Which superhero franchise is more successful: Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or Warner-DC Films’ DC Extended Universe (DCEU)?
Easy, right? Marvel’s movies have nearly all been critically adored and they’ve made more than $12 billion in theatrical receipts, which is over $4 billion more in earnings than any other movie franchise in history (ignoring inflation per Hollywood custom).
Warners’ DCEU, on the other hand, has been a wildly mixed bag, with reviews ranging from adoring for Wonder Woman to downright condemnatory for Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Unlike the well-oiled machine that is MCU’s development and production unit, DCEU has been rife with management challenges. And the numbers, well, the DCEU has cleared barely $3 billion, a measly quarter of the revenue that its cross-town studio rival has minted.
Here’s the thing though, and it may surprise you. On an average worldwide gross box office per-picture basis, the two franchises have achieved essentially identical results. Prior to current releases Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the MCU movies had cleared an average of $784.7 million in global box office, compared to an average of $762.3 million for the DCEU films. That’s a difference of less than 3%. Add Wonder Woman and the new Spider-Man into the mix (with my conservative projections for their respective final grosses), and the DCEU actually gains the upper hand, with $784.1 million per DCEU picture vs. $782.0 for the MCU.
In large part, Warner-DC has Marvel to thank for its own current success. Although Warner Bros. built the modern day superhero movie business back in the 1970s and 1980s with its earlier iterations of the Superman and Batman movies, Marvel modernized it and rebuilt it, introducing the cinematic universe concept that has been an important element in the DCEU’s strategy. Marvel also did a couple of other important things: first, to introduce American superhero movies to some fresh overseas audiences–most importantly China–and get them to love them as much as Americans do. And second, Marvel proved that audiences would embrace movies about obscure superheroes that emerged from its cinematic universe, perhaps even ones they hadn’t heard of before, and that’s a fact that is proving essential to the vitality of both studios’ prospects.
Marvel was doing fine—great, for the most part—in rolling out its pictures about familiar characters like Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers team (the Hulk has been a troubling exception). But things moved to an entirely new level when they found that Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool (controlled by Fox and not an MCU entity) scored big numbers too. And it can be truly said that Wonder Woman has completely revitalized the DCEU with her first movie.
Spider-Man’s difficult second weekend–one of the worst ever for an MCU movie–has shown that a superhero picture from a heavily milked character/franchise can be vulnerable, even if it is well-made and marketed. It’s evident 20th Century Fox spotted that vulnerability and exploited it when it chose to release its War for the Planet of the Apes right in the wake of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and their bet paid off as the Apes picture has walloped Spidey this weekend, knocking the web-slinger off his game. Marvel has yet to see that happen with its other characters, but I expect it will. The hardcore fans will always be there, but how eager will the more casual fans be to run to see the third Thor movie, the third and fourth Avengers movie, or the seventh Spider-Man movie?
At the exorbitant production and marketing budgets these movies demand, they need to gross at least $600 million or $700 million each to justify their existence. It’s only the rare franchise that grows its grosses from film to film, and Marvel should expect that as its sub-franchises age, some of them will need to be retired.
The lesson here is that for both studios’ franchises to thrive, they’ll need to keep interspersing new, fresh characters into the mix with the more established ones. The moviegoer who might already have tired of Captain America or The Avengers could well be raring to go to see The Black Panther (I know I am). And when the new ones work, like the first Guardians movie and the first Wonder Woman did, they inspire a whole new burst of energy into the entire universe.