The Walt Disney Company made its mark in 1928 when it introduced the iconic character who would become its symbol/mascot. Micky Mouse debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie in 1928. Throughout the 1930s and into the 40s, Disney established itself as the dominant masters of cinematic animation. Other popular characters like Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Pluto, among others, appeared to enthrall kids and amuse adults. The animated shorts were so successful the company started to make longer films. No one could compete with Disney in the genre of animation. Walt Disney was riding high, with no competition.
Warner Brothers changed all that! They started their animation department in 1930 in an attempt to duplicate the success Disney was having. They began with their “Merry Melodies” shorts, which were cartoons made to promote their music (They had acquired four music publishing companies). However, they didn’t hit their stride until the mid-late 1930s when they initiated their more satiric, rough-and-tumble style that would become known as the “Looney Tunes”. (Alternately spelled “Looney Toons”.) Porky Pig was the first of the famous Looney Tunes characters to debut in 1935. He was followed by others, such as Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester & Tweety, Yosemite Sam and many others, most notably the most popular “Toon” of them all, Bugs Bunny who debuted in 1940.
Throughout the 1940s and into the 50s, Disney’s roster of characters competed with the WBs Looney Tunes for animated supremacy. The competition was far less one-sided back then than it is today. Unlike the current situation with the superhero films, Warner Bros was able to find the niche that the public wanted and overtook Disney, becoming more popular than the House of Mouse. Even today, decades later, Bugs and the Looney Toons win in almost every poll when pitted against Mickey and company.
How did the upstart Warner Bros animated characters overtake Disney in popularity? Ironically, they did it by using the same method which is failing them today…They went edgier! If you look at the old Looney Tunes cartoons, they were hyper-violent; used occasional adult humor and even subtle innuendo; and were very non-PC. Their take-no-prisoners style of anarchy was a marked contrast from Disney.
Although some of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons had the same sort wild energy that Looney Tunes had, Disney soon settled into a more innocent, wholesome style. Their characters were more sympathetic and usually were the victims of circumstance. What people liked about Bugs Bunny was that he was not sweet and sympathetic…he was a bad boy! He was a mischievous prankster who enjoyed inflicting his brand of vengeance on Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam or anyone else who got on his bad side. In his own words, “Ain’t I a stinker!”
New characters kept popping up, such Roadrunner and the Coyote or Foghorn Leghorn. Viewers loved to watch the Coyote getting repeatedly crushed by boulders and falling off cliffs in his unsuccessful efforts to catch and eat the roadrunner. The more overtly violent the WB got, the more fans oved it. Characters like Speedy Gonzales may have been overtly racist, but the WB was unapologetic and kept the non-PC humor coming. Pepe Le Pew was practically an attempted rapist.
Warner Bros continued to be the fan favorite in short animation (a different genre from feature films) until the age of television ended the long-time trend of showing short cartoons before theatrical films. Once TV made cinematic shorts obsolete, Warner Bros ended their lucrative Looney Tunes series and reintroduced the characters to a new generation of kids in the 1960s (including myself, by the way) when the Looney Tunes shorts were rerun as weekly animated TV shows.
As for Disney, they also ended their production of short films and focused on full length theatrical movies, most of which were live action at this point. (Disney went through a long slump in animation until 1989 when The Little Mermaid jump-started a new era of Disney domination at the box office.) The Looney Tunes conquered a new medium in the 60s/70s; whereas Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the others were relegated to corporate symbols. At the end of the day, Warner Bros and the Looney Tunes won the first round of the feud with Disney.
Now we come to Round Two and the WB is not doing nearly as well this time. Warner Bros actually had the early head start in the superhero film genre when it began making the Superman movies with Christopher Reeve in the late 70s-early 80s, and the Batman movies with Michal Keaton/Val Kilmer/George Clooney in the late 80s-early 90s. However, the WB hit a snag when both those franchises fizzled out due to bad sequels (Superman 4: The Quest for Peace and Batman & Robin). They took a pause in their comic adaptions.
This left the door open for another studio to muscle in and become the new king of comic book adaptations. Fox and Sony both tried to fill the gap but it was when Disney bought Marvel and began the ambitious MCU that they became the reigning lords of super hero cinema. The WB has been playing catch-up ever since. Their recent efforts to catch up have not been overly successful.
Why is the formula that helped the WB defeat Disney in years past failing them now? Why are they getting bad reviews? Why did Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice underperform? Why is the ‘dark and edgy’ strategy backfiring on WB? Why can’t Superman and Batman do what Bugs and Daffy did?
Possibly it’s because Bugs Bunny, Tasmanian Devil and the rest of the Looney Tunes weren’t made to be nice. They were created to be “Looney” anarchists who cause hilarious mayhem wherever they go. The same can’t be said for Superman. Although the “Dark and Edgy” style worked in the Christopher Nolan solo Batman films, it misfires badly every time they to pull Superman into shadowy territory. Superman should just not be dark! Bugs Bunny can blow up Elmer Fudd with dynamite and we love him for it. When Superman breaks Zod’s neck, fans just howl in protest. Maybe this is why Suicide Squad is making a good profit…because these characters were meant to be dark.
There’s another aspect of WB’s problem that should be addressed. Some would argue that the WB are in too much of a hurry to catch up to Marvel/Disney’s 10-year run of success, which is why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was so cluttered and unfocused—they were trying to cram 10 years into one film. Instead of a slow build, they wanted to rocket to victory but they were too ambitious and the tactic failed. Back when they were doing their cartoons, they took 10 years from the time they began “Merry Melodies” until their efforts culminated in the creation of Bugs Bunny, who was their main weapon in defeating Disney. The WB today should have taken this lesson to heart and used some patience. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson now.
So the WB won Round One while Disney is far ahead during Round Two, but it’s not over yet. Suicide Squad is doing well financially (if not critically) and many have high hopes for Wonder Woman. Can the WB once again do what they did all those years ago and topple Disney to become the king of the genre?