Day 6

How Marvel Comics' second stringers beat Superman at the box office

Marvel and DC are both now media giants, but while Marvel has seen a string of successes, DC is struggling to make its mark.
(DC/HBG Canada/Marvel)

For the last 50 years, comics giants Marvel and DC have been locked in a battle that's on a scale worthy of the iconic characters they've created.

The two comics publishers continue to develop into media behemoths, licensing their characters to everything from blockbuster movies to must-have toys, both companies fighting it out for the bigger share of the global market.

And right now, Marvel appears to be on top while DC is struggling, says Reed Tucker, author of the new book Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC.

(HBG Canada)

"Marvel is just much better at planning and they're also much better at distilling their characters down to their essence," Tucker tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"They're so good that they can take a movie that stars a space raccoon and a talking tree and audiences really warm up to that."


From page to screen

That distillation is key in both attracting an audience and building the fundamentals of a cinematic universe, a storytelling technique that allows characters to readily move between films.

Marvel pioneered this style of storytelling beginning with the first Iron Man film in 2008 that hinted at a larger world with the mention of an "Avengers Initiative."

(Marvel Studios)

Four movies and four years later, The Avengers came out in theatres, bringing together heroes like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk — half of which were often considered second stringers compared to Batman and Superman.

DC has tried to build their own cinematic world for their heroes to explore, first with Man of Steel and later with Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

But with Justice League hitting theatres on Nov. 17, their lineup has received a more tepid critical response, despite having a guiding hand from director Zack Snyder.

Wonder Woman, one of the few DC films without Snyder's influence, has been DC's greatest critical success.

For Tucker, it all comes down to how these iconic characters are represented on screen. The current movie version of Superman wasn't as likeable or as earnest as previous iterations, like the well-known 1970s and '80s Christopher Reeve films.


Milking the multiverse

"Zack Snyder gives us a Superman who is grim, who grimaces a lot and who snaps his villain's neck," Tucker notes. "To me, that didn't quite work, but I can understand if it did for other people."

DC isn't alone in their struggle to build a singular storytelling world. The recent release of The Mummy was meant to build the foundations of a Dark Universe starring Universal's monster movie characters.

It was a financial and critical flop, and both of its top producers have left the project entirely.

Part of DC's challenge in particular, says Tucker, is the feeling that they're trying to catch up to Marvel's success.

"[Marvel] had a really long history of these movies that have built on each other, and audiences have gotten used to these characters," he says.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. poses by a life-sized Iron Man model during a press conference in Tokyo for the film "Iron Man" in 2008. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)


Building on success

Thor: Ragnarok was released on Nov. 3 as a kind of space-faring buddy cop film starring a Norse god (Thor) and an angry green monster (The Hulk), which Tucker argues would have been a hard premise for audiences to absorb, had that been Thor's first introduction.

"I think it would have repelled audiences — they wouldn't understand who these characters are. But because the audiences are so familiar with these characters, they can then put this humorous spin on them and audiences kind of go along with it," he says.

DC's Batman v Superman tried to introduce a new Batman, a Wonder Woman and a lineup of characters that will star in Justice League, but many critics found the movie too long and hard to follow. That was in addition to tonal issues that Tucker says the series still has.

This moment of ascendancy for Marvel may only be temporary, however — the two companies have always been playing a tug-of-war over audiences, even when the focus of their work was just publishing comic books.

An iconic image from the 1985 DC Comics' storyline "Crisis on Infinite Earths." (DC Comics)

The 1984 Marvel storyline Secret Wars, which brought together its greatest heroes and villains, was followed up by DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which did the same for their characters.

Since then, both companies have had these huge crossover events  many of which have used similar ideas or story beats, whether intentionally or not.


An ongoing battle 

Those comics still make for compelling material for new film ideas. More recent storylines are being pulled into the mix, with Marvel's 2016 Captain America: Civil War based on a comic book from only ten years earlier, as opposed to the first Captain America film that drew from wartime comics. 

According to Tucker, as far back as the 1970s, Warner Brothers looked at DC's profits on the publishing side and contemplated shutting the division down.

(DC Comics)

"The people at the publishing company ... argued, 'Wait a minute. This is kind of your R&D division. We have people very cheaply creating these stories, creating new characters, coming up with new ideas,'" Tucker explains.

DC Comics won that fight — and that could be their salvation in the long term. 

"Now a lot of the movies are pulling ideas from what was done in the comics," Tucker points out. "So if they had killed the comic publishing [side], then they would probably have much less success in the film."


To hear our full interview with Reed Tucker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.