
The few DC properties that released in the 1990’s were largely horrible missteps on the behalf of the filmmakers and the studio. In 1987, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was only distributed by Warner Brothers, had a horrible release that barely kept it in theaters for an entire week. The budget was a measly $17 million and it only made back $11 million. But we soon had a quality Batman film, yet that franchise went further and further downhill until the 1997 release of Batman & Robin, which is infamous for being one of the worst takes on the legend ever. That same year we had Shaquille O’Neal as Steel, but that was a major removal from its comic book origins and only made back 10% of its budget at the box office.
Essentially, the superhero movie genre looked like it was dying out. Perhaps the audiences just didn’t need heroes any more. At the same time, the comic book companies were experiencing a similar decline partly due to the loss of the speculator market that had fueled them through the 80’s and 90’s. Marvel, which was self-publishing at the time, nearly went under and had to change its line-up in a major way. Although to be fair, both companies were experiencing plenty of success in their animation departments.
Marvel in the 21st Century
The first serious comeback for a comic book property in film was Blade in 1998, although many moviegoers failed to even recognize it as an existing comic book property. Marvel first introduced the character as a jive-talking half Vampire in Marv Wolfman’s “The Tomb of Dracula” in 1973. The film was a something of a departure from the comics even though the basics of his origin remained similar. David Goyer (Batman Begins/Dark Knight franchise screenwriter) did a great job with the script and it maintained a gritty darkness and seriousness that films like Batman & Robin were failing to encompass.
The various franchises from both companies got a major kick in the pants when the Bryan Singer directed X-Men hit theaters in the summer of 2000. Not only did it have a real budget ($75 million), it had a real cast of talented actors including well-established thespians like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Part of the film’s success was due to telling a great story with even greater character development, but Singer gets a lot of credit for holding largely true to the comic book origins of the team members. Sure there were tweaks and changes like the leather jumpsuits that replaced the colorful spandex from the four-color pages, but that only benefited the verisimilitude of the film. Due to the comic book treatments of the 1990’s, in the fall of 2000 a friend of mine described X-Men as “Way better than it had any right to be.”
X-Men led to two sequels and two prequels, all of which were box office successes, although different studios were working on different franchises. In 2002, Sony’s Columbia Pictures released the first of three Spider-Man films. Again, these productions had serious budgets and a creative team that largely paid attention to the comic book origins with a few alterations. Whether or not those changes worked really depend upon the individual, especially hot-button topics like organic web-shooters, Green Goblin’s mask and climax with Mary Jane replacing Gwen Stacy from a famous comic book moment.
After that, Marvel properties experienced varying success with Ang Lee’s take on The Hulk, two Fantastic Four films, Daredevil, with an Elektra spinoff, two Ghost Rider movies and so on. The one thing that seemed to guarantee a films success was simply following the origin story with relative closeness and taking only the liberties that were absolutely necessary.
DC in the 21st Century
Warner Brothers stumbled into the 2000’s with their comic book properties. Once X-Men and Spider-Man proved that comic book superheroes could indeed have a future as film properties, WB released Catwoman in 2004. It seemed as though the studio had largely missed the reason why Marvel movies were so successful. Catwoman was without a doubt one of the biggest departures from its source material and was impossible to take seriously. With a budget even larger than X-Men, it was a monumental failure, but fortunately, Warner Brothers was already developing a new Batman Franchise with a visionary director at the helm.
Christopher Nolan made the studio a lot of money with the first two Batman films. The third, The Dark Knight Rises, will hit theaters this summer and we can expect some of the highest box office returns in history. But they still seem to stumble from time to time. Superman Returns was not a failure, but it was hardly the success that was hoped for and would have warranted a sequel. Watchmen held fairly close to its comic book roots. However Jonah Hex was another that was largely altered from the original and consequently made only a quarter of its budget back at the box office. Green Lantern may have proven itself to be the exception to the rule because it’s possible that his origin story may have been just a little too close (and consequently too complicated) for audiences to accept. I still enjoyed it, but I have to wonder if my knowledge of the character, especially after 2004’s Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries, might have helped me like it more than I can be objective about. Sadly, it just barely made it’s budget back in the worldwide box office.
Who Has the Better Films Now?
WINNER – Marvel. Most comic book superhero fans will pick one of the “Big Two” companies over the other and I’ve always considered myself a “DC.” That’s largely because I’ve been such a big Superman fan my entire life. But with the recent Avengers film franchises like Iron Man I & II, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and the excitement surrounding the team film, The Avengers, Marvel clearly has a serious edge. Plus there’s the new Amazing Spider-Man film later this summer.
Right now, DC has a very successful Batman franchise that is apparently coming to a complete end with its third installment, and we can only hope that Man of Steel will be a huge accomplishment when it comes out in 2013. Many of their properties have had false starts, like the Justice League movie that was bandied about years ago, The Flash which would have been written by David Goyer, or Wonder Woman which was have been directed by Joss Whedon. And let’s not even get started about the 20 variations that both the Superman and Batman franchises have proposed over the years. But at the same time, we don’t have to excuse Spider-Man from going through similar development issues until Sam Raimi took the reins for the 2002 film.
Who Has a Harder Job Turning Comics into Films?
WINNER – DC. I’m not saying that Marvel should rest on its laurels, and they haven’t. They have put top-notch directors in the chairs and paid a pretty penny to get the most talented actors and storytellers behind their most recent films. But that’s not why they usually have an easier job of it.
DC has historically had the higher comic book sales and the most recognized characters from all the way back to the late 1930’s and 1940’s. For a while, the only regular superhero books on the stands were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman titles. But when Stan Lee created most of these popular Marvel characters in the 1960’s, he built serious flaws in their core characteristics. The Fantastic Four often didn’t get along personally. The Hulk was always wrestling with his duality and being chased by the Army. Spider-Man had numerous personal and human problems that made it harder to be a hero, and even then his hero side was thought of as a villain by the general public. And so on. What Stan Lee created in the 60’s was already set up for commercial success in film, which certainly helps, especially when writers and directors hold true to what has already been proven to be successful.
The DC characters of the 1960’s and even onward had very few human frailties. Both sides had god-like heroes, but even Batman was a virtually unstoppable force. Frankly, Marvel had more to offer an adult audience. Before Batman was brought back to his “Dark Knight roots in the late 60’s he was still having fantastic adventures and fighting aliens in space ships while sometimes even wearing rainbow costumes.
That’s not to say that DC can’t recreate their characters in effective ways. In their cases, perhaps some level of departure from the source material is warranted, but it needs to be good and not so far from its origins that we end up with Catwoman.
Who Has the Better Chance of Success?
Winner – Tie. There is nothing to stop DC from improving their films. Batman has had amazing success and we can only hope that Man of Steel will follow a similar degree of it. Green Lantern is unlikely to see a sequel and that could actually hurt the potential of a Justice League franchise. With a major studio like Warner Brothers and the still-new "DC Entertainment," there are sure to be more announcements soon.
Still, Marvel is in the lead both with the movies they have recently released and the excitement around their upcoming productions like Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, a new Hulk, and the already inevitable Avengers 2. Of course there’s also a new Spider-Man franchise starting up, talks about continuing the X-Men prequels, a new take on Fantastic Four and still more. Just don’t discount DC yet. There’s too much up in the air and DC has just as good a chance as Marvel in the long run.
What are your favorite comic book films? What would you like to see Marvel and DC announce next?