Since the 1930s, Marvel and DC Comics have had a friendly rivalry, stemming from the comic book pages and now transcending onto the big screen. Movies such as The Dark Knight (DC), The Avengers (Marvel), and Guardians of the Galaxy (also Marvel) have broken box office records, showing that film adaptations of comic book superheros — even obscure ones — are truly a force to be reckoned with. However, despite the similarly avid fans, there are major differences between the two companies.
The studio structure
Marvel Studios, lead by the ubiquitous Kevin Feige, is a subsidiary under Marvel Entertainment. Since 2009, when the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment, Disney can now use all its divisions (consumer products, television, etc.) to promote a Marvel film, which ends up raising the Disney stock. Disney reported about $40.9 billion in licensing revenues in 2013 (per LicenseMag).
DC Entertainment is under Warner Bros. which reported about $6 billion in retail sales. However, as DC does not have a separate production house away from Warner Bros., the numbers include big mainstays such as Harry Potter and The Hobbit. In contrast, Marvel’s separate division can use all its marketing forces to promote the latest superhero film.
[Update, 6/30/16: Following the fallout over the mixed reception for ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, Warner has formed a separate “DC Films” division that will be headed up by Executive VP Jon Berg, and comic-writer-turned-executive Geoff Johns.]
The movie themes
In DC Universe films, superheroes such as Batman and Superman seem to carry all the weight of humanity on their shoulders — and they broodingly act out that way. Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman is the darkest superhero adaptation on screen. Batman goes through whatever dubious means to catch a villain such as the Joker; audiences have also noted the political undertones in the reboot trilogy.
Marvel films tend to take on a lighter note. The heroes are ultimately virtuous and shining rays of hope — even with wild playboy-types like Iron Man and Star-Lord. Both characters often lighten the mood, joking around in the midst of action. Even Captain America, who isn’t exactly a Marvel class-clown, is never ruthless in his quest for justice. Batman or Superman? Not so much.
Marvel has a continuous, cohesive world both on the page and on the screen. The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” began in 2008 with Iron Man. He, among film-adapted superheroes including Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor, appears in The Avengers (2012). A similar cast appeared in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and this year’s Captain America: Civil War. The continuity also transfers to the small screen with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and several Netflix series.
DC has yet been able to build a cohesive universe on screen, although Warner Bros. is currently in the early stages doing so. The hit CW show Arrow depicts the origins of Green Arrow and also features other DC Comics characters, including numerous Batman villains. The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl built on Arrow’s success, while the two movies Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad will be the biggest attempt at a “DC Cinematic Universe.”
The financial success
The success of the latest Batman film series, which made $2.5 billion in global revenue stream from 2005-2012, is credited to director Christopher Nolan. In many ways, the film is an auteur piece, largely driven by Nolan’s ambitious storytelling vision. The same success cannot be said for other films based on DC comics; Catwoman, Jonah Hex, and Watchmen all panned at the box office.
Marvel has released consecutive hits. Iron Man made over $585 million in 2008, and as of 2014, Robert Downey Jr. is the highest paid actor in the world. Guardians of the Galaxy became the top August debut of all time in North America, grossing $94 million. Other films such as Thor made world-wide totals over $449.3 million, and The Avengers made a staggering $1.5 billion. Avengers: Age of Ultron has made $1.4 billion worldwide, so far, according to Box Office Mojo. In contrast, Catwoman made $82.1 million and Jonah Hex made $10.9 million. On the other hand, despite being savaged by most critics, Batman v Superman pulled in an impressive $872 million worldwide (per Box Office Mojo).
The immediate future
Marvel has overall detailed plans laid out through 2018. Avengers: Age of Ultron opened last summer — as did Ant Man — while Captain America: Civil War premiered in May 2016, and Spider-Man: Homecoming from Sony Pictures arrives in 2017.