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Warner Bros. Discovery Is Rebuilding the DC Universe. What Can They Learn From Their Biggest Rivals?

Trying to mimic Marvel makes sense, but the real lesson may lie in the MCU’s flaws

Marvel Studios/DC Comics/HBO/Warner Brothers/Ringer illustration

The DC Extended Universe is an absolute mess. Warner Bros.’ nine-year effort to create a franchise that competes with Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has been checkered by tonal inconsistencies, box office flops, rampant controversy, and capitulating to fan-driven movements that may not have been so fan-driven after all. And that was all before the studio decided to ax the $90 million Batgirl—a near-complete, tentpole release for DC—as a tax write-off rather than release it at all.

Following the Batgirl shelving, many of DC’s previously announced films—centered on heroes like Supergirl and Static Shock—find themselves in early-development hell according to The Hollywood Reporter. The one movie that does have a release date, The Flash, is mired in controversies surrounding its star. And in addition to that, a couple of long-running superhero television series—Doom Patrol and Titans—seem to be on their way out as well, reports Variety.

But it doesn’t always have to be like this. The thing about messes is that, theoretically, they can be cleaned up. “We have done a reset,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said during an earnings call earlier this month. “We’ve restructured the business where we are going to focus, where there is going to be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC.” In that same call, Zaslav ambitiously compared his future plans for DC to the one that Marvel Studios has executed. “It’s very similar to the structure Alan Horn, Bob Iger, and Kevin Feige put together very effectively at Disney. We think we can build a much stronger, sustainable growth business out of DC,” he said. “As part of that, we are going to focus on quality. … DC is something we can make better.”

A few things stand out from Zaslav’s stated vision: emphases on sustainability, on quality, and on building a cinematic superhero universe akin to Marvel’s. Instead of focusing primarily on films, a dedicated shift to television and HBO Max as the nexus of DC’s universe will allow it to grow without the burden of box office expectations—DC knows better than anyone that a flop can derail a superhero franchise before it even takes flight. Max also provides a built-in subscriber base that rewards a dedicated transition from the big screen to the small screen. Ideally, DC can use HBO Max Originals—for the foreseeable future—to develop its lesser-known characters and gradually construct a shared universe over time. DC has been getting lapped by Marvel for years, but in hitting the reset button now, Warner Bros. can start learning from the MCU. And while observing the MCU’s successes would be wise, it might be even more beneficial to unpack Marvel’s misfires—specifically the lukewarm reception to Phase 4. Now is the perfect time for DC to take stock in themselves, in Marvel, and in the overall landscape to learn what works and what doesn’t in the streaming age of superhero television.

Since the official start of Phase 4 with the premiere of WandaVision in January 2021, Marvel has released a total of six live-action films and seven live-action television shows. The current phase clocks in at almost 49.5 total hours, just 30 minutes shy of the first three phases combined—and that’s not counting the final projects of Phase 4, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Marvel’s flood-the-market approach over the past few years has revolved heavily around its venture into television. But not only has this made it difficult for audiences to stay engaged, it has also led to a saturation and dilution of their offerings. “There have been plenty of bright spots, but the MCU is facing both a quality and a quantity problem,” The Ringer’s Daniel Chin wrote in an article about Marvel’s strained relationship with VFX artists, “and without any real indication of where the franchise is heading as this phase comes to a close, it’s becoming less crucial—and more challenging—to keep up with everything that Marvel releases.”

To Chin’s point, it’s also becoming increasingly clear that the actual quality of the content—not just the sheer amount of it—has been an issue plaguing Phase 4. Many of the Disney+ Marvel shows have suffered from stunted pacing episode to episode, an issue that likely stems from their short one-off seasons. With the exception of the nine-episode seasons of WandaVision and the ongoing She-Hulk, Marvel miniseries have had just six episodes to spread their wings—to cover the racial complexities of Falcon becoming Captain America, Hawkeye’s struggle to retire his superhero persona, and Moon Knight’s identity crisis. Ms. Marvel alone has to cram in the origin story of a Pakistani American teenager grappling with newfound superpowers, time travel, extended flashbacks, an alternate dimension, a major cameo, and a nod to the X-Men.

Meanwhile, Disney and Marvel’s unwillingness to commit to any of these projects past a single, very short season—save for Loki—indicates a focus on the volume of characters rather than any deep consideration of them. The episodic, longform nature of television lends itself to spending more time inside a fictional world so that its story and protagonists can grow in a lasting way, but devoting only six episodes at a time to these characters kneecaps that advantage. “Are the stories being presented in Shang-Chi, Moon Knight, and the other standalone projects the most impactful or mind blowing? No. But if executed correctly, they have the potential of increasing the texture of the universe and endearing the audience to the characters,” popular video essayist Nerdstalgic noted in June. “Only issue being, it’s kind of hit-and-miss currently. They’re in a back-to-basics era, but they’re pitching themselves as still being in full-blown crossover mode, which is leading to audience dissatisfaction and pacing issues.”

Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has shown an unparalleled ability to tell a cohesive narrative that spans dozens of films and seamlessly connects countless characters and story lines. After 23 films, three phases, and billions of dollars, Feige and Co. closed the book on “The Infinity Saga,” an unprecedented run of comic-book movies that ended with Avengers: Endgame in 2019. The popular superhero franchise still hasn’t fully recovered from that historic stretch and has seldom lived up to the high expectations it set for Phase 4. There were always going to be growing pains in the immediate aftermath of Endgame, but it’s been surprising to see Marvel struggle as much as it has to introduce a new batch of characters and balance a multitude of plotlines. A significant reason for this is the addition of several Disney+ series alongside the avalanche of Marvel movies hitting theaters over the past couple of years. While shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Moon Knight are fine in a vacuum, they—at least to this point—share very little connective tissue with the feature films that have come in between them (Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home). Audiences are being asked to drastically increase their viewing habits, which has ironically led to less engagement in the storytelling. Much of the fandom feels like they’re asked to do additional work—keeping up with brand-new, less-familiar characters as well as seemingly indiscriminate story threads—that only results in fewer moment-to-moment payoffs and a less satisfying bigger picture.

Inversely, the MCU’s past few years have been quite successful from a commercial standpoint. Marvel occupies two of the top six spots on this year’s global box office with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder. In 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home made close to $2 billion at the worldwide box office, making it the third-highest-grossing MCU release of all time. Meanwhile, Disney+ has amassed more than 152 million subscribers since its launch in late 2019, putting it just behind Netflix and Amazon Prime in total subscribers. That said, Disney doesn’t just have Marvel to thank for attracting large audiences—Star Wars plays an undeniably impactful role, as well—but most of the Marvel shows boast remarkable viewership stats. WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye raked in a whopping 17.64 billion minutes of combined watch time, according to THR. Despite the overall lackluster response from fans, the Marvel shows have played an essential part in building a loyal Disney+ audience.

Perhaps that just shows the power of superhero storytelling on the small screen—potential that hasn’t yet been fully tapped by Warner Bros. and DC. However, the recent structural issues of the MCU are indicative of what awaits the launch of DC’s reimagined cinematic universe if it blindly mimics its top competitor and ignores some of the benefits of its own decision-making in recent years. During the same period wherein Marvel released seven live-action superhero shows, DC released just one—Peacemaker, an offshoot from James Gunn’s film The Suicide Squad. The John Cena–led superhero series picked up right where the movie ended, established a new version of Task Force X, introduced a slew of new characters like Emilia Harcourt and Vigilante, and ended its first season by teasing a major conflict between Peacemaker and Amanda Waller, a key member from Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. The HBO Max original not only feels essential because of its deep character development, but also because it moves the larger narrative forward in a compelling way that few of the MCU series have been able to accomplish. In the end, the storytelling between The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker feels far more fluid than Marvel’s attempts to jump back and forth between film and TV—in large part because Gunn was at the helm for both the original film and the series that spawned from it.

Despite the corporate restructuring and shuttering of several superhero-based projects, Warner Bros. Discovery remains committed to Peacemaker (Gunn confirmed that a second season is still on the way). And by building out from one of its strongest successes and observing the drawbacks that accompanied Marvel’s recent tendencies toward oversaturation, inconsistent episodic pacing, and overall convolution, DC can carve out space in a medium where Marvel has never been sure-footed, at least in comparison to its vice grip on superhero cinema.

The future DC/HBO Max slate is also chock-full of potential, if handled with care. On the horizon is a direct continuation of The Batman in the form of a TV series that features Colin Farrell reprising his role as the Penguin, with writer-director Matt Reeves returning as an executive producer. Super producer Greg Berlanti’s Green Lantern series is still moving forward and is said to be his “biggest, most ambitious DC adaptation” to date, according to Variety. Also, Deadline reports that J.J. Abrams’s Constantine reboot series is “on solid ground and moving along” and a Madame Xanadu show is in development as well. It will be crucial that Warner Bros. Discovery nails down a creative who can take on a Feige-esque role so that these many DC projects don’t just feel like disparate one-offs. Although it’s mainly just speculation at this point, there are signs pointing toward someone like Berlanti, a candidate who already has a relationship with DC and in his work on the “Arrowverse,” has shown an ability to helm a vast number of superhero properties under a single network umbrella.

TV is a place where Marvel has frequently struggled to find consistency and the Disney+ era has done little to change that narrative. Maybe—just maybe—by repositioning its focus to television, DC can level the playing field and build something new. The cracks in the vibranium are showing—DC finally has a chance to take advantage of it.