I’ve said earlier that there was one way for DC to go which might work in terms of out-creating Marvel: go ‘super-grim’, in an effort to match the Ironic and bleak nature of today’s culture generally. Batman vs Superman did just that, as predicted. The long-awaited showdown between the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader smashed records at the box office initially, beating Avengers: Age of Ultron for a Thursday night opening at $27.7m, and then going on to make $166.1 million domestically and $424 million worldwide in its opening weekend, then, after only six days, surpassing $500m. And then it tailed off. So much so that DC have panicked, making various executive and creative changes even to films that were already in the pipeline. The ‘billion pound barrier’ may be partly a psychological one, but for sure there is a lot riding on it financially too.
On the other hand, Marvel, with its legacy of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the Marvel ‘Bullpen’ and what they did in the 60s, goes from strength to strength. Captain America: Civil War has passed the billion pound mark, and the studio has plenty more planned and about to hit our screens.
Part of the reason for Marvel’s success is what I’ve called its ‘mall’ strategy - distinct products, established at first on their own, then drawn together under one ‘roof’. If any single film doesn’t make it, the mall itself is strong enough to survive. DC, on the other hand, has adopted a ‘franchise’ strategy, probably in an effort to catch up quickly: put together an ensemble film, featuring the big guns of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (plus a few hints of some others), then branch out into a series of films about each character. If your foundation film ‘fails’ (and less than a billion pounds in today’s market is considered by many a failure), then the rest are put at risk.
As I have suggested, Marvel will succeed as long as it maintains this mall approach and keeps being funny and counter-pointing Ironic storylines with the wit and energy of Comedy and Epic. DC is the one who will struggle, because its department store model is risky and because it doesn’t have the Comic or Epic legacy to draw upon.
What is it that customers like about the ‘mall’ model? The same thing that they like about malls everywhere. Anchored by major, long-lived icons like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, they can afford to offer glamour and seduction for further niche audiences by exploring new territory in forthcoming films like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and many others. The icons are the big stores; the niche audiences are the smaller specialist shops. One of the advantages of the strategy is that Captain America or Iron Man fans don’t have to wait for their character to get a starring role in a film - they appear regularly in others. Iron Man featured hugely in Civil War; the Hulk will make an appearance in the next Thor film. Then they will all come together again in 2019 for the two massive Avengers films. In other words, you can get everything you need with fewer visits to the cinema.
Civil War also featured Ant Man and the re-cast appearance of another huge Marvel icon, Spider-Man. That was ‘mall strategy’ at its best, feeding the hunger of niche audiences in a larger setting.
Marvel’s mall strategy also has a social function: niches can meet. When I first saw Iron Man, there were only three people who were there at the end of the credits sequence to witness the now-famous ‘Avengers Initiative’ snippet; by the time I went to see Captain America: Civil War, only three people left before the end of the credits, leaving dozens. I felt an enormous affinity for those first three who stayed during Iron Man; now that affinity has grown into what is virtually a global cinematic movement.
Marvel has the knack of giving the ‘customer’ what he or she wants. Just when the suspense mounts in an action scene, there is the comic quip, not acting to defuse the tension but to enhance it. Thus, in the elevator scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, in which Steve Rogers is about to be pounced upon by a team of assassins, the action is preceded by his question: ‘Before we start, does anyone want to get out?’ The comedy enhances his confidence as a character; the audience anticipates even more the confrontation that is about to take place.
DC haven’t mastered this yet. No doubt, after Batman vs Superman, they will make an attempt to lighten the tone of further films. They start with the disadvantage that they never had a Lee or Kirby to inject their characters with wit all those years ago when the templates were being designed. And, if they want to mirror Marvel’s success, they need to have the confidence to launch stand-alone characters in their own films before bringing them together in ‘mall’-style super-films. Then they might have a chance.