WITH “BATMAN v SUPERMAN” finally arriving this weekend, it’s easy to wonder: How did DC’s cinematic universe become the perennial runner-up to Marvel, like the kid brother who never quite catches up?

It’s intriguing because, if you know your comics history, DC Comics once led this two-horse race by a mile. DC was the first, at the dawn of the ’60s, to unfurl a major character-combining team-up like Justice League of America. The new Batman- and Superman-led assemblage was so popular that according to lore, DC publisher Jack Liebowitz bragged about the sales to Timely/Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman as they golfed. And things since have never been the same.

Goodman soon told his relative, Timely/Marvel editor Stan Lee, to create a similar superteam for them. By 1961, Stan — deciding to write with the inspired freedom of a man convinced he’s not long for his job — co-created the Fantastic Four with the great Jack Kirby, sparking a run of Marvel comic-book creativity that Hollywood is still profiting off of by the billions.

In recent years, Disney-owned Marvel has been the visionary studio with an enviable winner’s streak of universe-building super teams on the big screen. Which brings us to today, as DC still struggles to stay close.

This Friday marks a crucial step in DC Entertainment’s plan to get back in the cinematic race. DC was the company that kicked off the first modern wave of mainstream superhero films with 1978’s “Superman,” and struck again just over a decade later with its Batman films. But somewhat inexplicably, DC never before fulfilled the more ambitious hope of intertwined films based on Justice League characters.

All that helps explain why fan anticipation is so high for May’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which has all the firepower of a third Avengers film — and yet fan excitement has been more muted for this weekend’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Many fans hope for the best, yet guard their optimism because DC simply doesn’t have Marvel’s track record in this universe-sharing realm of Hollywood.

Ahead of Friday’s big release, Comic Riffs sizes up all the managed expectations surrounding “Dawn of Justice.”

MICHAEL CAVNA: So fan anticipation has been quite high this year, we can safely say, for “Deadpool,” “Civil War” and DC’s “Suicide Squad,” with “X-Men: Apocalypse” somewhere in the mix. So where, amid all this, does “Batman v Superman” sit? Is it trailing the field? How would you characterize geek and general-audience interest for a film that features DC’s Big Three?

DAVID BETANCOURT: I wouldn’t say “BvS” is trailing  — it is just that it has yet to prove itself. The Marvel brand comes with expectations of overall satisfaction. People loved “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and they expect “Civil War” to kick it up a notch. DC has yet to prove itself [with connected] superhero movies. “Man of Steel” made money. People liked it. But it didn’t make as much as [the studio] would have liked, and lots of people didn’t like it, too; “Man of Steel” was polarizing.

“BvS” is DC’s chance to open up its movie universe to praise.

MC: I agree about Marvel Studio’s track record with an unbroken string of hits. But I am curious: You say that DC doesn’t have the track record, so where does the Nolan Bat trilogy fall in that — didn’t that build lasting fan goodwill for DC?

DB: Few [superhero] things will top the Nolan Bat trilogy. It put DC superhero movies back on the map, but [as a trilogy], it was a singular event — not connected to anything else. Nolan’s Batman universe was so reality-based, you couldn’t imagine anything happening in it [similar to] what is going on over at Marvel Studios. Nothing could connect to it. It was its own world.

So was it successful? Yes? Did it prove DC can build a shared movie universe? No. That’s why there is a little “wait until we see it” approach with “BvS.” DC has never tried to build a multi-movie, multi-character universe.

MC: That speaks to what I think might be the most polarizing part of this new film, which in a word is, of course, “Batfleck.” There were rumors that [director] Zack Snyder had actually offered Christian Bale some sort of super role in this film. As an exercise and a litmus test: Do you think fan interest would be higher if Bale were again donning the Batsuit instead of Affleck here? And if so, would that say more about comfort with, and affection for, Bale’s Batman — or speak more to the guardedness and skepticism that can surround Affleck as an actor?

DB: I’ll admit to being interested, and even a little excited, when I heard the rumors that WB wanted Bale to team up with [Henry] Cavill’s Superman. But as much of an all-time Bat-great that Bale is, his version of Batman was one created for realistic cinema. Affleck, despite all the Internet whining at the time of his casting, has a chance to do something not done before with Batman: To portray a Batman who looks and feels as if he [leaps straight] from a comic-book panel. All previous Batman have always had a comic-book influence, Batfleck looks like Frank Miller’s art come to life. I think Ben could surprise people.

MC: You know, Affleck did surprise many people when he became such a credible and gifted director. And he surprised many with his performance as George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” “BvS” co-star Jeremy Irons has spoken highly of Affleck’s performance. What do you think Affleck could do — what would it take — in this role to surprise people? What does he need to do as a Miller Batman for us to “buy” him?

DB: Ben has a lot in his favor to help him win over Bat-fans. [He has] possibly the best Batman suit ever designed. [And] the height. And a very cool-sounding and technologically aided Bat-voice, so he won’t have to attempt the Michael Keaton Bat-whisper or Bale’s grunts.

What could aid him is [to look as though] he’s really having fun being Batman. Not his character in the movie, who comes off as war-worn, but when he’s doing press for the film, he looks as if he’s getting a real kick out of [it]. I think Ben realizes how special this opportunity is for him, and is trying to make the best of it. If you care about Batman, you can’t ask for much more than that.

MC: What about the acting chemistry? Affleck and Cavill both have loose charisma off-screen, yet both can seem somewhat stiffer, as if their acting muscle is tightening, when onscreen. Do you see signs of good antagonistic chemistry between the characters as performed?

DB: I liked what I saw in the trailer scene, with Clark Kent questioning Bruce Wayne. That was a pretty intense stare-down. What will be interesting to see is when the super-suits are on — whether the presence of one helps the other. Cavill had some stiff dialogue in “Man of Steel.” Maybe Affleck as Batman can help Cavill give his Superman more life.

MC: So if many stay away from the film, it might be because of the polarized casting of Batfleck. But many viewers will certainly go see it for “Lex” (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Do you think those two characters will exert an uncommonly strong pull to get viewers to show up?

DB: They’ve done a really good job of keeping most of Wonder Woman’s scenes under wraps. It looks like she will be a part of the battle with Doomsday, alongside Superman and Batman. Everyone wants to see that.

So: Lex? Is that a wig? Is he bald? Is he really a Lex junior? I’m very interested to see how people will respond to the Mark Zuckerberg-version of Lex Luthor.

MC: Are there any other characters you think they’ll especially tease to help pave the way for, and stoke interest in, “Justice League”?

DB: We know there will be cameos by Leaguers, but I imagine they are brief, given that there will be so many other things going on in this film. But I think the wild card is Aquaman. Of all the super friends, he’s the one who intrigues me the most.

MC: Beyond Batman and Superman’s fighting here, it seems as if Zack Snyder really needs to pull out all the stops to set up the first “Justice League.” And we know that could include multiple post-credits scenes. Don’t you think Zack has a distinct side-mission here, to deliver a riveting action film that always is a huge warm-up for DC’s Marvel-esque dreams of universe synergy?

DB: They almost have to have a post-credit scene, as if to say: Yes, this leads to something else. We already know “Justice League” is coming, but like you said, it needs to feel like a little of that Marvel experience, just in this one instance. “Man of Steel” didn’t have a post-credit scene, and that felt a little like Christopher Nolan’s influence as a producer. I don’t think he’s into the post-credit. But it has become a staple in superhero cinema thanks to Marvel, and it would be a fun way for Zack Snyder to say, “Here’s what’s next.”

MC: So what will it take, amid the high pressure and guarded expectation, for “BvS” to be deemed a success? Even if it only opens to, say, $140 million, and if it never tops a billion globally, what does this film need to achieve cinematically, dramatically, narratively to have accomplished its mission? And do you think it’ll do it?

DB: I think the money will be there. But more important than box office, I think WB and DC need to show that the core of their connected cinematic universe is in good hands with Zack Snyder. He’s a polarizing guy at times. Some people love him; some others, not so much.

Does the film make you want more? Will you leave wanting to see “Justice League”? That’s the key. A lot of people left “Man of Steel” not asking for a sequel. That cannot happen with “BvS” if WB hopes to build a universe with this. But with a Frank Miller influence, fantastic suits — and the strongest sense yet that this superhero film is not just influenced by the comic books, but is actually a real reflection of them — I think fans will get what they need.