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'Iron' beats 'Steel': A History of Marvel vs DC, and what it's leading towards

With "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" releasing this weekend, Marvel is making it harder and harder for DC.
With "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" releasing this weekend, Marvel is making it harder and harder for DC.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

At a time when Marvel Films is seeing an incredible presence at the box office due to franchises like Iron Man, Captain America, and, of course, The Avengers, it leaves many to speculate if DC's film division, run by Warner Bros., can ever compete at this point. With The Dark Knight trilogy already at an end, and 2013's Man of Steel, while being equally stunning, left many die-hard Superman fans feeling underwhelmed, it's easy to make the argument that they will never catch up.

Even with their upcoming Superman Vs Batman, which pits DC's two most popular characters against each other, seems like a step in the wrong direction. As much as I love the cast, which includes Ben Affleck as Batman, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, and Jeremy Irons as Alfred, Warner and DC took things a bit too far by including Cam Gidot as Wonder Woman, with rumors that they want to bring in other DC characters such as Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and The Flash into the fray. It's this “all eggs in one basket” approach that is steadily lowering the collective faith of comic book fans around the world, making it seem like DC should truly be the one to back down from the impending box office battle that will be May 6, 2016 – which Marvel announced an untitled film well before Warner Bros put Superman Vs Batman there. This overloading of characters into one film, essentially turning a simple Man of Steel sequel into the long-awaited Justice League movie, does not seem like the wisest step.

Remember, though. It didn't always used to be this way.

Warner Bros. and DC once owned the entire comic book movie game. Starting in 1978, Superman, starring the legendary Christopher Reeve, bowed on the big screen, earning more than $134 million in its lifetime – which, on a $50 million budget for the time period, was a huge deal. This of course, paved the way for an almost equally successful sequel Superman II ($108 million) in 1981, so why not continue the streak? However, streaks clearly went so far, even then. Warner/DC's Superman III (1983) only grossed a little over $59 million, while the much maligned Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) couldn't even make its $17 million budget back during its theatrical run.

By this time, however, box office receipts aside, it was clear that Warner Bros. and DC had started something big. Could comic books, which were originally designed for children, be viable as movies for all audiences?

Marvel certainly thought so, as they were trying their hands early on to get a piece of the pie. However, their early attempts were only met with disaster. 1986's Howard the Duck, to this day, is considered a running gag, regardless of how amazing the comic books were, and 1989's The Punisher, starring Rutger Hauer as the titular character, didn't fare much better. Meanwhile, DC found great success with adapting another of their biggest characters with 1989's Batman, which grossed over $251million domestically – more than the first two Superman films grossed domestically combined. Marvel tried their hands at adapting Captain America in 1990, which wound up not even being released in theaters domestically and received truly abysmal reviews (which, trust me, the film deserved).

Following up the momentum of Tim Burton's first Batman came Batman Returns in 1992, which, while only receiving a little over $162 million domestically, showed that comic book movies could turn a profit and become marketable, using ties with such companies as McDonald's to get the word out about the film. However, this would also prove to be their downfall. During this time, the mentality was that comic books were still for children, and having Batman Returns toys in Happy Meals kind of solidified this theory. The problem is that the film was a much darker, bleaker vision of Batman, almost resembling the works of Frank Miller, which was certain NOT child-friendly.

It was because of this that caused Warner to rethink the Batman franchise, letting Tim Burton go in lieu of Joel Schumacher, who directed the dark, yet cartoony Batman Forever in 1995 (which still grossed $184 million domestically, even without Michael Keaton, who had donned the cape and cowl in the first two films), and DC's long-standing running joke Batman and Robin, which, due to star power from George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, grossed over $107 million domestically.

While Superman made comic book movies viable in 1978, Batman and Robin proved 11 years later they weren't. It didn't matter that the film grossed over $100 million. Critics and audiences couldn't hate the film enough, and Warner Bros/DC decided to lay low – especially after they released the Shaq vehicle Steel the same year, another DC imprint, to a mortifying $1.7 million domestic total and equally mortifying reviews.

Marvel, at this point, saw an opportunity, and seized it.

A year later, in 1998, Marvel, working with New Line Cinema (which is ironically owned by Warner Bros.), released Blade, with Wesley Snipes in the titular role. Directed by Stephen Norrington, and co-starring Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Dorff, grossed a surprising $70 million domestically, making it Marvel's first viable comic book movie hit.

Keeping the momentum going, Marvel, now working with 20th Century Fox, released the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men in 2000, which grossed a then-phenomenal $157 million domestic, making it the first comic book adaptation to gross over $150 million since 1995's Batman Forever. Bringing one of the most iconic comic properties to the big screen for the first time, launching the breakthroughs of Halle Berry and James Marsden, as well as introducing the world to Hugh Jackman, X-Men made comic book films not only cool again, but financially viable as well.

While DC seemed reluctant to release anything, even during this time period, Marvel ruled the roost. With the help of Columbia Pictures, Marvel released Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, with Tobey Maguire in the lead role, in 2002 to massive results. Grossing over $403 million in the US alone, quickly becoming on of the top grossing films of all time, Spider-Man proved that audiences were truly ready for their favorite comic book characters to emerge onto the big screen.

This was something Marvel had no problem given audiences. Following Blade II's 2002 release, grossing over $82 million, Marvel released Hulk ($132 million domestic), Daredevil ($102 million domestic), and X2 ($214 million domestic) in 2003, Spider-Man 2 ($373 million), The Punisher ($33 million), and Blade: Trinity ($54 million) in 2004, and Elektra ($24 million) and Fantastic Four ($154 million) in 2005. While some mishaps were made, it was still clear who was running the game in comic book movies by now.

It was this time that DC finally started to get back into the race.

After a disastrous turn with 2004's Catwoman, Warner Bros. turned to indie filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who had worked with them in 2002 with their English language remake of Insomnia, to make 2005's Batman Begins. Starring Christian Bale as the legendary character, Begins, while only making $206 million domestically, paved the way for another revolution in filmmaking – the dark comic book movie. With Blade: Trinity suffering from the over-saturation of vampire films of the time period and Elektra simply being a cinematic disappointment, Begins triumphed over the comparatively goofy Fantastic Four, giving new blood to DC's film prospects.

In 2006, DC and Marvel both failed to cut it with fans.

While DC attempted to bring back America's favorite superhero in Superman Returns, Marvel countered with X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film in the franchise that started the revolution. However, both films were fraught with problems. The Last Stand lost director Bryan Singer (ironically to Returns), putting Rush Hour helmer Brett Ratner in the director's chair, and tried to introduce too many characters too quickly, allowing the momentum built from the first two films to come to a screeching halt. Superman Returns, on the other hand, tried to find the perfect balance between Nolan's darkness on Batman Begins and the feeling and structure from the previous four Superman films, without truly achieving either. The closest they came was casting Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, a brilliant decision by all means, but, in the end, that couldn't save the film from itself. Ultimately, The Last Stand won that Summer with $234 million domestically, while Superman Returns only managed $200 million.

Marvel faced a couple other missteps in 2007. Spider-Man 3, despite grossing $336 million domestically, saw a tragic bastadization of the comic books, especially when it came to the misuse of popular villain Venom, and the knowledge that Tobey Maguire, Sam Raimi, and Kirsten Dunst had no intentions of coming back for a third movie. To make matters worse, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was so remarkably bad it nearly killed Marvel's chances of getting back in the game.

In 2008, the game changed again.

With Warner and DC releasing The Dark Knight, the sequel to Nolan's Batman Begins, Marvel needed to up their game. Developing the hail mary pass of the century, Marvel delivered the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, the latter being both a sequel and a reboot of Ang Lee's now-maligned Hulk. What made these films stand out is that they literally existed in the same universe. Iron Man teased Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., while S.H.I.E.L.D. played an important role in Incredible Hulk to the point Tony Stark showed up at the end of the film, teasing a larger universe, leading up to something much bigger.

What Marvel couldn't anticipate was the juggernaut The Dark Knight would become. What's now considered to be legendary, The Dark Knight proved that comic book films could make money, becoming the second highest-grossing film of all time under Titanic, but also that comic book films could be legitimate. Seeming more like a cop drama and domestic terrorist film than a Batman movie, Dark Knight revolutionized the way audiences look at comic book films, demanding respect finally after thirty years.

The following year, with Christopher Nolan busy writing and directing Inception, both Marvel and DC were dealt individual blows again. Marvel released X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first in a planned series of solo X-Men films, failed to make what any of the previous X-Men films earned, and is almost unanimously considered to be the worst X-Men film to date. Meanwhile, DC and Warner released Watchmen, based on Alan Moore's widely lauded graphic novel, to a disappointing $107 million.

While Warner was still waiting for Nolan to begin work on the third Dark Knight film, Marvel released Iron Man 2, further establishing Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Teasing both Captain America and Thor, Iron Man 2 promised fans that an Avengers movie was on its way. And, while the film made slightly less than the first installment, it was still clear that Marvel was doing the right thing – unlike Warner and DC, who released Jonah Hex the same year.

2011 saw the releases of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. While neither film earned Iron Man numbers ($181 million and $176 million, respectively), both films promised that each of the titular characters would return for The Avengers, allowing fans the chance to see if one of the biggest cinematic gambles would pay off. DC, trying to set up a Justice League movie, released Green Lantern, which earned a very disappointing $116 million domestic.

In the Summer of 2012, Marvel and DC would face off again at the box office, but things would shape up quite differently.

In May 2012, The Avengers bowed at the box office to an unprecedented $207 million in its first weekend, becoming the first film to ever gross over $200 million in three days. Bringing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), as well as Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki, into the same film under the helm of writer/director Joss Whedon, the world saw the power of Marvel's planning, and they simply couldn't get enough. The Avengers would go on to make over $623 million domestically (which still sits as the third highest-grossing film of all time), would become Marvel's first billion-dollar earner worldwide, and showed that they were clearly onto something massive.

The following July, The Dark Knight Rises bowed. Many box office analysts assumed Rises would have no problem stealing The Avengers' thunder. It had been four years since Dark Knight, after all, and had fans salivating to see more. However, due to a borderline massacre during a midnight showing of Rises in a theater in Aurora, CO, many audiences were frightened out of seeing it opening weekend, and, with the film's much darker tones than that of The Avengers, Rises, while still becoming DC's second billion-dollar earner worldwide, only managed $448 million domestically. What also could have contributed to The Dark Knight Rises faltering a little was The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel's reboot in an attempt to give the beloved hero a more accurate, more thrilling turn at the box office. While many audiences had a wait-and-see approach to the film, Amazing's $162 million domestic gross was certainly distracting enough.

Marvel's post-Avengers plan certainly paid off. Iron Man 3 managed to gross over $409 million domestically and became Marvel's second billion-dollar earner in a row. Thor: The Dark World got big boost from The Avengers as well, earning $206 million, and, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier opening up today (April 4, 2014) poised to make even more than the Thor sequel, not to mention The Amazing Spider-Man 2 bowing next month, Marvel certainly has their grasp on the box office. While DC's Man of Steel, which was produced by Christopher Nolan, did well with $291 million domestically, the film was not well received by critics, and polarized audiences.

The reason why the Superman Vs Batman film may not succeed the way Warner and DC want is because, unlike in The Avengers, each character will not be well established (i.e, got their own movie) before showing up in the ensemble. While Superman and Batman have been around for years in several different films, Wonder Woman has not had an entry in the cinematic world, and throwing her in with the big boys already seems premature at best.

Sorry, DC. While chemically this isn't the case, it seems that, cinematically, Iron is stronger than Steel.