The DC Extended Universe has been subject to ruthless criticism and plenty of doubt, but the numbers don't lie -- the first five installments of Warner Bros.' DCEU have earned more than the first five movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Going by the box office results alone, it's impossible to argue that the DC Extended Universe hasn't been more successful.
As of the time of this writing, the DCEU has grossed $1,601,915,700 at the domestic box office. Adjusted for inflation, the MCU made $1,313,957,900 from its first five films. That's right, the DCEU's first chapter outperformed Marvel's by almost $300,000,000. With that established, let's take a look and see if the DC Extended Universe has been more successful as a whole.
Money Isn't Everything -- But It Does Matter
The first big point to consider is a simple one; the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the first evidence that a series of individual movies involved in an overarching narrative could work. Until 2008, when Marvel Studios kicked off the MCU, "cinematic universes" were practically unheard of. They definitely weren't a sure-fire way for studios to make a ton of money.
Warner Bros. ventured into its own movie universe with Man of Steel in 2013, years after Marvel proved the approach's success. Considering this, it's not entirely unfair to say that the DCEU rode on the back of the MCU, which just proves how successful Marvel has really been. Other cinematic universes have followed, with the failure of Universal's Dark Universe proving it's not a sure-fire route to success.
Warner Bros. kickstarted its DC Universe with one of its most popular characters: Superman. Not long after, DC Comics' trinity (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) came together in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While Warner Bros. had the choice of any character from DC Comics, Marvel Studios didn't have that luxury. Sony and Fox own the film rights to some of the most popular character Marvel characters, such as Spider-Man and the entire X-Men roster. Thus, Marvel had to turn B-List superheroes Iron Man, Thor and Ant-Man into global success stories. Warner Bros' ability to go straight to the A-characters is one reason the DCEU reached box office success from the get-go.
DC's Struggled Critically, But Succeeded One Way Marvel Hasn't... Yet
There's more than one type of success when it comes to Hollywood, of course -- critical reaction matters. While the DCEU has raked in a lot of money, it's not been anywhere near as successful when it comes to garnering favorable reactions. Comparing the accumulative Rotten Tomatoes score for its five existing movies, the DCEU musters up an overall freshness rating of 241 out of a possible of 500. On the flip side, the MCU's first five efforts accumulated a whopping 391 out of 500. It's worth keeping in mind that these scores come from film critics' ratings, and it definitely tells a different story to the financial comparison.
However, the DCEU has succeeded in an area where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to venture: female-led movies. Historically, Marvel has a tendency to focus on white males as the leads in its films. As a result, the diversity of its roster has been, well, lacking. Black Widow is mostly a background player in Avengers, while Harley Quinn is a lead in Suicide Squad.
It's with Wonder Woman, though, that Warner Bros. is the clear leader. After introducing the Amazon in Batman v Superman, DC's Amazon helmed the DCEU's biggest hit to date. This disproved the myth that female superhero films aren't a draw, and a sequel was quickly announced. Marvel Studios is working hard to "catch up" with next year's Ant-Man and The Wasp and 2019's Captain Marvel. Things are getting better for Marvel, but diversity is definitely an area in which it lacks.
Justice League Was A Major, Major Misstep
The DCEU's latest offering, Justice League, should have been its biggest success yet. It had the benefit of being set up in Dawn of Justice, and it was the first live-action take on DC's biggest superhero team. Though the movie is still in theaters, it's clearly Warner Bros.' biggest misfire yet, both financially and critically. (The film has only grossed $197,407,025 domestically thus far.) There's even a chance that the studio could lose money on the film. Contrast this with Marvel's first Avengers movie, which raked in $686,549,200 domestically (adjusted for inflation). It's clear the DCEU is in desperate need of a new, more appealing direction.
In another article, we explained how we believe the DC Extended Universe could readjust itself moving forward. Warner Bros.' next DC adaptation is Aquaman, which will be released late in 2018. This gives Marvel Studios a chance to capitalize on Justice League's failure with three movies of its own: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and The Wasp. The upcoming Avengers flick absolutely smashed the 24 hour viewing record with its first trailer, an early indication of its inevitable success. Despite a strong start, the DCEU is seeing (mostly) diminishing returns with each subsequent release. The MCU, however, is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, perhaps illustrating the adage: slow and steady wins the race.