Warner Bros and Disney own two biggest comic-book publishers DC and Marvel, respectively. While in comics, the competition is breakneck, in films based on the same characters Marvel has taken a lead. We should not discount Warner Bros and DC as they have given us the greatest superhero film in history, The Dark Knight. They are also the pioneer of the superhero movie genre as Richard Donner directed 1978’s Superman, the first modern superhero film.
The current rivalry between Marvel and DC is only the latest chapter in the battle between the two of the most iconic studios, Warner Bros and Disney. This cat-and-mouse game goes back almost 100 years. To put current DC vs Marvel in context, let us talk in brief about how it all began. Interestingly, both the studios were founded in 1923 and the first phase of their rivalry began in 1930s. Disney won it hands down with their Mickey Mouse family of characters like Mickey Mouse himself, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and so on. Warner Bros, while late to the game, quickly occupied the top spot in 1940s and 1950s and demolished the competition. The reason was Looney Tunes characters. They may have arrived late in the game but gained unprecedented popularity, especially Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny became so popular that it became the official mascot of Warner Bros, the Disney equivalent of Mickey Mouse.
Both Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny survive to this day, but Bugs Bunny has clearly been more successful and famous. The reason? Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters were different from what Mickey Mouse’s audience was used to. While Disney’s cartoon characters were childlike, innocent and nice, Looney Tunes were bad boys, prone to roguery. Bugs Bunny, for example, was a hero and villain in himself. He is the lead character of his cartoon shorts and films, and yet he does things that typically a villain would do. He plays mischievous pranks, indulges in dark humour, and is not too averse to violence. Children and adults alike loved avant-garde style of Looney Tunes. It does not mean that Disney and Mickey Mouse were doomed. They were merely sidelined, and were biding their time.
Coming back to superheroes, Superman starring Christopher Reeve was the first modern superhero film as mentioned above. Warner Bros and DC maintained their supremacy in superhero movies even after severely panned Batman films directed by Joel Schumacher and reinforced their top spot with Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed The Dark Knight trilogy. Marvel had lost the rights to many of their characters, and their fortunes were in slump. Then began Marvel Cinematic Universe which would go on to become history. Today, Disney-owned MCU is the biggest superhero franchise and its future looks bright. In response to it, Warner Bros and DC created their own DC Extended Universe with Man of Steel, but their success has been mixed at best. The first big DCEU film, Justice League, received negative reviews and only Wonder Woman can be called an outright success, both commercial and critical.
The funny thing is, Warner Bros tried the same thing with their DCEU that they had tried with Looney Tunes. They made their characters more palatable to adult audiences with dark tones and tried to be avant-garde again. This time, though, it did not work. This is simply because while characters like Bugs Bunny were original characters and built to be ‘bad boys’, Superman and Batman had precedents and previous adaptations. Superman, for example, was a cheerful and optimistic superhero. In fact, he embodies the entire superhero genre because of looking at things with a smile. He had a precedence with Richard Donner’s classic film. But Henry Cavill’s Superman in DCEU was hardly distinguishable from Ben Affleck’s Batman. Gone were the smile and the good cheer. Superman fans hated this and the films were badly written and directed. The result is before us. If you remove Wonder Woman from DCEU, what is left is a smoking ruin.
But like I said, we should not count Warner Bros and DC out yet. As the history of Warner Bros and Disney suggests, these two are perennial rivals and we can only guess as to what will happen in future. We may be looking at a drastically altered scenario ten years from now. One thing is certain that this tug-of-war between these two respected studios is expected to go on for decades at least.