This has been Hollywood’s worst summer at the box office in 16 years, and the only bright spot has been superhero movies.
Top performers include “Wonder Woman,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Given that the only thing that motivates moviegoers to put down the remote and get into theaters is super-people in tights, expect to see more such movies in the months and years to come.
Noteworthy in this year’s superhero mayhem is that “Wonder Woman” was at the top of the pack.
Not only is she the first female superhero to launch a successful cinematic franchise, but she’s also the first unqualified commercial and critical success for DC Comics since they’ve been playing catch-up to the Marvel Comics movies. Marvel has dominated the box office since 2008’s “Iron Man.”
The clash of the comic book titans
Most people understand the Coke versus Pepsi vibe between DC and Marvel. In fact, though, the rivalry between the two major comic book publishers has been largely congenial over the decades. The two publishers even teamed up on occasion to allow their heroes to beat each other up in print.
What’s interesting is the different strategies they’ve applied in bringing their pulp heroes to life on the big screen.
Initially, DC had the edge when Christopher Reeve first donned the iconic red cape for “Superman: The Movie” in 1978. At the time, Marvel was churning out cheap versions of Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk for television, and it seemed unlikely that they would be able to match their competitors when it came to making movies.
The situation soured even further when Marvel was forced to declare bankruptcy. It dug its way out by selling the movie rights to many of its most iconic characters to other studios.
Sony picked up Spider-Man. Fox got their hands on the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. When Marvel firmly jumped into film and set up Marvel Studios, they had to make do with B-list superheroes. Most observers saw that as a recipe for disaster.
But a funny thing happened. Marvel launched its cinematic universe with “Iron Man” starring Robert Downey, Jr. Despite the relative obscurity of the superhero, the movie was a runaway hit.
Since then, Marvel has meticulously crafted a shared universe of heroes that connect every one of their movies with every other. That can allow even the most obscure characters to get their own movies. Who would have thought that an Ant-Man film and a movie starring a talking space raccoon would be able to compete with a big-screen Batman and Superman?
Marvel brings all its characters together
In addition, Marvel was able to retrieve some of its old properties back into the superhero stable. The Ben Affleck “Daredevil” movie bombed, and Fox didn’t make another Daredevil movie in time to hold on to the rights.
The intellectual property reverted back to Marvel, which is now using the character in a popular Netflix series.
Sony was wise enough to realize they could make more money by plugging their Spider-Man films in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than operate solo, so “Spider-Man Homecoming” had Spidey working alongside Robert Downey’s Iron Man to fight crime.
In contrast, DC Comics has relied on standalone films. The Batman of “The Dark Knight” inhabits a universe separate from the Superman of “Superman Returns.” This has made for several good movies, but it hasn’t generated the momentum of the Marvel model.
DC Comics has finally decided to join them, and they, too, see the virtue of a shared comic universe – several years too late. Their stories have a markedly hurried feel to them.
“Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” did well at the box office, but not overwhelmingly so. This is all prelude to a rushed “Justice League” movie that switched directors in midstream. DC Comics, was the only game in town for silver screen superheroes, appears to have been resoundingly overthrown by the Marvel usurpers.
All of this makes the “Wonder Woman” success so remarkable. DC now has its first bona fide “shared universe” hit.
The logical next step is to combine the two universes and have Wonder Woman beat up on Spider-Man.
Maybe next summer.
(Promotional photo from the Wonder Woman Film.)