'Dark Knight' Marks Latest Battle Of Comic Titans

Batman returns to the big screen Friday with the release of The Dark Knight. It's the latest in a spate of recent movies about superheroes. It's also the latest round in the contest between two giants of the comic book industry: DC and Marvel.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

On Friday, Batman returns…

(Soundbite of swooshing sound)

AMOS: …again. "The Dark Knight" once again stars Christian Bale as the caped crusader, along with the late Heath Ledger as The Joker.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Dark Knight")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): (as The Joker) Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEDGER: (as The Joker) We are tonight's entertainment.

AMOS: Commentator John Ridley says this new Batman film marks the latest round in another epic battle between two comic book titans.

JOHN RIDLEY: There are two kinds of people in the world. I'm not talking Mac people or PC people or even red-staters, blue-staters. Whether you know it or not, in this life, you are either a D.C. Comics person or a Marvel Comics person.

D.C. Comics are the publishers of the mythic icons of super-dom: Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman. It's for people who like their heroes majestic and inspiring. And for folks who like their heroes all angsty and barely able to get off the analyst's couch to save a cat from a tree, there's Marvel Comics, home to heroes like Spiderman and The Hulk.

Arguments about which is the better superhero universe are heated at comic book shops, but in filmed entertainment, historically, one publisher was the clear victor.

(Soundbite of movie, "Superman: The Movie")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHRISTOPHER REEVE (Actor): (as Superman) Gentlemen, this man needs help.

RIDLEY: Until the mid-'90s, the multiplex was the domain of D.C. Comics. And my far-from-humble opinion, 1978's "Superman" is still the comic book adaptation by which others are measured.

(Soundbite of film, "Superman: The Movie")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REEVE: (as Superman) Well, I certainly hope this little incident hasn't put you off flying, Miss. Statistically speaking, of course, it's still the safest way to travel.

Ms. MARGOT KIDDER (Actor): (as Lois Lane) Right.

RIDLEY: Marvel Comics, on the other hand, could barely stay solvent, let alone get movies made. The company was mercilessly transferred from one owner to the next like last month's non-mylar bag issue. But like any good story, there's a plot twist.

On the D.C. side, the once-mighty Superman franchise petered out, and the Batman franchise evolved into camp like the 1960's television series. Meanwhile, with gamma strength, Marvel got its financial house together and built up its brand.

Over the last eight years, films based on Marvel characters have raked in an average of $400 million at the box office.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spiderman")

Ms. KIRSTEN DUNST (Actor): (as Mary Jane Watson) I'm worried about you.

Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (Actor): (as Peter Parker) I don't need your help.

Ms. DUNST: (as Mary Jane) Everybody needs help sometimes, Peter - even Spiderman.

RIDLEY: But the Marvel universe also lends itself to modern storytelling. D.C. comics are set in make-believe cities like Metropolis and Gotham. The Marvel heroes reside in alt-versions of New York and Los Angeles. They have personality issues set against real-world stories.

Iron Man is a weapons technology billionaire who has to deal with his own guilt over bloodshed in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of movie, "Iron Man")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. (Actor): (as Tony Stark) They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once.

RIDLEY: That mix of fantasy and reality seems to resonate more with audiences in our post-9/11, post-Iraq-invasion world. "Iron Man" is currently the summer's highest grossing movie.

(Soundbite of explosion)

RIDLEY: But for all you non-true-believers out there, D.C. is hardly down for the count.

Following the successful reboot of the Batman franchise, the eagerly anticipated "Dark Knight" hits theaters Friday. Can the caped crusader single-handedly rescue the D.C. universe and return it to its glory days? To quote the comics: to be continued.

AMOS: Screenwriter John Ridley. And full disclosure here, he occasionally writes for an imprint of D.C. Comics called WildStorm. Ridley's blog, "Visible Man," is at npr.org/visibleman. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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