Films Based On Marvel Comics More Successful Than Those Based On DC Comics

Films from the House of Spiderman have grossed more than those from the House of Superman. But that's mostly because of ticket price increases.

Marvel v DC

An analysis by Bloomberg has found that films based on Marvel’s comic book characters have been more successful financially than those based on DC Comics’ characters:

When it comes to box-office dollars, the Avengers and other Marvel superheroes are mightier than DC Comics.

Films based on Marvel comic books have generated 47 percent more in U.S. box-office sales on average than DC Comics movies, according to data compiled by Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Industries. The 28 Marvel films dating back to 1998 have averaged $190 million, compared with $129 million for 23 DC Comics movies starting with “Superman” in 1978.

“The Avengers,” the 2012 movie featuring Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, was the highest-grossing film for either comic-book brand, with $1.5 billion in global receipts. The success of Marvel movies has given a boost to Walt Disney Co., which acquired Marvel Entertainment Inc. at the end of 2009 for about $4 billion. Time Warner Inc., meanwhile, has hitched its fortunes to DC Comics fare, including the Batman films and this week’s “Man of Steel” release.

“Time Warner is clearly relying on DC Comics to replace (if even possible) the Harry Potter franchise,” Sweeney, who relied on data from Box Office Mojo and SNL Kagan, said in an e-mail. The Harry Potter films, based on the J.K. Rowling books, ended their run in 2011.

Of course, as is always the case when comparing box office receipts over long periods of time, in this case the 35 year period beginning with the release of Christopher Reeve’s first Superman film, really he first comic book based film of the blockbuster era, inflation plays a role:

Box-office inflation has helped Marvel outshine DC Comics. Marvel has released 13 films since 2007, while DC has only delivered seven, Sweeney said in his report. Average ticket prices have tripled since 1980, giving more recent films Hulk-sized dollar figures. The total domestic grosses for Marvel are $5.3 billion, compared with about $3 billion for DC, according to Sweeney.

For Time Warner, which acquired DC Comics when Time Inc. merged with Warner Communications in 1990, “The Dark Knight Rises” was its biggest comic-book blockbuster. The 2012 film — the third installment in a series directed by Christopher Nolan — has generated about $1.1 billion in global receipts, according to Box Office Mojo.

It’s disappointing that Sweeny apparently didn’t take his study a step further and adjust the gross receipts for all 51 of these movies for inflation as it would be interesting to see where things fall after that’s done. An additional factor helping push the Marvel-based films over the top, no doubt, is that the advent of both 3D and IMAX films, both of which garner ticket prices that are higher than even the much higher ticket prices we know pay for “normal” showings of the film in question. Of course with Man Of Steel coming out soon, it will be interesting to see how these numbers are impacted.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. One big difference is that the Marvel superheroes tend to be more flawed individuals (Tony Stark is a self-hating alcholic who covers it up with a facade of bravade, Bruce Banner hates his “hero” identity, Peter Parker struggles in his normal life, etc.) this makes them a lot more interesting than the DC heroes who tend to be rather bland personality wise.

    Part of the reason the recent Dark Knight trilogy was so successful is that the rewrote a lot of Batman’s background to make him far more conflicted, and as a result far more interesting as a character.

  2. Matt Bernius says:

    I expect, even adjusting for inflation, Marvel still comes out on top. In part that’s due to Marvel studio’s success in bringing a large number of films to market (3 Iron Man’s, Cap, Thor, and the Avengers, with Cap 2, Thor 2, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers 2 all on the way).

    Plus they’re helped by the fact that, every two years or so, there will be a new X-Men or Spider-man film because Fox and Sony don’t want to lose the rights. In fact, expect a Fantastic Four film within the near future as Fox has got to keep that in production to keep those rights as well).

    Warner Brothers, on the other hand, owns DC and all of its characters. So they are not under the same pressure. The net result is that they’ve made a lot less films. They’ve also spilled/wrote-off a LOT of money on failed development attempts (lookin at you Kevin Smith/Nic Cage Superman)

    What would be more interesting is to look at the actual film profit. Though, I’d still bet Marvel is ahead — especially Marvel Studios — as their producers tend to squeeze dollars in ways that WB’s/DC have not. So while the Avengers and the Dark Knight did similiar box office, my understanding is that the Avengers was more profitable due to the lower filming cost.

  3. @Matt Bernius:

    What would be more interesting is to look at the actual film profit.

    Ah yes, but defining “profit” on a film in Hollywood is notoriously, some would say intentionally, difficult, as numerous contractual disputes over the years have demonstrated.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Ah yes, but defining “profit” on a film in Hollywood is notoriously, some would say intentionally, difficult, as numerous contractual disputes over the years have demonstrated.

    Good point.

    BTW, in DC’s defense, have they had a real “Howard the Duck” level bomb yet (other than perhaps Superman Returns and Batman and Robin — both of which, I believe, made back their production budgets).

  5. This analysis pretty much explains why Disney forked up $4 Billion for Marvel Comics (and its characters for movie rights) in 2009. After a botched film strategy — incidentally started under Stan Lee — of selling off film rights to whoever was willing to pay for them, the company finally got its act together and created its own studio to produce their own characters under their own banner. Sure, there are mistakes like Fox and Sony now intent on hanging onto the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man rights until perpetuity, but they’ve pulled off a marketing and franchising miracle with the Avengers-based films.

    (Until the various contract negotiations with the film actors blow up in their faces that is.)

    DC on the other hand has been treated like the red-headed step-child in the Time Warner family. Oh sure, they have “Batman,” but beyond that, the rest of the line-up of characters goes mostly no where or gets treated with disrespect by corporate. At one time, there were plans for a “Flash,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Green Lantern” sequel. Now, nothing in any of those avenues — mostly because the first “Green Lantern” got panned at the box office. Now, they hope they can do “Justice League,” but that seems built into the premise that “Man of Steel” does well this weekend.

    As for an actual story in the “Justice League,” heck, they’ve got people working on it…or so they say.

    The paths of the two major comic book companies into Hollywood should have been easier for DC, since being under Time Warner, they could have been pumping out smart versions of their characters for decades. But it has proven mostly a stigma that Hollywood has towards comics and comic book writers; that the people best trained to write scripts for them, are often the last people brought into the room to help with the process.

    After all, they’re “Comic Book People,” and we’re “Movie People” they say. What would they know about the subject of a [Insert DC Comic Book Character Here] movie that Barbara Streisand’s ex-hair dresser wouldn’t?”

    Marvel? They bring in their current writers and artists, former writers and artists who did iconic runs on these characters, put them in a room with the scriptwriters and pay them decent consultant fees. Check the credits of any Avengers-based movie (You know, that stuff you’re fast forwarding through to get to the post-credits scene.), you’ll see names of many icons in the industry there.

    Marvel also has one guy — Kevin Feige — plotting their entire movie line-up; acting as captain for the entire company’s long-term goals on the big screen. DC? They hope it’s Christopher Nolan, but no one knows for sure if he’ll commit.

    So why is Marvel beating DC in the movie biz? Marvel has a plan, and making sure they put out quality product behind it. DC has an idea of where it wants to go, but no real course to take it. Each company’s success is an extension of that.

    So once again: Make Mine Marvel.

  6. Trumwill says:

    If you look back very far, you run into the issue that most DC Comics movies used to suck. Badly. Marvel ones from that period weren’t very good (anyone seen the 1994 Captain America?), either, but there were fewer of them while DC was releasing the likes of “Steel”.

  7. Matt Bernius says:

    @Trumwill:

    If you look back very far, you run into the issue that most DC Comics movies used to suck. Badly. Marvel ones from that period weren’t very good (anyone seen the 1994 Captain America?), either, but there were fewer of them while DC was releasing the likes of “Steel”.

    Umm, again (without going to the any of the DTV / rights extending films):

    – Howard the Duck
    – Daredevil
    – Electra
    – Blade 3
    – Punisher (Thomas Jane) & Punisher War Zone (though that’s got a cult following)
    – X3
    – Wolverine: Origins

    Granted, none of these were from Marvel Studios, and a number of them were made on the extra-cheap. But they not examples of film making at it’s best. Nor did they exactly set the box office on fire (unless you mean it in a rioting crowds of angry villagers ‘set the box office on fire’ way).

  8. Gustopher says:

    DC has had a lot more success with TV shows — Lois & Clark got three years, Smallville was on for 10 years, and Arrow has somehow managed to not be cancelled.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with the characters — one could write good stories for any of them — it’s just that the movies that were churned out for DC kind of sucked: Catwoman, Superman IV, Steel, Green Lantern, Batman & Robin, Supergirl, Superman Returns To Stalk His Ex-Girlfriend Who He Knocked Up And Abandoned After Erasing Her Memory With A Kiss And Also His Son Just Killed Someone But None Of The Parents Seem To Care.

    I think the last one was also hurt by an unwieldy title.

  9. Trumwill Mobile says:

    @Matt Bernius: Totally forgot about Howard the Duck. I’d have to look at timelines, but my main point is that Marvel released fewer movies when comic book movies weren’t as good and have been releasing them like clockwork once the formula was figured out. Yes, they had their duds, but even Daredevil is good by 80s standards.

    I forgot about Howard the Duck.

  10. JWH says:

    This is kind of interesting. The DC movies fared poorly compared to Marvel’s. On the other hand, DC put out one hell of a shared universe with its toons in the 90s and the aughts. (Batman, Superman, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Static Shock, Batman Beyond).

  11. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Gustopher: I actually think that Arrow is pretty good. [In the Ebert definition of good, where you compare movies versus their genre and target audience, not comparing all movies vs Apocalypse Now or Citizen Kane.]

  12. Pinky says:

    My bet is, if you dropped Batman from the list, DC wouldn’t fare much better than Ben Stiller movies. The question is, Christopher Nolan aside, what’s keeping DC from making good movies in recent years? A lot of the problem is that their characters are squares. Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman? They’d need to be really revamped to become something interesting. DC did make the mistake of making a lot of their movies before the special effects technology was up for the task. That may contribute to the sense of hokeyness.

    Marvel’s success in recent years is partly due to the whole thing being a mega-franchise. I don’t think anyone thought that Thor or the most recent Hulk were works of art, but everyone knew that they were part of the fabled Avengers franchise. Seven movies in five years. That’s saturation.

  13. @Pinky:

    I like the RLM Character test: try to describe the character without mentioning what they look like, what their job is, or what they do in the movie. For a good character this will be easy: (Tony Stark is brilliant guy who has never lived up to his potential and thus hates himself, but tries to hide this behind a devil-may-care playboy facade). For a bad character it’s impossible (Superman is…).

    Marvel has a lot more good characters than DC does.

  14. trumwill says:

    Meh, I think the TV shows and animated movies do a pretty solid job of demonstrating that there are good productions to be made. The bigger issue, I think, is that they so often get caught in bureaucratic nightmare. This has been the case for quite some time. With the TV shows, they largely just handed it off the Dini. The animated movies are lower-stakes, so they can give it to someone and let them run with it. Movies, though? They tend to get paralyzed. Projects get started and then cancelled, or they keep moving them around.

    Marvel, on the other hand, focuses on getting things done. Get the movie out there. Some will do well, some will flop, but they get made. And with so many getting made, people shrug off the failures. Whereas with DC/WB, it’s hard to shrug off Green Lantern when that’s one of the few movies they made not featuring Batman. (And then, having had that misstep, they seem back to paralysis while Marvel keeps moving.)

  15. Brett says:

    Part of the problem of looking back farther and farther is that you get into a fundamentally different media environment, one in which movie theaters were a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It’s sort of like how Gone with the Wind has the highest box office gross when adjusted for inflation – that movie came out in a period when there was virtually no competition for movie theaters in providing visual entertainment, and a majority of the American public went to movies far more frequently than they do now.

    That’s why the inflation-adjusted box office gross only has one film from the 1990s in the top ten, and nothing from the 2000s. Modern movie theaters just can’t get the kind of revenues that movie theaters used to get decades ago when adjusted for inflation.

  16. wr says:

    @Trumwill: But Marvel didn’t make the 1994 Captain America — Canon Films did. Nor did they make The Punisher (that was New World). Or Blade — that was New Line. It’s only in the last decade or so that Marvel decided to run their own production company and make their own movies.

    Oh, and to add to what was said above about having one exec in charge, they’ve also apparently hired Joss Whedon to consult on all Marvel films, allowing them a consistency that you could never see at Warners, where various producers fight over the various properties.

    And yes, that would be the same Joss Whedon WB fired off of Wonder Woman…

  17. wr says:

    @Matt Bernius: Right. Marvel films have been kicking ass since Marvel Studios took over. There is no equlivalent structure at WB/DC.

  18. Trumwill Mobile says:

    @wr: True, though they still count as Marvel movies for this comparison. And anyway I mentioned that movie as the sort of thing Marvel has fewer of than DC, helping their average.

    The structure thing mentioned is pretty significant. One of the reasons DC animation did so well was unified structure under Dini. Warner Bros is directionless in movies, which prevents stuff from getting made and makes a lot if what is made feel like it was done by committee (if not scrapped in the process).

  19. Craigo says:

    Of the shared universe films, the four featuring Iron Man have done over 1.6 billion at the US box office, while the three Downeyless films have combined for less than 500 million. That’s 400m per, versus about 150m.

    Accordingly, I predict that the new Thor and Captain America films will disappoint, as will whatever the hell Guardians of the Universe is supposed to be, leaving Marvel to nervously await the Avengers 2 and the half a billion dollar windfall it will bring.

    The big question is what they will do when Downey decides he has enough money and they’re reduced to fifth-tier characters like Ant-Man, which some exec has deluded himself into thinking isn’t the worst idea in the world.

  20. @Craigo:

    Of the shared universe films, the four featuring Iron Man have done over 1.6 billion at the US box office, while the three Downeyless films have combined for less than 500 million. That’s 400m per, versus about 150m.

    The problem is there is an outlier in there. The Avengers was so far ahead of all of them, that whichever sub-franchise you include in looks much more profitable than the others.

    I could just as easily say that the two Thor movies got 400m per, versus about 267m for the Branaghless films.

    Or that the two Cap America films got 400m per, versus about about 267m for the Evanless films.

  21. @Craigo:

    The big question is what they will do when Downey decides he has enough money and they’re reduced to fifth-tier characters like Ant-Man, which some exec has deluded himself into thinking isn’t the worst idea in the world.

    You’re forgetting that when Iron Man 1 came out, Iron Man was considered a lower-tier superhero as well. The only reason they were willing to give the part to Downey (who was seen as extremely unreliable at the time) was that they weren’t expecting it to do that well anyways.

  22. Craigo says:

    @Stormy Dragon: These numbers aren’t hard to find:

    Marvel’s The Avengers $623,357,910
    Iron Man 3 $394,283,326
    Iron Man $318,412,101
    Iron Man 2 $312,433,331
    Thor $181,030,624
    Captain America: The First Avenger $176,654,505
    The Incredible Hulk $134,806,913

    I don’t know what you mean by two Thor or Captain America films, since the sequels haven’t been released yet. But those two films combined didn’t make as much in the US as Iron Man 3 alone.

    The only films based on Marvel properties that can top Iron Man are the Spider-Man films – the first three, at any rate, since the fourth made fifty million dollars less than the disappointing third. And even so, Marvel sold the rights to Sony a long time ago, and won’t be getting them back any time soon.

    I’d dispute the idea that Iron Man was a lower-tier character – that sounds like rewriting history – but even so, that makes him comparable to Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor, which gross about half the Iron Man films on average. How do you think they’ll do when they’re not just reaching for the bottom of the barrel, but scraping it?

  23. Anderson says:

    I’m surprised the Cap movie didn’t do better. It was certainly better than “Thor.”

  24. @Craigo:

    I don’t know what you mean by two Thor or Captain America films

    I meant the “two Thor” or “two Captain America” movies the same way you meant “the four featuring Iron Man”. My point being that counting The Avengers as a “Thor Movie” throws off the averages just as much as counting it as a “Iron Man Movie” does.

  25. Console says:

    DC’s main heroes are too powerful to be anything other than ciphers. They are representations of ideals. Sort of like Greek Gods. Different kind of story telling involved there. Marvel heroes are more down to earth (although it will be interesting to see how they handle the more cosmic storylines they will be bringing in).

    But I can’t really take that and explain why DC seems to work on the small screen, while Marvel seems to work on the big screen (with some exceptions, Nolan’s Batman, X-men cartoon series). Might just be the way the chips fell. Maybe Marvel has the better story arcs and DC has the more iconic settings and villains.

  26. PD Shaw says:

    As I recall from the recent book, Marvel Comics, the Untold Story, Marvel was shopping its movies early with the idea of using movies as a platform to sell more comics. Stan Lee also wanted an opportunity to write for Hollywood. The results were not good, not a lot of interest in Hollywood, lots of starts and stops, and production deals that ended up handing all of the valuable licensing rights to the movie studios with the hopes of just getting one movie produced that showed it could be done. (I also think the special effects were not “there” until recently, but Marvel/Lee didn’t care, it was about selling comics)

    The worm has turned, its not about selling comics, since kids don’t see comics anymore, let alone buy them. Its about major studios chasing blockbusters, which will eventually exhaust the genre. It will be interesting to see if Disney, who bought Marvel when these recent movies were already being produced, can extend the success or if they bought high.

  27. Matt Bernius says:

    @Craigo:
    That’s why it’s important to look at this in terms of profit versus sales. Given the relatively low budgets for all those films, they still were good investments despite not setting the box office on fire.

    Additionally, it would be interesting to see how well these films did in the home market — especially after the release of the Avengers.

    Finally, to one degree or another, one has to ask if The Avengers would have been as much of success without those films.

  28. Pinky says:

    It’s not that DC lacks interesting characters. The problem is they’re mostly all Batman villians. Superman has a few interesting opponents too, but there’s only one who’s well-known. But either way, it’s tough to make a movie or a franchise around a bad guy. It might be unfair to use Catwoman and Elektra as examples, because they were across-the-board terrible, but when you’re rebuilding a story from the ground up there are going to be more risks.

  29. Anonne says:

    Because I like her, I want to defend Elektra – from the Daredevil movie, not the crap that was her own movie. Daredevil wasn’t as terrible as some people make it out to be. It’s no Iron Man by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not abysmal and Elektra’s character was praised enough to get her own movie. A wasted opportunity but Marvel Studios can work some magic if it’s rebooted properly.

  30. J-Dub says:

    I don’t know who the female character is on the DC side in the white outfit with the huge cans but I’d go see that movie.