While the dust has kind of settled on the two companies’ live action output, it’s downright fascinating to compared Marvel’s and DC’s animated output: specifically, their animated features. While it’s hardly controversial to award the crown in that competition to DC, who have been making astoundingly good animated features for the past three decades, it’s not as if they have much in the way of competition from Marvel: whose scant output in that same regard hardly registers by comparison.
All told, we have single-digits worth of movies to work with here. Exactly one got a theatrical release, Big Hero 6, and that wasn’t based on any of the major heavy-hitters from their comic universe: just a small-time Japan-specific team meant to be that country’s answer to the Avengers (although they play out a little closer to their answer to the Suicide Squad). We also were given two Avengers movies (based on the Ultimate comic line), a Doctor Strange movie, an off-kilter Thor movie, a Planet Hulk movie and a few random others that are extremely low-end, kid-centric and cheap feeling.
So why is it that DC has invested so heavily into animated features whereas Marvel has not? It almost doesn’t feel like we’re actually missing anything when you stop and consider how great the MCU has been relative to the DCEU, but that really shouldn’t matter. There’s a massive subset of Marvel fans being unserved by the general lack of animated supplements to their favorite superheroes that DC is dolling out in spades to their supporters. So why the lack of Marvel animation?
I think that a lot of it has to do with the two companies in charge of these sets of characters: Warner Bros and Disney. Both are entertainment juggernauts who have absurdly well-developed back-catalogs of classic cartoons and classic cartoon characters. But where Disney tends to stay pretty active in animated features in general – either in the form of in-house Disney features or Pixar features – Warner Bros doesn’t. Sure, we’re now starting to see Lego movies crop up with some regularity these days, but that is an extremely recent development. We just don’t get Loony Tunes on the big screen the same way that we get Disney princesses, so what resources they do have for those non-existent projects get shuffled off to where they have been productive: their DC features.
Another core difference between the two is the diversity (or lack thereof) in their lineups. Disney, for instance, usually puts out an animated feature every year or so, plus a couple of live-action remakes of their classic animated movies, plus a documentary of two, plus a couple Pixar movies, plus a trio of Marvel movies, a Star Wars movie and oftentimes a couple random others just for kicks (such as the fairly solid Queen of Katwe). Since buckling down after the disastrous release of Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros has professed to focusing on what they consider to be the pillars of their studio output: Harry Potter, DC and Lego movies. Sure, you get the odd-man-out release here and there like It or The Hobbit – both of which, incidentally, adapt multiple movies from a single source text – but those are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule. As far as the company is concerned, big tentpoles based around their three most marketable properties will see them through.
But because they can only get so many movies into theaters in a given year, and because they are so heavily reliant on these three franchises to hoist up their entire cinematic enterprise, there is clearly more incentive to get out as many Batmen, Supermen and Wonder Women as possible. And the easiest way to do this is via straight-to-video animated releases: movies that are cheap to produce and quick to release. So although we’re only getting one DCEU movie proper this year – Aquaman, no less – we’ve already gotten Batman: Botham by Gaslight, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and Batman Ninja and we’re primed for both The Death of Superman and The Reign of the Supermen coming up.
Warner Bros is going all-in on their DC characters, which means that they need to get as many of them out there as possible. And that, more than anything, is the difference between the two companies’ investment in animated features. These are side-projects for Disney when they have some spare manpower lying around with nothing to do. Although you could argue it’s a severely wasted avenue of production, they don’t need these features to work in order to still dominate the box office week after week. Warner Bros kind of does, though.