The CBM Wars: Marvel v DC
By Ian Wilson
29 November 2007 — Back in the day, DC could do little wrong when it came to publicizing their major characters through the medium of film. The Superman franchise is still held in high regard today, whereas the 90s Batman franchise grossed over $1.25 billion at the box office. Whilst those films were hitting, Marvel was releasing hilarious low-budget versions of The Punisher, Captain America and The Fantastic Four, following the big budget bomb that was Howard the Duck. But now Marvel's films are released thick and fast whilst DC release one or two a year. What happened?
Nowadays, comic book movies are a staple of the film industry. This year alone has seen seven films released that have been based upon comic books or graphic novels, following the more usual trend of about four a year. Three of these alone are recognizable Marvel properties — Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider — whereas DC can only tenuously claim one film this year, the Neil Gaiman graphic novel Stardust. Hardly the most well-known DC property, even if the film is bloody good. So why isn't DC keeping up these days? Where are their franchises? And how did they fall behind Marvel after dominating the genre in the 1980s and 90s?
DC Comics had the advantage of dabbling in other media before their crosstown rivals. As early as the 1950s DC had their marquee icon on television with the Adventures of Superman series, starring George Reeves. It was a live action romp that steered clear of using villains from the comics, such as Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Nevertheless, the show ran for six year and spawned 104 episodes, paving the way for its 60s successor. For better or worse, the Adam West Batman series is ingrained on the popular consciousness. It meant that everyone knew about Batman, Robin, the Joker and the rest of Batman's colorful rogues. It would take decades for the franchise to dispel the campy slant, but the show did establish Batman as a national, if not international icon.
This isn't to say Marvel wasn't finding other outlets for their creations outside the comics. The late 1960s saw cartoons being made of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and an umbrella series that featured a different Marvel hero each day: covering Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Namor and the Incredible Hulk. And as DC used the 70s to showcase Wonder Woman in a live action TV series, Marvel debuted the famed Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man live action programs. But as this was happening, DC went one better.
In 1978 the Man of Steel got his own movie, which really gave birth to the proverbial comic book movie. Starring the classically trained unknown Christopher Reeve as the titular character, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as a wacky Lex Luthor, Superman: The Movie was a critical and commercial success and is still held in very high regard. This ensured that Superman would become a franchise — indeed, both Superman and Superman II were filmed back-to-back and only saw a break when Richard Donner was replaced halfway through the second film by Richard Lester. Whilst the first two films were regarded highly, subsequent DC films were less well-received. A film version of Swamp Thing, helmed by a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, was not hugely commercially successful, leading to a lower budget sequel some seven years later without Craven but with Heather Locklear. Troubles were brewing in the Superman franchise as well as the third film focused heavily on comedian Richard Pryor, and the fourth film was made on a reduced budget. The 1984 spin-off Supergirl was similarly awful.
If ever there were a time for Marvel to leap in and seize the advantage, it was the mid-to-late 80s. So in 1986, with an estimated budget of $37 million and production courtesy of Lucasfilm and Universal Pictures, Howard the Duck was made.
Howard. The. Duck.
A PG film using loose interpretations of two of Steve Gerber's characters, the film grossed a bit more than Superman IV: A Quest for Peace (which had been made on a lesser budget of $17 million) but was widely regarded as a huge flop. Following that were hilarious low-budget versions of The Punisher, Captain America and The Fantastic Four. Their characters would instead receive more prominence in cartoons a few years later.
At the time, Batman was finally being put into production, after many years in development. Helmed by Tim Burton, who had notched up a couple of hit films under his belt, Batman was returning to the character's dark origins, erasing the image of Adam West dancing from our minds. Despite the controversy of casting the largely comedic actor Michael Keaton in the title role and the hemming and hawing that went on before Jack Nicholson agreed to portray the Joker, Batman was a phenomenal success. The highest grossing film of 1989, the film made over $250 million in America alone and won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Whilst the fans were generally happy that Batman had been so established by this film, there were rumblings of discontent at how it was supposedly The Joker who killed Bruce Wayne's parents and Batman attempted to kill people onscreen, with the chemical plant explosion undoubtedly showing that Batman had blood on his hands. But what of it? DC and Warner Bros. had a new franchise to cover the stunted Superman series.
Burton's Batman would continue with Batman Returns, pitting the Caped Crusader against a deformed Penguin and a mentally unbalanced Catwoman. The film was again a financial success, although not to the same extent, and the consensus that the film was too dark would have grave implications for the series. Was the film too dark? It was certainly more so than the first film, and the fate of the Ice Princess, if not Max Shreck, prompted reviews of this being overly dark and sadistic. So, with Burton no longer wanting to direct, that cleared the way for both Robin, whom Warner Bros. had wanted in as early as the first film, and a new, more kiddy-orientated director in Joel Schumacher. Because obviously a franchise revolving around a guy dressing up as a six foot bat is perfectly tailored to children, but I digress. The next film in the franchise would be Batman Forever, which replaced the Gothic architecture and monochrome visuals for color and fluorescent cosmetics. There would be another villain team-up to take on the new alliance of Batman and the Boy Wonder: Jim Carrey's Riddler and Two-Face, as "portrayed" by Tommy Lee Jones. With a new Batman in Val Kilmer, continuity was ensured only by the presence of Alfred Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. The film got mixed reviews; personally, I have a soft spot for it, but there are obvious flaws within it. Then again, Batman Forever would look like Citizen Kane compared to what would come next in the franchise. The one event that would see Marvel regain ground in the CBM wars without trying.
If you don't know the film I'm talking about, I'm very sorry to have to inform you of its existence. If you've ever watched Batman: The Animated Series, and lauded over their portrayals of Mr. Freeze, Bane or even Poison Ivy, you'd have probably had high hopes for a film that featured all of them. And hey, how could anyone get Batgirl wrong when a cartoon series introduced her decently enough in a 20-minute episode? Well, the answer to your question is Batman and Robin, the Enron of movie franchises.
And I'll pick this film apart another time. All you need to know is that it killed not just this franchise, but also DC properties being used as films. Warner Bros. had released another DC-based flop in Steel; one of the central characters in the Superman comics following the Doomsday storyline was made into a vehicle for Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA. With two such gruesome failures, it took five years until another DC-related film was produced (the Tom Hanks gangster film Road to Perdition). Barely a year after the flops of 1997, a big screen adaptation of Marvel's Blade series was released. But Marvel disassociated themselves from the film as it came out; aside from a Stan Lee cameo that was edited out from the final cut, there is little to suggest Marvel had any confidence in the film at all. And more fool on them, because not only was it a surprisingly good movie, it was a moderately successful movie as well — which was pretty big for Marvel at the time. This inspired them to push out some other chaps for the big screen.
The comic book movie renaissance started in 2000, and make no mistake that it was Marvel that implemented it. X-Men, the film released that year, was a bigger success, bringing actors like Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin and Ian McKellen to prominence whilst bringing in much mullah. If that wasn't encouraging enough, the next film slated for production would star the Marvel icon, Spider-Man. Helmed by respected cult director Sam Raimi and starring one of the best young actors of his generation in Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man looked phenomenal on paper. In practice, it was even better than that. It made more than one and half times as much money as Batman, becoming the highest grossing film of 2002, beating entries in the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises. X-Men and Spider-Man were now made franchises, whilst Blade II continued to perform strongly. On the other hand, Road to Perdition grossed less than Adam Sandler vehicle Mr. Deeds. Marvel was ruling the roost, although they were about to become disappointed.
That's not to say DC overtook them; on the contrary, the Sean Connery-led League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a domestic flop and critically panned, and deservedly so. No, what was a bigger bother for Avi Arad and Co. was other films based on their properties not being welcomed as movie liberators. In 2003, X2 was a big hit, both commercially and critically. But the summer release had been reserved for Hulk, making his non TV-based film debut. The film was $5 million short of making a domestic profit and received mixed reviews, despite having Ang Lee, Jennifer Connolly and Eric Bana involved in the film. Now that isn't altogether bad in terms of performance — Hulk grossed more than films like Superman II, The Mask and the other Marvel disappointment that X2 was sandwiched between: Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck. 2003 wasn't a year then for successful new franchises in the eyes of Marvel studios, and 2004 was more of the same. Spider-Man 2 was marginally less commercially successful than its predecessor, but received even better write-ups than the first. In that same year, Marvel tried to launch a franchise based around The Punisher, but that too did poorly — when John Travolta is your bad guy, something's wrong. With the Blade trilogy rounding off in this year, Marvel was running out of ideas whilst DC were starting to produce comic book movies once more.
It was becoming clear that the more movies released in the Marvel name, the more chance there was of money to be made and the characters themselves to gain more exposure in the comic world. I mean, can you think of any other reason for Marvel to make Man-Thing? So DC upped their ante and put more films into production. The first came in 2004, making Halle Berry, who was already notable as the X-Men's Storm, don the guise of Catwoman. Not as Selina Kyle or anyone even remotely connected to the Batman universe — just the guise of Catwoman. The film was terrible and gave the Academy Award-winning Berry (which hurts to type, by the way) a Razzie award. Luckily for DC, Marvel started off 2005 by dropping the ball horribly with Elektra, where Jennifer Garner was contractually obliged to reprise her supporting role in Daredevil as an ass-kicking assassin. That film tanked, so the race was on to produce the best comic book movie of 2005. With momentum still in Marvel's corner, they managed a surprise hit in the big budget version of the Fantastic Four. A cynic might point out that the media was making Jessica Alba out to be the hottest woman on the plant at the time and the film's success was a partial byproduct of that, as well as being an out-and-out popcorn movie. No matter what made it successful, the film allowed Marvel studio execs to breathe a sigh of relief and rubber stamp a sequel / franchise. However, they hadn't won the battle for top 2005 comic book movie.
DC had put out three films in 2005, and they'd be damned if they weren't winning the title. Still, the Robert Rodriguez adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City very nearly walked away with the crown. With its stylized graphics, faithful interpretation of the source material and all-star cast, including the obviously irresistible Jessica Alba, Sin City was a damn good film. Sadly, it came out in the year of... Constantine! Just kidding; the film was derided for starring Keanu "Pinocchio" Reeves and was another loose interpretation of the source material. The film I'm actually talking about is Batman Begins. Although the other film, A History of Violence, was very much critically acclaimed and gained Oscar nominations for its screenplay and William Hurt's supporting role — the effect of hiring an acclaimed director like David Cronenberg perhaps. But Batman Begins also had an acclaimed director in Christopher Nolan, an acclaimed cast that included Christian Bale, Sir Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson, and it's freaking Batman! For the first time in a long time, a major staple of the DC Universe was hitting the big screen. And the film didn't suck in any way either. DC had regained their foothold in the CBM Wars as 2006 approached.
The year was an interesting one, as it only featured three comic book movies. One of which was a sequel in an all-powerful franchise (X-Men: The Last Stand), one being the half-restart of the Superman franchise (Superman Returns) and the final one being the big screen adaptation of a graphic novel from the 1980s (V For Vendetta). Beyond all expectations, the best film of the lot was the latter. Not because it received the warmest of critical receptions or because it made the most money of the three films (quite the opposite). But V for Vendetta altogether stood head and shoulders above its rivals in this year on the poorness of their competing films. With Marvel films following the idea of setting the release date of sequels even before the preceding film had been released, the third X-Men film suffered greatly. With Bryan Singer leaving the franchise to take over the Superman series, the scripting was thrown into turmoil and Matthew Vaughan, the director hired to make the film, left as soon as he realized that the film couldn't be anything more than a rushed mess. Such a problem didn't bother the conscience of Brett Ratner and the film was completed; short, full of plot holes and lacking the depth of the Singer installments. Then again, Singer hardly had the last laugh. Superman Returns also suffered from plot holes and a lack of depth — the main difference was that it was drawn-out for over two and a half hours. The film barely grossed enough to cover its large budget and the expensive development process caused by Warner Bros. leaving Jon Peters in charge over the course of the 1990s. There were bright spots in the casting of Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey in the roles made famous by Reeve and Hackman, respectively, and some lovely action, but a terrible story that undermined both the morals of Superman and the shrewd judgment of Luthor made the film a poor franchise reboot.
With DC staggered by the misfire, but hanging on in there with the promised Batman / Joker showdown in the next of the Batman franchise, Marvel had a glut of films to offer during 2007; their rivals having nothing with their name attached to celluloid this year, save an association with the fantasy film Stardust, Marvel should have knocked everything out of the park. The characters involved were distinctive (Ghost Rider) and / or had successful films in previous years (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man), resulting in all being commercially successful. Ghost Rider took a surprising $45 million in its opening weekend, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer grossed slightly more domestically than its increased budget of $130 million and Spider-Man 3 joined its predecessors to complete a shutout of the top three comic book movies of all time in terms of grossing. But none received overall glowing responses, the particular letdown being Spider-Man 3, which crammed in more storylines than it knew what to do with. Faring better, in terms of reaction, were the non-Marvel related properties. The adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 made Warner Bros. over $450 million from a film with a $65 million budget, and essentially green-lighted director Zach Snyder helming the upcoming adaptation of Watchmen. The CGI-animated TMNT drew praise for revitalizing the flagging Turtles franchise, whereas 30 Days of Night and Stardust received generally above average reviews.
Does any of the above actually mean anything? Should any of us care which comics umbrella renders the best films? I mean, the films are in the hands of movie producers, not the editors of Marvel and DC. And whilst DC is owned by Warner Bros. and thus the creative relationship is slightly blurred between the print and visual mediums, Marvel properties have been sold to various different studios, with no giant Marvel umbrella existing per se, just the involvement of Marvel Studios head Avi Arad as producer overseeing production on their behalf. But now Arad has branched himself out and Marvel Studios will start producing their own movies, with Paramount Pictures distributing them, beginning next year with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (although that will be distributed by Universal, who made the original 2003 Hulk film). So without getting bogged down in who owns what and where the money goes, I'll look at the relevance of these films and why the two publishers should want to have comic book movie supremacy.
Since the early days, casual interest in the characters contained inside comics has been boosted, however marginally, by television shows and movies. It's unlikely that everyone that paid money to see Tobey Maguire first don his red webbed tights in 2002 have become avid readers of one of the many Spider-Man comics — that's not how things work. But the more successful your movie is, the more encouraged you must be to start a marketing offensive to catch these people and bring them into buying comics. Think of the Batman brand in the early 1990s; whilst the films weren't exactly for kids, Batman: The Animated Series had its stories continue in print form when the TV show ended. This expanded the franchise whilst giving their demographic more Batman. Think about how many more people know who the hell Ghost Rider is since this time last year. Granted, no film will wholly portray the hero, his supporting cast and the world he lives in with 100% accuracy — it's damn near impossible to do so. But exposure is very useful.
So why is it that Marvel's Ghost Rider, Ant-Man and the Power Pack are getting their own films when DC can't even get Wonder Woman her own movie without dragging the Justice League up with her? Marvel's new production set-up may be a reason, but surely DC has Warner Bros. on hand? You need to remember that Warner Bros. doesn't have the best track record over what to do with DC. Be it them wanting to tone down Batman for kids, or deciding to block his animated rogues gallery being in two different cartoon franchises, Warner Bros. have never quite known what to do with the characters at their disposal. Case in point, this new JLA film occurring whilst the Superman and Batman movie franchises are currently ongoing, as well as Smallville, meaning the casting of an alternate Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, and presumably their supporting cast. The film was being rushed into production to avoid the current writer's strike, meaning that it's going to be terrible. Would a Justice League film be good? Absolutely, but not a dumbed-down, slapdash effort put out when the two biggest DC franchise characters are in use. Heck, the JLA film could just avoid using Batman and Superman, but they won't; presumably because the producers are thinking "Who the hell will go and see a film fronted by Hawkman?"
If that's the case, then that is a big problem. Whilst they've identified that certain characters are charismatic enough for their own franchises (Flash and Wonder Woman, even if production on both is the definition of the word "sluggish"), they can't see the marketability of other characters. That's not to say the Power Pack film is going to be great or that Marvel's strategy works every time — it doesn't. But for every film that isn't lauded by all, they bring in money more often than not, which is the language film producers speak in. And whilst various websites have thrown up a number of "announced" films from DC, few look likely to get off the ground in the near future. This is not to say there should be a race to get a Green Arrow movie out right now though; the comic book movie genre is profitable and here to stay, showing few signs of decline. And with a few potential classics in next year's crop, what's to say that longevity isn't won by getting all your properties turned into franchises? And if they grow stale, what's to say they can't be rebooted? Expect me to cover reboots at some other point in time; for now, all I want to see is good comic book movies. And if I get three or four every year, then not only will I be happy, but so will the general public, the studios involved and the Big Two. In the end, it doesn't matter to me who is symbolically winning, just as long as quality isn't left behind for the sake of quantity.