At 17 movies and counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has strung together a long, unbroken line of “fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, never dipping into “rotten” territory, with Thor: The Dark World’s 66% marking the franchise low point. Conversely, the newer DC Extended Universe has struggled to simply inch its way into the fresh territory, much less put together back to back fresh ratings. It seems like it should be way easier to strike gold with these characters, given Batman and Superman are two of the most iconic characters in fiction and both characters already star in some of the most popular superhero movies ever, but that’s actually one of the biggest factors working against this franchise when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes.
First, while it’s already covered on a regular basis, we need to reference how Rotten Tomatoes works. You can refer to our previous coverage for a deep dive into their methods, but for the sake of this article, we’ll just focus on the idea of “consensus.” Rotten Tomatoes collects review scores from hundreds of reviewers and boils them down to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic that up or down is, it’s a simple good movie/bad movie calculation. The score shown in the Tomatometer is not one of reviewer enthusiasm, but one of consensus, meaning it indicates what percentage of people liked the movie, not what percent “good” or “bad” it is.
Why does this matter? It matters because consensus is hard to come by when you also have to overcome disparate expectations. This is where Marvel has benefitted from the fact that all their most iconic characters were sold off to other studios: the early MCU had a low bar to clear. Not to knock the accomplishments of the MCU, particularly in Phase 1, because the string of victories they’ve assembled is truly impressive, but when it comes to any obstacles to introducing these characters, they can do almost whatever they want with the MCU. By introducing the first cinematic versions of these characters, they don’t have any audience expectations to overcome or comparisons to previous outings to make, so simply ensuring the characters loosely resemble the comics and making sure the movie is ultimately “fun” is enough to get that precious thumbs up from most critics.
Batman and Superman don’t have that luxury. Batman was popularized in the mainstream by the overly jokey interpretation of the Batman 66 show with Adam West as the caped crusader, and that’s still a common reference point for many people, but a variety of Batman tones have been introduced since then. There’s the highly popular and mostly serious take in the Timmverse of animation, played by the beloved Kevin Conroy, there’s sillier animated versions like The Brave and the Bold or LEGO Batman, the gothic and darkly funny Tim Burton movies, the “love to hate it” Joel Schumacher movies, and the epic but grounded Christopher Does-No-Wrong Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. For Superman, there’s Christopher Reeves from Superman: The Movie, Tom Welling from Smallville, the Bruce Timm animated Superman, the Lois and Clark TV show, the lukewarm revival with Brandon Routh, and more.
While Batman and Superman conversations frequently revolve around discussions of “who did it best?” involving the ranking and comparing of the numerous actors to wear the respective capes, the MCU has it easy. Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Chris Evans is Captain America, Chris Hemsworth is Thor, and so on. There are no contentious “who’s the best Iron Man?” arguments because there’s only one Iron Man – Robert Downey Jr.. As a result, Marvel only has one set of expectations to fulfill with their characters: they need to repeat what audiences liked last time. When it comes to DC trying to introduce a new Batman or Superman, there will always be people whose preferred version of the character is under-served, and when that factors into review consensus, the lack of enthusiasm from underserved portions of the audience make the Tomatometer DC’s worst enemy. Despite the fact that most DCEU movies average only a point or two behind most Marvel movies based on acerage review score, the consensus on Marvel movies regularly sees them score nearly 70% higher than DCEU films.
At this point, many people are probably clamoring to point out that Marvel now has Spider-Man, who carries similar baggage from past versions, and Wonder Woman also scored big for DC in her own movie, but those movies are great examples of exceptions that prove the rule. First, Spider-Man joined a widely loved franchise after years of fans begging for Marvel Studios to make a deal with Sony and a huge mishandling of the past 3 cinematic outings for the character, meaning “good enough” was the only bar Spider-Man: Homecoming had to clear. The movie was great and critics loved it, but not because it was superior to Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2, but because it was a fresh and fun depiction of the character after the failings of Spider-Man 3, and both Amazing Spider-Man movies.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, likewise, is a great example. While it’s not the first time she’s been depicted in live-action, it’s the first movie given to the character, and the only other iteration of Wonder Woman audiences are widely familiar with, Lynda Carter, served as a major inspiration for many aspects of Patty Jenkins’ take on the character. So, while there may be some discussion of “who’s better, Gal Gadot or Lynda Carter?”, it’s nowhere near the variety of interpretations Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill have to overcome for their characters to be accepted outside of the subset of fandom that like the iterations they’re based on.
Does this mean the DCEU is being treated unfairly for this reason alone? Of course not. People have raised plenty of issues outside of the way the characters are adapted, but while Marvel may benefit from fans and critics hand waving away a formulaic story, bland villains, or even a big plot hole simply because the audience is so enthusiastic about the characters they’re watching, DC has to be firing on all cylinders until these characters are widely accepted. Sure, Batfleck and Cavill’s Man of Steel have loyal fans, but those are fans that prefer specific versions of the characters that hew closely to Ben and Henry’s. Even Ezra Miller’s flash has to overcome the popularity of Grant Gustin for his first big screen outing.
Fortunately, reviews for Justice League have been consistently positive about the way the characters are adapted for the team up, so while the movie may ultimately suffer from a number of major issues, Justice League may finally get disaffected critics and audience members behind these iterations in time to ensure that the next Batman solo outing can be something people invest in before comparing Ben Affleck (or whoever plays Batman) to the past legion of performers to also wear the cowl.
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