Bringing the world's most beloved comic book characters to life is no small feat, although it's one that Marvel and DC seem to pull off with ease, time after time. Still, in an age-old battle that rivals those between the caped superheroes on the screen and the bad guys they must defeat, fans still can't agree on who does it best—Marvel or DC. Perhaps an easier way to see who comes out on top in this epic debate is to look at who rules at the box office. The sheer number of fans turning out to see a flick is generally considered a good indicator of who reigns supreme.
DC Comics has a long, long reputation to defend and has been raking in billions by putting out movies that have wowed comic book fans since 1966 when "Batman: The Movie" first hit theaters. All told, that original Batman movie pulled in a meager $1.3 million at the box office, which was just a small drop in a large bucket compared to the company's next release a dozen years later with 1978's "Superman: The Movie," which brought in $134.2 million.
The Eighties continued to be a boon for DC, with releases like "Superman II" (1981), "Superman III" (1983), "Supergirl" (1984), "Superman IV" (1987), and "Batman" (1989), raking in a combined total of $920.5 million for the decade. It was also during the Eighties that Marvel broke into the superhero movie niche with 1986's "Howard the Duck," which brought in a respectable $16.2 million at the box office.
Marvel really packed a punch at the box office with a run that began with the 1998 release of "Blade," which grossed around $70 million and followed by "X-Men" (2000), which grossed just over $296 million. "Blade II" was released in 2002, reeling in $82 million; a figure which was eclipsed the same year by "Spider-Man," a mega hit that grossed Marvel about $500 million over its run.
Although "Spider-Man" was a highlight of Marvel's astounding box-office run, it wasn't the climax. In 2003, "X2" brought in $214 million, "Daredevil" brought in $102 million, and "Hulk" earned $132 million. Fans of Marvel were astounded at the success of 2004's "Spider-Man 2" when total earnings tallied $373 million, a total which made "Blade Trinity" at $52 million and "The Punisher" at $38.8 million seem major flops.
Marvel would continue its winning streak with "X-Men: The Last Stand" earning $234 million and "Spider-Man 3," which wove a web of excitement for Marvel by raking up $336 million in box-office gold. "Ghost Rider" pulled in $115 million, due largely to Nicolas Cage's fiery performance, and "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," grossed Marvel a little more than $131 million. The company also scored big with 2012's "The Avengers," which grossed $623 million and "The Amazing Spider-Man," which grossed $262 million.
Still, DC has been a force to be reckoned with during the same time frame, particularly with its "Batman" franchise, starting in 1992 with "Batman Returns," grossing $162 million and continuing the trend in 1995 with "Batman Forever," a movie that grossed $184 million. Batman proved unstoppable as the franchise plunged forward with "Batman Begins" earning $206 million in 2005, "The Dark Knight" bringing in $534 million in 2008, and "The Dark Knight Rises" tallying up at $448 million in 2012. DC also had big hits with "Superman Returns" in 2006 ($200 million), 2009's "Watchmen" ($107 million), and 2011's "Green Lantern" ($116 million).
Marvel and DC have been in what appeared at times to be a neck-and-neck race to make box-office-earnings history for the past two decades or so. The "Iron Man" franchise did a lot to even out the score for Marvel, and it came out as a clear competitor against DC's "Batman," especially when combined with the pulling power of the "Spider-Man" series. Marvel's "Iron Man" franchise has proved to be platinum at the box office, with 2008's original "Iron Man" bringing in $318 million, "Iron Man 2" (2010) earning $312 million, and "Iron Man 3" (2013) earning a mind-boggling $409 million domestically and $805 million internationally, making it easily one of the most profitable film franchises of all time. In the end, "Batman" is no real rival to the combined forces of "Iron Man" and "Spider-Man"—which is why Marvel comes out on top at the box office when comparing the two based on sheer earnings and number of top-grossing hits.