DC comics have tried to make themselves relevant to cinema-goers in the past and, barring a couple of exceptions, have failed spectacularly. In fairness so did Marvel, who have been just as historically inept, if not more so. But whereas Marvel evolved and improved, DC have remained just the same old DC.
The Early Years
For many a year, the only comic-book characters that had any mass-media and general public traction were Batman and Superman – a grumpy man in black and a boring man in blue and red…I applaud DC for making them so successful and popular. They succeeded with TV/radio shows and films featuring those two characters all the way back to the 1940s and even now the best version of Batman is the 1960s TV series. And I don’t think there is anyone who can deny that Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman is a comic-book classic. But that’s basically it. DC’s only success was Batman and Superman…and nothing has changed.
At the same time Marvel, offered up nothing of value. Despite numerous films and tv shows based on and in their universe, there is very little memorable about Marvel’s offerings except maybe Howard the Duck. As much as I love the cheesiness of the 1990 Captain America, Marvel simply couldn’t compete with DC during this time.
DC managed to update Batman with the excellent Tim Burton films in the late 80s/90s and should have gone on from there to widen their movies to the greater DC universe. Instead, they managed to kill both their reputation and their character’s appeal with the less successful/less appealing Joel Schumacher films of which even some of the movie’s stars are embarrassed (personally I don’t mind them all that much, but I wouldn’t say they were great films). It also very nearly killed off the mainstream appeal of the comic-book genre and probably would have done were it not for Marvel.
Yes, you could argue that it was the studio rather than DC who were responsible for this, as it was their decisions on directors, actors, scripts etc, but as we have seen in recent years, the comic-book companies have significant control over their properties, even when they have been licensed out to studios. And as all these films were and still are made in collaboration with Warner Bros, it is DC’s responsibility to look after their characters!
The Post-Batman & Robin Era
DC did manage to just about keep the Batman franchise alive with the good (though sub-Burton) Nolan films. They have also managed to keep the Superman franchise going with the New Adventures of Superman and Smallville TV series, the disappointing 2006 misstep in Superman Returns, and more recently with the moderately enjoyable Man of Steel. All of which will culminate in the Snyder/Affleck/Cavill release expected next year (thank god they replaced Bale with Affleck!) in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
That’s all great, well done DC, you’ve kept your two most well-known characters alive and in the public consciousness. But now the cinematic universe has changed and it has been Marvel not DC, who has been instrumental in that!
First, having learned from their mistakes of the past, Marvel opted to licence out some of its key characters to other studios, while also maintaining involvement in those films, in an effort to make good quality films.
Blade was released in 1998, only one year after Batman and Robin, and was actually a decent film, but it was the original X-Men film in 2000 that marked a watershed in comic based cinema and both Fox and Marvel should be applauded for their efforts.
They put the film in the hands of a quality director in Bryan Singer, and they cast some outstanding acting talent for key characters with Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen…hell, even Anna Paquin has some pretty good acting chops on her. The script was good, the acting was good and the film was good. It marked a dramatic change from what had gone before and set the benchmark for what has happened since.
At that time, having been burned by the Schumacher Batman films, DC didn’t have an answer. They had animated series for TV, but they didn’t have a cinematic presence and wouldn’t have one for another 4 years. During which time Marvel and its licensees released Blade II (2002), Spider-man (2002), Daredevil, X2 (2003), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004), Spider-man 2 (2004), and Blade: Trinity (2004).
Now, I’m not going to argue that all of those are great movies, far from it, some are very poor, but the fact is that they had no rivals from other comic-book films. Some may say that was a good thing given the over-saturation of such movies nowadays, but it shows just how far behind the curve DC was.
When DC finally did get a film out it was… Catwoman in 2004.
Luckily for them, they managed to follow it up with Batman Begins in 2005 and Superman Returns in 2006. Of their first three films of the PBR (post Batman & Robin era) one was a total flop, one was a moderate disappointment (helped only because of just how bad X-Men: the Last Stand (2006) was) and one was the third best Batman film ever made (behind the Burton Batmans). One out of three isn’t exactly a great return given the depth of the DC universe.
DC’s next movie wasn’t until 2008, but luckily for DC, Marvel’s films during that gap included Spider-man 3, Fantastic Four:Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ghost Rider, so they really didn’t have too many problems, and it proves that even Marvel can have missteps.
The Rise of the Avengers
2008 was another key turning point for Marvel and DC. It was the year that The Dark Knight was released with the scene stealing Heath Ledger easily the most memorable thing from that film, which while good, didn’t quite live up to the level of Batman Begins. But once again, that was it, just a single film. At the same time Marvel, with their new focus on in-house productions, released Ironman and The Incredible Hulk as the studio started its move towards the Avengers initiative and the growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
They stuck with the same ideology as the X-Men franchise had, quality directors, quality actors and a focus on developing a quality script and a quality overarching multi-film plot. And it has worked for them.
While DC did have the somewhat overrated Nolan helming Batman, Marvel had the start at something better with Joss Whedon looking after the bigger picture while directors like Kenneth Branagh, Jon Favreau, James Gunn and the Russo brothers looking after the films themselves.
It had resulted in some very good movies with more depth and character than many people would expect from a comic-book film. While DC continued to languish, churning out lesser known titles like the Watchmen, Jonah Hex, and Green Lantern (probably the worst comic-book film since Catwoman (2004)), until the weakest of Nolan’s movies the Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012, four years after its last film.
Between the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, Marvel released Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) of which at last half are quality films.
In the post Batman and Robin era through to the Avengers release in 2012, DC managed to release a total of 8 films of which at least half were poor if not downright awful. In contrast, Marvel itself released 6 (at least two-thirds of which are good quality) and an additional 21 films through licences with other studios, of which half were decent. 8 films against 27, and even if we accept at least half of each were bad, that still leaves 4 DC films against 13 Marvel – I think that speaks volumes about how inept DC were in harnessing their universe for the movie-going audience.
Onto the part II
The past century has seen numerous attempts to bring comic-based content to the big-screen and to the mainstream consciousness and it has seen DC fail spectacularly in bringing their wider world to take the dominant position. Yes, they still have Superman and Batman, but that is all they have ever managed to do. Yes, they had the most popular TV shows and movies of previous eras, but they have never been able to capitalise on those. They have allowed Marvel to take over and take control of the comic-book agenda for over 15 years. They have managed to take a good foundation and a long-standing affection for their characters and the DC universe, and they have squandered it at every turn, while their arch-nemesis has not only managed to dominate the world of comic-based movies, but they have managed to do it by developing at least 5-6 different franchises, some of which wouldn’t have been known to the general public beforehand. DC have let themselves be overpowered at every turn.
That is basically the story of the situation through to 2012, which as far as I’m concerned ended the Movie era of the comic-book age. It was the conclusion of the Nolan trilogy and the initial Avengers project. It also marks the switch in attention from the almost exclusively movie based focus of the past 20-30 years to the multi-platform developments that have taken place in recent years with an attempt to spread comic-based content across TV, Movies and online streaming – it is an area where DC have excelled in the past, but are they bringing that ability to the current era?
Find out next time on DC getting it wrong…again?
Image Sources: Marvel, Fox, DC, Warner Bros