The half-century battle between Marvel and DC for bragging rights as the leader of the comic-book marketplace used to be a real clash of the titans. In 1976, when the rival publishers decided to collaborate on a one-shot issue of Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man (Superman won, sort of), comics fans greeted it as if the Beatles and the Stones had suddenly agreed to a battle of the bands. And as recently as the early 1990s, the most popular monthly titles might sell more than a million copies each.
These days, in some ways, the comics business is a shadow of its former self. Most kids find their entertainment elsewhere, and if a comic book manages to crack the 100,000 sales mark—as only two Marvel titles and two DC titles did in April—it's time to uncork the champagne. But on another level, the business has never been more important, since comic books and the people who create them now essentially function as a relatively cost-efficient concept, character, and storyboard lab for a movie genre that has generated revenue in the tens of billions of dollars over the past decade. As this summer has clarified, from the moment Marvel's The Avengers raised the bar with the biggest opening weekend in U.S. history, the stakes have never been higher, especially since they now involve two of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates—Disney, which bought Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion, and Time Warner, which has long owned DC.
Who's winning? Well, if this were a comic book—most of which, in case you haven't picked one up lately, still run about 20 pages and end with a full-page visual cliffhanger—what you'd probably see is Marvel's Iron Man standing triumphantly over a beaten and bloody Green Lantern, who would be glowering up at him through his eye mask and muttering something like, "You may think you've beaten me, Robert Downey Jr., but I'll be back—and next time, I'll bring some friends to wipe that smirk off your face!" (Yes, they still talk that way.) There's no question that Marvel, which, 10 years ago, had little to boast about but Spider-Man, has done a superb job leveraging characters whose movie and TV history was either nonexistent (Iron Man), cringeworthy (The Incredible Hulk), or animated (X-Men) into some of the best brands in the business. That makes Marvel No. 1.
DC is just beginning what's likely to be a difficult game of catch-up. By the end of this summer, The Dark Knight Rises will push grosses for the Batman movie franchise well past $3 billion worldwide—but for too long, DC's strategy has been just that: Batman alone. Still, don't count DC out. Last year, when the comics division launched a go-for-broke strategy to bring in new readers and re-excite old ones by reinventing a 52-title line in which every comic book simultaneously started or restarted from issue No. 1 (even the 75-year-old Detective, the oldest title in comics), cynics dismissed it as a last-ditch ploy. Instead, the maneuver—combined with a digital sales initiative—gave DC a (temporarily) dominant share of the market-place for the first time in years. If the company can bring that kind of creativity to filmed entertainment, this could finally be the slugfest fans deserve.
Here then, in 21 categories, is the current tale of the tape, from Bragging Rights to Biggest Setback, plus The Big Question for each of them. Pow!
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
MARVEL: Kevin Feige, a 12-year Marvel veteran who became the president of production at Marvel Studios in 2007 and has performed so strongly he was recently on the short list to take over Disney's entire movie division
DC: Diane Nelson, the DC Entertainment president who oversaw the Harry Potter franchise for Warner Brothers and is now tasked with turning DC into Time Warner's next major player
MARVEL:At the moment, Joss Whedon, cowriter and director of The Avengers.
DC: Writer-director Christopher Nolan, overlord of the Batman franchise and creative consigliere on Man of Steel.
MARVEL: The Avengers is the biggest comic-book movie in history.
DC: The Dark Knight remains the only comic-book movie to win a major Academy Award (best supporting actor for Heath Ledger).
MARVEL: 25 Spider-Man, Blade II, Daredevil, X2: X-Men United, Hulk, The Punisher, Spider-Man 2, Blade: Trinity, Elektra, Fantastic Four, X3: The Last Stand, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Iron Man 2, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Marvel's The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man
DC: 8 Catwoman, Batman Begins, Superman Returns, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Jonah Hex, Green Lantern, The Dark Knight Rises
MARVEL: The Avengers (total gross: $1.2 billion through 5/24/12)
DC: The Dark Knight (total gross: $1 billion)
MARVEL: X-Men (five movies and spin-offs since 2000, with two more pending)
DC: Batman (eight movies and spin-offs since 1989)
MARVEL: 9 Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, X-Men: First Class 2, The Wolverine, The Avengers 2, plus two still to be revealed and a possible Amazing Spider-Man sequel.
DC: 2 The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel (the Superman reboot)
BIGGEST RECENT STUMBLE
MARVEL: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance opened miserably, proving that sequels can't always fool people twice—not even fans of Nicolas Cage movies.
DC: Green Lantern was expensive, critically reviled, and a box-office disappointment that will need a major creative reboot to prove franchise-worthy.
MOST PAINFUL ILLUSTRATION OF THE LIMITS OF SYNERGY
MARVEL: The inability to get all of its franchise characters under one roof. Though the company is now owned by and housed at Disney, Sony still holds the rights to make Spider-Man movies, and Fantastic Four, Daredevil, X-Men, and its various offshoots all belong to 20th Century Fox.
DC: Although the company—home to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash—was once seen as the repository of characters even more valuable than Marvel's, that's changed in the past five years as Marvel has made one successful movie after another and Warner Brothers has failed to make any kind of grand plan that would lead to an Avengers-style Justice League movie.
THE THING THEY KIND OF WISH YOU WOULDN'T MENTION
MARVEL: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
THE BIG QUESTION
MARVEL: How quickly can it get Avengers 2 off the ground?
DC: Since The Dark Knight Rises marks Nolan's farewell to the series, how soon before it can reboot Batman, its biggest asset?
BIGGEST SUPERHERO PROBLEM
MARVEL: Excessive number of superheroes with lame origin stories involving radioactivity (Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc.)
DC: Excessive number of square-jawed godlike heroes without relatable personalities (Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc.)
MOST UNDER-EXPLOITED AREA
MARVEL: Television. With its multiple characters and long-running story lines, X-Men could be the series Heroes never was and a flagship for any network hoping to attract young men.
DC: The movies. There are endless filmworthy characters not from Gotham City and nearly 20 years of great storytelling from the more-adult Vertigo imprint that have barely been touched.
MOST OVERUSED STORY LINE
MARVEL: Superheroes meet for the first time (or the fiftieth) and can't think of anything better to do than fight each other.
DC: Multiple Earths and manipulations of chronology by cosmic forces conspire to erase and restart every story line every five to seven years.
MOST FERTILE CREATIVE PERIOD
MARVEL: 1961 to 1964, which saw the creation of the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and X-Men.
DC: 1938 to 1941, which saw the creation of Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.
SMARTEST RECENT GAMBLE
MARVEL: The decision to build to The Avengers over four years and five movies, starting with Iron Man, paid off brilliantly.
DC: The decision to restart all of its comic books from issue No. 1 last summer resulted in great press and amped-up sales, and the digital day-and-date release of all of its titles, though not yet a major driver of revenue, feels like a potential game-changer.
AND FINALLY, IF SUPERHEROES COULD REALLY TRAVEL BACK AND ALTER THE TIME STREAM, YOU NEVER WOULD HAVE SEEN...
MARVEL: Ang Lee's Hulk
DC: Nipples on the Bat-suit
Illustrations by Ward Sutton; Wireimage (Feige), Stephen Lovekin (Nelson), Barry King (Whedon), Ethan Miller (Nolan), All from Getty Images. Others courtesy of the Everett Collection
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.