In the mid 2000s, DC’s superhero brand (and in particular, Batman) was thriving.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, a hard feat for not only superhero films, but for any film. The gritty, dark tone lined up with their Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson-led trilogy from the 90s, and continued to prove that stories about (mostly) men in costumes could be Serious Cinema.
Marvel Comics – partnered with Sony and Fox respectively – were putting out similarly successful Spiderman films with Tobey Maguire, and X-Men films with Hugh Jackman. They were not as critically acclaimed as the Batman films, and Spiderman fell down a bit of a meme-worthy rabbit hole, but they did well in the box office.
You don’t need me to tell you that Disney is a mastermind of marketing and basically owns the world – and it’s easy to say that Marvel’s current success is due to Disney. Its name, merchandising, and theme parks alone are enough to catapult Marvel’s films to success. But what did Marvel and Disney do so well together that DC and Warner Bros have not been able to replicate? How did Avengers: Endgame become the highest grossest film of all time, and Justice League fail so hard?
As usual, it all comes down to branding.
Disney helped brand Marvel into an entire universe with 23 connected films (and even more tv shows). It turned Marvel’s films into exactly what the comics were: a giant series of characters and stories that sometimes connected. You didn’t have to read every single Marvel comic to be a fan – everyone had their favorite characters and issues. Disney took advantage of its mass catalogue of IP, utilizing littler-known characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy so that they weren’t just relying on a single character to run a franchise.
DC Entertainment did this too, eventually setting up their own universe in 2016 with Batman vs. Superman. But this move came sloppily, and too little too late. Batman had already had so many recent versions (much like Spiderman), and Affleck was a controversial choice to begin with. Marvel, on the other hand, set up their franchise with a single character’s origin movie, relying on a popular Marvel character rather than the most popular cinematic one. By introducing three main heroes in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger), by the time they actually had a crossover film with The Avengers, the audience was excited to see the characters meet, and had already begun to know and love Tony, Thor, and Steve (as well as the actors in those roles). They were invested, unlike in Batman vs. Superman. That film also made the crucial mistake of pitting heroes against each other too early on; Marvel didn’t do this until Civil War, and was thus able to build enough history to make this emotionally resonant.
Marvel’s films were good, but they were also campy and silly. They later embraced this even more with Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy, finding a formulaic sweet spot of one-liners, bright colors, good music, found family, badass female characters, and exciting action scenes. (This formula is very evident in Captain Marvel.) Marvel’s films were built for fandoms, wanting to inspire the same amount of fan loyalty as their comics – and they did even more than that with their fan servicing storylines, fanfiction inspiring relationships, and little winks to the audience. Their huge cast features many beloved stars and has great chemistry – meanwhile, an interview featuring Henry Cavill and a clearly unhappy Ben Affleck promoting Batman vs. Superman became a giant meme. Simply put, Marvel’s films are just a lot more fun than DC’s.
It’s unclear if DC Entertainment was trying to position themselves as the darker, more serious, critically acclaimed superhero option. It makes sense; after all, many of the comics were gritty and artful, and not just fun. But whether or not they meant to, in Disney’s monopolizing of the “fun” market, that’s what they became.
There are inherent problems in this position – first, critically acclaimed films do not always make money. Second, it’s hard to create a formula for a critically acclaimed film. I don’t see Tarantino doing the next Batman, and even if he did there’d be no way to ensure it would be any good. But at least if DC had gone this direction, they would’ve had their own brand and fandom.
The other option was to copy Marvel. This was potentially a good option – they actually successfully did so with their TV shows, creating fun and campy series building off the more serious Arrow, much like the MCU started with Iron Man. They truly built up their characters and fandoms before committing to crossovers, and it worked.
They could have done the same thing with their films. Or they could’ve gone the critically acclaimed route.
Instead, they did neither.
Wonder Woman seemed a return to the critically acclaimed films of DC’s past, getting rave reviews. But this film came on the heel of the dramatic failure that was Batman vs. Superman and the Marvel knockoff-turned-trainwreck that was Suicide Squad, and was later followed by Justice League, which certainly didn’t bode well with the brand. DC is just all over the place; the prime example being the frenzied recut of Suicide Squad to make it more “fun” after the stunning reception of the lighthearted trailer. They’re always scrambling to meet market interests far too late, a fatal mistake in branding and marketing.
Which brings me to my main point: DC Entertainment (at least when it comes to movies) has no solid brand. They refuse to commit to either side, and in doing so make it impossible to succeed at either. Sure, they may have a hit every once in a while, but they’ve yet to find a formula that works.
It will be interesting to see how Marvel moves forward in the wake of its original superheroes retiring, and what DC puts out after the upcoming Joker film (and casting yet another Batman). But for now, I’m good just sticking with The Flash.