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Marvel versus DC, Round 2

I’ve argued before in this blog that Marvel have the upper hand on DC in terms of a successful cinematic venture stretching out into the future, mainly because they have a particular kind of heritage to draw from and DC doesn’t. There’s one way for DC to go which might work in terms of out-creating their competitor, and it looks like they have already started down that road. The clues are all in the picture above: Superman's grim expression, Batman's slumped shoulders, the rain...

Marvel’s twelve films (at this writing in early 2016) have never taken less than $130 million in worldwide box office. They’ve had at least one film in the ten highest grossing films of the year every year since 2010. As with any affluence in anything, the trick is to maintain it, or even grow beyond it. Such success draws out the critics looking for the slightest flaw or mis-step; audience expectations grow high and might be hard to meet (as has already happened to a small extent with Iron Man 3, Thor 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, even though those films were still big successes). If Marvel falls into a formulaic trap, becoming stale and predictable, their cinematic universe might start into a decline, unable to recapture the ‘mojo’ that got it this far.

Marvel have a strategy for dealing with this. I’ve elsewhere called it the ‘mall’ strategy - building a set of distinct ‘shops’ or products, but drawing them together under one roof, thus benefitting commercially from public drawn to one product who then find it easier to move onto another. In film terms, this means that those who watched and liked Iron Man are notably tempted not only to watch its sequels, but are also drawn forward to ‘team-ups’ like the Avengers films. From there, they may go on to sample related films like Thor or Captain America, just as customers in a mall might visit shops that they otherwise wouldn’t have contemplated going into, just because they are all under the same roof. This grows into a larger audience than would be attainable with a single film or even a series of sequels. By continuing to ‘seed’ wide audiences with fresh and different ideas and characters - such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and the forthcoming Doctor Strange, all pointing towards bigger and bigger get-together films in the future - Marvel hopes to reap an ever-larger harvest of customers. And so it might be.

DC is risking the reverse: build quickly to a group film, Batman vs Superman, featuring several major characters and storylines, and then from there put together a series of films about each character. It’s riskier because if the first group film fails, so will all the rest, whereas one failed film in the Marvel strategy doesn’t break the ‘mall’. DC’s approach is comparable to the department store, opening its showcase store in the heart of the city and then hoping to export franchise shops in the suburbs: it will work if the showcase store works.

Marvel’s risk is different -by becoming mainstream rather than alternative, they become the ones to beat with a fresh, ‘neo-alternative’ approach. DC’s filmmakers have had the chance to look at what works and what doesn’t by watching Marvel, and now have the opportunity to make their product distinctive. What they have done so far suggests that this will be along the lines of the Man of Steel film: take an iconic hero, perhaps the most iconic of all, and make him Ironic - i.e. have him be introverted, depressed, even destructive. Because we live in an Ironic age, in which the culture is largely introverted and depressed as a whole, this might work: Man of Steel made at least double what the first Iron Man film made in the US. Yes, it’s ‘take’ on Superman was divisive, but it succeeded commercially, which meant that it struck some kind of note with the public at large.

What DC did with Man of Steel was take a traditionally Epic character - a straightforward hero, straight out of the comic books literally, perhaps the most Epic character of all - and make him darker and grimmer than some would have thought possible. The ’S’ on his chest is supposed to represent hope, but it did nothing of the kind in the film, on purpose. Now, in Batman vs Superman, we have a reaction to that from arguably the darkest comic book character of all, the man who dresses up as a symbol of darkness and uses his inherited billions to go out night after night to take revenge for his parents’ murder, the Batman himself. So we will have one Ironic character versus another, recently-turned-Ironic, character. Let’s hope there is actually a dawn of justice in there somewhere, or we will all come out of the cinema feeling paranoid and gloomy.

Then there’s DC’s Suicide Squad in the pipeline. What can we expect from that? The clue is in the name. It’s hardly likely to be a barrel of laughs, unless you count the Joker’s psychotic cackling.

One thing Marvel had in the comics and has kept alive in their films is optimism - another is laughter. Tony Stark was introverted after his episode at the end of the first Avengers film, when he briefly went through the hole in space and confronted a ‘dark night of the soul’ beyond, but he emerged with his sense of humour intact, and so did the Marvel franchise, daring to turn the arch-foe the Mandarin into a comic figure in Iron Man 3. Ant-Man was almost pure comedy; Guardians of the Galaxy likewise. That’s because all these films continue to draw upon the back-catalogue of humour, optimism and epic patterns that Stan Lee created fifty years ago. The closest the Marvel films have come to Irony has been the critically-acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with its political thriller flavour. That had a brainwashed former comrade committing mass homicide as a psychotic assassin, under the sway of a concealed Nazi organisation that had managed to creep into the highest echelons of government. About as Ironic as you can get. It was also a huge box office success: Irony works in today’s world. But it had plenty of humour too, and finished light-heartedly enough, with a joke and its main antagonist showing signs of inner rehabilitation. Its sequel, Civil War, is potentially getting even more Ironic - true friends turning inward, against each other, in an atmosphere of out-of-control state power versus the individual. That’s bound to be a big success too, because of its promised blend of Ironic and heroic elements, and there’ll be plenty of jokes.

But where will all this leave these two comic book giants? Marvel will continue to spread its seed widely, tapping into many characters and worlds in the cinema and on television while regularly promising that story strands will come together in Epic extravaganzas like the forthcoming Infinity War double, extending and developing its ‘mall’ strategy as far as it can. Meanwhile, DC will continue to push the line out into the darker world of Irony, turning traditional heroics on their head, playing with its older and arguably more entrenched characters and seeing just how grim it can make them, operating its department store strategy.

Marvel will succeed as long as it keeps being funny and counter-pointing the Ironic storylines with the wit and energy of Comedy and Epic. DC, while no doubt generating huge commercial gains, will find itself struggling: in the end, turning Ironic and delving more deeply into the human psyche (as Ben Affleck’s Batman reportedly is to do, and as we have already glimpsed in Man of Steel) is, by its nature, shorter-lived. DC’s movie universe may just become a Suicide Squad of its own, unless it can somehow invent the balance between light-heartedness and glory that it never had the comics.

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