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Does Marvel Have a Better Content Strategy than DC Comics?

Marvel vs DC superheros do battle

Superhero movies are a thing now. It seems every other month, there’s another one. Logan just came out. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will be out in a few months. The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to have the formula down pat, but the DC Extended Universe just can’t seem to get it right.

Make Mine Marvel

Ok, I’ll admit. When I was a kid, I collected Spider-Man & X-Men. Occasionally, I would pick up Avengers, Fantastic Four and Hulk. My best friend was a Batman fanatic, so I do have an appreciation for what Frank Miller did in the 1980s.

It’s possible that I have a deep inset bias against Detective Comics (DC), but I don’t think it’s that. I collected my fair share of the Dark Knight and the Caped Crusader.

I remember when we buried Superman after his tragic battle with Doomsday. I was a big fan of the artist John Byrne, so when he left Marvel and started drawing Superman, I followed.

But I stopped collecting comic books in the mid-1990s and really didn’t keep up on the various convoluted storylines in the Marvel Universe for almost a two decades (eons in comic book years). I just don’t think my view of Marvel movie superiority has to do with childhood anchoring.

Both houses have long publishing histories and deep benches for characters. What is now DC began as National Allied Publications in 1934. In 1939, Timely Publications was founded and eventually became Marvel Comics.

If you look at it from an objective perspective, the public values DCs characters more than Marvel’s. 4 of the 5 most expensive comic books ever sold are DC comics. They are all from between 1938 and 1940, so it has little to do with simply having older titles. Superman and Batman are more popular stand-alone characters with the general public than any two Marvel heros.

Marvel characters
Walt Disney Company – All Rights Reserved

It wasn’t always Marvel-ous

Marvel was in a shambles until quite recently. They went bankrupt in 1996 and started selling of character rights like a crack head in a pawn shop.

In part, that’s why Marvel Studios still doesn’t have rights to X-Men, Wolverine, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Marvel and Sony had to strike a deal to have the wall crawler included in the Avengers. X-Men movies are not part of the MCU which is why “mutants” don’t exist in the MCU and there was a delicate dance between the Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff character.

It’s possible that they could re-acquire movie rights to all their characters, but the MCU seems to be chugging along just fine as is. Infinity Wars is slated to be the most expensive movie ever made. Estimates are that it could cost $1 billion to make.

In the 1990s Marvel went through reorganization following filing chapter 11. The rebound is so remarkable, it was made into a case study at Harvard Business School. Although he was later pushed out, Ronald Perelman was the mastermind behind the expansion into movies to diversify from publishing.

The first movies they cranked out were sub-par. The Punisher from 1989, Captain America from 1990 and Fantastic Four from 1994. Are all early examples of Marvel trying to understand how to make movies.

Technically, it wouldn’t be until Iron Man in 2008 that Marvel Studios would have full control of movie production. However, that wasn’t the major change.

The Killer Crossover Changed the Game

In 2003, a talent agent named David Maisel got Marvel to see that one-off movies were limiting. In the comic book world, Spider-Man might make an appearance in Doctor Strange. Heck, Wolverine’s first appearance was actually in Incredible Hulk (#180 or #181 if you’re a purist).

Maisel suggested that comic book fans, and the public at-large, wanted to be immersed in a “cinematic universe”. Despite having sold off rights to their most popular titles, Marvel could still leverage valuable properties like Iron Man and Captain America.

Using each movie as a launch pad and marketing material for subsequent movies was a brilliant content strategy. The lead up to the 2012 Avengers was precipitated by 5 other movies (Iron Man 1&2, Hulk, Thor and Captain America).

On the backend, merchandising gets a nice knock-on effect as they are often sold in sets. Think Lego, Monopoly and other comic book branded toys.

Even if you had never read a comic book, you could go to the Avengers movie with a good understanding of who is who and how they relate to one another.

DC Superheroes
Time Warner – All Rights Reserved

Where DC has fared better on the small screen with hits like Arrow, the Flash, Superman, Gotham and Supergirl, the MCU has done an excellent job in cinemas. It’s precisely because Marvel got this right.

The DC Extended Universe does not include the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. While they were very well produced and critically received, they are stand-alone movies and won’t be directly referenced in the DCEU.


The first DCEU movie is technically Man of Steel from 2013. This movie was barely watchable. They tried to take a slightly different approach with the Superman story, but he has too much exposure already.

It would have made more sense to take a minor superhero for their first film. Iron Man was a good choice for Marvel. Recognizable, but not terribly well known. The son of Krypton was a bad choice. Superman….who doesn’t know Superman. The result was a mediocre movie. What followed was an even worse movie.

Two of the biggest names in DC in the same movie. It was highly anticipated, but ended up as a complete trainwreck. It currently has a 27% Rotten Tomatoes score…the same score as Fantastic Four from 1994 and that was a terrible, b-grade movie.

What followed was a huge ensemble movie in the form of Suicide Squad. Again, terrible idea. Why am I going to see a movie featuring a team I’m not familiar with. Had they gone in the opposite direction, with origin stories building up to the big show, it would have made more sense. It’s as if the folks at DC did not have a cohesive strategy to use their content.

While Suicide Squad did relatively well at the box office, it wasn’t a blockbuster. Considering that Avengers made nearly twice the amount at the box office during their opening weekend, it does beg the question of whether DC could have done better.

More importantly, Suicide Squad has almost nothing to do with BvS. While Batman makes a brief appearance, what makes the MCU so appealing is the inter-connectedness between each movie.

It’s doubtful that the marketing spend on Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman was of any benefit to Suicide Squad. On the other hand, promotions of Iron Man 2 and Captain America were a likely boost to the later release of the Avengers.

DC’s arch-rivals Marvel continue to pull off the trick of making each new superhero movie feel like a breath of fresh air. Each new DC movie, by contrast, feels like a suffocating cloud of gloom. And each failure heaps even more expectation upon the next DC movie.” – The Gaurdian

Can DC fix what ails them?

It’s still early days for the DC foray into the big screen and the Marvel engine is showing signs of slowing down. Audience fatigue is starting to set in and there might not be appetite for two more Avengers, another Ant-Man and the introduction of Captain Marvel. (Personally, I can’t wait for Thor: Ragnarök or Black Panther!).

It would be possible for DC to take the Marvel approach and focus exclusively on origin stories before the next ensemble movie. It will be a bit of a reversal since Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Flash were all briefly introduced in BvS, but it could be done.

Christopher Nolan, the same director behind the successful Dark Knight movies was also a producer on Man of Steel. Maybe he should be in the driver’s seat for a few of the DCEU movies to bring some of that mojo back.  

Some critics blame the director for the poor performance of the DCEU. After all, Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel, BvS and was a producer on Suicide Squad. While he’s an easy scapegoat, the problem is probably higher up the food chain.

Hopefully Wonder Woman and Justice League will prove to be the shot in the arm that DC needs so that the balance of power can shift back a bit. Remember the 1980s? Superman and Batman movies were it. Marvel was nowhere to be seen in major motion pictures.

If Marvel could reverse its fortunes, perhaps DC can too?

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