Even though Marvel and DC aren’t the only companies out there to produce some standout superhero films, the two juggernauts of the comic book industry have taken their decades-long rivalry to new heights in recent years. Throughout the 2000s, films based on properties from both DC and Marvel have yielded some of the most embarrassingly bad superhero films in recent memory (Green Lantern and Fantastic Four, respectively) as well some of the genre’s pinnacles (The Dark Knight and The Avengers, again respectively).
However, ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ascended to the top of the all-time highest-grossing film franchises, the competition has heated up even more. Marvel fans have maligned DC’s efforts to jumpstart its own DC Extended Universe, and DC fans have criticized the MCU of falling into formulaic storytelling. Both sides have valid points regarding the structure and output of the MCU and DCEU, but as Phase 3 of the former begins introducing new heroes in this fall’s Doctor Strange and the latter continues paving the road toward Justice League, what potential pitfalls await both Marvel Studios and DC Films?
This summer’s Captain America: Civil War proved — in more ways than one — to be a culmination in the ongoing MCU storyline up to that point as well as a hint of things to come. The introduction of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) was greeted with praise, but the film also exhibits many of the most problematic aspects of the MCU.
Paramount among these is the fact that Marvel appears gun-shy when it comes to taking risks. Sure, the emotional stakes of Civil War were strong, but the fact is that the company refuses to let itself dip too closely into darkness and actually kill any of its heroes, even non-marquee figures like Don Cheadle’s War Machine (who came closest to biting the bullet) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And no, the you-didn’t-see-that-coming death of Quicksilver doesn’t count. The fact that actor Aaron Johnson was the only expected star not confirmed for Civil War before Age of Ultron‘s release robbed that surprise of much of its impact.
In fact, this big-picture thinking — which has ironically been one of the MCU’s strengths — could become a more egregious flaw going forward. Marvel’s over-reliance on serialized storytelling has already alienated some moviegoers who now feel so overwhelmed by the constant flood of installments in the franchise, limiting the MCU’s opportunity to rein in new audience members. The years of buildup of the Infinity War saga and the increasingly esoteric continuity have only perpetuated this problem, which could conceivably do more long-term damage to the franchise than any of its often-flat villains ever could.
After The Dark Knight Rises definitively brought Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman to a close, DC and Warner Bros. were left scrambling with how to proceed with their marquee characters, especially since the record-breaking success of The Avengers that very same summer really put the pressure on. The poor response to films like Green Lantern and Superman Returns, coupled with Nolan’s concluded trilogy, meant a fresh start was necessary.
Rather than taking a page out of the MCU playbook, DC leapt from Man of Steel (a divisive film in its own right) into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, quickly introducing Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the rest of the initial Justice League lineup. However, this approach may have done more harm than good — at least initially — since the ham-handed impact on the story has turned some viewers off to the burgeoning DCEU. Bringing such fan-favorite characters in with relatively little fanfare and without proper explanation risks leaving mainstream moviegoers baffled and frustrated with the results, not excited for the already-massive slate of upcoming films.
Although it remains to be seen if these short-term missteps will pay off in later narrative developments, the DCEU still need to address its other most common complaint, namely its dark, unbalanced tone. While Marvel could stand to add a bit more gravitas to its lineup, DC has thus far offered a mostly unbalanced tone that robs the actual darkness of its impact. Without delving into spoilers, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice features a development that should have left audiences’ jaws hanging. Yet, because of the relentlessly bleak tone up to that point, it just felt unearned and rushed, like much of the demonstrated DCEU strategy thus far.
The rivalry continues
As both Marvel and DC move forward with their big-screen efforts, we’re excited to see what the future brings for comic book films. When it comes to their film franchises, both companies have their strong points, and with any luck, each will manage to continuously improve in the near future. After all, the fan community may be filled with a vocal contingent that enjoys actively pitting DC and Marvel against each other, but when either company has a success, that marks an upward trend that can only reflect positive outcomes for superhero films as a whole. Let’s keep rooting for both and hope that Hollywood keeps bringing comic book properties to the big screen for years to come.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
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