For the past decade, the blockbuster movie discussion has been dominated by the battle between Marvel and DC. Both comic giants have cinematic shared universes and, while the former definitely had a major head-start, it always looked like an open, two-horse race. With Justice League, it's finally, undisputably over: Marvel won; DC lost.
By itself, Justice League is a disappointment, with poor reviews where praise comes mostly in comparison to the franchise's previous entries (and even then whether it's actually a better picture than Batman v Superman is suspect) and, more importantly, it's struggled at the box office, with a disastrous opening weekend and a limp follow-up. But in franchise confines, it's a final nail. This was the DC Extended Universe's version of The Avengers, and whereas for Marvel the arrival of Earth's Mightiest Heroes was a new benchmark for both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre in general, Justice League has spun out, making the future incredibly unclear.
Obviously, there are rampant comparisons to be made between the two team-ups in terms of story and style (especially given the Joss Whedon-directed reshoots), that's really just the endpoint. The franchise build-up of the DCEU has been oddly similar to the MCU, with a strictly standalone film with scant future teases (Iron Man and Man of Steel) making way to expansive setup (Iron Man 2/Batman v Superman) and solo setup films (Thor and Captain America/Wonder Woman), all culminating with a mega-ensemble film. When you compare them on this measure, Marvel's victory is obvious: only Wonder Woman has received comparable success to Marvel's outings, and with Justice League also offering the third studio-meddled film, it feels very much like the exception that proves the rule.
However, that comparison is really unfairly weighted to DC. The Avengers was five years ago; since then, Marvel has released eleven more films and completely evolved the MCU.
Marvel Has Revolutionized Since The Avengers (This Page)
Marvel Has Revolutionized Since The Avengers
If we break down Marvel's Phases, it's got less to do with story as much as concept. Phase 1 had them perfecting making average-to-good standalone movies that trumpeted character from their core before going into a full-on team-up; Phase 2 extended that, doing similar for genre mash-ups; and Phase 3 the same for "standalone" crossovers (all the while maintaining that initial quality). As a result, the sort of films they're delivering now are worlds apart from the simple days of Thor or The Incredible Hulk, and even recent lesser turns still hit the original baseline. Indeed, where the franchise is accepted to have stumbled is when these rulings were weakest - the forward-focused Iron Man 2 neglected Tony Stark in the moment, Thor: The Dark World had none of the personality that defined the films around it, and Avengers: Age of Ultron compounded those issues.
Evolution has been the key, and that's evident in how the shared universe idea in particular has changed. Originally, Marvel were happy coasting on the simple thrill of having different franchises interact, but once the novelty wore off they upped their game; now it's more threaded and about aiding the story at hand (see: Civil War or Ragnarok). It is all still connected and fans in the know can pick up the threads (and point out the plot holes) but on a more casual level there's a nice ebb and flow that doesn't get too overbearing in a single movie. It's almost like, well, the shared universe of the comics on which they're based (this may be why it's not worked as well for non-comic book franchises).
None of this is to say the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perfect. In fact, for all their mega-franchise deftness, it's recently felt like they've become far too reliant on being "fun" and "good" than they are being great, but there's no denying the methodology works. Going into Avengers: Infinity War, hype is high.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019