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DC vs. MARVEL for the title
by Don Raper

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In 1978, moviegoers held their breath in anticipation for what was to become a cinematic masterpiece. The behemoth studio, Warner Brothers, released the first motion picture event for DC comics most beloved (revered) character, SUPERMAN. Helmed by a young director, Richard Donner, and starring an unknown actor, Christopher Reeves, in the title role of a lifetime. And, the always talented Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando. The result was cinematic gold.

Donner and the WB had set a benchmark for what comic book movies could achieve. It wasn't clunky or underdone. And, it appealed to both the lowest common denominator and the highest. They had taken the most difficult character to translate to onscreen in that era, and made history. And, it seemed the sky was the limit. But, no one could predict what would happen next. Inevitably, SUPERMAN 2 hit screens with a flurry of excitement. This time the Man of Steel would get to flex his muscles against foes with powers equal to his own. It was the perfect set up for a sequel. However, it barely found favor with the audiences that had swarmed theaters for the original. And , the light continued to fizzle with SUPERMAN 3, SUPERMAN 4 and an almost completely ignored, and unnecessary, SUPERGIRL. It had seemed that someone, somewhere, had decided to let the franchise die. And, so, it did.

But, the brothers Warner had plans. In 1989, they decided to get the gritty taste of ''high tech'' out of their mouths that the Kryptonian's franchise had left behind by going ''low tech'' with DC's number two comic book tent pole, BATMAN. Again, the stage was set for a fantastic launch. And, again, the result was gobbled up by audiences. Batman had recently undergone a revamp in the illustrated page and had led the charge of the changeover from comic books to the new graphic novel. Batman had now been affectionately called The Dark Knight and Tim Burton's BATMAN fully embodied that moniker. Once again we had been given hope that the promise of a sequel would bring added favor. And, once again we found ourselves using the word mediocre a lot. BATMAN RETURNS left many scratching their heads at what had happened. Many thought that for a comic book movie, The Dark Knight had gone too dark. Which seemed impossible given that in the graphic novels Robin had been shot dead, Bruce Wayne's back had been broken and a character named Nightwing had been killing criminals all over Gotham. No one could account for what had happened. But, it was clear that the studio had a 'cash cow'. They only needed to figure out how to make another withdrawal before letting it go the way of SUPERMAN. So, they went from too dark to too light...literally! Joel Shumacher's entry into the BATMAN saga was a neon festival that was a cross between a techno nightclub and a three ring circus. But, it was a thriving environment for Jim Carrey, who could not have been a more perfect choice for the Riddler. Still, even with his high jinx and the acting prowess of Val Kilmer and Tommy Lee Jones, the ridicule of BATMAN FOREVER could not be thwarted. When the new Batsuit's nipple accessory gets more press than the rest of the film, it's easy to see why. And, yet, BATMAN AND ROBIN was made. A dismal failure all the way through. And, so, by 1997, both the movie franchises of DC's leading comic book heroes had tried and failed to fully win over the fan boys who had made them popular. But, something else happened that year that would send them into a frenzy.

Twenty years had passed and DC and Warner Brothers had not truly delivered the goods. But, 'what happened?' wasn't the question that was at the forefront of the minds of geek-dom. No, the question everyone was asking, even DC faithfuls, was 'where was Marvel?' In that same time period, and the following two years of the 90's, there was nearly no real rebuttal from the Marvel comics' camp. In fact, the only films released that could be credited to them were the rumblings of three of its darkest characters: THE PUNISHER, SPAWN (yes, I attribute this to the Marvel camp. Sue me!), and BLADE. And, then, a movie titan spoke. James Cameron, fresh off his history-making box office run with TITANIC, announced his plans to bring Marvel's tent pole character, Spiderman, to the big screen. Once that information was released into the geek-osphere, there were no other discussions. No other topics to dissect and pass on to everyone that would listen. This was it! The man had turned a disaster flick into a billion dollar epic. Which was no small feat given that his set had been destroyed by an actual act of God, pushing his production costs to an unprecedented $250M. There was no more technically gifted director, period! Suddenly, fan boys started having dreams of what Cameron's liquid metal effect from T2 would look like in the new millennium when applied to Spiderman's famous alien black suit. Ask anyone today and they'll tell you where they were when they heard the news of what would never happen.

And, the millennium arrived. In 2000, we were treated to something we hadn't expected. While we tried to make sense of what was taking Spiderman so long, the grapevine had sent word of an upcoming film based on Marvel's number two franchise, X-Men. But, its arrival was a little different. There was an excitement for it, but, also skepticism. It was filled with actors no one had ever heard of. So, we had trouble taking it seriously. In fact, there were only two names we knew, and one of those was, quite frankly, a must Patrick Stewart as Professor X. There was no one more perfectly suited for the role. And, what we didn't know before seeing the film, was that we would be saying the same thing about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Something else was true about Bryan Singer's X-MEN, it was the definitive cross over film to establish that we were no longer watching comic book movies. We were watching graphic novel movies. He had created a formula that included sticking to the theme of the source material. The X-Men comics and graphic novels had been wildly popular for a reason. There was no real need to tamper with it. Just tweak it to fit a cinematic vision and mass appeal. You didn't need to have a slew of mainstream stars. Your special effects were to enhance the story you were telling, not take it over. And you needed someone to direct that could bring all of this together. Singer was that guy. Marvel had started its run.

Two years later BLADE 2 started the season with high hopes. The franchise was operating on a different plane as everyone else. And, was the first to do something that the DC franchises had failed to do, outdo its predecessor. And, proved what was possible. That year the Marvel machine finally released SPIDERMAN on the big screen. But, it wasn't the version we had envisioned with Cameron at the wheel. But, even so, the excessively long wait for it to arrive launched it into the box office stratosphere. And, it was clear from the outset that no one cared that it reverted back to the comic book movie genre that Singer had just pulled us away from with his formula. And with the additional release of the short-lived and loosely respected, DAREDEVIL, it'd seemed that no one was listening. So, the following year he made X2 to emphatically make the point further. An amped up version of X-MEN, X2 took the genre further, escalated the action, and made its themes even more desperate. It was a sequel that had outdone its predecessor. Something that had been deemed impossible before BLADE 2. And, this trend continued with 2004's SPIDERMAN 2. Though marginally better than the original, the franchise had found the balance of light and dark that made it work with audiences. Now, with the Marvel camp in full swing, they introduced one of their other staples to the big screen, The Hulk. Ang Lee's HULK was something of a marvel within itself. It was an example of what happens when an artist chooses, above all else, to be artistic. It was a true origin film that so desperately wanted to be a moving comic strip. And, it didn't connect with its audience because of that. And, many started to wonder after that, and the sad attempt at FANTASTIC FOUR, if maybe Marvel was trying too much too fast. That whether the misses meant that they should just rest on the success of their tent poles and wait on doing any others from their vast selection. These fears were amplified in 2005 when Warner Brothers and DC returned to the scene carrying with them a completely reinvented, from scratch, Batman. Christopher Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS was something brand spanking new. From the announcement of its cast, it was clear that this installment of Batman was more than reboot, but, a reimagining. And, it meant that Marvel needed to get serious if they wanted to compete... And, they did.

In 2008, Marvel dug into its deep bag of tricks and tossed out a much needed breath of fresh air with IRON MAN. It was light, it was dark, it was serious, and it was funny. It had all the elements of a winner you needed. And if that wasn't enough, it heralded in plans for Marvel's buddy bunch, The Avengers, to take flight. Further sending the Comic Con crowd into a frenzy, the reboot THE INCREDIBLE HULK, landed and solidified that The Avengers were on their way to a Cineplex near you. And those that knew would eagerly await the inevitable coming of CAPTAIN AMERICA and THOR which soon followed. And, the applause for Marvel's master stroke was thunderous. Which meant that no one was prepared for what was to happen next. DC had taken its body shots from Marvel and was expected to tap out. Instead, they were gearing up for their rebuttal. And, it came in the form of the behemoth that was THE DARK KNIGHT. The first ever Batman movie that did not bare its main character's name. Something, many believed could hurt it at the box office. As if doubts hadn't already crept up from it simply being a sequel. We had already been through this dance and we still had the scars. And, then, it was released. Doubts crushed! THE DARK KNIGHT flexed its box office muscle all over the world. Setting benchmarks across the board for graphic novel movies and crime drams alike. And, when the dust settled from that whirlwind, it was just in time for it to set one more with an Academy Award win in an acting category. DC and Warner Brothers had delivered the knockout swing. Emphatically!

So, now 2012 has arrived. This summer we have the benefit of being witnesses to the second slugfest of the DC vs. Marvel camps. The much touted and anticipated AVENGERS ASSEMBLE lands first. All signs point to it being a fireball of a movie. Scorching box office sells the world over. But, again, Marvel doubles up with a revamped AMAZING SPIDERMAN due this summer as well. Also, much anticipated, this outing of the ''webbed wonder'' seems to have taken a page out of the Batman playbook. Giving more drama to the dark themes of the ''web slingers'' story. Marvel is hoping this powerful one/two punch will be more than enough to topple the third installment of the Batman series, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in the final tally. Who will come out on top this time? Will there be more Oscar gold for the graphic novel faithfuls to tweet over? Who will be the surprise breakout that isn't really a surprise? That's up to us to decide, now, isn't it?

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Mike Thomas
Mar 24, 2012 1:48 AM
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Good Column!

Any word on that Justice League movie that been in Development Hell since the Avengers movie was first announced?

Tim
Mar 24, 2012 9:55 AM
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Great info.... what happened with the picture thing?
Donald
Mar 26, 2012 2:40 PM
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Would not accept any of my pics. I tried and tried. Could just be I'm not tech savvy.

Nathan
Apr 13, 2012 2:17 AM
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Awesome column. Great chronicle of the history of these two brands' forays into movies. Infact when I was reading the early part of your article and got to the part about the 89 Batman, I started thinking about what it felt like when that movie was released. It was exciting because there hadn't been a superhero movie in so long. Now there are so many! Even though I always anticipate the new ones, I never feel the excitement I did over that one.

That being said, I'm pumped about most of the new ones; the Spiderman movie looks like it might be a little Twilight-ish, but I think Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are gonna rule!

One thing that DC and Marvel have in common is that the majority of each brand's movies have been really good in my opinion. Yet Marvel seems to have released so many more than DC. I wonder why this is. That being said, the best of the Superman and Batman movies are enough to compete with Marvel by themselves.

Meg
Apr 22, 2012 6:25 PM
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I'm kind of excited for the AVENGERS, though I have a worry that tossing all the heroes into one movie may yield something akin to the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA messes of the 1940's. In case you missed those treasures, they packed all the Universal monsters in one movie, which ultimately led to the monsters in movies with Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. It is a fearsome path to contemplate.

Still, it's helmed by Joss Whedon! All hail Joss Whedon!



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Every other Saturday

This is a look at films of all genres from the opinion of one.


Other Columns
Other columns by Don Raper:

Son Of Destiny

CAPTAIN T. SCOTT

3, THE HARD WAY

Reboot THIS!

Thank you, Sigourney Weaver!

All Columns


Don Raper
I have been watching movies since I was tall enough to reach the lollipop jar. I love the feeling that a good movie can give you. I have been telling people about that feeling for years. And, what better way to spread the joy than writing about it for the masses.



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