Marvel Vs. DC: 2014’s Multi-Million Dollar Game of Chicken


Of all the superhero characters, common macguffins and themes across comics, television, and theater screens, Disney and their Marvel properties are flaming the popular opinion that PR campaigns surrounding these mixed story worlds is the new battlefield for the hearts and mind of the consumer, which is much like how Marvel Comics and DC Comics used to battle for newsstand real estate.
The Marvel vs. DC narrative is largely one created by and for the fans, but that doesn’t mean this year hasn’t seen an unusual escalation in truculent announcements of future plans from both of the companies. Since the properties they represent have potential worldwide box office values in the billions of dollars, it’s hard not to see the back-and-forth of the halcyon publishing days as a high-stakes game of chicken between two mature mega franchise competitors.
Warner Bros has done well by DC, quickly building a interconnected franchise through Man of Steel and Zach Snyder. They were first to publicize a movie where two of the franchises banner characters face off–a clever way of bringing DC-franchise heavyweight Batman to what was then-assumed to be just a Man of Steel sequel. The announced follow up film was supposed to be released in July of 2015, but the addition of Batman and the beginning of the DC Cinematic Universe saw the release date pushed back to allow more time for pre-production. Instead of competing in the same summer as an Avengers sequel, the release date was pushed back to May 16th, 2016. The early May release, as a way to kick off the superhero summer, was something Marvel had done with Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers years prior. A potential showdown in the month of May was a distinct possibility if Marvel’s movies continued to be profitable. Disney had already made moves to place an unannounced but presumably Marvel movie on that date.
After Captain America: The Winter Soldier became a success early in April 2014 for Marvel, the film’s plot had already changed the tone of their in-universe ABC show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which helped make Marvel’s Cinematic Universe feel cohesive and strong. The public still had their doubts about the gamble of Guardians of the Galaxy later in the year, but Marvel had seen enough of James Gunn’s work in progress, as well as the successful box office of Star Lord Chris Pratt’s other 2014 success (ironically for Warner Bros: The Lego Movie) to know they could attempt the aggressive move of placing Captain America 3’s announced release date right alongside Batman and Superman on May 16th, 2016. We wouldn’t know the scope of Marvel’s desire to confront the DCU head on until later in the year, but around this time, Marvel Studios would have also begun courting Robert Downey Jr to extend his stewardship of the Tony Stark role, literally putting Marvel’s crime fighting billionaire against their All-American hero in red, white and blue.
The first week of August 2014, Zack Snyder’s second entry in the DCU had been officially titled, added Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman, debuted some costumes, and had shown a Comic Con teaser, but days after Guardians of the Galaxy began it’s late summer run on the box office, Warner Bros seemingly blinked, moving Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice forward on the release schedule to March 25th, 2016. The spring successes of The Lego Movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggested that bigger movies could perform well earlier in the year, and DC movies were about to take advantage of the expanded season. Warner Bros was able to avoid being stuck with negative public perception for swapping dates by finally presenting itself as a franchise with aspirations of dethroning the Marvel Cinematic Universe; when Batman V. Superman was delayed, the studio also announced plans for nine additional superhero movies June 2020.
Warner Bros was the first to officially announce it’s intended slate of upcoming superhero films. On October 15th, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsuijihara announced the planned characters for the dates claimed in August: two Zack Snyder-directed Justice League films, Suicide Squad directed by David Ayer, a solo Wonder Woman film (recently given to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones director Michelle MacLaren), The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Lantern. It was a big step forward in the public presentation of the superhero properties not based on Marvel characters which, up until that point, had looked like a loosely connected jumble of films struggling to tie into 2013’s Man of Steel. Also amongst the announced films were Wonder Woman, a female superhero headlining her own film, and Cyborg, with a titular minority lead. When considered with the sheer number of releases announced simultaneously, these two benchmarks for blockbuster equality positioned Warner Bros as a serious competitor to the Marvel Studios machine for the first time, committing to hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets for a future string of movies.
Not to be outdone, Marvel announced a public event a the Disney-owned El Capitan theater in Los Angeles for October 28th. Many speculated that Marvel would simply announce casting that hadn’t been finished by the previous July’s Comic Con or that Sony’s hesitance to commit to an Amazing Spider-Man franchise head lead to a character-sharing deal between the two companies. Instead, Marvel unveiled the entire line-up of their nine Phase 3 films, including their own two team-up movies, female hero movie and minority lead movie. Unlike Warner Bros’ discreet announcement, the Marvel event included cast appearances from the likes of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans and even a video teaser for Avengers Infinity War Parts 1 and 2.
It’s hard to tell when comparing Marvel Studios’ and Warner Bros approach to the public perception of their superhero franchises if Marvel is being needlessly aggressive or if it’s simply a matter of their film series already having 10 successful entries. The showdown over the May 16th release date was never going to result in a single day where two releases featured four of America’s most profitable cinematic superheroes sharing money between two conglomerates, but the narrative of these two studios in a high stakes game of chicken did result in both companies releasing similar multi-picture plans reaching into the future. If Marvel has earned the right to hold large public events and has the ability to push a Warner Bros movie forward into Spring 2016, that would make the moves by DC the overly aggressive steps to catch up to the MCU as fast as possible.


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