Utter dominance and not giving a fuck. Either you’re first or you’re last, Ricky Bobby. We’ve been conditioned into believing perfection is unattainable. Everything and everyone is flawed. But I have a question: where we wrong this whole time? With each passing day, it feels like everyone is playing for keeps. When you play the game of thrones, you either win or die; there’s no middle ground. Either you win the championship or you’re forgotten. Either you have the biggest, loudest, most successful movie or it’s a flop. Either you strip millions of their healthcare or you don’t. The world is becoming all or nothing and competition is fueling us all. While some believe that comparison is the thief of joy, others (myself included) like comparing competitive entities to understand who is the best. Pepsi or Coke? Sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie? LeBron or Jordan? Marvel or DC Comics?
While some choices are harder than others, when dominance is in abundance, you can either be in awe of it or dismiss it as someone or something having an easy advantage over the field. In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have formed a tidal wave of pain for the rest of the league. Entering the upcoming season, they are the prohibitive favorites to repeat as champions to go along with their last two championships in three seasons. In the comic book movie franchise world, Marvel Comics have a stranglehold on Hollywood, with every new release gaining more anticipation than the last. When the upcoming trailer for Infinity War leaked on Twitter, I was excited and astounded. A bearded Steve Rogers had a grown ass man giddy as a schoolgirl. Summer of 2018, I will be front and center for the film without hesitation. I had the exact opposite reaction when I saw the new trailer for DC’s Justice League, unfortunately. After watching both trailers, it became clear that it’s Golden State vs. the World with these comic book movies. But, much like Golden State, Marvel’s impressive run was triggered by their biggest rival, DC Comics. Before we get to that, let’s look at little at the Marvel State Warriors rise.
(With the following movies that are listed, I’m listing the critics and audience score from Rotten Tomatoes, just to give scope on the praise or criticism of the movie beyond just my opinion. Scores are on a scale to 0-100% satisfaction.)
Starting in 2005, Marvel began the formation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the creation of Marvel Studios. The MCU was created initially because Marvel wasn’t making much money from licensing agreements with other film studios during the 90’s and early 2000’s. For example, the original Spider-Man franchise that featured Toby McGuire and Kirsten Dunst earned about $2.5 billion through global box office returns, but Marvel only made about $70 million from the first two movies while Columbia Pictures reaped the lion’s share. Along with financial control came creative control. With this power, they began crafting franchises along a linear, cohesive path.
MCU’s first releases was 2008’s Iron Man (94% critic score [91% audience score]), directed by Jon Favreau (who also stars as the character Happy Hogan), and The Incredible Hulk (67% [71%]), starring Edward Norton. The MCU’s Phase One rollout was impressive. Along with the original Iron Man, Marvel released Captain America: The First Avenger (80% [74%]) and Thor (77% [76%]) in 2011, and Marvel’s The Avengers (92% [91%] in 2012. These movies were equivalent the Golden State Warriors drafting magnificent talent that would be the ground work for their future championships. MCU have Tony Starks, Cap and Thor while the Warriors have Steph Curry (drafted 2009), Klay Thompson (2011), Draymond Green (2012) and Andre Iguodala (acquired via sign-and-trade from the Nuggets in 2013). These would be the key pieces, like Robert Downey Jr. being phenomenally cast as Starks and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, to assure, at the least, a competitive advantage over their adversaries. Phase One felt like the Warriors championship in 2015: a great run of output but you still felt like the playing field was still equal. If you remember, the Warriors were not the title favorites that season. Of all of ESPN basketball analyst, only then-employee Ethan Strauss picked GA to win it all. DC (or any comic book franchise) could potentially put together quality work to challenge Marvel.
But, let’s go back to what triggered the impressive run from Marvel. Before MCU movies started releasing, DC Comics hired acclaimed director Christopher Nolan to be in charge of revitalizing the Batman franchise in 2003. In 2005, Nolan released the impressive but slightly unnoticed Batman Begins (84% [94%]), a tale of Bruce Wayne rising from the training of the League of Shadows to thwart Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. The sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight (94% critic & audience score), however, was not under the radar by any stretch of the imagination. This movie was a watershed moment, for better or worse, for future comic book movies to come. Being equal parts action, dark, suspense and psychological thriller, The Dark Knight proved that these fictional cartoon characters can carry heavy, dramatic moments. Heath Ledger performance as The Joker was terrifyingly perfect, playing the Clown Prince as a haunting and cunning agent of chaos. A comic book movie that had audience members questioning morality without being overly preachy or cartoonish wasn’t anything I’d experienced before. Because this had never been pulled off in such a successful way before, The Dark Knight is akin to LeBron James bringing the championship to Cleveland in 2016. An NBA team winning in the NBA Finals after being down 3-1 never happened before. And because it did, the game and the competition had to keep up.
After the release of The Dark Knight, movie studios began making comic book movies with a harder, darker edge. Without The Dark Knight, there’s no way a films like Logan (93% [91%]), a movie that’s ultra violent but explores the uneasiness of parenthood and the cycle of life, would get made. Because of the reaction to The Dark Knight, Marvel produced it’s best movies to date. In 2014 during Phase Two, MCU released the apex of their movies with two films, Captain America: Winter Solider (89% [92%]) and Guardians of the Galaxy (91% [92%]) within only four months of each other. During this time, this feels like Kevin Durant joining Golden State after they blew the 3-1 lead. During the regular season, with the addition of Kevin Durant, the Warriors went 51-11 when KD played. In the 2017 NBA Playoffs and Finals, the Warriors won 16 games and only lost once. In the five Finals games, Durant averaged 35 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assist and almost 2 blocks. In Game 3 (GAME THREE), KD hit a transition 3-pointer over LeBron that sunk Cleveland’s chances of repeating as champions. With one of the top three players of basketball on planet Earth, the rest of the league is now playing catch up, just like DC is with Marvel.
During the impressive run that MCU had with The Avengers Saga and Guardians, DC Comics lagged extremely behind. The DC Extended Universe (a faux-Marvel Comic Universe), created in 2011, was set to compete with MCU but the output has been subpar for the most part. DCEU’s first release of 2013 Man of Steele (55% [75%]) wasn’t the one. Nor was the repugnant Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (27% [63%]) nor Suicide Squad (25% [61%]). The Justice League trailers have all looked underwhelming and generic, sort of like the new era Los Angeles Lakers. Like city of Los Angeles, the movie looks gaudy but everything that glitters ain’t gold. There are a lot of pieces to get excited about on paper (like Magic Johnson being president of basketball operations for the Lakers and Lonzo Ball being a great draft prospect or Ezra Miller, a talented young actor playing The Flash, or Khal Drogo playing Aquaman) but you don’t trust things will play out for the best.
The only thing that DC has going for itself now is the upcoming Wonder Woman franchise. With the first movie released earlier this year (92% [90%]), a WW trilogy looks very appetizing, like the Houston Rockets; they have a marquee player (James Harden) to build around with a chance at being extremely competitive but still has a lot to prove. I was skepticle if Wonder Woman would be good but I’m glad I was wrong. I’m excited to see what DC can do with her, even if recent history shows I should worry.
Even though Marvel has shown dominance over the last decade, they are now in the middle of Phase Three of their movie universe and pretty soon Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor will be replaced as stalwarts for the likes of the newly rebooted Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians crew. While we don’t know yet if the phase shift will prove as successful as One and Two, this is still an opportunity for DC to breathe life (and, frankly, confidence) into their characters and movies. Everything that the DCEU has release so far felt rushed and unthoughtful, chasing dollars rather than acclaim. (Humanoids spent $870 million at the box office for Dawn of Justice and it was total shit.) Batman is my favorite comic book character ever, and it’s telling that I’m not excited about anything DC has involving him now. They have to earn that trust back when Marvel never lost it. DC Comics, please give us a Justice League movie that’s worth a damn. Give us a Wonder Woman franchise that will rival the Nolan trilogy. Hell, give us a Robin movie directed by Nolan and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt to hold us over until the DCEU is properly constructed. Please, whatever you do, be competitive and defeat perfection.