Marvel, DC Duel At the Box Office

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005

Suppose Batman and the Fantastic Four are standing at an intersection and get into a fight. Who wins?

An age-old comic book fight is being renewed this summer, and it's not the struggle of good against evil -- it's the jostling for revenue and prestige between rival comic companies and their fictional universes.

Crime-fighter Batman, after all, is an employee of DC Comics Inc., a division of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. His latest adventure on the big screen, "Batman Begins," kicked off as the No. 1 flick last week and took in a not-bad $48.7 million in its opening weekend. "Fantastic Four," which opens July 8, belongs to Marvel Enterprises Inc.'s comics.

The difference between DC and Marvel used to be one of those cultural dividing lines -- a slightly geekier version of the Beatles-vs.-the-Stones question. The decline of comic books since the 1970s made the issue largely irrelevant, but video games, online role-playing games and new movies are bringing the classic DC-Marvel conflict back to life.

Superman is on his way back to the big screen, as is his DC colleague Wonder Woman. Marvel, riding high off its major successes with the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" movies, is digging deep into its catalogue and working on screen adaptations of Iron Man, Submariner, Thor, Silver Surfer and others. Marvel's "Ghost Rider," starring Nicolas Cage as motorcycle stunt performer Johnny Blaze, is set for a release next summer.

To keep the revenue stream flowing, both companies have deals to develop "massively multi-player" online games, virtual universes of Marvel or DC characters that fans will pay a monthly fee to inhabit through their computers or game consoles. DC announced an agreement with Sony Online Entertainment for such a game last week; Marvel has a deal for such a game with Vivendi Universal Games.

Many credit Marvel Studios chief executive Avi Arad for launching comic-book heroes into a new age of profitability. When Arad, a former toymaker from Israel, took the reins in the late 1990s, he immediately started trying to drum up Hollywood attention and scored an early surprise hit with Blade, about an African American character who also happens to be half-vampire.

When Arad began offering his characters to the major studios, it was "absolutely not obvious" to moviemakers that audiences had any interest in seeing superheroes anymore. "When I started, forget it -- it was tough, it was banging on doors," he said.

For Arad, the box-office success of the X-Men and Spider-Man, with two hit movies apiece and more sequels on the way, is lucrative vindication that Marvel's characters still have life and relevance in today's pop culture. "These are very good times for us," he said of his once-broke company. "Now we have a lot of money in the bank."

DC is playing a bit of catch-up, though executives at DC and Warner Bros. are quick to point out that they have been more successful on the small screen, with the TV show "Smallville" and several animated series airing on Cartoon Network. What's more, since its TV and film projects are filmed by studios and aired on networks owned by Warner Bros., DC gets to keep more profit than Marvel does on its projects.

But DC Comics' most valuable property, Superman, has not struck big-screen pay dirt since the Christopher Reeve movies two decades ago. "Batman Begins" is the first time Bruce Wayne has gotten onto the big screen since "Batman & Robin" flopped in 1997.

That last movie "killed the franchise for eight years," said Chuck Dixon, who wrote Batman comics for over a decade. He skipped "Batman & Robin" even though it featured a villain he co-created called Bane. The character went on to become "a pasta shape in Spaghetti-Os, which means a lot more to me than the appearance in that awful movie," he said.

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