DC vs. Marvel at the movies

August 5, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 5, 2017

Author’s note: A few hours after I published this post, I added a note to my ersatz table indicating that two of the listings included ticket sales from the same Marvel movie. MEM

East Coast vs. West Coast, New York vs. Boston, Apple vs. Microsoft, DC vs. Marvel: Each one of these rivalries is famous and hard-fought. But over the past decade or so, perhaps none of these have been so one-sided as that between the two titans of comic books.

Although DC’s Superman and Batman are inarguably the best-known superheroes of all time, Marvel’s superhero teams — the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and, in recent years, the Guardians of the Galaxy — are by far more popular. Moreover, Marvel comics are generally thought to have more artistic merit and to be more socially relevant than DC products.

To add insult to injury, Marvel has been kicking DC’s heinie on the film front for a decade or more. This is despite the fact that DC’s flagship characters were phenomenally successful at the box office and helped establish the comic-book movie as a genre on the strength of productions such as Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and its 2008 and 2012 sequels.

But aside from those six films, DC movies have generally been lackluster. Director Joel Schumacher’s entries in the first Batman cycle — Batman Forever (1995) and especially Batman & Robin (1997) — were widely derided, as was the 2004 spinoff Catwoman (2004). Supergirl (1984), Steel (1997) and Jonah Hex (2010) fared little better, but at least these have been largely forgotten. By contrast, 2011’s Green Lantern is considered by many to be a textbook example of how not to make a superhero movie.

Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman rebootMan of Steel, was well-acted and well-directed, but it badly missed the spirit of its iconic title character. Last year’s follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, opened to bad reviews; so did Suicide Squad, released the same year.

But while nearly every non-Batman DC movie has faltered following the turn of the century, studios have pumped out a seemingly ceaseless stream of hits based on Marvel properties. Sixteen films in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe have been released since Iron Man debuted in 2008. The least popular of these was The Incredible Hulk (June 2008), which made about $135 million in U.S. box office and $129 million in foreign ticket sales.

The franchise’s 15 other movies have each made at least $176 million in domestic ticket sales, with four of them making $400 million or more. Moreover, 13 of these productions grossed at least as much in foreign markets as they have in America; two of them more than doubled their U.S. take in other nations.

While these figures haven’t been adjusted for inflation, they make it clear that Marvel characters have thrived in the theaters. And they don’t account for the Spider-Man movies, which began coming out in 2002 and consisted of five fairly successful outings, or the 10 mostly well-regarded and commercially prosperous entries set in the X-Men universe, which debuted in 2000. (Nerd note™: The newest Spider-Man movie, Homecoming, which premiered last month and features a new cast and creative team, is now considered part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, unlike its predecessors.)

The movie-business website The Numbers perhaps sums it up best with its list of top-grossing movie franchises, which I am excerpting here:

No. 3: Marvel Cinematic Universe* — $5.5 billion inflation-adjusted domestic box office (IADBO)

No. 5: Batman† — $3.2 billion IADBO

No. 8: X-Men — $2.7 billion IADBO

No. 10: Spider-Man* — $2.3 billion IADBO

No. 13: Superman — $1.9 billion IADBO

No. 22: Dark Knight Trilogy — $1.41 billion IADBO

No. 24: DC Extended Universe — $1.36 billion IADBO

* Both totals include Spider-Man: Homecoming, which has made approximately $289 million in domestic box office to date.
† Includes the Dark Knight Trilogy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe ranks third among all movie franchises in total inflation-adjusted domestic box office, trailing only Star Wars and James Bond. Batman is fifth, behind Harry Potter. X-Men is eighth, after Star Trek and Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies). Spider-Man is 10th, after Disney’s Fantasia. Put simply: Four of the top 10 movie franchises of all time are based on superheroes, and three of them are Marvel properties.

Superman comes in 13th on the list, trailing Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. On its own, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy follows ShrekPirates of the CaribbeanRockyThe Fast and the FuriousTransformers, JawsThe Hunger Games and Twilight. 

But I digress. Nearly any way you slice it, Marvel has dominated when it comes to cinematic success — and remember, its Marvel Cinematic Universe first hit theaters in 2008.

In other words, it’s been a great decade for Marvel at the box office.

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