Stan Lee is having the last laugh in heaven, or whatever new marvel-ous universe he has travelled to after his death because Marvel films this year have managed to upstage the only big DC release, yet again. If you think of it though, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone anymore. It's been a while that Marvel is leading the race of superhero films and DC has been trying to catch-up. Ever since Christopher Nolan's excellently made Dark Knight trilogy wrapped up, DC films seem to be going through an identity crisis.
To begin with, Nolan's Batman films were indeed a tough act to follow. And, it didn't help that by 2012 Marvel had already begun to expand its cinematic universe, with one blockbuster superhero film after another, like Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The most ambitious venture in this series of Marvel films that released the same year Batman trilogy ended was The Avengers (2012). From then to 2018, the Marvel universe has grown exponentially, interconnecting individual superhero franchise, and the seven realms, inventing supervillains and basically making the last decade the golden age for comic book movies.
One of the reasons Marvel has managed to thrive, while DC is still struggling is that Marvel has very strategically planned out all the different phrases and actually has an endgame plan to tie-up all the films together in its much awaited 2019 release, Avengers: Endgame. In fact, the Marvel executives have done such meticulous planning that post Endgame too, there are smaller films from the same universe like Spiderman and Guardians of the Galaxy's next venture, to appease the fans.
DC, on the other hand, seems to have no such game plan and is only trying to imitate the Marvel's format and hoping to get the same results. One of the biggest examples of this is Aquaman. If you have watched the film, you'd know that it's practically the waterpark version of Thor, with a far less fun replica of Loki, and boy, do you miss Loki when Orm (Patrick Wilson) goes about his business of making Aquaman's (Jason Momoa) life hell, all the while looking like he is suffering from chronic constipation.
Don't get me wrong, Aquaman isn't half as bad as a film. Momoa's Aquaman makes a great hero, which is perhaps all the more reason why Wilson's Orm comes off as such an inferior villain, and Amber Heard's Mera is a delightful addition to the cast. However, when viewed in comparison to Marvel's this year's releases like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman seems trite and well, unappealing. What comparison is the mythic Atlantis to the exotic and cool Wakanda to begin with? Also, Momoa's and Heard's cutesy romantic banter is great, but in no way it is half as funny as Ant Man's goofy act. And, if you really think of it, can Aquaman truly hold a candle to an army of 22 Marvel superheroes, and a supervillain like Thanos?
A very legitimate refutation of the above argument can be that they are all individual films -- Avengers, Ant-man, Black Panther as well as Aquaman -- and they all make for entertaining cinema. Therefore, there is no need to view Aquaman in comparison to Marvel releases because people can and are appreciating them individually as box office numbers indicate. However, the problem with that line of argument is that Marvel not only outnumbers DC in production but also trumps over DC films in quality.
When viewed individually, all Marvel films come off as entertaining movies, but Aquaman may not have enough to make the film sail. For starter, the fight sequences in the film are drab. The story is beyond cliched -- a demi-god (like Thor), tries to prove his worthiness as a ruler, while his stepbrother, Orm (like Loki) tries to stop him, and take the throne for himself. Atlantis is magical and mythical but it lacks comic-book coolness, and almost make Aquaman seem like a fantasy film. Nicole Kidman doesn't have anything to do in the film, and despite all the noise for strong female characters, Amber Heard is stuck playing the second fiddle to Momoa's Aquaman. In contrast, Black Panther has many strong women, who are not just tagalongs.
The truth is DC comics have been struggling to find a sure footing since 2012. It had only released a handful of films since the end of Batman trilogy -- Man of Steel (2013), Batman vs Superman (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017) and Aquaman (2018), and while a few of these have even done well at the box office, barring Wonder Woman, none of them are a match for Marvel films.
That's another thing, the only DC movie in the last six years to receive an overwhelming response from the audience as well as critics is Wonder Woman, and the reason the film was so wildly popular was because DC was trying to do something original (instead of copying Marvel) by introducing a woman led superhero film, which is something Marvel will not do till 2019. Wonder Woman gave us a strong heroine with a complicated backstory and an adventurous mission, an arm candy of man with Chris Pine, and some legendary battle scenes. However, then the makers went back to making Justice League, because how else will they compete with Avengers?
The films produced by DC comics from 2013 onwards struggled with tonality as well. While the Dark Knight trilogy was explicitly dark, and sometimes came off as psychological thrillers, with cliffhanger climax scenes, the films that followed the trilogy were neither dark enough nor had the sparks of light-hearted comic book fluffiness that Marvel films possess so brilliantly with their sardonic sense of humour.
Also, the actors who played the superhero characters were far from perfect casting. We have to put with an ageing Bruce Wayne, because Ben Affleck insists on playing the role, and while Hendry Cavill's cheekbones are sharp enough to cut glass, it doesn't help that his face can only imitate the emotional range of a teaspoon. The only glorious casting that DC has done so far is Gal Godot as the fiesty, beautiful Wonder Woman, and Jason Momoa as Aquaman. On the contrary, each actor who plays Marvel superhero characters were brilliantly cast. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk fit into these roles effortlessly and has, over the years made them their own.
Another thing that is very refreshing about Marvel movies is that they never underestimate their audience's intelligence nor do they doubt their fealty. When Avengers: Infinity War hit the screens earlier this year, it brought together almost 22 superheroes, each with a complicated backstory of his/her own, and several with a separate movie franchise that has their own storylines.
However, at no point, did we see Russo Brothers over-explain, or trying to give us recap, in case we forgot what happened in the previous films. The filmmakers trusted us to know the universe enough to make sense of the film and view it as a culmination of different Marvel movies that had released before it. On the other hand, DC comics have repeated undermined its audience, culling up trends started by Marvel and repacking them as their own in their films, and clearly, that has not taken them far.
Another interesting thing that Marvel filmmakers have done over the years is that they have made the fans as much a part of MCU as the superheroes. They would leave behind post-credit scenes as small clues for us, our very own breadcrumb trails to follow which inevitably lead us to the next Marvel movie. In most cases the 'next movie' took somewhere between six months to one year to arrive, giving us enough time to speculate, draw up fan theories, and wait to see what the Marvel gods have decided for us and, in the meantime, the fans kept the Marvel buzz going.
For most films, the box office is the final frontier and success there means the film has worked. However, over the years, these big budget comic book films have become to the global market, what Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar's films were to the Indian market in the 90s' -- unquestionable hits even before releasing, and irrespective of the content.
Therefore, the only other yardsticks to measure these films up by are the loyalty of fans, and critics' opinions. Over the years, with Marvel films getting better and bigger, many DC loyalists have found themselves inclined to be Marvel converts, and with the younger generation being introduced to these amazing superheroes in multiplexes and not in thinly bound comic books, chances are that we are looking at a legion of young Marvel fans in the next decade. Under such circumstances, DC should change its strategy and finally start producing better and original films if they wants to stay relevant.