Marvel vs DC: Should DC Stick to TV? | Fanboys Anonymous

Marvel vs DC: Should DC Stick to TV?

Posted by Unknown Saturday, November 23, 2013
Let me preface this by clarifying something: I'm biased. I love DC Comics. I'm a big fan of a lot of Marvel stuff, no question, but DC has a special place in my heart. And so it pains me greatly that it's no secret Marvel has delivered a thorough whupping to its counterpart in the Cinematic Universe department. One would think it wouldn't be so hard to at least keep up with Marvel, though the evidence of our senses tells us otherwise. A number of factors come into play that have led me to a shocking conclusion that I'll handily break down for you in a moment, but allow this teaser to suffice for now: what if DC brawled with Marvel by offering an alternative, rather than direct competition?

batman superman iron man thor wonder woman captain america hawkeye black panther vision scarlet witch giant man ant man wasp flash green lantern aqua man martian manhunter Marvel DC Disney Warner Bros

For a long time, DC had the upper hand on Marvel with regards to film adaptations. They got high-profile superheroes on film first with 1978's Superman and 1989's Batman, and their subsequent (mostly unfortunate) sequels. They even had a run of mid-00's films based off projects from their Vertigo imprint. And, of course, Christopher Nolan's '05-'12 landmark Dark Knight trilogy that changed the superhero movie genre forever and all that. Looking back now, it's like the man said: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Up until the late nineties, really, with Blade, Marvel had nothing. That's twenty years of DC cinematic supremacy, because the Marvel movies started off their initial run pretty well with 1998's aforementioned Blade, 2000's X-Men (another game-changer), and 2002's Spider-Man, each of which spawned a trilogy of two good films and one awful one. (Weird, right?) Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer closed out what you might consider the "first wave" of Marvel films in 2007, because 2008 saw the deployment of the superhero movie A-bomb, Iron Man. The rest is recent history, so I'm skipping it. The point is that once Iron Man dropped, the balance began to shift, and five years later the scales have all but fallen on the Marvel-weighted side.

1978-2010 Box Office Gross Marvel DC Comparison
Only goes to 2010, but this is a good overview.
Marvel's advantage was a clean slate. Their previous franchises had ended, a new production banner was raised, and Kevin Feige took over as President of Production for Marvel Studios. He's the other advantage. Warner Bros. sat smugly on their Dark Knight franchise as they watched the impossible dream of a shared cinematic universe take increasingly real shape, guided by good vision and good business. When Warner Bros released Batman Begins, it was 2005—a year it shared with Marvel's Fantastic Four, alongside another DC (Vertigo) film, V for Vendetta. Advantage: DC, to be sure. Fast forward to 2008, with the release of The Dark Knight, and you'll also find Iron Man. At the time, the fanboy dream of Nick Fury hinting at the eventual formation of the Avengers was just that. DC had no reason to worry, yet; despite their dashed hopes for a revitalized Superman franchise with 2006's Superman Returns, The Dark Knight sat prettily on an over $1 billion box-office take, with Iron Man making just over half that. Surely, their critically-and-commercially successful superhero series was all they needed.

Fast forward four more years, to 2012, and suddenly DC's at the end of their flagship Batman franchise with The Dark Knight Rises, in a summer that saw it going toe-to-toe with, as promised four years past, The Avengers. I imagine that's really when the reality of the situation sunk in for Warner Bros. They had seen the component Marvel films released to generally good reviews and returns, but with Avengers it was different because Christopher Nolan delivered a definitive end to his celebrated franchise in the final Batman film. It was done. Bruce and Selina were off in Florence while Alfred drank fancy coffee. The end. Marvel and The Avengers, on the other hand? Just getting started. Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and looking ahead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and God knows what other spinoffs or future films. DC, meanwhile? Man of Steel...and that's it. In a year or two comes Batman vs. Superman, and no less a source than Guillermo del Toro has confirmed that Warner Bros. has plans for the entire DC universe, from film to TV to other media—including his own Dark Universe, said to center around the more arcane heroes of the DCU.

Marvel Justice League 90s Crossover Avengers DC
"What do you MEAN Keanu Reeves isn't coming back as Constantine?"
Ever since Iron Man hinted at the eventual Avengers movie, there have been whispers about the potential of a Justice League response. So from the get-go, DC is following Marvel. Everything they're doing is being judged against what Marvel has been seen to do. Their response has been lagging—they bandied about the idea of expanding Christopher Nolan's Bat-verse into a shared one, but those ideas were quickly kiboshed by the filmmakers themselves protesting that their Batman is a standalone, an oddity in his own world. The movies were good enough to back that up, and it remained untouched. While Marvel was quickly assembling the building blocks of their shared cinematic universe, DC and Warner Bros were in many ways paralyzed, unable to do the same because of the established quality and tone of the Batman films. They were winding down while the competition whipped up something bold and new, and Warner Bros could do nothing but wait and watch as it paid off.

In among Marvel's impressive slate of projects, there's an oddity: a TV project, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, set in Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity, featuring recognizable characters and cameos from the film franchises. Now, DC is no stranger to TV—I point you toward the excellent and extensive run of the DC animated universe, from Batman: The Animated Series in 1993 through to Justice League Unlimited, which ended in 2006. There was a live-action Superboy TV show in the late 80s and early 90s, Lois and Clark after that, the short-lived Birds of Prey, Smallville, and most recently, Arrow and the upcoming Flash series. (Heaven forbid we forget the camp-tastic Adam West Batman series.) They've also had a recent run of some successful video games, and adapted several of their better-known storylines into well-received animated films.

Cover Batman Mask of Phantasm Screen Shots
Someone out there remembers this excellent movie. 
My point is this: DC is no stranger to disparate media. Warner Bros knows this, since they've owned DC to one degree or another since the 1960s, consolidating everything as DC Entertainment in 2009—in the wake of the Disney-Marvel deal, notably. Film has come to be held as the primary medium for grading these companies' successes in adaptations. These two companies have striven for dominance for decades. Whatever one does, the other will try before long. I posit that DC has lost the film "front," if you will. They are too far behind Marvel. Everything they're doing is judged, perhaps unfairly, through the lens of what Marvel has already accomplished and while I dearly love DC heroes, Marvel has always had the upper hand in terms of instantly relatable characters. There is obviously no way in Apokolips Warner Bros will stop or shift focus from producing high-profile, big-budget releases of their DC characters... but there are other ways to play.

The newest battleground is on TV, where DC was actually ahead of the pack with Arrow. Marvel's own opening salvo came with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, a Flash series is expected to spin-off from Arrow in the next year, and FOX is gearing up for a series about a young Jim Gordon called Gotham. David Goyer, writer of the new Superman films, is developing a Constantine show in development at NBC. The CW's even considering adding a third DC show in Hourman. Not to be outdone, Marvel recently revealed plans for four Marvel heroes in a deal with Netflix: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Daredevil are all getting their own series, leading up to a miniseries event, The Defenders, a kind of street-justice Avengers, and this is where things get interesting.

It's no secret cable television has seen serious increases in quality over the last several years. It's arguably at it's peak now – Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, The Killing, Sherlock, Downton Abbey. Netflix joined the game this year with House of Cards, and there's clearly more to come from them. Stories are becoming more complex and intriguing, characters more compelling, and the serial format allows viewers to really explore and get in deep with a series. There's one show in particular I think could provide a fascinating template for DC to do, as I mentioned, something different: American Horror Story.

Sam Raimi Venom Emo Peter Parker Haircut
Hopefully it'll be less scary than this superhero adaptation.
Let's go back to the source for a moment: the comic books. Historically, DC has struggled with Marvel's "cool" factor. DC set the stage for a world of hero comics, and Stan Lee took it from there. That's basically the story of comics until Jeanette Kahn became a publisher of DC Comics in 1976, and subsequently President in 1981. There's a lot of history about the rivalry between these companies, but the gist of it is that by the 80s, comics had grown up with their audience and were no longer just for kids. High school and college students would be just as likely to buy Legion of Super-Heroes as any grade schooler. Comics had become more literate, but it was under Kahn that comics became, dare I say, respectable. Under her purview, DC released Watchmen and three landmark Batman stories: Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke. Karen Berger came onboard and the Vertigo imprint was created, gifting readers titles like Sandman and a host of other works. DC found critical success, along with considerable commercial success, in treating their stories and characters seriously, as myths rather than cartoon characters. This success, I would argue, was replicated in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which drew many inspirations from the aforementioned Batman works. It's much easier with Batman, but a real lesson DC needs to take to heart is to not be embarrassed about aliens and magic and Amazons. Own it. Trust your creators, trust your characters and story, and execute as well as possible.

Both Marvel and DC have multitudes of excellent character-driven storylines from which to draw. It's difficult to explore these often beloved tales in the span of a two-hour film, or indeed a six-hour trilogy. Much gets compressed or tossed in service of pacing. But these are all characters designed to thrive on long-form storytelling, and I think cable superhero series are a great idea. Were I in charge of such things, I would take that concept one step further with the American Horror Story example and create a constantly-changing superhero anthology show.

I have to think we're reaching a tipping point in the saturation of comics in the media. Fatigue will set in eventually, whether it's because of Avengers 5: You Don't Know Who Half of These Heroes Are Anymore or Justice League Detroit. Sooner or later, people will say "enough," and the studios should be prepared for that. Marvel's stuff is everywhere, and I think DC's counter and solution is an anthology show adapting their most acclaimed storylines, with a new story every season, like American Horror Story. This could be done with team storylines or with high-profile hero storylines, and the beauty of the current market saturation is exposure; these characters are now inextricably dug into popular culture, moreso than ever before. DC has an advantage in owning some of the most recognizable heroes in existence. This allows them to spend more time introducing less-familiar characters and just leaping directly into the story, without the exposition that both sets up and bogs down fledgling hero franchises. The anthology format allows for smaller, character-driven series alternated with bigger events. For example: one season could be an adaptation of a fan-favorite Batman storyline, "Hush." It features nearly every major Batman villain, most of the Robins, and even a Superman cameo, wrapped in a plot that sees both Batman and Bruce Wayne threatened by both characters' pasts. Follow that up with a Justice League origin story—probably the "Origin" storyline from DC's New 52. As the seasons build, viewers get more and more generally familiar with the characters, and thus my next suggestion:

Tim Burton Superman Lives Nicolas Cage costume
Just kidding.
Keep changing up the cast. Every season. Change up the directors and writers. Have a production framework in place that allows for a flow of different kinds of creativity. Part of the excitement of comic storytelling is that every writer and artist brings their own flair to the characters. You get something familiar—the point of franchises—and yet different, each time. Fans flock to the shelves to pick up Brian Bendis' Spider-Man or Scott Snyder's Batman. These creators leave a stamp on their characters, an indelible (and sometimes high-water) mark on stories about this or that character. Think about discussions of who plays the best James Bond, or how we now get to compare the old Star Trek cast to the new Star Trek cast. This kind of thing fuels fan debate and sets fire to our obsessive little hearts.

It's something of a pipe dream, because it's not as though DC or Marvel or anyone will give up on big-budget adaptations of comic stories while they're making their current levels of money. Nor do I mean that they should give up on these films, either; I think a concurrent anthology series could keep things fresh as the films become routine. It could instead present an attractive opportunity for DC in the form of a proving ground. If a character becomes particularly well-received, a solo series or even film could be spun off from the cable series. If a concept does well—say, a season of Sandman or another Vertigo title—it, too, could get its own show after finding a place with audience. It's a flexible concept, one that I think allows DC to assert themselves and blaze a new trail. Let Marvel browbeat the masses with their flashy heroes and big films; maybe DC could take a firmer hold of the cultural imagination with committed, straightforward adaptations of stories that made them famous in the first place.

My two cents—thanks for reading. Got an opinion? Leave it below!

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