Over the past 5 years, Marvel has made an absolute killing at the box office, bringing in over $5 billion dollars in revenue from critical and commercial successes such as Iron Man (2008), Captain America (2011), and The Avengers (2012). Marvel, which once put out duds such as Daredevil and Elektra, is now a well-oiled machine, pumping out hit after hit. Their momentum is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, with Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man all coming out in the next couple of years.
DC, despite having the greatest comic book film adaptation of all time in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, has not much else to be proud of. Green Lantern (2011) was a bomb, and Man of Steel (2013) was critically panned, only bringing in $648 million at the box office (compared to the $1.2 billion Iron Man 3 raked in). Trying to catch up with Marvel’s success, DC has announced a Man of Steel sequel that will also feature Batman, a movie for The Flash, and a Justice League movie for 2017. However, the DC universe faces a set of unique challenges in bringing its characters to the big-screen, let alone a full-blown Justice League movie.
Why the disparity?
The answer has to do with the inherent differences between Marvel and DC characters. Marvel heroes tend to be more “human” and grounded, making it easier for audiences to connect with them. It’s easy to relate to characters like Peter Parker (a nerd who’s been bullied nearly his whole life), a member of the X-Men (considered an outsider by society), or even Tony Stark (who was an alcoholic at one point). Traditionally, Marvel is darker and more pessimistic in tone than DC, focusing on character drama.
DC, on the other hand, focuses more on symbolism. It has heroes who embody archetypes or ideals that generally set them apart from the rest of society. DC’s characters are essentially paragons; for example, Superman stands for patriotism, and Batman represents pure, unadulterated justice. Also, DC characters are extremely powerful, almost like Gods. In the Justice League, you have three characters that are indestructible (Superman, Wonder Woman, and Martian Manhunter). Green Lantern has the most powerful weapon in the universe on his finger, while The Flash moves so quickly that the rest of the world literally seems frozen to him. And of course, you have Batman as the greatest tactical mind on the planet. In a film setting, it’s difficult to come up with a realistic threat for them that doesn’t seem completely ridiculous. Just watch Man of Steel, in which the city of Metropolis gets wrecked. Can you imagine the amount of damage in a Justice League movie? To match the Justice League, you generally need at least one villain each per hero. Of course, if you have a Lex Luthor or a Darksied, that’s not necessairly true. But in general, it’s easier for the Avengers because there are a few villains capable of matching the entire team, and they all had their own films to introduce them beforehand to the non-comic book reading audience.
You also have to look at the history of the two companies to understand why the two universes differ. DC has more Golden Age (late 1930s to early 1950s) characters, who come from their own separate worlds. With the introduction of Silver Age (mid 50s to early 70s) character, DC introduced a parallel Earth (“Earth-2") to explain how their Golden-age counterparts could co-exist. In addition, pre-existing characters (Shazam and Plastic Man for example) were obtained and folded in as though they had been there all along. Lastly, let’s not forget the Vertigo corner or the Fourth world. The end result of all this is a sloppy, but magnificent kludge. The beauty is, somehow, the DC Universe still works.
Marvel, on the other hand, is a carefully constructed house by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a few others in the early/mid 60s. A few Golden Age characters were brought back from obscurity (most notably Captain America), but for the most part, Marvel Universe characters come from the same litter. If Marvel were to get back the rights to Spider-Man and X-Men tomorrow, it wouldn’t seem out of place for Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine to be in the next Avengers. Meanwhile, trying to come up with a plausible, fictional universe that fits Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman seems like juggling chainsaws.
Hiring the Right Talent
Marvel’s best move was perhaps choosing Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark/Iron Man. Not only is RDJ perfect for the role, he is also the main reason the movie succeeded. Until RDJ’s rendition, he was always seen as a B-list hero within the Marvel universe,rather than the genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist he really is (Iron Man’s popularity now rivals that of Spider-Man’s). Marvel also hires directors who are fan favorites and long-time comic book fans themselves. Joss Whedon, for example, was a natural choice for the Avengers after his work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Anthony and Joe Russo, co-directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier are big fans of the Winter Soldier storyline, and had their script praised by Ed Brubaker, the man responsible for the original source material. Although DC found success with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern was a completely unenthusiastic interpretation while Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel was over-the-top and lacked character development. Thus, a large part of Marvel’s success is due to the fact that they hire people who know how to keep core fans happy, because well, they’re fans too.
How It Could Work
DC finds itself in an interesting position. Christopher Nolan has explicitly stated that he wishes his trilogy to be self-contained, and not part of any larger, shared universe. Christian Bale has also stated that he will not return as Batman unless specifically asked by Nolan to do so. And I agree. Conceptually, Nolan’s/Bale’s Batman would fit in with the Dark Knight Returns story arc Snyder’s team has been looking into, but artistically it would not. This makes the Dark Knight Trilogy untouchable for DC, so they have to re-do casting and the origin story for Batman (UPDATE: It has just been announced that Ben Affleck has been cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman for the Man of Steel sequel). Green Lantern was a dud, so the question remains whether or not to bring back Ryan Reynolds for consistency, or to re-do the origin story completely with a new actor. And of course, it still remains to be seen how well a Flash or Wonder Woman movie will do.
All of these uphill challenges aside, DC still has enough cards to play a decent hand. After all, DC has better writing (ex. Paul Dini), and is far more successful than Marvel in animated TV and movies (Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League). Nolan’s trilogy set a precedent on what works, Green Lantern established what doesn’t, and Man of Steel was somewhere in between. Snyder and co. have hopefully learned some lessons by this point. I think if Snyder’s team plays with the Justice League Lineup (Green Arrow, Cyborg would be excellent choices), and de-powers/grounds their characters (similar to how Nolan was able to ground characters like Scarecrow, Joker, and Bane), a Justice League movie can work. Warner Bros. needs to let DC do their own thing, just like Disney lets Marvel do their own thing. Hire the right people with the right ideas, and give them autonomy. I do think they’re making a mistake in introducing Batman in the next Man of Steel movie though. Since Batman’s more of a part-timer anyway, they should wait until the Justice League movie itself to introduce him. That being said, perhaps this might be an opportunity for Synder to hand over the reins to Affleck (who is an absolute brilliant film-maker).
As a long-time comic book fan, it’s a dream come true to see all these big-screen adaptations coming out. The next few years will be sure to produce blockbuster hits, and I’m stoked for that, regardless of whether they come from Marvel or DC. Shazam !
UPDATE (1/31/2014): Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor….DC has no idea what they’re doing. Shocked and surprised; STOP THE MADNESS!