Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in a short but illustrious period of history. In 50 years, we’re going to tell our grandchildren about this; a period that will go down in every single chronicle of the period. Yes, we’re slap bang in the middle of the era I shall call ‘In Between The Releases of Two Big Comic Book Movies Featuring Famous Heroes Who Fight Each Other’, and no, I could not think of a shorter name. Yep, Batman v Superman is far enough behind us to have made its (pretty tiny) cultural mark and for its critical and commercial performance to be clear, and Captain America: Civil War is close enough that publicity is in full swing and the embargo on reviews is up, allowing the first reactions to come streaming through. I tell you this, captive audience (ha!), because at this specific point in time, in this short and fleeting span of a few weeks, we have reached peak Marvel vs DC.
No, I am not being over-dramatic.
For as long as the sun has risen in the morning and set at night, for as long as glimmering stars have twinkled upon the Earth, there’s been a massive rivalry between two comic book companies: Marvel and DC. First, this was just a comics thing, as fans argued over whose ‘universe’ and range of characters was best. More recently, the debate has metastasised to film and TV as live-action adaptations have become rife, and as popular culture has embraced this new wave of comic-book movies and TV, mainly produced by these two big hitters, the argument has only swelled and gained further notoriety, fought on more and more visible. However, I think it’s safe to say that the feud, the tomato-slinging grudge match between two companies who more or less do the same thing, producing entertainment that any reasonable superhero fan can all enjoy according to their tastes regardless of who produced it, has never been bigger than it is now, and it’s mainly because, for the first time in absolutely yonks, the companies are on something of a level playing field because of the release of these two notably similar movies, BVS and Civil War.
Need more context? Really? The things I do for my one regular reader. The thing that’s really fuelling this current argument is that Marvel has found a ton more success in the film department than DC. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, they’ve built a cohesive cinematic universe out of previously obscure characters they had the rights to, making C-lister (hello, Guardians of the Galaxy!) after C-lister (hello, Ant-Man!) into successful and popular cinematic characters starring in commercially and critically successful movies. Regardless of the way your superhero bread is buttered, it’s hard to deny that Marvel hasn’t released one movie since maybe The Incredible Hulk that hasn’t had at least decent reviews and solid-to-outstanding box office, despite how unknown many of these characters are on paper. Their universe works, and Civil War acts as more of a big season-opener for the MCU’s third season (or Phase, to use their words) to shift the status quo for most of the big hitters of the universe through a huge fight between the MCU’s heroes; a conflict between characters we’ve gotten to know over as many as six films.
DC, on the other hand, have had a much rougher ride with their movies. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a cultural phenomenon and a huge success, but that was a close-ended story that couldn’t be minded any further after 2012, with most of the other efforts before 2013 crashing and burning (see: Green Lantern). So, in the wake of The Avengers‘ monster success, DC plumped to emulate if not copy Marvel’s approach by setting up their own cinematic universe, beginning with the already-developing Superman reboot, Man of Steel, which would launch their new slate of movies a la Iron Man. Unfortunately, though MOS was by no means a failure and made enough for a sequel to be quickly ordered, it suffered from lukewarm critical and audience reception and fell short of several other superhero movies starring far more obscure heroes. It wasn’t the best start imaginable, so DC justifiably went to beef up the sequel’s commercial chances by transforming it into the backdoor pilot for the big team-up in Justice League – Man of Steel 2 was no longer just a Superman sequel, but also a Batman and Wonder Woman movie that would introduce a whole host of elements to feed into that larger universe. With BVS, DC hoped, they’d be able to do in one movie what Marvel did in about five, introducing all the tools they needed to build a fully-formed cinematic universe with the key difference that this universe would be starting in media res; more or less free of origin stories with all the main heroes active.
And that, most-likely-asleep audience, is where the recent flaring up of the argument stems from. As you may know, BVS was savaged by critics (I’m not a critic because that implies talent, but I thoroughly disliked it nonetheless) with a 28% Rotten Tomatoes rating, received divisively by audiences (it got a B CinemaScore, a metric for measuring audience approval of a movie – while that may sound good, high standards means it’s on the very low end for a superhero film) and has quickly run out of steam at the box office after a huge opening weekend. It’s a hit, and it’ll end up at $900 million or so which is well inside profit-town, but considering that the latter two Nolan Batman movies made over a billion as well as the Avengers films and Iron Man 3, falling short of the billion mark despite how damn marketable this movie was shows that something went a wee bit wrong; DC’s universe is still ticking away fine with Suicide Squad hitting cinemas this August and Justice League now filming, but there’s going to have to be some firefighting in future press tours to convince a divided audience that this universe is worth getting on board with. As a springboard for the larger universe, this one is somewhat wobbly.
The reviews for BVS are especially important here. At one point or another, a certain, undoubtedly tiny minority of DC fandom piped with the idea that the negative reception was a sham; all the scathing reviews were a result of Marvel and Disney paying off critics to slam BVS in order to prop up Civil War with glowing reviews due to the similarity of the two movies. That’s, obviously, a great big steaming pile of nonsense – a made-up conspiracy from the makers of ‘Bush Did 9/11’ or ‘David Cameron is Actually A Shrimp’ or something that makes absolutely no logistical sense. However, that feeling was definitely clear at the time of release, and it’s been amplified very recently by the second half of the conspiracy coming to light: the first reviews for Civil War have been almost universally positive, with some major publications even giving it five stars, a rare feat for a superhero movie. But what’s really irked certain DC fans with these reviews is the overriding consensus that BVS is joyless and nihilistic to the point of dullness, free of any sense of enjoyment of these fantastical characters and starring superheroes who are basically sociopaths. The key word here is ‘fun’, and it’s one I’ll return to in a jiffy. That conception has pissed them off no end, and it’s pissed them off even more now it’s made a return in some of these early Civil War reviews as a way to underline how the movie does the hero vs hero concept (subjectively) ‘right’ – the point of referencing BVS is to show that, in the opinion of the reviewer, Civil War has succeeded at the things BVS failed at.
And, hoo boy, that idea has made some folks pretty full of sodium chloride (I’m too pretentious to say ‘salty’). In fact, the salted beef (this is what we’ll call it, yes it is) is so voluminous that it’s more or less turned into a microcosm of the entire argument that’s happened for decades; years of Marvel vs DC distilled into a few weeks of social media bickering. My point in this article is not to pick a side (for the record: Marvel for movies, DC for TV, I generally like them both) – instead, it’s to show how the supposed ‘battle’ between these two big companies who have had such wildly different fortunes in recent years in movies has generated an incredible obsession and brought it right to the front of the internet conversation for everyone to see. In the last few weeks and undoubtedly in the next few as well, social media has played host to a showcase of the ugly sense of tribalism that arbitrary ‘rivalries’ can engender in certain people; a display of the weirdly cult-like loyalty that faceless companies inspire in people despite the complete disconnect between the company and the person. This loyalty, tribalism and above all obsession with ‘Marvel vs DC’ has led several fans to… well, inventing a conspiracy between hundreds of critics and Disney and virulently abusing people for simply expressing one preference over another, dedicating hours to trying to prove that they’re right and everyone, literally everyone else who disagrees is, I dunno, a faggot or whatever word these people use. It’s bad, and it’s, to me, mind-blowing that the fact that the big comic-book movies are produced by two different companies has brought about a complete abandonment of reason. And all because they can’t accept that it’s all just opinions that everyone is free to have, and that no-one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this debate – and, ultimately, that all these other opinions that they dedicate so much time to shutting down don’t really matter.
The best thing, of course, is that Marvel and DC seem to be perfectly fine with each other, and that the serious side of the rivalry has been entirely cooked up by overzealous fanboys, which is the inevitable icing on the cake.
So, in conclusion, don’t do drugs kids, and remember never to drink and drive. Also: be reasonable. Entertainment can be hugely meaningful to people, and even something as purportedly ‘silly’ as superheroes can absolutely strike a chord with someone and become really important to their life. The problem comes when that importance goes beyond just a big interest and hobby, and becomes intrinsic to happiness, to the point where people are willing to hurl completely nonsensical abuse at people they don’t know just so that they feel safe and justified that their opinion is the right one. So, yeah, don’t do that – if it’s your kind of thing, just enjoy the fact that we live in an age where superheroes are a vital part of popular culture and that the insane, completely unmarketable characters from the comics like Deadpool and Ant-Man have become household names that probably even your mum will know about and care less about who’s making it.
Seriously, though, don’t do drugs, kids. It’s a very important life lesson.