How Warner Bros. Can Differentiate Itself in the Marvel vs. DC Battle (Analysis)

Straying from marquee heroes allows the studio to offer a more diverse universe.
Ivan Reis/DC Entertainment

The names "Rip Hunter" and "Hawkgirl" might not trip off most non-comic book readers' tongues — although fans of Cartoon Network's Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series from a decade ago will be familiar with the latter — but that is likely to change if The CW's proposed spinoff from its existing DC Entertainment shows Arrow and Flash goes to series. Such a deep dive into DC's back catalog might hint at how Warner Bros. can use its DC properties to find a space in superhero fans' hearts not already occupied by Marvel Studios.

For the uninitiated, Hawkgirl has traditionally been the partner — and, in some incarnations, wife — of Hawkman, a high-flying superhero from the planet Thanagar. Originally debuting in 1940's Flash Comics No. 1, the current incarnation (which first appeared in 2012's Earth 2 No. 4) has a slightly different origin: She's a treasure hunter who ends up with wings grafted onto her back as the result of a mysterious, unexplained event in Egypt.

Rip Hunter, meanwhile, got his start in 1959's Showcase No. 20, appearing in a strip which declared him to be the "Time Master." What that meant was that he traveled through time, accompanied by his girlfriend, her brother and another friend. (Think of them as a Fantastic Four who ventured out in time, instead of space, only without the cosmic rays.) In more recent years, he's taken on the role of protecting the timeline against those who'd travel through history in an attempt to change things to their liking.

The addition of these two relatively obscure characters — following the earlier announcement that Vixen, an equally B-list hero who debuted in the 1980s, would anchor an animated spinoff from Arrow — highlights one unexpected difference between Warners' DC universe(s) and Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Namely, a desire to stray outside the norm — and, perhaps, offer a more diverse alternative to Marvel's mainstream fare.

Admittedly, Rip Hunter barely fits that description (while a white male lead, he at least offers a diversity in terms of genre — something that fits into the super-science of STAR Labs on Flash and Ray Palmer in Arrow, but lacks the super costumes of either), but both Vixen and Hawkgirl offer gender and racial diversity from the white male leads audiences expect to see in superhero dramas.

That shouldn't come as a surprise: Of the announced DC movie slate, taking 2013's Man of Steel as a starting point, two of the first five DC projects focus on non-white-male leads (Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, respectively; it remains to be seen about the makeup of Justice League Part 1). Looking further down the line, 2018's Aquaman, 2019's Shazam and 2020's Cyborg all feature non-white leads. By contrast, seven years into Marvel's slate it has yet to release its first movie with a non-white-male lead, excepting the ensemble Avengers movies. Indeed, it won't get there until 2018, with Black Panther. (At least the TV division got to Agent Carter this year.)

This is where Warners has a chance to court a different audience than Marvel. In offering a more diverse lineup, the DC movie and TV universes can fill an increasingly obvious, increasingly visible gap in Marvel's roster — and, in the process, establish themselves as viable alternatives to Marvel, pushing the market leader into playing catch-up for once.

Given the success of Empire, Scandal and the Fast and Furious movie franchise, it's become increasingly obvious that there's a hunger out there for something offering an alternative to the white norm — the question really is which studio is going to work out a way to successfully combine that hunger with the demand for more superhero material. Right now, Warners looks better placed to do so. The uncertainty comes from whether or not the product will be good enough for the fans when it appears.