So far, it’s no contest.
The DCMU vs the MCMU, quality-wise, has been a one-sided affair. Marvel films historically have earned rave reviews and dollars equivalent to their quality. DC films have earned money ... but with the exception of Wonder Woman, few have been as universally loved as their Marvel counterparts. Now, we’re not counting the Nolan Batman films in this mix, at least one of which certainly could compete for the finest comic book film yet made (The Dark Knight, the only movie of either “universe” which has—deservedly—won a major Oscar—Heath Ledger as The Joker). For the purpose of this article, we’re referring to the batch that began with 2013’s Man of Steel for DC, and Iron Man for Marvel in 2008.
Why? Because that spread is when the respective companies branded their films with ongoing storylines and a regular cast of characters, that’s why. Marvel had the head start by five years.
Iron Man was released in 2008 and was an immediate smash. I saw early footage at Comic Con International, and like the rest of the large crowd, was overwhelmed. We knew right away that Robert Downey, Jr. was perfect for the role. Word-of-mouth ensued and the film was indeed as well-written and acted as it had appeared. Marvel was off to the races. A couple of missteps here and there (Iron Man 3, anyone?), but such an auspicious start showed us all that, when adapted faithfully from the source material, these films had a world of potential.
If only they were more aware during the Tim Story Fantastic Four era beginning back in ‘05, they could’ve saved their cognoscenti (I don’t know; I prefer it to “aficionados” as it gives us more credit) some trauma. But, alas...
Ironically, the converse happened with Superman: The Movie. Christopher Reeve was the perfect “Superman” for the late 70s-early-80s, and that first film was a major success both critically and commercially. Its immediate sequel, despite a director change from Richard Donner to Richard Lester, earned less but was still a smash hit on all counts. Let’s pretend the next two do not exist.
Superman, the character, was rebooted in the DCMU’s first effort proper, Man of Steel. The film was an earner; the reviews were mixed. Personally, I enjoyed it but wanted much more. There was no real joy in it for me. That said, it furthered the Frank Miller “Dark Knight” influence, and was a bleak, dark film.
And there’s the rub.
Save for Wonder Woman, which was a return to the lighter Christopher Reeve Superman form, and perhaps not by chance the second-highest-grossing domestic film of the year (behind The Last Jedi), with over $400,000,000 in its till, the DCMU has by and large followed Man of Steel’s darkness and the films have been received with varying degrees of fan appreciation.
Make no mistake, Miller’s Dark Knight not only changed the comics world forever, but also the related films. Suddenly, “dark” sold. However, Superman is not by nature a dark character. He is not Batman. When the DCMU figures that out, maybe things will change. The current Justice League film tries .. but isn’t quite there. That one has other issues, but we’ll get to those at another time.
Regarding the MCMU... quality atop of quality atop of quality. Their formula works. They are not slavish to the source material, but highly respectful of it.
Wonder Woman is the DCMU’s biggest financial success. Taking everything into consideration, it appears to me that the message is clear: DCMU, lighten up.
And so, to summarize ...
Two roads, with apologies to Robert Frost, diverged in a wood. And Marvel took the one less traveled, the one where they did not alter (too much) what brought that comic book company to the dance. The other, DC, rode a trend. That, my friends, has made all the difference.