At the time of publishing, we are but hours away from Marvel Studio’s magnum opus (part 1), Avengers: Infinity War. 10 years and 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are about to culminate in a epic that will not be truly complete till Avengers 4 comes out next year, but is already the single most anticipated cinematic event in history. The success of the MCU, in particular upon entering Phase 2 with the Russo Brothers at the helm alongside Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige, will remain the stuff of legend as other studios attempt to copy without understanding what it is exactly that makes the MCU so great and so beloved by the public in general.
Speaking of those other studios, the DCEU is very much in flux as Warner Brothers figures out their acquisition plans in the wake of the monumental failure of the Justice League movie at the box office. While some may say it is unfair to compare the two franchises, their history and rivalry will forever see the two compared to one another when they step into the same arena. Where did the trouble begin for the DCEU? Perhaps we can trace it back to 2008 – the year of DC’s greatest cinematic triumph in The Dark Knight, and the start of the MCU with the release of Iron Man.
In The Beginning
Iron Man arrived on the big screen with relatively little fanfare. Most people were keeping tabs on The Dark Knight, with electric trailers and testimonies pointing to a must-see story with the best villain ever committed to celluloid in the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.
Iron Man, on the other hand, was essentially a big budget indie film financed by Marvel Studios themselves, starring a former heartthrob who had just come out the other side of a very public breakdown, and a B-level superhero at best in the Iron Man character. Jon Favreau hit movie magic that day – the bright, hopeful colours of the film, the irreverent tone of voice, and the strong character work set it apart from Christopher Nolan’s bleak vision of superheroism, and the seeds of the MCU were planted in one simple post-credits scene as Samuel L. Jackson donned the iconic eyepatch of Nick Fury.
It is perhaps it was in the months between Iron Man’s April release and The Dark Knight’s July launch date that the seeds were first sown for the DCEU’s eventual rise and fall as talk began of a DC shared cinematic universe, only for Christopher Nolan to insist that his Dark Knight trilogy would stand separate from any notion of a shared universe. And to be fair, his was a story told beginning to end in three movies – it was never designed to connect to a greater whole, nor did it have an idea for how it’s hyperrealistic take on the superhero journey would affect a universe shared between different heroes, and thus should not have been the basis of a shared universe.
As Marvel continued rolling out Phase 1 with Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, Warner and DC handed the reins of their Superman reboot to one Zack Snyder – a rising director known for his stylish filmmaking but also under fire for a lack of vision and subtlety in his craft.
2013 brought the culmination of Marvel’s Phase 1 in the first Avengers movie, directed by Joss Whedon. The popcorn-action flick is the apotheosis of the Phase 1 Marvel formula – lightweight, action heavy, with an emphasis on character moments, but not without some glaring flaws. Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot also premiered that year to a severely mixed reaction. Thus began the whispers that DC had misstepped right out the gate – the tone was too dark, Superman isn’t a killer, there was nothing ‘heroic’ about the film, the list goes on.
Warner and DC doubled down, however, opting to announce Man of Steel 2 would instead be Batman v. Superman, and it would be the prequel to the Justice League movie, and it would be helmed again by Zack Snyder – whose dark and gritty vision for the DCEU would become the de facto tone for the cinematic universe. Marvel too was going through a transition: Kevin Feige had seen that the MCU needed to evolve or die, and the movies thus far had been good but not truly great. Arguments with creators like Edgar Wright saw directors departing films, and Joss Whedon publicly admitted that Avengers: Age of Ultron “broke” him.
Guardians of The Galaxy opened up in 2014, and heralded the first steps into the MCU’s new director-driven Phase 2. Everything that had worked for the first Iron Man had been dialed up, the weaknesses polished up and reinforced with the sheer star power of great casting – it was clear that Marvel had realized that the iron grip it had maintained had backfired on them, and it was now time to trust the directors a little more. Avengers: Age of Ultron was the last outing that reeked of Phase 1, and Phase 2 would come to be defined by Captain America: Winter Soldier.
The spy thriller take on Cap made the somewhat bland Captain America one of the best franchises in the MCU, and cemented the Russo Brothers as a rising force to be reckoned with. Winter Soldier is praised as one of the best, if not the best single movie in the MCU, and it’s not hard to see why.
The DCEU was still finding its wings, starting with casting and planning out a proper slate to introduce a universe worth of characters to the general public. The usual doubts over recasting a character like Batman just a few years after Christian Bale’s seminal run abounded, and the initial announcement of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne was met with groans – not that they weren’t proven wrong later on.
Head to Head
The first true battle of the MCU and the DCEU was the game of chicken the two played with the release dates of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The two studios seemed to be in direct competition over Captain America 3’s release date on May 6th, and with both movies in production it seemed each day brought news of some escalation from each camp. Captain America 3 was now Civil War, and would essentially be Avengers 2.5. By the way, it was also introducing Spider-Man and Black Panther to the MCU, and the last major story beat before Infinity War itself. Batman v. Superman was of itself a cultural milestone and a legendary storyline in the comic community, and it would introduce Wonder Woman, set up the beginnings of an entire universe worth of spin-offs while promising the iconic showdown between god and man in the titular fight.
BvS choked. Moving their release date back to steer clear of the incoming Avengers juggernaut, BvS opened to more mixed reception as Snyder presented a Batman who kills, a Lex Luthor that’s more of a Joker-playing-Lex-Luthor, built-in marketing trailers and logos for all the other Justice League heroes and their then seemingly inevitable spinoffs, and to deliver the most ham-fisted Martha-based climatic scene in all cinematic history.
Captain America: Civil War, on the other hand, was heralded as a masterpiece – despite both stories presenting similiar plot beats and themes, it was clear that the Russos understood the characters and the franchise as a whole, working with the full trust of Kevin Feige, and Snyder was just trying to play catch up, a studio committee hounding his every step.
Fiddling While Rome Burns
Now, it is not ‘dark and gritty’ versus ‘lighthearted and commercial-friendly’ that defines why the MCU has ultimately and totally won over the public battle for dominance between the two brands. Christopher Nolan proved that gritty and grim can be a viable direction, but he understood that not every hero in DC’s roster could function in that light – and Snyder, demonstrating a total lack of understanding of what made DC’s characters great, ran around telling people about how his Batman would be raped in prison if he was really being dark, that he thought Superman was outdated (despite the Man of Steel producing several seminal, groundbreaking comic storylines in the years preceding his movies).
DC jerked along towards Justice League, with Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman being the only movies to flesh out the universe in between. The former was trashed at the box office, with Jared Leto’s Joker becoming perhaps the most divisive portrayal of the character so far (all while the comics proposed an immortal Joker ‘spirit’ resident to Gotham), but Wonder Woman stands out as the only success of the DCEU so far.
As we all know now, Justice League itself turned out to be a victim of circumstances – first imagined as a two-part movie, it would now only be one. Zack Snyder unfortunately withdrew from the movie after filming due to the unfortunate death of his daughter, and Joss Whedon was brought onboard with a wishlist of things the studio wanted to see in the movie. Months of last minute reshoots had to be done, and not enough time was given to post-production to create a visually stunning product.
It was ultimately reviewed as an improvement on BvS, but a movie that was flawed and torn between the visions of two directors.
As Infinity War is set to open to perhaps the biggest box office opening of all time, the DCEU is all but officially over. Whispers out of the studio describe a return to standalone stories, with another Justice League movie in the far, far distance, but the shared universe is seemingly as dead as a thug in Snyder’s Gotham City. This is not the first shared universe to fail (Dark Universe? Really?) and will not be the last as studios know how lucrative getting it right can be.
But there is a formula that works, if they can master it. Marvel has proven that character trumps spectacle, and variety wins out over having a singular, overarching vision all must adhere to. The connective tissue cannot come first – a movie must be about telling the story that is onscreen, not about the stories that could be happening. One thing we know for sure – even if superhero fatigue begins to set in, Marvel will still go strong thanks to the bond it has created between audience and superhero, and there is nothing like being the first to get it right.