The Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference may not be the first event you’d expect to make headlines on a website dedicated to science fiction, but thanks to Kevin Tsujihara, chairman-CEO of Warner Bros., that’s exactly what happened. In arguing against the danger of the so-called “superhero fatigue,” which would potentially see audiences weary of superhero movies before DC’s cinematic universe can properly get off the ground, Tsujihara observed that the key to preventing such audience fatigue is that “… you have to be able to take advantage of the diversity of these characters.” In and of itself, that’s a fairly uncontroversial statement. It was a subsequent remark, with which Tsujihara set out to differentiate the fledgling DC Cinematic Universe from its Marvel counterpart that made waves. “The worlds of DC are different,” said Tsujihara “They’re steeped in realism, and they’re a little big edgier than Marvel’s movies.”
While Tsujihara was likely only trying to highlight the differences between his studio’s efforts and those of their competitors, his remarks also betray what seems to be a crucial difference between the mindsets underlying Marvel and DC’s respective cinematic efforts. Generally speaking, the mindset with which Warner approaches its superhero movies seems to be informed primarily by the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, especially ‘The Dark Knight.’ This success seems to have left Warner with the impression that superhero movies need to be “realistic” in order to succeed. The influence of Nolan’s trilogy is best exemplified in the development of ‘Man of Steel.’ Even before a director was attached, Warner representatives made a point of stating publicly that the next Superman film would feature a darker take on the character. As production progressed, we learned that ‘Dark Knight’ co-writer David Goyer would be providing the screenplay and that Christopher Nolan himself would serve as a producer. Ultimately, ‘Man of Steel’ was a success, though in some circles the fan reaction was decidedly ambivalent. As any comics fan will tell you, what works for Batman won’t necessarily work for Superman or the Flash. In spite of this, Warner often seems to be proceeding with a “one size fits all” approach.
But, as Tsujihara himself observed, the key to success is diversity. Marvel’s most recent efforts (and two of their biggest successes) have been ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ While they both fit under the broader umbrella of superhero films, they are very different movies. At its core, ‘Winter Soldier’ is a political thriller, while ‘Guardians’ can best be described as a sci-fi action/comedy. Diversity.
Further, while DC’s recent film efforts could certainly be described as realistic (at least within the bounds of superhero fiction), there also seems to be a tendency to conflate realism with a dark tone. You could just as easily argue that ‘Iron Man,’ a massively successful movie, was every bit as realistic as ‘The Dark Knight,’ but with a considerably lighter tone. Does this represent an obsession with a specific formula on Warner’s part, or a greater willingness to take chances on Marvel’s? Either way, it could go a long way toward explaining why Warner has taken this long to even announce a Wonder Woman feature while Marvel’s biggest breakout characters in the past year was a talking raccoon.
In fairness, the DCCU is still awaiting its second entry. The appearance of this one size fits all strategy may be just that: an appearance. Indeed, if Warner embraces tonal diversity for their cinematic universe to the same extent they have for their televised one, then we have nothing to worry about.