A very dear old friend of mine recently watched Aquaman, didn’t like it, and subsequently tweeted a derogatory comment about the overall quality of DC movies. As a long-time DC fan and defender, I couldn’t let this slide—I replied with my skepticism of this oft-repeated narrative that DC isn’t good at movies.
My friend then responded with an impressive 12-tweet thread making the case for Marvel based on Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ scores, complete with math, gifs, and snark.
This cannot stand.
But my rebuttal is far too long for a Twitter thread, and I just don’t have the patience. So Jaclyn, forgive me for moving this argument to my home court, but you deserve the best I can bring.
Innocent bystanders: I recommend you read the original Twitter conversation before continuing.
Jaclyn, I will begin by arguing that your premise (that Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ consensus is the best metric for deciding what makes a movie “good”) is flawed.
I will then show that even using the very parameters you established, you’re still wrong.
First, why assume that the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is the best way to measure good versus sucky? Why not use the audience scores? After all, it’s audience members that buy tickets, generate studio revenue, and ultimately influence which movies get made and which don’t, not critics. If we average the audience scores rather than critics’ consensus of the movies you counted, we get 79.8% for DC and 82.3% for Marvel—a huge narrowing of the gap. If they were in college, they’d both have a B-.
Did I personally consider Suicide Squad a good movie? Not even a little. But I won’t commit the logical fallacy of the appeal to incredulity: just because I didn’t like it and can’t really imagine why anyone did, that doesn’t mean that audience reactions (which translate to ticket sales, revenue, and sequels, remember) are invalid. Marvel’s Venom shows a similar result, a terrible critical consensus but high audience scores. (You left that one out of your analysis, btw.)
On the other hand, I went into Aquaman expecting not Citizen Kane-level filmmaking, but something big, dumb, loud, and fun, and that’s exactly what I got. I enjoyed it.
You could point out that racist and sexist reviewers sabotaging the audience scores for Black Panther and Captain Marvel tanked them unfairly, and you’d be right. However, if we leave them out of our audience score average, Marvel still gets only an 83.8%; bumped up from a B- to a B. And I would then point out that this just means that Marvel fanboys are more sexist and virulent than DC fans, since Wonder Woman didn’t suffer a similar tanking.
But let’s forget Rotten Tomatoes for awhile. After all, how much can it really tell us about the true quality or long-term impact of a film?
I would argue that DC has had a more significant impact on film-making in general and superhero films in particular, and that ultimately DC’s legacy will be considered more important.
Considering only the films you mentioned, many would say that Marvel has made the same movie 22 times. With an occasional exception such as Ragnarok, which could be deemed a straight comedy, MCU movies are remarkably consistent in theme, tone, and production value. Consistently good? Maybe. But other words for “consistent” are “boring” and “low risk.” I can make a consistently good cake using the same recipe 22 times, but I bet you’d get sick of eating it pretty quickly.
On the other hand, there’s a universe of difference between Batman Begins and Aquaman, between The Dark Knight and Shazam. Differences in tone, in dialogue, in color palette, in realism, in effects, in acting style. DC takes risks. Sometimes they don’t work, and we get a Suicide Squad, and sometimes they do and we get The Dark Knight, which tops list after list of the greatest superhero movies of all time. Among all the movies you listed, which is most likely to be remembered as a classic, most likely to be taught in film studies courses and, in retrospect, be considered revolutionary in its genre? Many would say The Dark Knight.
The upcoming Joker film is another example of DC’s creative risk-taking. I don’t know for sure that it will be good, but I do know that the modern iteration of Marvel Studios would never even attempt anything like it.
Additionally, without the original Batman (1989), we probably wouldn’t have superhero movies as we know them today. It proved that even with controversial casting choices and plot changes that pissed off the fanboys, superhero movies could be not just profitable, but critically successful.
And while DC was setting the stage for decades of brilliant superhero films by a range of studios, what was Marvel doing? Crapping out the 1990 Captain America, which has a staggering 7% Tomatoes consensus. That’s the lowest rating of ANY Marvel or DC movie EVER—even lower than Fant4stic (another Marvel failure you forgot to mention) at 9%.
We could also discuss other kinds of cultural considerations. Despite Doctor Strange’s decent Tomatoes score, it was widely panned for character whitewashing by casting Tilda Swinton (literally the whitest living human) as The Ancient One, a role held in the comics by an Asian Man. When I look at a poster of the Justice League, I see an Israeli woman for whom English is a second language, an Ashkenazi Jew, a Native Pacific Islander, and a Black American man. When I look at a poster of the original Avengers, I see white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, pretty white lady. Is diversity the best metric for deciding whether a movie is “good”? No, but it’s certainly relevant—at least as relevant as the consensus of professional movie critics, who themselves are overwhelmingly white and male. Has Marvel taken great strides in diversification in recent films? Absolutely. But again, I argue, DC got there first.
So you’ve seen why your premise is flawed from the start. But for the sake of argument, let’s use your premise—that Tomatoes critical consensus is a valid metric for this debate—and see how well your argument holds up.
You compare the average score of the 22 MCU films against a fairly random selection of DC films: the first four Batmen, the Dark Knight trilogy, and the official DCEU films. But this is completely arbitrary. You also mention the X-Men franchise and two pre-MCU Spider-Man iterations as points in your favor, so I say, let’s really go for it. Let’s count up EVERY Marvel and DC film that received a wide theatrical release, using your preferred method of critical consensus.
For reference, films that weren’t considered include films made from “imprint” properties rather than the true Marvel and DC labels (such as, sadly, V for Vendetta, a personal favorite), films that received only a partial theatrical release (such as Batman: The Killing Joke), and films that are too old to have a critical consensus listed on Tomatoes (such as the 1944 Captain America—but trust me, you don’t want that one affecting your score anyway).
Among Marvel’s complete collection are critical and box office flops such as Daredevil (you forgot Affleck was the blind vigilante before he was Batman, didn’t you?), Elektra, two versions of The Punisher, and, oh yes, Howard the Duck. Which, by the way, is clearly part of the MCU since he appears in BOTH Guardians movies.
DC has had some tragedies too, such as Superman IV and Catwoman. But the point is that to pretend that every Marvel movie is by default a gem is intellectually dishonest.
I won’t keep you in suspense: if we average the critical scores from all of these movies, what do we end up with?
DC is failing, but Marvel is skipping class, sitting in the back with their friends, goofing off, barely paying attention, and one bad test score away from repeating the semester.
If you’re curious, audience scores average to Marvel 69.5%, DC 58.8%.
To say that one is great and one sucks, well, the numbers just don’t back it up.