DC vs. Marvel: It all Comes Down to Batman

As my friends and colleagues know, I am fascinated by superheroes. In the past, I’ve shared thoughts on how research specialists are a bit like superheroes, and thus how multidisciplinary research firms are a bit like The Avengers or The Justice League. (I’ve also come to work in a Robin costume and in a Mrs. Incredible costume, but that’s a topic best explored in a separate blog post.) I’m also fascinated by out-of-the-ordinary brand stories (as evidenced here and here). Given these interests, I thought it’d be fun and informative to take an analytical look at some superhero brands to see what stories are revealed. Specifically, I will explore two huge comics and superhero brands (DC Comics and Marvel Comics), what we can learn about each brand’s relative popularity using publicly-available data—comparing search volumes via Google Trends—and, ultimately, how the Batman brand’s ebbs and flows impact the greater superhero brand dynamics.

Overall brand popularity: DC vs. Marvel

Let’s start with how relatively popular each parent brand is, and how that has shifted over time. When looking at search volumes related to the publishing companies, Marvel leads DC Comics, as it has for the last 10 years, and the lead has been widening since 2013. DC’s search volumes were closest to Marvel’s in 2012, when both Marvel and DC had summer blockbuster movies[1].

DC vs Marvel 1

When focusing in on those 2012 movies specifically, Marvel’s The Avengers shows higher search activity than DC’s The Dark Knight Rises—the final film in “The Dark Knight” trilogy focused on Batman and directed by Christopher Nolan—over that summer; The Avengers’ popularity seems to have buoyed the parent brand during the early summer of ’12 (along with The Amazing Spiderman, which also ran that summer, but whose search volumes are notably lower during the period). The Dark Knight Rises peaked a bit later, with Batman’s on-screen popularity helping to boost DC’s results during the late summer/early fall.

DC vs Marvel 2

Superhero character popularity: DC’s Batman vs. others

All that said, since the last Batman film left theaters that summer, DC’s popularity has waned as compared to Marvel’s (at least as measured by Google search popularity). This begs the question: how important is Batman as a superhero character brand? Let’s compare four specific character brands including two from DC—Batman and Superman—and two from Marvel—Spider-Man and Iron Man. All four have been comic book favorites for many decades; all four lead feature-length film series.

DC vs Marvel 3

When looking at Google search volumes, we see that one character brand from each parent brand—Batman and Spider-Man—consistently have higher search volumes than the other two. And both brands spiked notably in the summer of 2012, when movies starring their characters were in the theaters. Comparatively, Iron Man’s search volumes are meager, though he, too, was a summer ’12 box office star. One difference is that he was part of a superhero ensemble, while both Batman and Spider-Man generally work alone (and live or die by their own character brand strength). Iron Man’s results spiked one year later in 2013 when he fronted his own movie Iron Man 3.

Holy plot twist, Batman!

But wait! There is a new Batman movie in the works. One in which he fights Superman! Will Batman’s social stock rise (and buoy DC’s popularity along with it)? Let’s look at the early buzz of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and see how it compares to the hotly-anticipated Marvel project in the works: The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As shown here, searches for both projects are growing over time, garnering similar search volumes (with the notable exception of the week of October 19, when the official Avengers trailer was released).

DC vs Marvel 4

In the upcoming Batman v. Superman film, not only is the superhero face-off guaranteed to draw attention, but the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman has drawn huge media reaction and scrutiny. More so than the characters themselves, interest in who plays the characters (particularly publishing companies’ marquee characters) can provide an enormous boost to search activity and movie buzz. Let’s return to the four-character comparison but augment it to include searches related to the character and the actor playing that character.

DC vs Marvel 5

When we do so, we see a very dramatic spike on August 22, 2013, which happens to be the date when Ben Affleck was cast (somewhat controversially) as Batman in the Batman v. Superman project. We also see a notable spike on May 13, 2014, when the studio released one photo of Affleck in costume with the Batmobile. Comparatively, results related to the other actors inhabiting these roles are rather meager, with only a small blip related to Henry Cavill and Superman in June/July 2013 when “Man of Steel” hit theaters and the Batman v. Superman project was announced. (Boy, Spidey must be a bit embarrassed to see these numbers). Whether Affleck is up to the task of playing Batman, his casting has drawn a good deal of attention—both positive and negative—and should continue to pique fans’ interest in advance of the theatrical release next year.

What will happen next to our Caped Crusader? Tune in tomorrow…

The question remains: Will the Batman reboot provide the needed boost to DC’s brand popularity so that DC begins closing the gap with Marvel? Well, if rumor sites and Reddit are to be taken seriously, Warner Brothers may release the trailer as soon as early March, and we can then take a look at how big of an impact it makes on pre-release buzz. Given what we know about Batman and his enormous draw, I expect to see the Batman v. Superman brand buzz continue to grow, which should positively impact buzz for DC Comics as a whole over the 18 months. By including two of their marquee characters in one film, DC is gambling big with this future release. Will the gamble pay off? Loyal citizens of Gotham must now wait to see if Batman will indeed rise again (pun definitely intended).

[1] During the blockbuster “superhero” summer of 2012, Marvel had The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers in theaters, and DC had The Dark Knight Rises (Batman), all of which earned over US$1B during their worldwide theatrical runs.

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 Research 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.

8 thoughts on “DC vs. Marvel: It all Comes Down to Batman

  1. Nice review… I like both comics but lately (as I got older) my interest sway to DC for it has more depth. I hope that thins movies will continue to boost the Comics industry sales and more younger generation will look on it not just rely on movies.

  2. Thanks Don. I grew up knowing the DC characters much better than the Marvel ones, so it has been interesting to see Marvel surge in recent years (via the movies, not necessarily via the comics themselves). I have yet to see the new Avengers flick. Maybe this weekend…

  3. Why would you use internet search engiene results for movies and actors when comparing popularity of DC vs Marvel? And your graphs have no quantitative Y axis which is very confusing ans misleading. How about posting comic book title sales? Or even movie ticket sales?

  4. Thanks for the comments regarding approach. I used search results as they’re publicly available and draw from hundreds of millions of Google searches, so it seemed an interesting source to dig into. I agree that there are other data that could be analyzed and incorporated into subsequent analyses including media and movie ticket sales.

    Regarding the lack of a Y axis on the graphs, this is how Google has chosen to display the data, so I am held to these constraints. If I choose to incorporate search data into any brand analyses going forward, I will look to see if the data may be downloaded so that I can create graphs directly. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. Just wanna leave my blog (as well as my “2 cents worth”) about both DC and
    Marvel Comics.
    In spite of the growing popularity of the Marvel movies (i.e. Avengers:Age of Ultron,
    The Amazing Spider-Man) , I’m still pretty much a DC Comics fan.
    DC COMICS UNIVERSE in my estimation is the best and always will be for
    several reasons:
    1) Characters are more memorable and more iconic (Ex: HEROES: SUPERMAN,BATMAN, MARTIAN MANHUNTER, WONDER WOMAN, HUNTRESS, DR. FATE, SPECTRE, PHANTOM STRANGER
    VILLIANS: LEX LUTHOR, GORILLA GRODD, BIZARRO, SINESTRO,
    DR. POLARIS, PROF. ZOOM, DARKSEID, CIRCE, ANTI-MONITOR)
    2) Characters are more inspirational ….SUPERMAN comes to mind.
    Marvel in my opinion has too many of its characters with the attitude
    of “shoot first ask questions later”…and that doesn’t and never appeals
    to me…..and don’t get me wrong. I know and pretty much aware of the
    fact that Marvel’s Universe is a little more realistic, but you gotta give DC
    some kudos too. As a matter-of-fact, I’ve gotten more out of DC’s Universe
    than Marvel’s . Ex: Spider-Man (MARVEL) and Batman (DC) . Both are’
    great characters,…. and in some ways I can relate to Spider-Man than Batman
    simply because of what Spider-Man went thru in life…..However, when it comes
    to inspiration to become great and overcome everything life throws at me and do
    WAYYY better than I ever can…BATMAN is the clear and overall winner and my
    top choice! So therefore BATMAN wins, hands down!
    3) When it’s all over , History will remember DC COMICS more so than MARVEL.
    So, that’s my “2 cents worth”.
    Thanks ever so much!!!!

    • Thanks for the comments regarding DC Comics. I agree with you that DC has some of the most iconic hero brands, including Superman and Batman. That said, Marvel seems to have the edge these days when it comes to blockbuster movie successes, which drive brand awareness and buzz. I need to revisit this analysis now that the movies in question have all been released. Thanks for the prompt!

    • Why haven’t studios taken on a lot of these properties if they are so iconic and memorable? Howard the fucking Duck got a movie…..

      Characters are more inspirational? Entirely subjective of course but I’m pretty confident in saying Captain America ( coming from an unpatriotic Scottish person ) is more inspirational than your example of Superman and I feel if you sat everyone down to watch them both in their movies, more would side with Cap and a major reason being, is relateability.

      History will remember DC Comics? Or is it History will remember 5, maybe 6 characters? Let’s hope The Justice League movie backs you up there. DC is Batman centric. Almost everything comes back to Batman.

      Times are changing, Marvel have overtaken DC now and DC have it on their hands to catch back up with Marvel. A parody of one of DC’s greatest villains just became the highest grossing R Rated movie of all time. A talking Raccoon and walking tree smashed the box office. If Marvel released a Howard The Duck !movie, it would probably guarantee 500M at the box office. Marvel is on top.

      However if DC’s roster is as great as you claim then Warner Bro’s have an easy job on their hands.

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