Has DC Finally Discovered How to Compete With Marvel Studios?

Warner Bros. has been focusing on female talent behind the camera, which could signal it's retooling projects to offer a different type of superhero movie slate.
Warner Bros./Photofest

Has DC found a new path forward?

The news that Cathy Yan is in talks to direct a Harley Quinn-centric spinoff is the second sign in as many weeks that Warner Bros. might have found a new direction that will allow its DC movies to offer an alternative to the monolithic Marvel Studios. Whether it's actually aware of that yet remains to be seen.

Yan's negotiations to board the project follow last week's news that exiting writer-directorJoss Whedon has been replaced by Christina Hodson as the writer of the Batgirl movie. The link in question isn't that both projects are part of the larger Batman mythology — although that's also the case — but that, following the success of Wonder Woman last year, the DC movies are opening themselves up to female voices behind the camera, as well as a focus on women in front of it. 

This isn't entirely the case, of course; David F. Sandberg's Shazam and James Wan's Aquaman both are in production right now, and it's very likely audiences will eventually see the Batman movie that Matt Reeves has been developing for a while, as well as a Flash solo movie from directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. It is, nonetheless, telling that the last two creative changes made by DC are putting women in positions of power, especially in light of March's revelation that Ava DuVernay is working on a New Gods project for the studio.

Compare this to Marvel, where even 2019's Captain Marvel — Marvel's first female-led movie after more than 10 years of male heroes — lacks a solo female director (Anna Boden co-directs the feature with longtime collaborator Ryan Fleck). While Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler's Black Panther have given Marvel a break from its traditional dominant white male aesthetic behind the camera, the latter also ably demonstrated the audience's hunger for something different than white guys saving the day again and again and again. (See also, again, last year's Wonder Woman and its success.)

The impact of Black Panther on Marvel's decision making in the future has yet to be seen, and Marvel Studio's Kevin Feige has said the studio has made a number of diverse hires behind the camera that are yet to be announced (a Black Widow solo movie currently is being written by Jac Schaeffer). Yet it's also conceivable the studio could have incentives to stick to its conservative formula — namely, the massive success that formula has brought to Marvel Studios in particular, and to the Marvel brand and merchandising empire in general. 

By comparison, DC/Warner Bros. has relatively little to lose, and a track record that rewards taking chances. Not only has the critical response to the DC movies — Wonder Woman aside — been middling at best, but none of the movies have outperformed the sole female-led entry in the franchise to date. What does the studio have to lose by doubling down on what has worked best so far, especially if it feeds a hunger that currently isn't being served by the dominant force in the marketplace?

Whether or not that's DC's thinking isn't clear, of course; it could simply be coincidence that Yan and Hodson are revealed to be working on DC properties in the wake of DuVernay’s New Gods news, instead of a plan to court underserved audiences. If that's the case, though, DC might want to look at reactions to what's happening and wonder if there's gold to be found in those hills if they decided to really go searching for it.