DC Can Succeed, But Not if They Chase Marvel

During Friday's earnings call for Warner Bros. Discovery, CEO David Zaslav told investors that he was working with Disney veteran Alan Horn on creating a ten-year plan for their DC brand, comparing it to what Horn participated in with luminaries at Marvel like Kevin Feige and Michael Iger. This makes him the latest in a string of executives who think that DC's key to success is to copy what Marvel has done. But we're here to tell you there's decades of evidence to suggest that DC's can succeed, but not if they chase Marvel to do it.

DC was the brand name in superhero comics for decades, beginning with the introduction of Superman and leading up through the 1970s. Even as Marvel mania began to take hold, and characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four started to change the genre forever, DC maintained a sales stranglehold. After all, they had Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It could then, and can still now, be argued that no character in Marvel's library stands up to those icons.

Those larger-than-life, totally unattainable icons are key to DC's philosophy on costumed heroes. As evidenced in the relief mural at the Central City Police Department on The Flash, the Justice League are essentially Mount Olympus for superheroes, and one of DC's greatest strengths is the broad, crazy, cosmic mythology it has.

Marvel originally won over fans by being human, humane, and relatable. The audience was, by and large, made up of kids, and Marvel in the '60s spoke to kids on their own level and didn't think they were stupid, whereas DC of that time very much felt like books being written by parents, for kids. It's part of why characters like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan have such a reputation for being boring old farts, whether it's actually earned or not.

Marvel, while it has some excellent cosmic and mythic characters, generally excels when it does the opposite. It's easy to point out early Marvel's ethos that its characters should be relatable and "the hero next door," but in the case of the MCU, it's even broader than that. In the movies, the Marvel/DC schism has by and large been a question of science fiction vs. fantasy.

While DC movies certainly have science fiction elements, they are arguably more fantasy-inspired -- even if it's a "science fantasy" akin to Star Wars. You have gods and monsters, aliens and Amazons. You have Kryptonian super-science that only really feels like science fiction until you realize the big plan to resurrect Superman was "zap the Kryptonian magic machine with lightning and see what happens." And again -- these are all broad generalizations, but hear us out.

On the Marvel side, you have the Asgardians. And while Wonder Woman introduced Zeus in the traditional way, followed by Justice League's introduction of the New Gods, Marvel's Asgard is just a super-scientific alien race that is easily mistaken for gods. In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Peter realizes that he can basically "hack" magic because "it's just math." The most fanciful and fantastical elements of the MCU are generally mocked openly in-story by the very characters living through them.

But one of the truisms in film is that it is very, very difficult to sell fantasy movies to a huge audience. The most successful ones, aside from The Lord of the Rings and a few other outliers, are dressed up like science fiction or action movies, and even the "disguise" doesn't always work. Even more fanciful, stylistic sci-fi movies like Speed Racer or Valerian can face an uphill battle connecting with audiences in a big way. U.S. moviegoers are trained to respond to naturalistic, "realistic" filmmaking.

All of that to say, if David Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery plans to copy Marvel's method, DC not only won't catch up to Marvel, they almost certainly can't. After decades of dominance, DC has never truly regained the top-selling spot in the comics market from Marvel after Marvel took it from them, and there is nothing in recent memory to suggest that DC will be able to turn that tide on the film side of things.

It's almost a mirror image of the comics: for years, DC dominated while Marvel either didn't make anything, or made content that was a shabby imitation of DC. Superman: The Movie changed the blockbuster landscape in 1978, and Batman did it again in 1989, before Marvel even had a superhero movie in theaters. But excepting the outlier of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, DC has not been able to make themselves the "brand name" in the superhero movie space since Batman & Robin flopped and Sam Raimi introduced his take on Spider-Man.

None of this is to say that DC might not have an incredible, $2 billion, record-shattering superhero movie coming down the pike eventually. They have characters who are certainly capable of connecting with everyone if the right story is told by the right people But the notion that there's some magic formula Warner Bros. Discovery can follow to transform a brand that's frankly in free-fall, into a carbon copy of the most successful entertainment brand of the last decade and change? It's nonsense. Total nonsense, and if the performance of WBD stock since Friday is anything to go by, the shareholders know it.

DC's characters are inherently larger than life, and as such, they often require a certain kind of very theatrical, arch, sometimes even campy, approach in order to make them work as well as Marvel's do. Previous management understood this on some level, which is why after Christopher Nolan's success, they tried to set themselves up as the anti-Marvel by giving more creative control to the filmmakers involved with DC projects. You need the unique and sometimes strange fingerprints of a Tim Burton, a Richard Donner, a James Gunn, a Zack Snyder all over your film for it to work in a lot of cases. These are people whose movies are visually dynamic, and who draw you in to their massive mythologies. If you have characters who are gods and monsters, you need a filmmaker who can tell stories about gods and monsters with comfort, in order to make it really connect with the audience.

That means two things: One, competing with Marvel head to head on Marvel's terms, is almost always going to be a losing game, and that as much as anything else is why we have now had three sets of managers embarrass themselves trying; and two, without a visionary -- and importantly, one who is striking at the moment, so that person's vision can catch the zeitgeist -- DC doesn't have a chance against Marvel, who are more human and relatable, and whose sci-fi approach is easier to apply. To succeed, DC's filmmakers need to play to their own strengths.

Playing to the strengths of the content is something that executive producer Greg Berlanti has been incredible at in recent years. Berlanti, along with collaborators like Marc Guggenheim and Sarah Schechter, made a Flash show that defined a generation of superhero TV, shrugging off the fact that 20 years of fans hardly knew anything about Barry Allen and blending his best traits with elements of beloved stories featuring Wally West. Berlanti Productions unleashed the weird and the wild side of DC with DC's Legends of Tomorrow and Doom Patrol, which may not have been as popular as The Flash, but are arguably even bigger for building a brand, since they are so completely unlike anything else that's going on in the superhero space. 

In order to succeed, you have to know what you have, and how to best use it -- and it seems to me that Warner Bros. Discovery does not, and that most of their management predecessors have not, understood what they have for years. The new regime seems passionately committed to repeating the mistakes of the past.

Marvel has the good fortune of coming into a superhero space that was largely untapped, and using then-recent failure to kickstart something new with movies like Spider-Man and X-Men. Since Marvel has now transformed themselves into the superhero brand, and elevated superheroes to being the dominant blockbuster genre right now, their strategy -- start with quiet, simple movies about A-list characters, build an A list team, and wait a decade to get into the cool, weird stuff -- worked for them. It's unlikely to work for DC, especially since Warner Bros. has a history of overreacting to movies that underperform. After all, the disastrous reception of Justice League was in no small part due to meddling that happened after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to make as much as WB wanted in theaters.

So far, the vast majority of the projects Zaslav and Discovery have expressed enthusiasm for are "safe" movies featuring A-list characters, some of whom have already had a few failed chances to connect. Yes, it's exciting to see what will happen with Black Adam, and it's delightful to see a return to the world of Shazam! because the first movie was a huge breath of fresh air. But for years, WB hobbled themselves by thinking that people only wanted to see movies with Batman and Superman in them. It felt like nobody in Burbank had ever read a comic that wasn't The Dark Knight Returns or The Death of Superman, and the movies suffered as a result.

In a decade that featured numerous TV and film projects featuring Batman, Superman, and The Flash, it's arguable that DC's best movies were the oddball, stylistically-daring projects like Wonder Woman (a period piece set during World War I), Shazam! (a throwback to the Amblin films of the '80s), and The Suicide Squad (which embraced James Gunn's gory, off-kilter horror roots in a way that a Marvel movie simply could not). And that is not an attack on the more straightforward movies like Man of Steel and Suicide Squad. It's not even an outlier when it comes to DC.

(If we were going to attack Suicide Squad, though, we would do so by pointing out that the movie was sliced and diced by network executives who were trying desperately to copy the success of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and took an interesting, talented director completely out of his chair in the process. Just saying.)

Ask a DC reader what their favorite stories or comics runs are, and if they're under 50 years old or so, it's likely that list includes a lot of one-shots, Elseworlds stories, and off-brand titles like Justice League InternationalKingdom Come, Marc Andreyko's Manhunter (with Jesus Saiz, Javier Pina, Rags Morales, Sean Phillips, etc.), James Robinson and Tony Harris's Starman, and Tom King and Mitch Gerads's Mister Miracle.

None of those books were safe bets, and some of them did not even sell that well at the time of their publication, but they are evergreen in the trade paperback market and constantly referenced by the next generation of superstars as foundational texts. If DC is planning to go 10 years into a "plan" for their shared universe without addressing B- and C-list characters, they're doomed.

This is something that Berlanti intuitively understood, and it seems like the contribution Berlanti Productions has made to DC's recent fortunes is likely to be completely ignored under the new regime. The Arrowverse didn't launch with Superman & Lois or even The Flash; it launced with Arrow, a show about a character most viewers only knew as the prettier of Clark's two blonde sidekicks on Smallville. For a decade, that franchise marked DC's most successful integration of the shared universe concept -- and in many cases, it was arguably a more successful application of the idea than even the MCU in terms of storytelling. And its best-reviewed shows by the end were things like Black Lightning and DC's Legends of Tomorrow, neither of which would likely have stood a chance of getting greenlit in WBD's current climate.

At the end of the day, a big part of this problem is the inescapable feeling that Warner Bros. doesn't see DC's heroes as characters, but as brands. DC doesn't have stories to tell, they have IP to be exploited. And that's a great way to sell faux-vintage t-shirts and overpriced action figures, but it's a pretty poor way to approach storytelling and universe-building.