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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Marvel vs. DC At The Movies: Dusting Off Stan's Old Playbook

Last week, when Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announced the 9 new movies that would make up it’s cinematic "Phase Three", he didn't do it in a boardroom full of stodgy investors or on a corporate conference call with a few invites from the press. No, instead, Feige took to a stage at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. While the crowd before him very likely had it’s share of investors, and it very obviously contained members of the press, it also contained something you don’t really see at studio announcement events; fans.

Make no mistake, people were excited a few weeks ago when the list of DC movies slated for release over the next few years was a announced. Twitter and Facebook exploded with non-stop talk of Justice League, Wonder Woman and even Aquaman. People were excited that rival characters, characters many of us thought we’d never see in a movie, let alone headline one, would soon be taking to the screen. But even in all that excitement it felt different to the big announcement from Marvel. In hindsight, it felt impersonal. One studio opted to go with a traditional announcement with a CEO with no connection to viewing audiences relating a corporate strategic plan and then sending out a press release while the other held a party and made the fans feel like guests of honor.

So of course many of those fans are reacting as you’d expect; Marvel rules DC… well, not so much.

Be it Marvel or DC, more than a few people find it strange that such wide swathes of an audience can be so blindly loyal to any for-profit organization. And it is strange. Neither Marvel nor DC (or Disney and Warner Bros. as the case may be) is putting out these flicks with any intention remotely resembling altruistic. They’re in the business of making money and super hero movies have so far, for the most part, proven to be a boom. Both only care about fan loyalty in as much as that loyalty can be converted into dollars come opening weekend.

However, for anyone who’s ever identified as a comic fan, this fevered and impassioned war over which company is superior to the other is nothing new. It’s a war that’s been raging for more than 50 years amongst a readership that thrives on drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and it’s a war the looks to be defining super hero cinema as much as it’s defined super hero comics.

It’s also a war DC has been historically bad at fighting.

Before Stan Lee, you never really saw readers proclaim loyalty to one company over another. Either they liked a comic or a character or they didn’t. Fights may have broken out on playgrounds as to whether Captain Marvel or Superman was the more interesting character but it was unheard of for kids to announce absolute fealty to either Fawcett or DC (or National as the case may be).


But that changed when Stan found himself backed into a corner. Marvel had finally managed to break out of the generic monster comic monotony of the 1950s and, thanks to the success of The Fantastic Four, was back in the super hero business. One by one, other characters were starting to take hold: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Thor, The Avengers. However, as popular as these characters were, DC still had a stranglehold on the super hero game. At Marvel, Stan had the talents and he had the characters, now he just needed attention. To get that attention, he initiated one of the most genius guerilla marketing campaigns in comics or any other medium; he tricked fans into thinking that they were an actual part of Marvel Comics.

In addition to letting readers know what was coming out month to month, he pulled back the curtain on the company and let them see the inner workings of Marvel’s Bullpen (or at least he crafted a pretty convincing fiction of a Bullpen). Artists became personalities sold to fans right alongside the characters being published each month at a time when creators at DC were lucky to even get a credit. Readers were spoken to directly. “Because YOU demanded it!” emblazoned more and more title pages and readers were told they were the real bosses at Marvel. The Merry Marvel Marching Society was born and finally DC went from being “the other guys” to “Brand Echh.”

Again, it was all marketing, but what did that matter as long as it worked? And make no mistake, it did work. Despite owning the most iconic and globally known super heroes in the world, DC’s fate as the perpetual number two was sealed. They eventually did take steps to respond to what Marvel was doing both in content and marketing, but by then it was too late. At almost every turn, the company came across as either a copycat in creating new characters in the “Marvel” style or, worst yet, as completely clueless as to what readers were actually responding to. At one point, they made the assumption that volume was the secret. Google “DC Implosion” to see how that worked out.

Kevin Feige, and what amounts to a revamped Marvel Bullpen for an all new audience and medium (“Jolly” Joss Whedon?), are just carrying on a marketing tradition started years and years ago by Smilin’ Stan. Only unlike Stan, Feige isn’t just making young children and disaffected college students feel like they’re integral parts of this new Merry Marvel Marching Society; he’s extended that circle to include people of all ages, demographics and nationalities. Lee had Stan’s Soapbox; Feige has the El Capitan Theater and #MarvelEvent.

There’s been a lot of speculation over the last few weeks as to how Marvel is going to fare in cinemas now that DC has unveiled it’s years-long strategic plan. For the first time since Iron Man hit the stratosphere, there’s going to be actual competition for Marvel and many are wondering just how hard The House of Ideas is going to be hit.

I would wager not much.

Oh, DC’s movie franchise will absolutely make money. The public, at least for now, is hungry for all things super hero, and DC will absolutely be able to feed that beast. But will their films be as popular has Marvel’s? Well, that depends on if DC can stop acting like DC for a change and that doesn’t look to be happening anytime soon. Once again, they’re late to the party in giving audiences what they want and as always the company seems to be copying the wrong things from it’s rival. DC sees Marvel has a veritable library of films that, like their source comics, take a real world approach. So what’s their response? Flooding the market with product with little to no build-up with an emphasis on dark and gritty.

Marvel has been successful at the box office not because of volume or perceived realism but because over the course of six years and counting, they’ve been building good will with audiences both inside theaters and out. Every monstrous opening weekend is built not only on the success of the string of beloved (for the most part) movies that have come before but because audiences are given the illusion they were part of the team that made it all happen.

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