Why does Marvel keep winning? That’s a question more than likely being asked right now at both FOX and Time Warner offices right now. X-Men Apocalypse hasn’t exactly “flopped” but it looks as though it’ll pull in about $300 million which isn’t great for FOX, you might be thinking “come on dude, $300 million is nothing to laugh about” and you’d be right except that’s not profit. Once you subtract the film budget of $178 million, you’re left with $122 million and that might not seem like a bad amount of money, until you then subtract the millions in advertising and the negative publicity regarding a certain billboard (frankly, the billboard issue is ridiculous) X-Men: Billboard Controversy.
Time Warner (DC Comics) is in a shitty situation too; Arrow wrapped its 4th season a few weeks ago and the ratings aren’t looking great; in 2012 the show pulled in an average of 3.7 million viewers, this year it’s been 2.9 million. So firstly losing 21% of your audience isn’t a good sign, especially to shareholders who care very little about TV audiences and care quite a lot about money. To give you an idea of The CW’s (That’s the channel that airs 90% of DC shows) attitude towards ratings, back in 2007 they cancelled Veronica Mars in favour of Top Model, Veronica Mars was pulling in 2.5 million viewers each season they didn’t lose any percentage of viewership and were still canned in favour of a quick buck. In addition to this problem, the writers at Arrow have come under a lot fire since season 3; many fans criticised the third seasons Ra’s Al Ghul plot because it was lifted from a number of Batman stories. That in particular has been a long time criticism of Arrow; Oliver Queen is typically a funny character who’s got more in common with Star Lord than Batman, Arrow’s decision to turn Queen into a brooding Bruce Wayne meets The Punisher sort of figure didn’t sit well with a lot of Green Arrow fans.
In addition to the fanboys, who probably make up maybe two or three hundred thousand viewers, Arrow fans in general have disliked the writing around Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak, particularly the decision to have them get engaged. For those wondering in the comics Green Arrow and Black Canary are usually viewed as an item and let’s not get started on how badly they’ve adapted Black Canary, she’s not a ninja or anything like that and goddamn the costume is wrong. Also not a brunette and never went by the name Laurel, oh and they killed her off in season four so yeah they kinda pissed off a lot of people with this one.
DC’s other big show on the CW, the Flash, is doing substantially better; averaging just over 4 million viewers in its second season. In terms of viewership, the Flash has outperformed its sister series in Arrow since it debuted, the challenge faced by the Flash is somewhat different. See, The Flash doesn’t have a lot of great villains; he has Professor Zoom who was the major villain in the first season. He has The Rogues; Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Golden Glider, Heatwave, Mist and Rainbow Rider all of whom have appeared in the series already, funny thing about The Rogues; they only work in the comics because there’s a bunch of them, individually you get about one episode of TV each and funnily enough they’ve already had it. So what other villains does the Flash have? Well there’s Gorilla Grodd who’s had a few appearances in the show so far but again due to having been beaten several times isn’t going to work that well for a full season villain.
That’s basically all of Barry Allen’s villains and if you’re thinking I’ve missed Zoom, well you’d be wrong. Zoom isn’t a Barry Allen villain; he’s actually a Wally West villain. In comics after Barry Allen died and Wally West (Kid Flash) took over as the Flash, his former friend and colleague Hunter Zolomon became Zoom, as he figured The Flash needed a Zoom. With all of the Flash’s major villains already being used DC has decided that season 3 will be Flashpoint, which is an alternate universe where all sorts of shit went crazy after Barry decided to save his mother. Funny thing about that though; the villain in that story was Professor Zoom and the main characters in the book can’t be used, guess why? Well they’re all due for the upcoming Justice League film. In Flashpoint Batman, Aquaman, Shazam and Wonder Woman are the major DC characters featured and Warner have already said that none of those characters are allowed to be used on TV. So how exactly will they pull of Flashpoint? No idea, but if the prediction being thrown around that Batman is going to be replaced by Green Arrow, I’d imagine you’re going to see some very pissed off fans.
What about the other DC Comics shows? Gotham’s still puttering along brining in around 5 million viewers, which is still a 28% decline since its first season. Say what you will about the police procedural, but it’s unlikely to continue past its third season given that Batman will never appear during the shows run and Gotham City can only go so far before it needs Batman. Supergirl is actually the highest performing DC show currently operating; it averaged 9.8 million viewers in its first season, the big question is whether or not it’ll retain those same numbers when it moves to the CW, it’ll obviously lose a certain portion simply because the CW is geared towards the youth market and just isn’t watched by as many people as CBS. Finally, Legends of Tomorrow a show that brought together a number of supporting characters from Arrow and Flash, came out swinging with the debut episode operating at Arrow’s levels of 3.2 million viewers, unfortunately over the course of a season that number has dropped as low as 1.6 million, with the season average being a 2.0.
So how’s Marvel doing in comparison? Well it’s not as simple of a question as it might seem; obviously the Marvel film universe is still dominating the field with their recent offering, Civil War, pulling in over $1.1 billion in four weeks. What about the TV universe though? Yeah they’re winning there too; Marvel’s major syndicated television program Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wrapped its third season in May, averaging 5.5 million viewers. You might go back and look at the numbers for season 1 which had it pegged at 8.3 million and season 2 which came in at 7 million, but much like Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a slight drop off being on a major network (ABC) and is now relying on its core-audience. One thing to keep an eye on is that the show is continuously receiving increased praise from critics and still beating out every competing series, save for Supergirl.
Marvel’s other ratings driven series Agent Carter was unfortunately cancelled after finishing its second season earlier this year. Wait, a minute! Didn’t I say that Marvel was winning? Well yeah they are, even with the unfortunate ending of Agent Carter, it’s worth noting that even the second season averaged 4.3 million viewers. So just take that into account for a moment; Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow aren’t pulling half that number right now and even The Flash is 100,000 viewers behind and its DC’s most critically acclaimed series. I’ve yet to address the elephant in the room too; Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are both original series, what does that mean? Well, neither series actually has any major comic book characters in it. Don’t get me wrong, certain characters like the Absorbing Man, Deathlok and Hive have appeared in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Tony Stark’s dad appeared in some episodes of Agent Carter but in general these were series that had to launch on the back of Phil Coulson (a minor character featured in Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers) and Peggy Carter (a supporting character in Captain America: The First Avenger).
It might not seem like a huge deal but if you walk up to someone on the street and ask them if they know who The Flash or Supergirl are they’re probably going to have an idea, same for Gotham City. Now go ask someone if they know who Phil Coulson is, I’ll wait. Did you ask them? They had no fucking idea did they? I thought so. That’s kind of the point as far as accepting the success of Agent Carter and S.H.I.E.L.D., they took characters who were basically no one and turned them into a successful television product and granted the character of Skye would turn out to be Daisy Johnson (the superheroine Quake) but that didn’t happen until the second season and even then Quake was first introduced to Marvel Comics in 2004, The Flash debuted in the 1940’s, Quake isn’t exactly a household name.
The other aspect of Marvel’s television productions is the Netflix series; currently Daredevil and Jessica Jones have launched on Netflix with both series being so popular that Netflix commissioned a second and then third season of Daredevil, while Jessica Jones is currently filming season two. In addition to this the success of these series has seen Netflix pick up Luke Cage (debuting September 30th) and Iron Fist (currently filming), with a mini-series The Defenders linking these characters together and The Punisher (debuted in Daredevil) likely to get his own series alongside rumours of Blade and Ghost Rider each getting a series too. Netflix boasts about 46 million subscribers in the US and around 81 million if you count worldwide numbers, even with that sort of distribution the service is on-demand streaming so it doesn’t have “ratings” in the traditional sense, instead Netflix bases its decision to produce original content on the basis of popularity; where traditional television works on the idea of a recurring weekly audience Netflix shows could potentially have 100 diehard fans who just watch and rewatch shows all the time, but that seems unlikely, whatever the viewer numbers are Marvel’s Netflix original series are pulling enough in streams and home DVD/Blu-Ray purchases to be profitable.
So is all hope lost? Should DC/Warner just throw in the towel and call it quits? Probably not, for all the criticism lobbed at Arrow and The Flash, they’re still the two biggest performers on The CW and with Supergirl set to appear on the network in 2016 it’s likely it too will enter into the top 3. One of the advantages DC has over Marvel is that it owns the network most of its shows are broadcasting from (The CW is a joint venture of CBS and Warner Bros.), Marvel doesn’t have that advantage (funnily enough The Disney channel wasn’t too big on the idea of airing shows that weren’t cartoons or re-runs of Cory In the House). It is worth noting however that the folks at Time Warner aren’t the biggest fans of nerds; back in the 1990’s the World Wrestling Federation competed head to head in Monday night programming with World Championship Wrestling, WCW would regularly pull in weekly numbers of around 6 million viewers, keep in mind that’s a program that ran one episode a week for 48 weeks of the year. Even at their absolute lowest performance WCW was bringing in around 3 million viewers and Time Warner still saw fit to ditch the show in favour of saving money.
Time Warner isn’t giving up their piece of the superhero pie any time soon; they’ve committed to making at least another five films in the DC shared universe, with Suicide Squad set to drop in two months. That said, if Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow continue to slide in the ratings and Supergirl is unable to bring its CBS audience over to the CW, it wouldn’t surprise me if Warner’s bean counters don’t start calling for cuts to their television products. In particular; WB Studios decision to cast Ezra Miller as the Barry Allen version of The Flash in the upcoming Justice League film while Grant Gustin is currently playing that same character on The Flash TV series could spell premature doom for the CW’s series; back in 2006 when Bryan Singer (lol) directed Superman Returns there was talk of cancelling the popular Smallville series due to difficulties in keeping the two Superman series separate. Hopefully that doesn’t happen as Gustin’s performance on The CW has brought in a huge number of viewers to the smallest of the five major US networks.
As for Marvel? They’re gonna keep doing what they’ve been doing, so far it’s working great. The loss of Agent Carter might be seen as a minor setback but Peggy Carter’s character finally got total closure in Captain America: Civil War. The Netflix original series don’t look to be stopping any time soon and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has carved out a pretty great niche audience, the only genuine setback for Marvel’s continued domination of the film and television world was the refusal by ABC to pick up Marvel’s Most Wanted a series based around Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. supporting characters Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse and Lancelot Hunter, who were written out of S.H.I.E.L.D. midway through season 3 with the intention of continuing their story in Most Wanted. The upside to that is the potential for the popular supporting characters to return to the primary series, either way Marvel’s dominance isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Now all I need is for the folks at AMC to expand past The Walking Dead and start making other Image Comics series into shows, might I suggest Spawn, Savage Dragon, Wytches, Witchblade and Invincible?