DC versus Marvel: the problem with superheroes

Daniel Wren

As we all know by now, Batman is to change again. A friend of a friend refers to the Christian Bale iteration of Batman as ‘lozenge Bat’ because of Christian Bale’s ridiculous husky voice. Now producers want a failed Daredevil to become Batman. I wonder how that’ll work out – but, let’s be fair, Ben Affleck’s Batman is pretty buff.


The latest Spider-Man movie also didn’t make the waves producers thought it would. But ensemble films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers Assemble have gone stellar. The draw of solo heroes relies very much on the charisma of the lead, because the popularity of the character doesn’t seem a reliable measure of success. Ensemble superhero films, meanwhile, have done quite well so far.

In general, Marvel beats DC hands down in the blockbuster stakes. This seems very curious to me, because in the realm of comics, DC had some really well written franchises, such as The Sandman. But Marvel has most of the big franchises right now: Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and even The X-Men. All these heroes have everyday household recognition – but when I was growing up, the heroes I’d think of first were always Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and The X-Men, in that order. DC characters always came to mind first.

Sharpening the blade

DC’s most recognisable superheroes have always been Superman and Batman. There are other superheroes (Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Green Arrow), but of these only Wonder Woman feels like a household name approaching the same level of recognition. I loved Supergirl too, but let’s call that a niche interest.

Because of various film and TV iterations over the decades, both Superman and Batman seem the most familiar and accessible of all the superhero franchises. In the 90s and 00s we had two mainstream live action TV shows featuring Superman. ITV showed a number of animated Batman series. Between 1989 and 2012, we had seven Batman films, spanning two different versions of the franchise. There were six Superman films, plus Supergirl, between 1978 and 2013. These films would seemingly pave the way for the mainstream appeal of superhero characters.

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It wasn’t until 2002 that Spider-Man even had his own theatrical movie (there was a made-for-TV movie back in the 70s) and The X-Men only got their first movie in 2000 – making these superheroes latecomers to the cinematic world. It seems odd, then, that DC’s success rate is so patchy.

DC’s Batman reboot did do well, as did Tim Burton’s earlier Batman films – although Joel Schumacher’s later direction marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the earlier film series. The new Superman films just don’t seem to have struck such a chord with audiences.

Of course, Marvel isn’t without its own share of flops. It wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that Marvel had any success at cinemas, and that set the success for films to follow. Its darker tone, that deviates somewhat from the original comicbook character, can be seen as one of its strengths – and perhaps influenced reboots of other franchises that followed its lead.


I’m going to take an uneducated guess at why some films have succeeded and others haven’t, though. It seems to me that where films have failed to perform as well as expected, it’s often because of overexposure.

Take Marvel. Outside of the comics, the characters to most feature in popular culture have been Spider-Man, The Hulk and The X-Men. Spider-Man had a 90s cartoon and has had a number of movies. We know him and he’s boring now. Let’s also be honest here: how soon after Maguire’s Spider-Man did we get a reboot? Superman Returns came out in 2006 and Man of Steel followed in 2013. It seems to me that each generation only needs one definitive version of each superhero – and anything more seems like overkill (although Overkill from the Spawn franchise might be an interesting character to appear in a film…).

Hence why the latest Spidey films don’t excite us as much as, say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Avengers Assemble – where the general movie-going audience is discovering new characters, and ardent superhero fans are seeing their favourite characters brought to the big screen for the first time.

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The Hulk films have flopped, with just five years between The Hulk and reboot The Incredible Hulk. Frankly, it’s just confusing to figure out which version of which universe we’re meant to be in as a movie-going audience – and blockbuster audiences don’t really want to think that much.

The X-Men have survived so far – without the recent overhauls of Spider-Man or Superman – because they’re an ensemble, their ‘reboot’ was actually a sequel that merely reset part of the timeline, and there’s a constantly changing cast of villains and minor characters. Oh, and because Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan just plain rock.

Those single-hero movies where the hero has stopped becoming a surprise don’t hold the same appeal. We know what they’re all about. We know how it’ll end. We’ve seen it all before.

Iron Man hasn’t been as overexposed as Spider-Man and Superman, and thus is still popular. Plus Robert Downey, Jr is ridiculously charistmatic in a way Tobey Maguire isn’t.

The problem with hero worship

Let’s return to DC, though. I think the problem, at this stage, is that we can’t discover any more about the two biggest DC characters. They’ve become unsurprising to us: Batman is moody and Superman is overly virtuous. Their characters have shrunk because of overexposure, rather than growing and expanding.

Think about it. The real problem with these DC heroes is that they’re too, well, dull. Batman is the most interesting, but he’s basically an emo. ‘Sorry, folks, Batman can’t save Gotham tonight. He’s busy straightening his fringe, writing Twilight fanfic and listening to The Cure.’ Basically, Batman is Adam Lambert. Superman, meanwhile, is one of the Jonas Brothers – with the purity ring to match.

But despite this, DC comics do sell. There must be a reason. Well, for me, it’s always DC’s villains that steal the limelight. People who are overly virtuous bore me anyway, but who doesn’t love the baddies? The baddies in DC comics are far more violent, far more sadistic, far more interesting than the ones in Marvel. Watchmen, despite a mediocre director, was still a pretty good film because its heroes are awful human beings. So yes, baddies, please. That should be where DC focuses its attention.

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Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, to see Harley Quinn team up with Catwoman and Poison Ivy? Wouldn’t it be great to see The Joker get his own movie?

There’s real darkness at the heart of the DC universe – in a way there isn’t in the Marvel universe – and that could make for something far more adult. I guess the problem is that film execs would worry about alienating the youngsters. Have The Joker slicing off his own face, and you can say goodbye to a PG rating.

batman death of the family

Sweet dreams are made of this

Arkham Asylum would make a great Batman film. Draw upon Dave McKean’s hauntingly surreal artwork. Plumb the dark depths of Grant Morrison’s script. You could have a very adult film that would take the franchise in a new direction. The villains are infinitely more interesting than the heroes, because we’ve not already done them to death.

So let’s try the baddies, eh? Although the 90s film of Spawn (an Image Comics creation) wasn’t fantastic, I loved the darkness of it. We’ve done brooding vampires and lesbian werewolves, and those have been popular, so why not turn our focus to the monsters of our comic books instead? The Joker and Catwoman are probably more popular with many fans than Batman, so why not give them a chance to pull the DC franchise out of its cinematic rut?

Oh, and The Sandman. Guys, you need to make sure you get this right when it finally hits our screens. Turning The Sandman into a film could redeem DC and give it a fresh lease of life. With over a dozen Sandman comics in existence, possibly forming the basis for a film series, there’s plenty of scope to make money and prove you can do superheroes right.

But maybe think of adapting Neil Gaiman’s scripts, rather than creating something entirely new for the character – the old script floating around on the internet was simply awful.

About Daniel Wren

Vada Magazine staff writer. Interested in travel, news, politics and dating.

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