To borrow a line from the jaded antihero of a recent $250 million-plus blockbuster, superhero movies are like weeds. Pull one up—or let it die a grisly death from crushing reviews or worse, an anemic box office take—and another one is green-lit in its place.
Occasionally, the most lucrative cinematic genre in Hollywood also flowers and blooms, spawning multiverses whose superpowered heroes and heroines return to save the world each summer. Such is the hit parade of mostly wins we’ve seen from Marvel in the last eight years, a trend pretty much guaranteed to continue next week when Disney unleashes Captain America: Civil War, the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As Civil War arrives in theaters with already-glowing reviews so soon on the heels of Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s impossible not to compare the two spring volleys from rivals Marvel and DC. But in today’s two-party system of studio superhero franchising, why is DC so far behind in the game it’s been playing for half a century?
Hopes were high among moviegoers and execs leading into March, when WB touted the biggest showdown in superhero history—Batman and Superman, iconic characters in their own right, facing off in a Man of Steel sequel that would launch DC’s own sprawling version of the MCU. Alas: The result was overly serious, forced, a real hot mess, and not much fun.
The Zack Snyder-directed pic has grossed $851 million worldwide to date, sure. But it notably failed in China, scoring a $57 million opening weekend despite an opening day and date with the U.S. in the key overseas market—well under its $70 million expectation and a fraction of the $155 million opening Avengers: Age of Ultron enjoyed over six days after a record-breaking $33.9 million Tuesday start there last year. And with a $250 million price tag and an estimated additional $150 million in marketing spend, even that monumental global take falls short of the home run WB hoped for.
Your average superfan’s mileage will vary, of course. But last month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice disappointment proved one undeniable truth to DC and Warner Bros., who are now reportedly forced to consider cutting back on their slate: You can’t rush a multibillion-dollar idea.
Comicdom’s two biggest competitors have been locked in a heated rivalry for decades, splitting the loyalties of fans that only have room in their hearts for one house or the other. The Marvel-DC divide is one so legendary, the companies acknowledged it in a rare 1996 crossover limited series pitting the best heroes of their respective stables against one another: Namor vs. Aquaman. Storm vs. Wonder Woman. Hulk vs. Superman. And, yes… Captain America vs. Batman.
Gotham’s Dark Knight won that battle two decades ago, but the frenemies parted with a grudging mutual respect. And after spending decades dominating the superhero movie business with their Superman and Batman films, respectively, it was DC who had the hits under their belt while Marvel’s film interests were scattered across multiple studios.
But sometimes salvation zooms from the skies in a mechanized suit. That’s what Iron Man did in 2008 for Marvel, then partnered with studio distributor Paramount, when it blasted into uncharted territory and turned a previously non-marquee comics character into the linchpin of a 22-film cinematic universe. Thanks in part to a fresh approach and the infectious charm of star Robert Downey Jr., film audiences clamored for more. Marvel eventually mapped out an ambitious course of connected films that would carry them through 2012, then 2015, and then all the way to 2019.
DC, meanwhile, had already established a hugely successful home in the new millennium for its cinematic output at Warner Bros. The studio was onto something when it released Batman Begins in 2005, ushering in the Christopher Nolan era of serious comic book cinema 39 years after 20th Century Fox first sent Adam West’s Batman out on his much goofier 1966 major motion picture debut.
Two months after Iron Man opened in the summer of 2008, WB’s The Dark Knight reigned supreme at the box office. Not only did it bring the superhero niche its most critically lauded acclaim to date—eight Oscar nominations and two wins—it scored over $1 billion on its way to winning the entire year in movies, regardless of genre. The Nolan method worked—for the studio and fans alike. Until it didn’t. 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises brought some relief at the end of a run of embarrassing stumbles for WB and DC: 2009’s polarizing Watchmen, 2010’s unwatchable Jonah Hex, and 2011’s all-around disappointment Green Lantern.
But by then, the folks over at Marvel had already successfully launched an Iron Man sequel, three standalones, and its first Avengers movie with designs on an unprecedented, expansive universe of interconnected superhero films. And their long-game strategy paid off.
“Marvel knew how insane its ambition was to create a shared movie universe, so they slow-rolled it, creating movies with their own distinct identities, gradually introducing more characters,” one comic book writer who’s written for both DC and Marvel told me.
Caught playing catch-up as the Marvel boom took off, DC scrambled to jump ahead without laying a similar institutional foundation: “DC went berserk, cramming literally every character they had into their second film and making an unholy mess. They’re terrified of looking like they’re so far behind,” the writer added.
Marvel, of course, has long had Kevin Feige to quarterback its expansive MCU, which unlike DC’s extended film and TV interests shares its canonical universe with its small screen properties like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, and Agents of SHIELD. In the post-Christopher Nolan era, DC left it to Snyder and a team of studio execs to chart the future of WB’s superhero franchise and play catch-up to Marvel without taking the time to establish a comparable foundation.
Instead of building out a new vision of their extended cinematic universe over 13 films and adjacent television shows, DC tried to fast forward to the big show with an ambitious slate accelerated by BvS—the build-up to their two-part superteam tentpole Justice League, their version of The Avengers. That gamble might have paid off more if BvS had been a better and more coherent movie that invested in its heroes as fully-written characters instead of relying on their iconic brands to carry viewers through.
Instead, it was a post-9/11 brawn-off between two beloved heroes acting like children, stubbornly beating each other over a conflict that existed only as a plot turn to kickstart a franchise. BvS got slugged by critics for its distinct aversion to fun, a solemn streak that star Ben Affleck championed to EW before the film opened, comparing it to Marvel’s more lighthearted and fantastical offerings with a hint of shade: “Just by their nature, these films can’t be as funny or as quick or as glib as Marvel movies.”
WB saw what worked before and doubled-down on the gloom and doom in BvS—it helped Batman Begins change the superhero game, after all—but for better or worse, added the operatic flair of Snyder’s hyper-bombastic style and a surplus of weightless and repetitive CG. As a result, BvS is brimming with a kind of exhaustingly beefed-up, straight-faced Snyder signature that Erik Abriss nails over at Complex:
“Crossfit replaced the Cheetos and the beta bros became alpha assholes.... And under Snyder’s watch, Superman went from the relatively scrawny Abercrombie and Fitch physique of Brandon Routh to the Crossfit lumberjack frame of Henry Cavill,” Abriss writes. “There’s a reason why so many of Snyder’s movies spawn work out trends. He glorifies violence and physicality and masculine muscularity while trying—to varying degrees of success—to condemn it thematically, ultimately making traumatic imagery look ‘cool.’”
Marvel, on the other hand, has largely tapped directors of a more eclectic variety to put their stamps on stories that re-envision familiar comic book heroes as men and women of the 21st century—beloved eccentric Joss Whedon chief among them. In the Avengersverse, heroes have senses of humor and real world consequences other than post-9/11 broad strokes to wrestle with, from Edward Snowden parallels to SHIELD’s downfall to the sustained commentaries on the military-industrial complex that begin in the first Iron Man and carry over through Captain America: Civil War.
Not that Marvel hasn’t made its share of missteps (looking at you, The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, and yes, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and messes (hello, Black Widow). Then again, they’ve had a dozen opportunities to learn from their mistakes. But WB is already locked into an accelerated course toward Justice League and, perhaps more problematically, “nobody in comics likes the Snyder movies,” asserted the aforementioned comic book writer. “They are abominations to comic book people.”
A little levity and left-field insanity might be just what the WB-DC films need. The companies are already committed to at least 10 more announced DC films already slated through 2020, including the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman standalone, Snyder’s Justice League Part One, and the James Wan-directed Aquaman. Despite reported reshoots, ordered either to add more fun or more action depending on who you ask, August’s David Ayer-helmed Suicide Squad promises to give the DC universe a much-needed jolt of energy.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. announced at CinemaCon that Batfleck himself will direct his next undated standalone, to the delight and relief of Bat-fans. But is Affleck either the director the DCU needs or the one it deserves—and by the time we even get to that Bat-sequel, will the studio have worked out its kinks?