It’s confusing, I know.
Between Marvel exponentially expanding their cinematic universe and DC playing quick catch up, the world of superheroes on screen and off is growing dangerously close to critical mass. What’s a fan to do about all these films? Has this officially become too much of a good thing?
This week, I decided to slow down, take a deep breath, and examine what has been going on, what is going on, and what will be going on for the next few years on the big screen, as well as highlighting the differences between the two major superhero studios.
So, lets start with the basics…Marvel vs. DC…
Ever since 2008, Marvel (one of the two major comics distributors in America) has been creating a cinematic universe. By this, I mean every film that Marvel Studios (a film production company owned by Marvel) has made exists in the same narrative universe. Things that happen in one film have relevance in all the others. This excludes any films about X-Men or Wolverine. If Hugh Jackman is in it, it’s not in the MCU. These characters are licensed by Fox, so Marvel as an overall company has no control over what they do with them. This same rule applies to the character of Spider-Man, who is licensed by Sony. All these characters were created by Marvel Comics, but some of them got movie deals with other studios prior to the conception of Marvel Studios. Hence, they are not legally able to be included in the MCU.
That covers the basics of Marvel.
DC (Detective Comics) owns the rights to more universally recognized characters, like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The films they make are distributed by Warner Brothers (DC does not own its own film production company). None of the events that take place in these films have any relevance to any Marvel, Fox, or Sony films. This is an entirely separate narrative drawing from an entirely separate source material. DC is currently trying to build its own cinematic universe, hence the sudden appearance of TV shows featuring the Flash and Supergirl, as well as a fast-paced film production schedule as they try to get the Justice League up on the big screen. They are competing with Marvel Studios for an audience.
DC is not Marvel, Marvel is not DC.
However, I can understand the confusion when two bigs films, timed a month apart in release dates, feature two heroes at each other’s throats about God knows what.
There are some pretty easy ways to tell the two apart, though, for those of you still lost in the superhero wasteland:
DC films: feature the DC comics logo in the opening credits, feature characters like Batman and Superman, are visually and subjectively very dark, have the final battles take place at night.
Marvel films: may feature a Marvel logo during the opening credits (only if part of the MCU), feature characters like Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men, Spiderman, etc and are notably colorful in cinematography and have funny, upbeat tones. They usually have the final battle take place during the day.
Still confused? Maybe there’s another way to rephrase this….
Studios figured out that superheroes draw people to the theater likes moths to a spandex wearing flame.
Essentially, the reason why both TV and movies are suddenly packed with so many heroes and villains is because we keep paying to see them. Thus, the number of films featuring comic book characters has increased dramatically as companies vie for that sweet, sweet nerd money, which we all all too eager to spend.
Lets look at this mathematically:
If we isolate films inspired by Marvel and DC comics, regardless of studio and distributor, that had theatrical releases, there has DEFINITELY been an increase over the last few years (courtesy Wikipedia’s superhero films list).
Starting in the early 2000s, with the release of the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, the number of superhero films to hit the big screen has dramatically increased, moving from an average of 1 per year to 4 per year. This year, 2016, marks the greatest number films to ever be released at 6. Now, one could argue that in general audiences are more attracted to action movies, so this trend is in line with regular movie releases as well. However, regular movie releases may have sequels or prequels, but they do not have entire universes holding them together. Lets look at the numbers adjusting for only Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
Films fitting this specific narrative category are becoming more regular in their release schedule, averaging two a year. DC has begun to move towards this trend, releasing two of their own films that take place in the same universe this year, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. Moreover, neither of these charts take into account TV show tie ins, like Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., The Flash, Supergirl, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, etc.
The amount of superheroes in TV and films has exploded in the last few years, not only because action movie capabilities have made the genre more accessible, but more because audiences are demanding the content. Seeing how so many of these series and films are interconnected, an average audience member would have to at least be familiar with other content to enjoy any one of the others. This kind of homework on the viewer’s part is unheard of in other film genres (not looking at cultural phenomena such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings). This level of dedication has to be widespread enough to keep people flocking to the theater twice a year, assuming they only follow one studio.
Thus, we arrived at the most important fact surrounding superhero films in general: this kind of dedication is widespread.
That’s what all this condensed competition is all about.
The publishers and studios have learned over the last few years that audiences, just like readers, are willing to pour over multiple installments to a series, whether they are prequels, sequels, tagent-quels, movies, TV shows or even comic tie-ins. This kind of effort for entertainment is normally unheard of in the modern film industry. As a result, studios are pretty much guaranteed large audience turn outs whenever they release a new installment and add to the continuing narrative. This explains the rapid increase in superhero media over the last few years, as well as the content of each upcoming film. Studios are now competing with each other for audience participation, as the amount of work an average viewer has to do to remain up to date can polarize fans into different factions, as it has with comics.
Personally, I follow Marvel films and comics. Trying to keep up with both companies is simply too much for one person in my opinion.
Thus, I reach my final thoughts on this month’s upcoming maelstrom of Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War. The reason these two films are now coexisting is due to studios jockeying for position in the viewer fanbase. Now that superhero films are established cultural tentpoles in film consumption, it’s nothing but capes, spandex, explosions, and existential morals. However, it’s also about bringing the best that comics has to offer to the big screen. Not only have superhero films becomes less of a novelty in this saturated film culture, but so have types of superhero films, most notably origin stories.It would be tough for DC to focus on establishing its characters when it’s main rival is already onto the compelling masterpiece that is Civil War. We as viewers already know who the characters are and how they came to be: we are ready for more complex films and shows, and the studios are responding as quickly as they can. I expect this upward trend in superhero films per year will only increase in the near future, with the promise of Avengers: Infinity War and a Justice League movie. I cannot say for certain if we have hit critical mass yet, however, at the rate that these films are taking over the box office, I’m sure it won’t be long before we hit it.
For now, I’m just going to enjoy the ride.
(all charts and infographics copyright Kat Roche)