Anyone paying much attention to either the movie news or the comic book world news (or both, if you're like me) will have noticed that in the last few weeks both Warner Brothers (who own DC) and Marvel Studios have announced their upcoming slate of superhero movies for the rest of the decade. This is ignited a lot of chatter, a lot of excitement on the main but also a good helping of snark and some of the good old tedious Marvel vs DC argument. I have to admit I'm a good deal more excited about the Marvel properties than the DC ones, which has led to a little bit of self examination, as historically I've always been a much bigger DC fan. So, if you'll bear with me, this will hopefully go some way to bearing out my thoughts.
On paper there are a lot of similarities between the two rival slates. Both have a female-led movie (Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel) and a film with a black male lead (Cyborg and Black Panther). Both have a bunch of cross-overs planned. Both are aggressive schedules of high-budget tentpole movies that rely on the current boom in superhero films not petering out in the next few years. The big difference, on the face of it, is that Marvel are already doing this sort of thing and Warner/DC are running to catch up. Marvel Studios pretty much invented this model, and pulled it off, something that it way more ambitious and impressive than they're often given credit for, especially as they are missing access to some of the bigger properties they would otherwise like.
Warner/DC on the other hand have some really big guns to pull out in the shape of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, all of which have high public profiles and the former, especially, a strong reputation coming off the Nolan "Dark Knight" trilogy. But I can;'t help but wonder if this is where I start to have problems with the Warner/DC model - I liked the Nolan movies; really, really, liked them actually - but for me Man of Steel was pulled down by trying mimic that tone and Batman vs Superman, at least from what they are releasing, feels like more of the same. Just as the X-Men franchise has a bit of a Wolverine problem, I worry that Warner/DC will end up with a Batman one.
It's an issue of tone, I think. Man of Steel has picked up a lot of flack for presenting a Superman that seems embarrassed to be, well, Superman, and a Jonathan Kent who advised letting people die rather than stick your head up and be counted. Which is kind of the opposite of what makes Clark interesting! Personally that conflict could be an interesting one but for me Man of Steel fluffs it, especially in an overly dull and problematic final act that I liked less and less the more I thought about it. Early casting for Aquaman and the Flash seem to indicate a desire to cast actors with brooding intensity over more easy-going charisma, which makes me worry that a Justice League movie is going to involve a lot of sitting in a darkened room looking sad.
Marvel look like they're trying to go a different route. "Phase 2" has felt like they're trying move beyond "superhero" as a genre and go for markedly different tones in each of their films. It's most noticable with the "conspiracy thriller" flavour for The Winter Soldier and the full-on Space Opera for Guardians of the Galaxy, as well the claims that Ant-Man is going to be a Heist movie and hiring a horror director for Doctor Strange. It's worth pointing out that these are flavours, inflections, over some still pretty familiar narratives; enough to make them feel different without straying too far from "what works".
So Marvel need to introduce new characters without falling back on old routines, and do it which characters that aren't as familiar, I suspect they'll start to "grandfather" them in, bringing them into movies like (for instance) Captain America 3 or Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to introduce them without having to do yet another origin story movie. And then they've got to somehow tie it all together for a big two-part Avengers finale without it sinking under the weight of it's own complexity. Yes, they've managed it so far, but it'll be interesting to see if they can stay as nimble of their feet and if the audience will stay engaged.
What I end up with is a fear over if Marvel can pull off its ambitions, versus a fear of what Warner/DCs ambitions actually are. Marvel's movies have been consistently fun, even the flawed ones, and have never (yet) left me a sour taste about how a character has been treated. I can look at say, Kelly Sue DeConnicks' Captain Marvel and know that Marvel have a vision for the character that is current and at hand and fun and likable, and I'm not sure I can say that about Wonder Woman. Representation in comics is a current, live issue, and both of the big two have problems with it both on the page and the screen (and in the writers/artists rooms). These next batch of movies are move us away from the "White Male plus support" model and it feels important that it's got right.
In the end, it's a gut feeling. Objectively they're both part of massive entertainment conglomerates chasing huge markets - the idea that one of them holds a moral high ground over the other is laughable. They'll only change if we, the consumer, demand and respond to that change. Making a movie with a female lead (or a POC lead) is only as good a statement as the film itself - look at Catwoman - but its good to see the intent from the pair of them. And look, Warner/DCs gritty and moody style may not be to my taste - but that's my taste, not an objective truth. But my gut has more faith in Marvel at the moment, and that (oddly) is where my heart is.