The Superhero battle between Mighty Marvel and Dazzling DC Comics- and how it hit the world of Movies…

(Originally published in DVD Review, April 2004)

“It’s the fight of the year, the conflict of the century, the battle of the millennium! It’s the ultimate smackdown between two opposing forces, locked in mortal combat for over four decades! In the red corner, there’s Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Flash! In the blue corner- it’s the Amazing Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men! So, before the fight truly begins, just ask yourself one question- whose side are you on? More precisely… are you with DC, or are you with Marvel?”

For the past forty years, comic book fans have had to regularly ask themselves that very question. The world of Superheroes may be crammed with spandex-clad costumed avengers, but the majority of them hail from just two separate companies- DC Comics, and their bitter rival Marvel. Ever since the early Sixties, they’ve been battling for the attentions of comics fans across the world- and this frenzied conflict has also crashed its way onto cinema screens, thanks to the strange and wonderful world of Superhero Movies.

MIXING UP THE FORMULA

To the untrained eye, however, it’s not the easiest task in the world to even tell Marvel and DC Superheroes apart. Both groups are traditional “brightly dressed crime-fighters protecting the innocent”- but they also possess fundamental differences that lie at the heart of the DC/Marvel divide. Batman and Superman are DC’s big guns;- grand pulp heroes born in America’s late 1930s atmosphere of optimistic idealism, with world-beating superpowers or convenient fortunes to fall back on when things get tough.

On the flip side of this coin, the 1960s-born Marvel heroes are far more fallible and everyday characters, usually finding superpowers foisted upon them. Having to cope with domestic problems while fighting evil, they’re more believable and empathetic- and it was the decision to put the human back into superhuman characters that kicked off the Marvel Comics revolution in the first place, all thanks to classic creator and Superhero genius Stan Lee.

It was Lee who, back in 1961, bucked the trend for simplistic comic stories by inventing a brand new, more realistic and family-structured team of superheroes. “They were the kind of team I had been longing to write about,” said Lee, “Heroes who were less than perfect. Heroes who didn’t always get on with each other, but could be counted on when the chips were down.”

Despite going against the status quo of the time, from the moment the first issue hit the shelves, THE FANTASTIC FOUR was an outright smash hit, and Lee’s further creations such as SPIDER-MAN and THE HULK kicked off an unstoppable wave of ground breaking Marvel superheroes that stretched throughout the 1960s. Suddenly it was Marvel setting the trends instead of DC- but a number of years had to pass for this competition to leap onto the big screen.

The biggest reason for this was Special Effects. With comic book superheroes regularly deflecting bullets or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, the cheesy effects showcased by earlier efforts such as the dazzlingly camp 1960s BATMAN TV show simply weren’t going to be enough to convince cinema audiences. All that could be done was to wait for a quantum leap- one that a certain Mr George Lucas was more than happy to provide…

IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE?

STAR WARS not only kick-started the blockbuster revolution in 1977, it also brought the standard of special effects up to a new eye-opening level. Suddenly, superheroes were no longer as impossible to depict as before, and Hollywood producers could pounce on the massive, ready-to-exploit storylines of comic books. Marvel swiftly flogged the film rights to SPIDER-MAN, hoping for a swift big-screen debut for the webbed wonder- but DC beat them to the punch, enlisting parent company Warner Bros and scoring a major coup in 1978 with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.

Without a trace of the camp of the Sixties BATMAN show, SUPERMAN tackled the source material faithfully, cracking the thorny problem of the flying effects and delivering thrills and action- as well as a hilariously overpaid Marlon Brando, netting $3.5 million for ten minutes screen time. For the next few years, the SUPERMAN films were everything that pop cinema was supposed to be, and whether he was freezing an entire lake, rescuing a school bus or having the crap beaten out of him by Terrence Stamp, Christopher Reeve was Superman- heroic, honourable and bizarrely stylish at the same time.

As the 1980s arrived, the only success Marvel had achieved was the INCREDIBLE HULK television series, and while DC suffered occasional misfires like Wes Craven’s dreadful version of gothic horror character SWAMP THING, the SUPERMAN franchise was going strong- until quality took a sudden nosedive.

1984’s attempt to broaden the franchise with SUPERGIRL was bad enough, with shamefully hammy performances from Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway, and a dreary lead in Helen Slater- but worse was to come in 1987’s SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. With a slashed budget and an offensively awful script, this dreadful plea for nuclear disarmament was a classic exercise in bad moviemaking, and the sight of the once-magnificent Christopher Reeve slogging it out with a cheesy “Nuclear Man” villain was nothing short of depressing.

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE BAT…

The failure of SUPERMAN IV killed the franchise stone-dead, and would have been the ideal time for Marvel to counter-attack with a big-scale blockbuster of their own. Unfortunately, most of the producers they’d sold their character rights to seemed completely unable to get a movie off the ground- and after watching their satirical comic HOWARD THE DUCK being transformed into a celluloid turkey by George Lucas in 1986, Marvel teamed with independent film company New World Pictures to finally get their superheroes onto cinema screens.

The one vital ingredient missing from this equation was large pots of money- meaning that while movie versions of patriotic hero CAPTAIN AMERICA and vengeful vigilante THE PUNISHER eventually made it into multiplexes, the former was a horribly low budget production- while the latter had the deep misfortune to star muscleman Dolph Lundgren.

Neither were going to be the epoch-defining hit that Marvel needed to kick start their movie fortunes, and when DC bounced back from SUPERMAN IV’s failure with a revitalised and darkly gothic remix of BATMAN in 1989, it seemed unlikely Marvel would ever strike it lucky. Taking its inspiration from the late eighties craze for Graphic Novels, including Frank Miller’s Bat-classic THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the 1989 film was violent, stylish, and crammed full of enough of Tim Burton’s twisted imagination and Jack Nicholson’s gleeful overacting to disguise the absence of any kind of decent plot. The event movie had officially arrived, and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the Superhero action…

TRAPPED IN THE SPIDER WEB

The one true glimmer of hope for Marvel fans arrived three years later in 1992 when James “King of the World” Cameron, fresh from the cyborg-crunching success of TERMINATOR 2, started showing serious interest in helming a SPIDER-MAN movie. The idea of the man behind ALIENS bringing the Webbed Wonder to the screen was enough to get fans salivating with anticipation- but even Cameron wasn’t powerful enough to defeat the combined forces of Hollywood Lawyers.

Having been sold back in 1975, the SPIDER-MAN rights were tied up with several different producers, and the battle for control of the project took so long that Cameron eventually gave up, opting to spend $180 million sinking the TITANIC instead. As if seeing their biggest character trapped in a legal mire wasn’t enough for Marvel to deal with, the company was suddenly sent into Bankruptcy by a series of catastrophic business deals, and spent the next few years trying to fight off corporate take-overs.

Everything seemed to be wrapped up- DC was ruling the roost with two more BATMAN sequels, while also warming up a new Tim Burton-directed take on SUPERMAN to star Nicolas Cage, while Marvel was perpetually stuck being the underdog. Unfortunately, nobody had considered the idea that the fabled Bat-franchise might be moments away from self-destructing…

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

On paper, BATMAN AND ROBIN was the perfect blockbuster;- plenty of action, gorgeous stars, and the weighty prescence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the nefarious Mr Freeze. There seemed no reason for the film not to outdo its predecessors- except that director Joel Schumacher managed to crank the camp level a degree too far. Suddenly, the barrage of shriekingly colourful production design and groan-worthy puns wasn’t just annoying the dedicated Bat-fans- everyday audience members were steering clear, and atrocious word-of-mouth soon killed the movie at the box-office.

Finally, there was proof that audiences wouldn’t simply accept any old rubbish with a superhero name stamped across it- and despite many critics claiming the comic-book movie had met its Waterloo, the time was right for Marvel to stage a quiet comeback. Having finally worked through the legal minefields and settled some of its business problems, Marvel started looking at getting some of its lesser known properties out into the world while the battles over SPIDER-MAN were still being resolved.

It’s this reason why Marvel’s first major blockbuster was based on a character nobody outside the world of comics had ever even heard of. Blade was the superhero equivalent of a 70s Blaxploitation character, a human/vampire halfbreed battling bloodsuckers while looking like a refugee from the set of SHAFT. A bizarre choice for an update, but one that mixed high-octane comic book action with bloodthirsty horror- and after adding Wesley Snipes, funky weapons and gallons of gore, 1998’s BLADE turned out to be a surprise hit, proving the existence of an audience for non-campy superhero movies as well as spawning a 2002 sequel.

While Marvel were toasting their first success, DC and Warner Bros were desperately trying to figure out new directions for their fabled franchises. After many false starts, Tim Burton’s SUPERMAN project finally collapsed, while the mouth-watering prospect of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM director Darren Aronofsky tackling classic graphic novel BATMAN: YEAR ONE also failed to get off the drawing board. Leaping from a solo CATWOMAN project to a future-set Batman story with Keanu Reeves, Warner Bros was dithering in panic and seemed unable to make up its mind.

THE X FACTOR

Marvel’s next step on the road to recovery was higher profile, and considerably riskier. One of their biggest titles, THE UNCANNY X-MEN had been running in various forms for the past thirty years, telling the saga of a group of superpowered “mutants” protecting the world that hates and despises them. For once, this was a superhero movie daring to tackle dark topics in a serious manner- but this was also the main attraction for USUAL SUSPECTS director Bryan Singer.

“Beneath the spectacle and the fun and the fights,” said Singer, “there’s an underlying philosophy about prejudice, fear of the unknown and trying to find your place in the world;- they’re all very universal concepts.” With its edgy Concentration Camp opening sequence and heavy duty thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellan, 2000’s X-MEN proved that superhero movies could handle dark subject matters while still delivering full-tilt boogie head-smacking action.

And if that wasn’t enough to get audiences excited, suddenly Warner Bros declared they’d got their act together, and the next DC superhero movie would be BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, a titanic team-up to be directed by PERFECT STORM helmer Wolfgang Petersen. Potential casting ideas flew thick and fast, with everyone from Colin Farrel to Josh Hartnett being mentioned in connection with the two superheroic leads, and it seemed that a DC film project was finally guaranteed to reach production- until Petersen jumped ship to make historical war epic TROY, and the entire project collapsed as suddenly as it appeared.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s bold choices continued in 2002 with SPIDER-MAN, finally pulled from the legal void and handed to EVIL DEAD director Sam Raimi. Despite pressure from the studio to cast a handsome hunk of Hollywood beefcake in the lead, Raimi went for acting talent with the distinctly left-field choice of Tobey Maguire, bringing the correct level of heroism and geeky insecurity to the awkward Peter Parker. Not even the hopelessly dodgy Green Goblin costume could stop SPIDER-MAN from turning into a box-office juggernaut, outstripping X-MEN by an amazing margin and netting an incredible $800 million at the worldwide box office.

Barely stopping for breath, Marvel followed this up with a packed 2003- kicking off with Ben Aflleck as blind avenger Matt Murdock in the massively successful and refreshingly edgy DAREDEVIL. Brilliant sequel X-MEN 2 managed the rare feat of completely out-doing the original in every respect, while Marvel also delivered the long-promised cinema version of THE HULK. Helmed by arthouse director Ang Lee, this mixture of highbrow characterisation and rubbery CGI was never going to have mass appeal- but fully confirmed Marvel was prepared to let filmmakers take risks with their properties, and redefine what could be achieved in the humble superhero flick.

TRAPPED IN THE PHANTOM ZONE

While Marvel have been virtually claiming the Superhero genre as their own, the only DC comic-based project to appear during the whole of 2003 has been the deeply lacklustre LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. The two biggest superhero franchises of all time may belong to DC and Warner Bros, but they seem completely at a loss as to what to do with them.

After the BATMAN VS SUPERMAN farrago, they pushed ahead with a solo SUPERMAN film, aiming to be in Cinemas for late 2004- but the production has transformed into the Hollywood equivalent of Musical Chairs. From CHARLIES ANGELS helmer McG to Michael Bay, to Brett Ratner, and then back to McG, the merry-go-round of possible directors shows no sign of stopping. Only BATMAN seems a possibility, with the prestigious director of mind-twister MEMENTO Christopher Nolan attached to direct- but until filming actually begins, it’s wisest for Bat-fans not to be holding their breath in anticipation.

Whatever happens, there’ll be plenty of catching up to do- 2004 already promises a bumper selection of Marvel action, with Tobey Maguire’s second web-slinging outing as Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN 2, as well as a brand new Lundgren-free version of THE PUNISHER. There’s also a third instalment of X-MEN action due within a few years, while everything from ELEKTRA (a spin-off for Jennifer Garner’s DAREDEVIL character) to NAMOR: THE SUB MARINER, THE FANTASTIC FOUR and IRON MAN is currently being developed.

Fortune may have swung in Marvel’s direction so far- but it’d be unwise to count the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight out of the contest yet. The conflict has only taken a short breather- and like all the best superheroes facing off against their arch-nemesis, no matter how high the success or miserable the failure, the fight between Marvel and DC is going to happily stretch on for many years to come…

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004

SMALL SCREEN SUPERHUMAN

Think BATMAN, and the chances are you’ll still picture Adam West sprinting around a day-glo Gotham in grey tights. Think THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and it won’t be epic CGI you’ll imagine- but muscleman Lou Ferringo painted a dazzling shade of green. Whether they’re slick modern-day action adventures or hilariously camp relics from a bygone age, Superhero TV shows exert a power over popular culture that even the most awesomely expensive Hollywood blockbusters find difficult to match.

The modestly budgeted world of TV drama should, theoretically speaking, make special-effects intensive Superheroes a no-go area- but they’ve been a regular part of the TV landscape, ever since the first brilliantly wooden SUPERMAN show with George Reeves back in 1953. One of the genre’s biggest strengths is that, like comic books, TV is superb at handling long-running storylines, and without having to compress everything into a movie’s typical two hour running time, the most epic comic plots can be given the correct room to breathe.

Marvel’s various cartoon series are the best examples of these long-form stories, with the X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN shows being surprisingly faithful adaptations of the complexity of the original comics, as well as influencing the more serious-minded tone of the eventual big-budget movie versions. In fact, while both BATMAN and SUPERMAN have been struggling in movie terms for the last decade, they’ve been prospering in surprising ways on the world of Television.

First aired in 1992, the dazzlingly stylised BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES is one of the most accurate adaptations of the Caped Crusader ever managed, capturing the energy and darkness of the original stories- while SUPERMAN has survived a number of TV incarnations, from various cartoons, to the 1990’s romantic remix LOIS AND CLARK, and DC’s one true success in the last decade- SMALLVILLE. The DAWSON’S CREEK-influenced tale of Clark Kent’s early years might occasionally spread the treacly sentiment on with a trowel, but it’s also a surprisingly adventurous re-interpretation of the Superman mythos and throws plenty of unexpected curveballs into the mix.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain- Superhero blockbusters may have the spectacle and the brain-expanding effects, but the TV shows will be winning hearts and minds for years after their competitors have been forgotten…