Opinion - Marvel Studios VS DC Films: Is There a Critic Conspiracy?
[We should make it clear that at the time of this writing, the author has not yet seen Suicide Squad. – Ed.]
With the recent pummeling film critics have given DC Films’ Suicide Squad, its current aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes has just fallen to 26%...one point below Batman V Superman, many hardcore DC fans are wondering if there is a conspiracy amongst critics to just outright hate DC’s films no matter what, while, as always, shouting the praises of any Marvel film, no matter its quality. Some have gone so far as to suggest payoffs are involved. At first, I wasn’t too keen on this idea back when I heard about it in the aftermath of Batman V Superman. But there’s that old saying: Once is happenstance (Man of Steel – 55%), twice is coincidence (Batman V Superman – 27%)…but three times is enemy action (Suicide Squad – 26%). So…could it be true? Were reviewers on the take? It almost makes sense on the surface. With the recent mountains of money Disney has been making in nearly all of their ventures/brands – their animation division, their live-action adaptations of their classic animated films, Star Wars/Lucasfilm and Marvel – and the apparent demise of the concept of journalistic integrity…most apparent in websites such as TMZ or Gawker, but even filtering into the old and respected institutions, it isn’t that hard to imagine that this would indeed be very possible. This theory does tend to fall apart if you look at one basic fact, if DC does well, then Marvel benefits and vice versa…the cornerstone of capitalist theory, competition forces an opponent to be better in order to maintain the consumer’s interest. Thus, if DC does well, then Marvel has to step up their game and through that competition, not only do both sides produce better and better films but the audience remains attracted to comic book films as a whole, keeping the genre alive as opposed to going the way of the Western.
Let’s look at this from another angle. Maybe the problem isn’t necessarily Disney…but the critics themselves. To illustrate what I mean, let’s delve into an arena where Disney is traditionally dominant, only starting to see some solid competition since the dawn of the 21st century: Animation. If we rewind to the start, we find Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937…the first feature length animated film. When it came to theatrical shorts, the cartoons that would often play before a live-action feature film back in those days, there were three major forces: Disney, Warner Bros. and Fleischer Studios. Of these, only the Fleischers were not based in California…they were in New York (and later Florida). As Disney moved forward into long-form animation, Warners opted to stick with shorts and would eventually come to dominate that form of the medium. Fleischers, however, chose to go toe to toe with Disney. This did not end well…and sadly, it all had to do with timing. The first feature Fleischers released in 1939, Gulliver’s Travels, met with box office success but, admittedly, wasn’t quite up to the quality of their competition. Between that and their next film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, they’d hit major success with their series of Superman shorts (even garnering an Oscar nomination) and moved the technology forward with their rotoscoping process. With this new advancement, Mr. Bug was prepped and ready to be released in 1941…the hope being that the film would be successful enough to pull the studio out of debt and catapult it to an equal status with their mouse-eared competition. Then, two days after the film’s release, Pearl Harbor happened. Mr. Bug failed and thus the studio was acquired by Paramount then slowly faded into oblivion.
This left the 1940s wide open…and with no competition, Disney took advantage of the opportunity. In the decade, Disney would release 13 features that were either full-length animation or a mix of live-action and animation…many of them becoming cherished classics such as Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi. All of these films faced absolutely no direct competition from any other domestic animation studio and this domination would continue throughout the 1950s as well. Thus, Disney was allowed to define what a feature-length animated film consists of…and it’s a formula that’s still in play today. As such, it’s this definition that has become the standard and the expectation of audiences when they think of animated features (which is why animation continues to be thought of as mainly a children’s medium, but that’s a different rant for a different time). Films that deviated from this definition, either those produced by animation studios attempting to rival Disney by giving audiences something different (most notably Don Bluth and his studio) or in films produced by Disney themselves (such as The Black Cauldron, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet) typically failed…and failed hard, as did those that aped the formula a little too closely. Only after 60 years of domination, now in the opening years of the 21st century, are other animation studios finally starting to get traction and not only compete on an even level with Disney, but at times beat them. The thing is…with most films, while it might be tweaked here and there…the formula remains mostly the same. Disney created the game, molded audience expectations and now, as such, other animation studios have come around to the fact that if they want to be successful, then they too need to follow the formula.
Now, let’s fast forward to the beginnings of the superhero in cinema.
Yes, we all know that it was actually DC and not Marvel that got out of the gate first with creating the superhero genre with the now-classic Superman: The Movie. Granted in the years and films that followed, the genre really didn’t stick…but Superman DID define the rules: while somewhat serious, the superhero film has to be littered with plenty of humor and camp. In a strange way, the first incarnation of the Superman franchise told viewers that comic book heroes could evolve beyond the comic page…but not TOO much beyond it. As Superman faded and Swamp Thing failed to take off, Batman made his way to the screen in the 90s. While the first film didn’t hold strictly to the formula, thanks to the darker nature of both the character and the film’s director, Tim Burton, it held to it enough to become a phenomenon. The second film, Batman Returns, strayed away from that, though, becoming even darker. The remaining films, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, tried to course correct into more all-ages territory, but ended up overcompensating and killing the franchise.
2000. Marvel ascendant.
Blade, although dark and edgy, kept this formula intact…at least for its first two films…and, when followed by X-Men and Spider-Man, kick started the superhero genre into modern times. Some would succeed, some would fail, but as you look at the 2000’s, it’s mostly Marvel’s game. Aside from the Blade films, the X-Men films and Spider-Man films, they’d be joined by Daredevil, Hulk, the Punisher, Elektra, the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider…all before the Marvel Cinematic Universe would even take flight. In that span of time, DC would only compete with Catwoman, Constantine, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Superman Returns, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Sure, you can compare quality (we’ll do a little bit of that next)…but just by sheer volume and variety of characters, Marvel wins…hands down. If we count the Marvel films from 1998 to 2009, we end up with 20. From DC in that time frame? 7. With that level of dominance, Marvel begins to do two very important things: define the game and earn name recognition from both audiences and critics.
Starting in 2008, Marvel launches their Cinematic Universe. DC, in the meantime, wraps up Nolan’s Bat-Trilogy and then makes a couple of tragic missteps: Jonah Hex and Green Lantern…from the latter film, DC had hoped to launch its own Cinematic Universe, but the unkind reception from both critics and audiences forced them to put those plans on hold. The main failing GL had was that it was trying too hard to copy what Iron Man had done before it…instead of taking the now established superhero formula and putting a unique spin on it. All the while, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is pulling away…adding more movies and more characters and with that, better audience recognition. In addition to that, the formula was becoming repetitive enough to be safe to critics. They finally knew what to expect from a superhero movie and as such began to judge each new entry less like a film on its own merits (as they had done with the Nolan Batman films), but more comparatively. How does this new entry stack up against the others that we’ve seen in the past? And given the very lopsided output from the main competitors here…Marvel, like Disney in the 1940s and 50s, had laid the foundations through several years of minimal competition.
As Marvel becomes our Disney, both literally and figuratively, that leaves DC as our Fleischers…or other studios that tried to take on the Mouse prior to 2000. And the comparison is really rather apt. I say this because of Christopher Nolan. Again, those studios tried to do something different from Disney or, when that failed, aped Disney. And, in both regards, critics had zero mercy…resulting in the closing of many a studio. So, when Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy takes off and is a hit with audiences and critics…all the while Green Lantern fails catastrophically…the folks in charge of Warners decide that perhaps this different recipe…this darker, more mature, grittier flavor will meet with reward and audience approval. What they failed to see is that with Nolan at the helm, these Batman films weren’t viewed so much as superhero films…but Chris Nolan films. After all, there were no powers…and Nolan did his best to keep as many comic elements as he could out of the film…opting for a much more grounded approach. Batman’s really the only superhero you can get away with doing that.
With this in mind, DC launches their new DCEU to compete with Marvel. Their mission, to provide a different take on the cinematic superhero. In their first two films so far, they’ve opted for a more realistic approach…but also a more mythic one. Marvel’s heroes have just superficial flaws, whereas DC allows their heroes to sometimes be tragically flawed. Marvel’s films are a harmless bit of fun for two hours. DC’s films, so far, have opted to follow the roots of mythic storytelling and as such, sometimes go to really dark places. However, with Marvel having already become established not only in the eyes of the audience but also, most importantly, in the eyes of the critics as to what a superhero movie is, DC films are subjected to a bias whose seeds were sewn long ago.
While fan reactions to the current batch of films break down as follows: Man of Steel – generally split with a slight lean toward positive, Batman V Superman pretty definitely split 50-50 on the theatrical cut, leaning slightly…VERY SLIGHTLY more favorable on the Ultimate Edition and Suicide Squad leaning more positively, it seems like fans are okay with this new flavor. They’re not overwhelmingly in favor, mind you, but they are going to see the films. That segues into the fact that the films ARE making money. But how much damage can critics’ scorn do. Well, in the case of Batman V Superman, a film that nearly everyone agreed would make a billion dollars at least…well, the film only topped out at around $873 million globally. That’s a bite of at least $127 million, at least…and honestly, who knows how much else. (Granted, it didn’t help matters that the theatrical cut proved too disjointed for some.) Can we expect a similar erosion on Suicide Squad? Probably. But with Wonder Woman and Justice League on the way, fans of these films can only hope that general audiences hang on long enough for critics to realize that there’s more than one formula, there’s more than one flavor other than vanilla. So long as Warner Bros sticks with it and supports these films, builds the necessary foundation for their own formula…one that can challenge Marvel…it’s my hope that then, critics will have become more comfortable with this new direction…and we’ll see those positive reviews start to appear more and more.
Ultimately it boils down to this, from one side it seems like a conspiracy, from the other, it’s the fruit of slowly building up a franchise and brand recognition. But one thing is certain…a bias does indeed exist, though not for reasons as sinister as some might think.