Marvel’s Superpower

What Captain Marvel Tells Us About the Clash of the Comic-Book Titans

Brie Larson in 'Captain Marvel'

The conventional wisdom says that Marvel can do no wrong while DC bungles just about everything.

Yet it’s difficult to really compare them. The Marvel Cinematic Universe got a running start with Iron Man way back in 2008, and the DC Extended Universe didn’t begin until 2013, with Man of Steel. Marvel’s first Avengers movie dropped in 2012, while DC didn’t get the gang together until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016. In time terms, DC trails Marvel by four to five years, and in volume it’s even further behind: There are now 21 movies in the MCU, while the DC Extended Universe has six.

But we finally have a good point of comparison for the two comic-book titans: Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. They were released less than two years apart; they both represented the first solo vehicle for a female superhero in their respective universes; they were both directed or co-directed by a woman; and they’re both origin stories that largely stand apart from ongoing narratives.

In a narrow test of brand strength, they strongly support the idea that Marvel drinks DC’s milkshake.

Captain Marvel took in an estimated $153 million in domestic box office in its opening weekend, while Wonder Woman earned $103 million. The Marvel property had foreign receipts of $302 million in its first weekend; DC’s garnered $125 million.

The domestic numbers carry a few caveats. Captain Marvel debuted on 4,310 screens to Wonder Woman’s 4,165, and of course movie tickets are (slightly) more expensive in March 2019 than they were in June 2017.

Screens, of course, reflect industry expectations, but let’s correct for those variables nonetheless. Captain Marvel sold 3,931 tickets per screen in its opening weekend, which is 42 percent more than Wonder Woman’s 2,764.

That performance is even more impressive considering that Wonder Woman was a summer release and that its hero has a long history in the cultural consciousness — even among people who aren’t regular comic-book consumers.

And then let’s consider both critical and audience response. However you look at it, Wonder Woman is a better movie. It bested Captain Marvel in Metacritic score (76 to 64), Rotten Tomatoes score (93-percent “fresh” to 80), Rotten Tomatoes user score (88-percent liked to 58), and Internet Movie Database user score (7.5 to 7.1). Reviews collected by Metacritic were 90-percent positive for Wonder Woman but only 57-percent positive for Captain Marvel.

Put simply, Wonder Woman had three significant advantages: its release date, its name recognition, and its reception among critics and audiences alike. Captain Marvel still kicked its ass.

If we go back to the beginning of each universe, the Captain Marvel/Wonder Woman gap looks even starker. Adjusted for theaters and ticket prices, the domestic-opening-weekend performances of 2008’s Iron Man and 2013’s Man of Steel were quite comparable. The first entry in the MCU sold 3,346 tickets per screen, while DC’s universe debut sold 3,410.

So Marvel and DC basically started at the same place, although one could argue that DC’s position was stronger at the outset; its first chapter did slightly better than Marvel’s, despite the fact that Iron Man was a better movie according to critics.

In other words, what initially looked like a fair fight is no longer ever close.

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