(Author's note: For the sake of simplicity, DC's predecessors National/All-American Comics will be referred to as "DC," and Marvel's predecessors Timely/Atlas will be referred to as Marvel.)
As a lifelong comic-lover whose collecting days date back to the early 1970s, the last twelve years of Comic Book Cinema and Television have been nothing short of nerd-gasmic for me. One thing I frequently hear is how "Marvel's kicking DC's butt" with their cinematic universe, and how, aside from the Dark Knight trilogy, DC movies can' t hold a candle to Marvel's (if you'll pardon the pun) Juggernaut of motion silver screen offerings.
And I'm just talking superhero stuff here!
I grew up on reruns George Reeves' rendition of Superman and Adam West's Batman, spending countless hours in the back yard with a towel tied around my neck, pretending to protect the neighborhood from ne'er-do-wells and costumed criminals. I got it in my head that somehow, Superman could fly because he wore a cape. (I assumed that Batman just opted to not fly, but obviously, he also posessed the ability because he was also a cape-wearer.)
Rounds 1-3 (1950s -1970s)
In 1978, I was completely blown away when Superman burst onto the big screen with Roger and Ilya Salkind's Superman: The Movie. Christopher Reeve's rendition of Superman was so much greater than anything I'd seen before. Superman's powers were incredible, as were the special effects! One of the most memorable advertising lines was "you will believe a man can fly." I really did!
Just a year earlier, I'd fallen in love with a story set "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." and George Lucas' tome really set a new standard for the "wow factor" in cinematic storytelling. Superman had its sci-fi elements, but it also was primarily set on present day Earth with Kal-El's flashy blue, red and yellow tights. The first installment in the Superman movie series set a new standard for superhero movies.
Prior to the Superman movie, the only big-screen appearances by Marvel or DC heroes were in weekly serials in the1940s (Superman, Batman and Captain America had runs,) and the 1966 Big-Screen Batman, which was released between the first and second seasons of the Television show of the same name. Adam West and Burt Ward's portrayal of the Dynamic Duo, while campy and almost satirical at times, still created an iconic memory.
In the 1970s, DC also launched Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman. Princess Diana busily lassoed dastardly Nazis and mind-controlling magicians, fighting sasquatches and aliens each week for three years. (I can't be the only person who had a pre-adolescent crush on Ms. Carter.)
Since his disappearance in the '50s, Fawcett's Captain Marvel had suffered the ultimate disgrace for a comic book hero: loss of trademark. As soon as Cap's trademark expired, Marvel comics snatched up the naming rights. DC had acquired the rights to Captain Marvel, but had to rename the character Shazam for trademark purposes. In the stories he could be Captain Marvel, but on the comic book covers (and the title of a short-lived Saturday Morning live-action television show) he had to be called Shazam.
I watched Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Shazam faithfully week in and week out.
Rounds 1-3 (1950s-1970s) Scorecard:
To keep tally, DC characters seemed to control the prime time airwaves from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Marvel finally started landing blows on the small screen with The Incredible Hulk, but DC had established itself both on broadcast television and in movie theatres with Batman and Superman.
Both companies had success with televised animated versions of their characters, but cartoons typically were dismissed as "for children."
Round 4 (1980s)
For better or worse, three more Superman films reached filmgoers, as did an unsuccessful Supergirl production in 1984 ( Budget: $35 million. Gross: $14.5 million. (In my local theatre, a billboard advertised "Supergirl-Coming 11/21." Beneath that, it advertised what would they would be showing 11/28.))
After Superman's "Quest for Peace," comic book movies became a rarity, although George Lucas took a break from his "Galaxy far, far away..." to bring brought us Howard the Duck. (I stood in line to see that one. I STOOD IN LINE TO SEE THAT ONE!)
Aside from a cameo by the Silver Surfer in a semi-lucid dream sequence in Breathless, Howard the Duck was the first Marvel character to appear on the big screen in decades. Not since the original Captain America serials (which eventually re-titled and re-released a few years after their first ) had Marvel been represented on the silver screen.
Marvel spent some energy on small-screen characters, with animated Fantastic Four and Spider-Man shows, and live-action attempts at Captain America and Spider-Man. (Spider-Man also made appearances in PBS's Electric Company. The gimmick was that Spidey's dialogue was always comic-style word balloons.)
The Incredible Hulk had a relatively successful run from 1978 to 1982, followed by a handful of made-for-television movies in the late '80s which introduced Thor and Daredevil to the Hulk-iverse, culminating in The Death of the Incredible Hulk in 1990. ***SPOILER ALERT: Hulk falls to his death from an airplane.***
DC started to slow down in its multimedia kingdom. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Supergirl were nothing short of disastrous. Superman forced peace upon the world by destroying all nuclear weapons, but was tricked into hurling a sample of his own DNA into the sun with one of the payloads. This resulted in a sun-powered clone coming back to haunt Supes. (The clone went dormant in darkness, although somehow, his round-the-globe battle with Superman never put him in night time.)
After a short breather, DC took a shot on their second most iconic character.
In 1989, Tim Burton brought his unique storytelling perspective on the scene with the wildly-successful Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. While difficult to watch now, (especially with Batman's heretofore unseen willingness to kill his opponents,) the film set a new standard for comic book filmmaking. Stylistically, Batman influenced the subsequent Dick Tracy film and the 1990 Flash TV series.
Marvel managed to film three movies in the late '80s and early '90s, (Punisher, Captain America and The Fantastic Four) but released none of them domestically. Punisher was released theatrically in pretty much every country except the US and Sweden. It had an estimated $9 million budget. It grossed about 1/6 that worldwide.
Round Four Scorecard (1980s)
If anything, DC did more harm to itself than Marvel did in competition.
DC continued to dabble in television with the Superboy TV series, the short-lived Flash (1990) series, and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Marvel seemed to focus on the animated adventures of the X-Men.
In my opinion, DC seemed to experience much more brand success with television than Marvel did from the '70s on.
Round Five (1990s)
Marvel released Dolph "No Skull Logo" Lundgren's Punisher in 1989 everywhere on the planet but the USA, and then failed to theatrically release The Fantastic Four and Captain America. From late 1988 on, there were always rumors of big-screen Spider-Man films, X-Men films, Fantastic Four films... but they were always rumors. Captain America finally went direct-to-video. (For the record, I have subjected myself to all of the aformentioned works, good, bad and ugly.)
Admittedly, Marvel did begin a trilogy of semi-superhero/semi-vampire Blade movies in 1998, but still I see DC really controlling the majority of the marbles through this era.
DC continued to release Batman movies, but those reached a critical mass when George Clooney (Bat-nipples and all) was the last actor in the decade to portray the Dark Knight.
DC also launched The Flash, but unfortunately it ran against the television juggernaut of The Simpsons. John Wesley Shipp's rendition of the Flash was solid, but the show was somewhat weak in the writing department, and ultimately, even an incredible performance by Mark Hammil as the Trickster was not enough to earn the show a second season.
Round 5 (1990s) Scorecard
DC decidedly won this round across all media forms, but mostly because they were the only company doing anything.
Round 6 (2000s)
Making a licensed superhero movie is a complex and challenging process. It takes years from resolving character rights to people wondering if there's a post-credits teaser. There's writing, rewriting, casting, costuming, filming, post-production, looping, and all the other arcane things that make words on paper become eye-popping spectacular extravaganzas. It's easy for me retroactively to "armchair executive produce" these shows and quickly scribble out how a new age of superheroic storytelling veritably exploded onto the scene and screens starting with X-Men in 2000.
To the credit of all writers, producers, directors, actors and actresses, key grips, gaffers and the poor schmoes who have to sweep spilled popcorn from the floor in the 40 minutes between showings, I appreciate what you do. But ultimately, I just want you all to take my money and entertain the living (profanity) out of me.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Marvel's characters (split between three production companies, making them mutually exclusive and crossovers nigh-impossible) came out swinging.
Professor Xavier's gifted youngsters were the first of the millennial superheroes (followed by about fifteen thousand sequels and spin-offs.) Marvel didn't just flood the market with mutants. Spider-Man (and his sequels,) The Fantastic Four (and sequel,) Daredevil (with sort-of-nonsequitur follow-up Elektra,) and the lesser-known Ghost Rider rounded out the decentralized universe. Iron Man (and sequel,) the Hulk, (and semi-sequel,) also set the groundwork for the so-called "Phase One" of the contiguous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU,) tied together by appearances by Nick Fury or Agent Coulson. Despite stumbling at the blocks a few times, Marvel's decentralized movie franchise started to find its footing and (especially with the official continuity of the MCU and its Phase One (pre-Avengers) movies.) Marvel really started to gain traction and a gigantic fan-following.
...And it wasn't just the hardcore lifelong collectors who were watching these shows. Suddenly, self-identified comic nerds like me were forced to stand in line with (...ugggh...) people who proudly watched Twilight and High School Musical waiting to see Tony Stark blow up bad guys. Even worse, we had to share theatres with thousands of fans who'd never read a comic in their collective lives.
As the decade marched on, DC countered with the Batman reboot (and sequel,) the Superman ret-con, a little know and much-beloved Watchmen and (I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers,) Jonah Hex.
On the small screen, Marvel's presence was limited to various animated series, while DC gave Superman a re-re-re-reboot in the form of Smallville. The wildly-popular show depicted young Clark Kent developing his powers and morals while solving murder mysteries on a weekly basis. These mysteries piled up as every third person in this small Kansas town somehow became superpowered. Smallville also introduced several DC superheroes to the television pantheon.
Round Six (2000s) Scorecard
While Marvel was the proverbial 800lb gorilla in the comics-publishing arena, DC definitely had them on the ropes in the realm of broadcast and motion pictures. In Round Six—aside from the success of the Batman films—Marvel definitely commanded the first decade of the new millennium theatrically. While the 'House of Ideas' controlled popcorn sales, DC began to boldly explore its Smallville continuity by introducing more and more familiar faces from everyone’s comic books.
In Round Six, Marvel's theatrical projects raked in a lot cash, and Stan Lee achieved even more fame as everyone began playing a movie-by-movie variation on "Where's Waldo?"
No matter how hard it tries, a single television show cannot stand up to blockbuster after block buster. If it weren't for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight (and, yes, Superman Returns,) I'd call this strictly Marvel's decade, but in the end, I think it is more of a draw.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Dark Knight and Watchmen universes were absolutely incompatible with anything else DC was trying to do.
Pre-Fight Hype Buildup
Back in 1938, DC was really the first publisher to deliver superhero books with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and subsequently Detective Comics #27 in 1939.
Marvel followed suit shortly thereafter, with Marvel Comics and Captain America Comics in 1940. However, in the fifties, superhero books started to wane and the price of publishing started to increase. Soon, DC was left alone in the superhero biz, and Marvel focused on publishing Westerns, Sci-Fi books and Romance comics.
So, when, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby cranked out Fantastic Four #1, they were, ostensibly, the new kids on the block (again.) It didn't take long for the birth of the so-called "Marvel Age" of comics, thrusting Marvel into the limelight with the idea of "Superheroes outside your windows." Rather than telling stories about superheroes in such fantastic places as Metropolis, Gotham, Central City and Coast City, most Marvel heroes gravitated to New York.
Before long, Marvel began outstripping its competition with its pulp renditions of all things mutant, cosmic and scientifically-enhanced.
Now on to the main event.
Round Seven (2010s)
The third installment in the Dark Knight trilogy was DC's first film in the new decade followed soon thereafter with a re-re-re-re-reboot of Superman with Man of Steel. (Note: DC's newest take on Superman was the first acknowledgment of DC's "New 52" universe (ie: no red trunks.) Now as DC begins to unwind this "New 52/Convergence Continuity" it will be intriguing to see how it affects DC's Cinematic Universe.)
DC continues to build steam (and hype) with a huge groundswell of support from the moderately obscure (but fan-favorite) Suicide Squad as well as the much-anticipated sequel to Man of Steel in the form of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. If everything works out, DC will crank out films for the rest of this decade, giving the Justice League characters (Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Shazam and possibly the Green Lantern) solo films in anticipation of a Justice League movie.
On the face of it, cinematically, DC has bitten off a lot, but they seem to think everything will eventually be chewed and digested.
DC has brought out the big guns both on the big screen and on the small screen.
After Smallville ran its course, DC flexed its TV Universe muscles and brought us Arrow, followed shortly by a spinoff series in a rebooted Flash which included several nods to the original series, including John Wesley Shipp (the 1990 Flash) and Mark Hammil (The Trickster from the 1990 series.) DC also gave us Gotham, a sort of Batman prequel series, similar to Smallville. (This leads me to ask: How many times are we going to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get murdered?)
With this pending season, we can expect DC to give Supergirl a second chance (hoping that 31 years is long enough for people to forget Helen Slater’s incarnation of the character.) And, not to appear too restful, DC will also launch a mid-season CW series called Legends of Tomorrow, featuring a motley assortment of characters from Arrow and The Flash. (Also, within the Flash continuity, there are several more superhero and supervillain embryos awaiting activation.)
Marvel rode a lot of momentum into the current decade cinematically, giving us Thor, Captain America: TheFirst Avenger, and The Avengers. As the MCU expanded, they started to introduce more and more characters to the ever-growing cast of characters. Thor and Cap got sequels paving the way for the second Avengers film. MCU gave a less-known group Guardians of the Galaxy screen time, and knocked it out of the park. After Thor: Lost World, Captain America: The WInter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, the MCU expanded further, offering us Ant-Man, with some teasers about the upcoming Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel is also gearing up for a two-part Avengers movie dealing with Thanos. (Additionally, the Guardians will get a second romp in a few years.)
Over at Sony, Spidey got a reboot as The Amazing Spider-man and its sequel launched into the world’s subconscious. Andrew Garfield’s Spider-man added a new dimension to the character, but for whatever reason, Sony decided to give Garfield the boot before he achieved a bona fide trilogy. The second film was ostensibly dedicated solely to killing off Gwen Stacy. Ironically, while Sony is ready to give another actor the web-spinners, the house of rumors has suggested the newly-popular “Spider-Gwen” is being considered for production.
Over at Fox, there were a dozen-or-so X-Men films, with Days of Future Past being one of the better X-Films produced. They also gave Wolverine a second movie, based loosely upon the Frank Miller limited series, and X-Men: First Class which sort-of addressed the fifty year history of the franchise. Fox also decided to give the Fantastic Four another spin, but it received mixed reviews. At the last second, the studio decided not to offer it 3D rendering, but there is still a sequel discussion. However, Fox also green-lighted a Deadpool movie after a wildly popular leak of test footage with (former Deadpool/Green Lantern) Ryan Reynolds voicing the character. Based upon the millions of You Tube views of the trailers, it is entirely likely that this film will be a blockbuster, even if it’s not good.
On the TV side of things, Marvel launched Agents of SHIELD, followed by a six-part limited prequel series Agent Carter. As Agents of SHIELD enters its third season, Agent Carter has been given the go-ahead for a full season and supposedly there is another AOS spinoff in the works focusing on some of the super-powered SHIELD agents from the series.
Marvel also launched a TV/internet Daredevil series, which will soon have a second season. At this time, there is also talk of a Punisher Netflix series as well.
For a nerd like me, this is a perfect time to enjoy televised and cinematic releases, bringing my favorite characters to life.
Round Seven Scorecard (Incomplete)
It’s safe to say that DC controls the televised exploits of some of my favorite heroes, while Marvel is still learning to fly in the same genre.
For the last five years, Marvel has controlled the cinematic exploits of some of my favorite heroes, while DC is still learning to fly in the same genre.
For Round seven, it’s been a thrill ride, and ultimately, the winner is…
The comic-collecting, movie-loving world population. As long as these studios keep producing quality products, we will be an happy mass of movie-goers and TV watchers.