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.
Last year's "Catwoman" was also a major embarrassment for Warner Bros., as the company now admits without much prompting.
Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Bros. Pictures, said in a telephone interview this week that his studio has learned from the mistakes of that film. He points to the relative success of "Constantine," a Keanu Reeves picture, and the new Batman as moves in the right direction.
The upcoming Superman movie, due next summer, "is the next step forward for us," he said. "I think you're going to see an excellent movie."
A lot is resting on Robinov to make sure mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent finds the right vehicle. Superman is, after all, still the big guy in the superhero universe, as far as comics and pop culture are concerned.
As Brad Meltzer, a bestselling novelist who wrote a comic series for DC Comics last year, puts it: "Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are still the most recognizable heroes no matter how much [X-Men character] Wolverine grosses at the box office."
Though he is a DC Comics fan, Meltzer does not want to trash Marvel, because he said the whole industry suffers if anybody serves up a product that flops.
"Whenever a bad comic-book movie comes out, I always think, 'Man, that's going to hurt us in the long run,'" he said. "If we have three bad superhero movies in a row, we're going to go back to where you don't see superhero movies for a long time."
On the other hand, whenever there is a well-made superhero flick at the multiplex, the industry that got it all started -- comic books -- seems slightly little less geeky or archaic. For a while.
"You may get people walking through the door. You put your best face forward and let people know that comics are good," said Devon Sanders, a manager at Beyond Comics in the District. "Maybe they buy something or maybe they don't. But at least they know the characters are still there waiting for them."