After months of anticipation the two candidates are finally ready to square of against one another. There has quite possibly never been such a sharp contrast the American public has to choose between. One candidate possesses the mind of an intellectual while the other uses gut instincts. One maintains a trim and chiseled physique and the other uses brute strength to get his point across. One is a relative newcomer that was born in the early 1960's while one has a long and storied history having been born in the late 1930's. Are we talking about Barack Obama and John McCain? Well… I suppose we could be, but actually we are setting the scene for what is about to be the summer showdown between DC Comics' "The Dark Knight" and Marvel's "The Incredible Hulk". Before this battle can commence we have to ask the question: up to this point between DC and Marvel on the silver screen, who is winning? The answer may be a little more complicated than you thought.

The Early Years

Not counting the early serials, DC comics was the first to put together a full feature length movie with the 1966 movie "Batman". This Batman is the one portrayed by Adam West that was morphed into a weekly television series. Though fun, this is primary example number one why live-action superhero movies or television shows were never wildly accepted by the same fans that loved them in the comic books. Comics, largely an afterthought as mindless entertainment by the general population, would tackle serious issues such as drug abuse long before television would. Comics had a unique way of having the hero live in a very human world, yet when transferred to live-action the hero lived in a very cartoonish world which was a signature of this Batman film, the Batman television show, the Superman television show and the Flash Gordon film (not a DC product) from the 1970's to name a few. So DC is on the map, but pretty far from a quality location on said map. In the late 1970's this would change.

Batman Movie 1966

In 1978 with the release of Richard Donner's Superman a standard was set that still lives on today. Of all people Marlon Brando (for a hefty price tag) started the trend of enormous stars appearing in superhero movies. The tagline "You will believe a man can fly" properly described how (for the time) awe inspiring the special effects really were. It is commonplace today to see a character realistically appear to be flying; this was not the case in 1978. Watching Christopher Reeve fly to the glorious John Williams theme song was a sight to be seen, and people did in droves. Not a completely perfect movie (reversing time at the end was a bit of a cop out) it comes almost as close as this type of film can come. The key was the film took itself completely seriously, yet still found time to have fun along the way. The standard was set.

Superman and Superman II were filmed at the same time. Notoriously Donner was fired and did not get a chance to finish the second film, he was replaced by Richard Lester to finish it. In protest Gene Hackman (playing Lex Luthor) quit which is why we see Lex from behind in many scenes. With all the turmoil Superman II somehow still wound up being a good movie. Superman was still on top of the world and for the purposes of this article so was DC. This would not last.

DC's Downfall and Revival

Richard Lester stayed on as director for 1983's "Superman III" and comic legend Richard Pryor was added to the cast. Pryor, though brilliant, was an odd choice to play a major role in a Superman film. Though the film is a mess, at least there are a few redeemable qualities to be found. This was not the case for the abysmal 1987 film "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace". Every ounce of logic was thrown out of the window for this abomination that almost single handedly destroyed everything that was good about this franchise. Humans can breathe in space, nuclear energy can create a super villain and Jon Cryer is now Lex Luthor's nephew. The Superman franchise, for the time being, is dead.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

A live action "Non-campy" Batman film had been rumored for ten years or so at this point ever since the success of "Superman". In 1989 this rumor finally came to fruition with the release of "Batman", though not without controversy of its own. Tim Burton was hired to direct, who has his own trademark style; even more shocking was the casting of comic actor Michael Keaton as the title character. Keaton turned out to be perfect choice to give a since of normalcy to the viewer that was swept away in the highly visualized world that Tim Burton had created. Multiple Oscar Award winner Jack Nicholson played The Joker as… well, as himself but audiences ate it up. "Batman" was the biggest blockbuster hit of 1989.

Changing of the Guard

In 1990 with little fanfare, a Captain America was quietly released. A short while later a low budget Fantastic Four movie was produced with the specific intent to only keep the rights and never meant for public viewing. Someone noticed that the Marvel universe of characters was a potential goldmine, but it would still be a few years before this would be proven.

"Batman Returns" was released in 1992 and was a success but not to the extent the original Batman was and this film had taken a much darker overtone than the previous film did, if that was even possible. Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny Devito carried on the tradition of big name stars bringing the villains to life in the form of Catwoman and The Penguin respectively. This also was the beginning of a disturbing trend of packing a superhero film with multiple villains, almost an attitude of "more villains, more action, more box-office".

Burton and Keaton were planning on returning for Batman III but the studio wanted a lighter tone so Joel Schumacher was hired to direct (Burton would stay on as a Producer). With Burton out as director Keaton did not return and was replaced by Val Kilmer. Batman Forever can be accurately compared with "Superman III", a mess but still some quality moments that leave it at least borderline watchable. If "Superman III" can be compared with Batman Forever, then the next Batman film "Batman and Robin" can be compared just as equally to "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"; an utter mess that not only destroyed the franchise but also superhero movies for the foreseeable future; at least until a band of uncanny mutants came along and changed everything.

Enter: Marvel

Though not technically Marvel's first superhero movie (1998's "Blade" came out before but it was more of a horror film in tone) Bryan Singer's "X-Men" rejuvenated a genre that had been dead for three years. Taking the successful formula of taking the subject material seriously while still having fun along the way propelled "X-Men" to dominance at the box-office. "X-Men" proved that a well made film can succeed even when the comic was not entirely known outside of its strong cult following, as opposed to a property such as Superman. If "X-Men" was the warning shot of what was coming, 2002's "Spider-Man" was the metaphoric shot that killed Franz Ferdinand (The Archduke, not the Scottish rock band).

Sam Raimi's vision, of high school nerd Peter Parker that was bit by a radioactive spider to achieve super powers, put the typical audience member in the situation of feeling that if the same impossible scenario happened to them, well this may very well be how they would have responded as well. This is what separates a Marvel character from a DC character. A DC character is larger than life; a Marvel character is a normal person that has a larger than life occurrence happen to them.

Over the next few years a wave of critical and box-office successes, and some miss-fires, stemming from the Marvel universe would visit the local multiplex. For the most part they kept to the philosophy of staying serious to the source material, unfortunately Ang Lee's "Hulk" would take itself too seriously. Released in 2003, a beautiful film on the surface but audiences walked away, for lack of a better term, bored. No movie starring the second most popular character in the Marvel universe should be "boring". "Hulk" still holds the record for the biggest percentage drop-off from its first week in release to its second.

While DC always concentrated on its two main characters (Superman and Batman), Marvel had no problem making a film out of every hero in its catalog. Daredevil, Punisher and Elektra would come and go. Successful sequels, in terms of box-office and critical acclaim, would follow with "Spider-Man 2" (perhaps the greatest superhero movie of all time) and "X2: X-Men United" along with successful sequels in box-office only, not so much with the critics, such as "Spider-Man 3" and "X-Men - The Last Stand". Two "Fantastic Four" movies and "Ghost Rider" would fall into the latter category as well.

DC Strikes Back

Not surprisingly DC was looking for a way to reintroduce their Batman and Superman franchises to the movie public eager for this new era of superhero films. Both franchises left a bad taste with the fans after the final installments so that had to be addressed, but how? They never happened! At least with the Batman films, the Superman franchise would just forget part III and IV never happened. It worked. In 2005 "Batman Begins" completely retold the origin of Bruce Wayne (with the character Batman not even appearing until almost halfway in to the movie) while 2006 saw "Superman Returns" pick up right where "Superman II" left off. 2005 marked the beginning of a new era, for the first time DC and Marvel films were competing head to head.

Meanwhile, in The Present

So where do we stand? DC dominated in the 1980s and the 1990s, but also tripped up their own franchises so bad, without competition, that the superhero genre was all but dead before Marvel rescued it. Even in resurrection DC borrowed the model from Marvel in respect to the direction to take each of their franchise characters, not to mention even borrowing "X-Men" director to helm "Superman Returns".

Marvel's future is bright. The dominance of "Iron Man" this year is one thing, but the fact that "Iron Man" is the first step in what will eventually become a superhero team-up film "The Avengers" (based on the famous scene after the credits in "Iron Man") sets a path that takes its second step this weekend with "The Incredible Hulk" (Marvel's own do over, borrowing a move from the DC playbook) and will continue on for the next few years. DC, on the other hand, tried to put together a Justice League of America film but it quickly fell apart. It may still happen, and only time will tell, but it will most certainly not star Christian Bale and Brandon Routh who currently occupy the roles of Batman and Superman; A continuity problem that Marvel seems to be avoiding.

Based on the success over the past eight years, and with the foreseeable future firmly entrenched in the Avenger Initiative it appears Marvel has the edge even though DC got off to a 34 year head start, but it is close. A strong box-office from next months "The Dark Knight" may swing the tide if things do not go well for "The Incredible Hulk" this weekend. With a race this tight to call perhaps it might be decided by something as inconsequential, but yet as powerful as the theme song. It worked for Superman. (May we recommend something perhaps by Franz Ferdinand? The Scottish rock band, not the Archduke.)

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Story by Mike Ryan

Starpulse contributing writer