It’s the rivalry to end all rivalries: DC Comics, one of the first and oldest comic book companies, versus longtime competitor Marvel Comics.
While both have produced iconic and instantly recognizable properties, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), started with a bang in 2008 with the critically acclaimed and visually stunning Iron-Man, and hasn’t looked back since. DC was in the middle of its own juggernaut, the Academy Award-winning Batman series helmed by Chris Nolan at the time. When it was revealed that there would be no more expansions to the Nolanverse after the release of The Dark Night Rises in 2012, DC released Man of Steel in 2013 in a clear effort to play catch-up and launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Critics hated Man of Steel almost instantly, setting a trend for the following two DCEU films, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. Both were critically panned.
Now, it goes without saying that, regrettably, DC rushed these projects. By the time MOS was released, Marvel had already put out their first Avengers film, and DC clearly wanted to ‘assemble’ their Justice League franchise for the big screen sooner rather than later. The fact that Justice League is slated to come out before MOS2 when Man of Steel was clearly an origin story (we BARELY see Superman be Superman!) is unfortunate, and fans have been openly dubious about casting choices such as Jesse Eisenberg for Lex Luthor or Jared Leto as The Joker. Critics often felt the films were overly long, bloated, poorly written, and dark.
However, while the DCEU films remain panned by critics, they are curiously beloved by audiences: for awhile, Suicide Squad had a lower critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes than the god-awful 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, but on IMDB? 6.3 out of 10. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice? 6.7 out of 10. And Man of Steel ranks 7.1 out of 10. Comparatively speaking, the first Captain America movie is rated 6.9 out of 10 on IMDB and has an 80% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. MOS has only a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which implies that audiences enjoyed MOS more than Captain America, but critics enjoyed Captain America more than MOS.
Such extreme polarity between critics and audiences is telling. There’s roughly a gap of about 40% on DC projects: a mere 27% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes enjoyed Batman vs. Superman, but 63% of audience members did, rating it a 3.6 out of 5. Similarly, only 23% of critics liked Suicide Squad, but 62% of audiences enjoyed it, rating it a 3.5 out of 5. And despite their chronically poorly reviewed films, anticipation remains high for upcoming projects Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), and Aquaman (2018).
While they do, of course, have die-hard fans, the sweet spot of comic-book-movie-making is to appeal to the casual moviegoer. You don’t earn a billion dollars in profit unless your work is somewhat accessible to viewers across the board (and, in an increasingly global market, across the ocean), and DC appears to be attempting to attract newer audiences by putting fresh spins on old classics with their extended universe. Directors like Zack Snyder and David Ayer have built entirely new worlds out of the familiar treads of Gotham and Metropolis, but the downside of this is the possible alienation of critics and fans that have preconceived expectations of what the films and characters should be. When Superman snaps General Zod’s neck in Man of Steel, critics and fans familiar with the property cringed, because generally (and canonically) speaking, Superman doesn’t kill. But for fans who were a bit more flexible, viewers who were being entirely newly introduced to the world, or watchers whose experience with the character only go back as far as Smallville, it was an exciting scene and new exploration of the character.
Curiously enough, however, when it comes to hardcore comic fans, DC is also practically unrivaled when it comes to the recognition of their characters and the popularity of fan favorites: pick a con, any con, and the Batmen, Supermen, Wonder Women, and, recently, Suicide Squad-Joker and Harley Quinn’s, will far out number any other type of cosplay except maybe Star Wars characters. And say what you will about their plots, DCEU films are quite lovely to look at, with solid cinematography, costuming, and (Academy Award-winning!) hair and make-up across the board. The members of older properties like iconic Justice League will probably always remain instantly recognizable, but the modern look and world building of the DCEU films are also creating new icons for the Facebook generation.
Where is the sweet spot of pleasing moviegoers and critics, newcomers to DC as well as longtime fans? This is the billion-dollar question for the future of the DC Extended Universe. For starters, if Wonder Woman performs, it will bode well for the DCEU, as WW is linked to Justice League’ and JL to the upcoming Aquaman. And although the surprise smash hit of Suicide Squad and almost cult classic-like devotion bestowed upon it by fans is proof positive that good word of mouth can outweigh critics for DC vehicles (the success of SS has also led to a possible ‘Gotham City Sirens’ movie starring Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman, as well as rumors of a ‘Suicide Squad 2’), if they can manage to combine their wonderfully shot films and well-known characters with thoughtful plots and stellar action, they’ll certainly end up back on top.