DC Comics: Can Wonder Woman Save the Day?

DC Comics: Can Wonder Woman Save the Day?

All right, I’m back. Market Strategies’ resident blogger covering the superhero sector is here to share thoughts on the 2017 summer superhero movies, and the summer’s somewhat surprising breakout star: Gal Gadot, playing the titular hero in Wonder Woman. In addition to reveling in the spectacular success of Wonder Woman—a movie my kids and I thoroughly enjoyed, and for which we’re now rooting to win the summer box office outright—I will revisit some brand and character analyses that I conducted several years ago for my blog post, DC vs. Marvel: It all Comes Down to Batman. I’ll look at how Wonder Woman has impacted the relative popularity of the parent brands (DC Comics and Marvel Comics) and the marquee character brands including the long-reigning king: Batman. Again using publicly-available data—comparing search volumes via Google Trends—let’s see how the brands have shifted over time, and how Wonder Woman impacts the superhero brand space.

This year as per usual, several big-budget superhero movies hit theaters, including highly successful pictures from Marvel (Logan, released in March; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the current box office champion at nearly $900M global and $377M domestic box office; Spiderman Homecoming, out in July; and Thor: Ragnarok, due in November) and from DC (Lego Batman, released in February; and the upcoming Justice League, which I’ll get to a bit later). Also from DC Comics is the big June release Wonder Woman, seen as a risk for DC as it features a female hero and a relative unknown star in Gadot. However, this risk seems to have paid off tremendously for DC. At $652M and counting in worldwide sales ($290M domestic box office, including $103M on opening weekend), Wonder Woman has become the highest grossing picture ever from a female director.

Not only is Wonder Woman the most successful picture from DC Comics in years in terms of ticket sales but also in terms of critical response. The film has been praised for its hopeful tone and more traditional superhero story arc, quite different from the grim DC stories shared recently in Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. According to Erin Nyren of Variety.com, “Audiences and critics alike rooted for Warner Bros.’ latest attempt with Wonder Woman to leverage DC’s properties to the lofty heights of Marvel, and it appears their goodwill was well-placed…Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is being praised for its more hopeful take on what could have been yet another gritty DC entry and its ability to finally provide a satisfying superhero for DC audiences.”[1]

Given all of this success at the box office, how popular have Wonder Woman and Gadot been online? And has this popularity buoyed the DC franchise more broadly? Let’s take a look.

Overall Brand Popularity: Who Wins When We Pit DC Against Marvel?

Let’s start with how relatively popular each parent brand is when it comes to web searching, and how that has shifted over time. When we last looked at this in 2014, we saw Marvel leading DC when it comes to search volumes related to the publishing companies (and that holds true today). This year, I’ve broadened the search a bit to focus on the two fictional universes. As shown here, the universe search volumes are quite close over a span of multiple years, with the brand in the lead swapping back and forth several times.

Marvel Universe was quite strong in the summers of 2015 and 2016, but we see DC Universe surging in summer 2016, when DC Rebirth rebooted Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman in comic book form[2]. There also seems to be a DC surge in recent weeks—possibly but not necessarily goosed by Wonder Woman success. We’ll have to watch this trend to see how it develops throughout 2017.

Superhero Character Popularity: Can Anyone Challenge Batman?

When we last looked at marquee character brands and their relative popularity, we focused on two each for DC and Marvel—Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and Iron Man—all of which led recent feature film series. And we saw Batman’s popularity eclipsing that of the other marquee character brands. For comparison’s sake, I’ve added Wonder Woman to this lineup first to see how she fares among all of the guys.

We continue to see strong performance by DC’s Batman and Superman characters, particularly in late 2015 and early 2016 when news of their joint film Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice was prevalent in the media. Generally speaking, none of the other marquee characters compare…until mid-2017, when Wonder Woman starts to surge in search volume. In fact, over the last couple of months, searches for Wonder Woman have eclipsed all the other characters included here. Looking at the data above, Wonder Woman appears as a dark horse out of nowhere, jumping into the lead this summer.

Now, some of you may be saying, “This isn’t a fair fight. You haven’t included Marvel’s top characters of 2017.” Let’s take a look at those—focusing on the 2017 characters who lead or co-star in feature films and focusing on the last 12 months in terms of searches.

Holy cow, Batman! Wonder Woman is gaining! Here we see that while Batman appears consistently popular, this year is dominated by Marvel’s Wolverine (who’s swan song Logan was a critical favorite and a spring box office giant, grossing $618M globally to date) and DC’s Wonder Woman. With Wonder Woman surging so recently, it remains to be seen how the second half of 2017 will shake out in terms of character appeal and public interest. However, the showing thus far is quite strong.

Superhero Actor Popularity (or Infamy): Can Gadot Top Affleck?

All that said, we learned last time that some of the search volume is driven by what actor is connected to the superhero project; specifically, that beyond the characters themselves, interest in who plays the characters (particularly publishing companies’ marquee characters) can provide a notable boost to search activity and movie buzz. And we learned this by digging into the huge search volumes generated by Ben Affleck’s controversial casting as Batman, which blew the roof off of the Batman-related searches in late 2013 and early 2014.

Well, Affleck continues to drive Batman search traffic. And Gadot drives her fair share of Wonder Woman traffic in turn. Returning to the same marquee characters we looked at earlier, and adding actor to the search, we see that searches related to Wonder Woman and Gadot have actually gone past the high water mark set by Affleck when his casting as Batman was confirmed in 2014.

The interesting and important difference here is one of timing. The Affleck + Batman searches peaked just after casting was announced. And that casting was not consistently well-received in the media; in fact, it was generally considered controversial and possibly tarnishing the reputation of the Batman brand. In the case of Gadot and Wonder Woman, we only see small spikes in advance of the movie launch, but we see a huge peak in the summer of 2017 upon the movie’s release, when fans worldwide were able to appreciate Gadot’s performance firsthand.

But What Happens When Batman and Wonder Woman Join Forces?

Things are about to get even more interesting in the DC Universe. In late November, Justice League will hit theaters with a full slate of DC heroes, including three marquee characters—Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. As a child of the 70s who grew up watching DC Super Friends on Saturday mornings, I am beyond excited to see what DC can do with this movie. And Google search users seem similarly excited. In looking at search volume for Justice League, it isn’t quite at the level of an Avengers film (with the next one in the Marvel juggernaut slated for 2018), but it’s within spitting distance. And for the first official film of the franchise, that feels promising, indeed.

This bodes well for DC’s Justice League, slated for a Thanksgiving 2017 release. With Gadot returning and featured prominently in that film, alongside Affleck’s Batman, Cavill’s Superman, and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (who may bring with him crossover fans from the popular Game of Thrones TV saga), is DC poised to overtake Marvel as the leader in superhero movies? Only time will tell, but I cannot wait to find out.

If you’d like to talk more about this post—whether to argue for DC or Marvel superiority, or to discuss how we might use Google search data to help understand your brand a bit better—feel free to leave a comment below or email me. Until next time…

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[1] http://variety.com/2017/film/news/box-office-wonder-woman-opening-weekend-1202453353/
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/25/dc-comics-reboot-batman-superman-wonder-woman

This entry was posted in Brand and Messaging, Research Trends and tagged , , by Erin Leedy. Bookmark the permalink.
Erin Leedy

About Erin Leedy

Erin Leedy is a senior vice president of research and consulting in the Technology division of Market Strategies. She has been conducting technology research since 1996, focusing on the development of new hardware, software and services for the consumer and business markets. On the qualitative side, Erin is a skilled focus group moderator who specializes in observational and contextual site visits, modified ethnographic approaches, out-of-box and beta testing and product placements in consumer and business environments. Her quantitative expertise includes customer profiling, market exploration, segmentation and choice modeling. She graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree in industrial design. When not at work, she’s working hard to live up to her Twitter bio, which currently reads: researcher…designer…mommy…foodie…modernist…mixtapeologist…blogger.

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