How were your holidays? Mine were alright. I re-watched Ant Man the day after Christmas, and I had one of those moments where you suddenly understand the answer to a question you didn’t quite realize you’d been asking.
With Batman vs. Superman (basically a Justice League movie) and Captain America: Civil War (basically an Avengers movie) both coming down the pipeline, the Big Question is pressing on us all. It is everywhere, only a quick google search away. So it seems to me, gentle reader, that we might as well turn to the elephant in the room and give it at least a half-hearted once over.
The Big Question is this: why is Marvel doing better at the movies than DC?
Because if you take a step back, it really ought to be the other way around. DC has an enormous head start. Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989, guys. You could even go back to Superman in 1978. That’s only one year after the original Star Wars!
By comparison, Marvel didn’t even really get started until 2000 (with the Singer X-Men films) and didn’t get properly going until 2008 (with the current cinematic universe, starting with Iron Man).
DC has between three and four more decades of experience making their characters into blockbuster popcorn movies than Marvel does. That’s an entire generation. They should not be losing.
But they clearly are.
I’m not going to bother going over the numbers; you have the internet and a working comment section, you can fight amongst yourselves over what Rotten Tomatoes ratings or box office returns really mean.
The Marvel Cinematic universe has taken a position of prominence as the exemplar of the superhero movie—to the point that publicly disliking them has become one of the Recognized Strategic Moves for Establishing Hipster Credibility. I can’t think of a surer barometer for cinematic success than that.
So why? There’s doubtless a host of potential reasons:
- Marvel is more open to reinterpreting their characters
- DC is too beholden to an imagined stereotype of what comic fans ‘want’
- DC is taking themselves too seriously
- Marvel is forced to write around rights issues with the Fantastic Four and the X-Men; this means they are putting extra effort into less-prestigious characters like Ant Man and Rocket Raccoon—and that effort is showing on the screen
- A storm warlock was summoned by the ghost of Steve Ditko to put a curse on DC for discontinuing ‘The Question’ (yes, I know that Steve Ditko is still perfectly alive—but that makes it even spookier!)
- Whatever. I think the real reason is a lot simpler.
Somebody at Marvel has figured out how to make watching a movie feel like reading a comic book.
As Scott McCloud is happy to explain to you over the course of several books comics tell stories in their own way. Using sequential pictures with words lets you show what happens over several distinct moments in time and at the same time explain those moments one-by-one. To repurpose a metaphor, they’ll show you a picture of a man talking about how he’s hungry, followed by a picture of him looking down, followed by a picture of a sandwich with a list of ingredients, followed by a wordless close-up of the man’s face with off panel sound effect of a gurgling stomach. These images tell us not only that “this man is hungry,” it tells us how to feel about it—is it funny that he’s hungry? Is it dramatic that he’s hungry? Is it sexy that he’s hungry? (or whatever.) It’s Eisenstein’s montage theory, except that it’s allowed to work at whatever speed the audience is most comfortable reading.
Now look at any memorable sequence from a recent Marvel movie. We cut from Avenger to Avenger in the lab on the helicarrier as they begin to argue, gradually zooming in on the Evil Space Sceptre that is implied to be causing the disharmony. We pan around the room as Star Lord tries to make an inspiring speech and gets derailed into the comedy. We watch Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch have a very intense ‘let’s define our characters’ conversation in a brief pause in the middle of Robot Battle. These sequences aren’t just effective filmmaking—they’re scripted like comics, they’re paced like comics, the shots are even composed like comic book panels!
And it produces a film that is not only AS fun as a comic book, it’s fun IN THE SAME WAY.
Now, I liked Heath Ledger’s Joker just as much as anyone, but the Christopher Nolan trilogy, for better or worse, did not feel like a Batman comic. Man of Steel did not feel like a Superman comic. Arrow and Flash come closer to feeling like comics, but they aren’t all the way there (and DC is reportedly distancing them from its film universe). And the trailers for Batman vs. Superman do not feel like a Justice League comic.
DC either doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to make its films feel like comics. There may be a million other reasons. But for me, dear reader, that’s why Marvel is still winning.
Lots of Love,
-The Guy Writing This