Marvel vs. DC at the Box Office: One Comes out on Top — but Not by Much

This weekend, the superhero rivalry is nearly head to head between "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Justice League." So is the battle between the two comic-book giants.
"Justice League"
"Justice League"
Warner Bros.

With DC Entertainment’s “Justice League” opening Friday, we have a rare confluence: two films, each from rival comic-book universes, opening within two weeks of each other. For the first time since “The Green Lantern” debuted two weeks after “X-Men: First Class” in June 2011, two heavyweights will compete directly.

These films’ comic-book sources have fervent and vocal fan bases. Arguing the relative value of each is impossible (and  inadvisable), but it is possible to look over their respective box-office histories and assess their relative popularity.

“Superman”Courtesy of AMPAS

Since DC Comics presented “Superman” in 1997, there have been a combined 77 theatrical released films from DC and rival Marvel. We’ve taken their grosses (adjusted to 2017 ticket prices) and compared their box-office performance.

Spoiler alert: There’s a lot more Marvel movies than DC movies, and they made a lot more money. Marvel has produced 48 movies, which grossed $11.8 billion in North America. (All numbers adjusted.) DC has 29 movies, totaling just under $6.7 billion. However, break down that data and you’ll see it comes with several caveats.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming
“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

By Distributor

Nearly every top distributor has handled a Marvel title — Disney’s now the prime player, but it’s also been Sony (“Spider-Man”), Paramount (initial “Thor” and “Iron Man” titles), 20th Century Fox (“X-Men”), and even Universal (“The Hulk”). With more characters to work with, multiple studios allowed the creation of multiple franchises.

DC has almost entirely been a Warner Bros. enterprise, except for two “Red” films and a TriStar “Supergirl” in the mid-’80s. By that measure, Warners can claim the top gross among any studio for comic-book releases. In terms of desirability for exhibitors, which is ultimately a best gauge, call them close to equal. 

Per-Film Average

Comic-book movies are massive by any measure: Going back to the start, the per-release average for Marvel and DC films is over $200 million, with Marvel having a very slight edge — $247 million to $224 million.

However, what makes that edge more impressive is it comes with far more films. At Marvel, 58 percent of their releases have an adjusted domestic total over $200 million. For DC, 48 percent of their films reached that level.

Marvel had more turns at the plate, but under normal circumstances a larger output leads to a depressed return. In this case, more films came with more business for each. So Marvel again is more popular.

The Dark Knight
“The Dark Knight”Warner Bros.

Opening Weekends

In this area, Marvel also dominates. Their titles account for six of the top 15 opening weekends ever, including three of the top six. DC has five of the top 15, the best being “The Dark Knight” at #5.

Recent years benefitted from the trend of maximizing opening weekends withThursday previews and competition vacating release dates for top rival films. With more films, that helped Marvel stand higher. Still, they generally have stronger starts, at very high altitudes for both.

Critical Response

With his three Batmans, Christopher Nolan served as a prime mover toward elevating talented young directors into the comic book movie world, and among critics’ favorites they rank at or near the top of their lists. But generally, Marvel films are more likely to have consensus positive and most favorable reviews. (Currently, “Thor: Ragnarok” stands at 73 on Metacritic; “Justice League,” 47.)

“Wonder Woman”

The Rest of the World 

Worldwide, the relative standing between the two comic world giants is… relative. Each regularly contributes to the annual list of best-grossing international films.

As to who’s on top, it depends on the year. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is only third best in domestic results, but it’s the biggest one overseas this year. (“Wonder Woman” has been the biggest in the U.S. while only fourth best overseas, likely in part because of stubborn resistance from some male viewers to a female lead. “Thor: Ragnarok” already has done more overseas).

Internationally, DC is hindered somewhat by Batman and Superman since they’re clearly iconic American characters. Nolan’s more European feel helped overcome that with his Batman titles. Though American set, the Marvel films seem agnostic to their culture.

"Thor: Ragnarok"
“Thor: Ragnarok”Disney/Marvel

Ultimately, Marvel clearly has a small edge in overall popular appeal — but none of this will necessarily affect this weekend’s DC vs Marvel showdown. More significant, “Justice League” has a stronger initial appeal with its ensemble, particularly with Gal Gadot reprising Wonder Woman – but with “Ragnarok” still in play, there’s less hunger for similar films. Let the games begin.

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