C. Robert Cargill April 27, 2010
As production kicks into high gear on a number of comic book properties, and the long-standing war between Marvel and DC Comics heats up, we thought we’d take this time to look back on who has won the war so far. For those of you unfamiliar with its long history, two comic book companies have dominated the landscape for the last 50 years — and much like the Apple/Microsoft competition, both have had a number of small upstart rivals but never any real competition save each other. Marvel is best known for its Spider-man, X-Men, and Avengers while DC is best known for its Justice League (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.)
The most films: Marvel
Hands down Marvel wins in this catagory. When you think of comic book movies, invariably the Marvel brand comes to mind. For its efforts and control of its intellectual property, DC comics has put out nine comic book movies in the last decade: two Batman movies, one Superman movie, Catwoman, the dark fantasy comic adaptation Constantine, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, A History of Violence, and V for Vendetta — the last four comic book movies independent of their comic book continuity. Meanwhile, Marvel has put out almost two dozen films including four X-Men movies, three Blade movies, three Spider-man movies, two Hulk movies, two Iron Man movies, two Fantastic Four movies, two Punisher movies, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Elektra, and Man-Thing — which was so bad it was abandoned to direct-to-cable, then to the DVD marketplace. There are arguments to be made that Will Eisner’s The Spirit is a DC hero, but this only happened within the last few years, after the rights changed hands followng Eisener’s death. We’ll try to pretend, for Eisner’s sake, that The Spirit never happened.
The best film: DC
While the Spider-man movies and Iron Man were incredible, nothing comes close to Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight. Not simply the best comic book movie ever made, it is one of the best films ever made, period, and will forever have a place on almost every top 10 list. Already the next generation of film critics carry this film as their inspiration — their Godfather or Empire Strikes Back. Try though they might, Marvel has a long way to go to make a film that good.
The most profit: Marvel
Not only has Marvel made a lot of films, many of those films have been highly profitable. While DC’s The Dark Knight boasts the highest gross of a comic book film in history, it is the only film playing in that financial ballpark; Marvel, meanwhile, regularly enjoys films that make well over $500 million worldwide.
The worst film: Marvel
Profit though they will, Marvel clunkers are far worse than their DC counterparts. No one has made a film as bad as Man-Thing, nor should they; and Elektra steals the show for worst theatrically distributed comic book effort — I mean, honestly, how do you make mutants and ninjas boring? Hell, Elektra makes mutant-ninjas boring. Toss in Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, and the nearly unwatchable Wolverine, and you have a hard road ahead of you if you want to convince me that DC came close with Catwoman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. They both have their shames, but Marvel wins this by sheer volume.
The best-looking slate: DC
Now this is where I get myself into trouble. I was raised on Marvel. To me, DC comics always seemed like goofy throwbacks to an older age in which no one ever died in comics and the heroes were so powerful I could never in any way connect with them. They were Greek Gods to the Marvel Comics Rock Stars, and so Marvel is what I read. But DC is making a Green Lantern film, a third Batman film, and rebooting Superman. They’re leading with their best. Marvel has a sexy lineup as well, including the very first team-up movie of the era, The Avengers. But the news of attaching fan favorite (but hit-or-miss) writer/director Joss Whedon and hit-or-miss director Joe Johnston to spearhead their lineup makes me nervous. And rebooting Spider-man, a series that was working, with a much smaller budget than before, isn’t exactly inspiring news. Thor looks great, but he’s a tricky character to get right. The scales are tipped in DC’s favor here, but only a bit.
The big picture:
DC has spent too much time playing close to the chest with their releases, putting their money into non-continuity titles and holding back what the fans really want. Marvel, on the other hand, has had a hard time controlling their properties because of a wholesale rights sell-off in the ’90s that left most of their characters spread thin around the studio system, resulting in a roller coaster of quality. When all is said and done, both companies came out with winners and losers. But DC is stepping up to the plate while Marvel is slowly taking back controlling interest in most of their franchises — so perhaps the lessons of the last decade will result in an incredible new decade.
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