In order to properly debate the future success or failure of DC/Warner Brothers creation of a shared cinematic universe we have to start with a base understanding of their vision. I am not quoting any company execs just looking at what they have been doing these last few years. Warner Brothers is the parent company of DC Comics. They are one of the oldest Hollywood studios and have been responsible for some of cinemas greatest films. Marvel Studios in contrast is a relatively new entity. While they do have the financial backing and available resources of the Disney corporation, they are still basically an independent company.
During the thirty plus years Warner has owned DC they have made several live action films and television projects, with varying success rates. Times and technology change and with it so does the publics reaction to superheroes and their stories. In the 70's Wonder Woman had a short but successful run on television and Superman debuted on the screen to rave reviews. These two particular incarnations are beloved today by many an adult and their depictions of the title characters are held by some as the standard by which all others should be measured. Nostalgia has away of coloring ones opinion like that. In 1989 when Tim Burton's "Batman" starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson debuted many at the time were quick to denounce the film for its total deviation from the Batman they grew up with on television as depicted in the Adam West starring show.
Warner though was taking cues from the fans response to the 1980's Batman as depicted in its comic books. One of the most popular stories of that time was Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" and many embraced this darker Batman. Also in the 1980's Superman had three subsequent sequels to the original Richard Donner film of 1978 and the last two in particular were poorly received and forgettable outings. The three sequels to Burton's film suffered a similar fate as each one was perceived as worse than the previous effort. By the dawn of the new century superhero films were looking to reestablish their former box office glory.
Look back to the top photo. You see that stern, commanding depiction of The Justice League? That was painted by Alex Ross. Ross was very instrumental in visually redefining superheroes. His photorealistic paintings gave a new level of gravitas to the genre. In the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths era of DC comics the previously frivolous elements were being replaced with stories featuring more mature themes and having sometimes grave consequences.
As the 2000's rolled on superheroes in motion pictures saw early success in Marvel licensed properties like "X-Men" at Fox studios and "Spider-Man" at Sony. Some other projects like "Daredevil", "Fantastic Four" and "Ghost Rider" didn't do as well. The Christopher Nolan directed "Batman Begins" starring Christian Bale debuted in 2005 and it was highly regarded for its grounded story and real world sensibilities. Alex Ross' influence could be seen in the posture and tone of the film. This eventual trilogy went on to re-establish the genre as serious cinema and even found its sequel "The Dark Knight" in the conversation for possible best picture nominations at the 2009 Oscars. Unfortunately for Warners Nolan stated throughout his run that this would be a self contained storyline and it excluded any other DC Comics heroes in its universe. Once Bale declared that without Nolan he wouldn't don the cape and cowl WB would have to start fresh.
Now that fans were receptive to this grounded, real world that Warners had established they sought to continue it in the comics. Launched as The New 52 DC ret-conned its famous heroes and became more Marvel-like as some would say. DC always envisioned their heroes as legends and myths and told epic universe threatening stories on the regular often ending with the death of a popular character or family member: even a wife or father was not safe. Alex Ross' style had influenced the company's perception of itself and it's heroes.
When Marvel Studios entered the cinematic realm with "Iron Man" in 2008 it too was a grounded effort. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded more fantastic elements began to come into play, albeit with some scientific explanations thrown in. "Green Lantern" was Warners first attempt at its new cinematic universe and many feel it was too ambitious of a story to cram into a two hour film. The plot which bounced from Earth to Oa and back disappointed fans and the film barely recouped it budget. "Superman Returns" had been released a few years earlier but that film was more of an homage to Donner's first two films and is really a sequel more than a new take. Other DC properties like the "Arkham" and "Injustice" series of video games showed that the dark tone was something Warners was committing to for the long haul.
Last year "Man of Steel" directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan became a sort of issue #1 for the DCCU. It retold the Superman origin, but in a contemporary setting. This fledgling Superman emerged to a world not quite ready for the knowledge of the existence of alien life but in desperate need of his abilities to stop the plans of General Zod. Critics were quick to denounce the destruction and seemingly high casualty toll during the battles in Smallville and Metropolis between the Kryptonians, and were shocked at the brutal choice Superman was forced to make to stop Zod's rampage. This was real world superheroics and gone were the days when everyone could be saved and our hero could defeat a foe without having to question his own morality. As Disney steers Marvel films toward seemingly more family friendly fare, with it's alien invasion in "The Avengers" almost being cartoon-like in its depiction Warners is defining it's films differently. Painting with a darker palette so to speak. "Guardians of the Galaxy" Marvels latest blockbuster, was a bright colorful, humor infused film with a talking raccoon and catchy soundtrack that parents and kids alike enjoyed.
So while Marvel has momentum behind them and WB looks to get some traction it appears that these two studios have quite different expectations for the films they produce. Sure, both companies want box office rewards, but most films are released with individual internal studio expectations. I don't think Warners is going to be holding the same expectations as Marvel. I do think however that if one studio is thinking they could be the first to produce a superhero film to get an Oscar nod it would be Warners. Sort of a quality over quantity thing.
So is it really fair to continue to compare the studios at this point? Marvel chose to build their universe off solo character films and unite every four or five films for an epic crossover. WB is not doing that. Is that wrong? Of course not, they're different. As they should be. Each studio has to stand apart from the other or it will all seem derivative and formulaic. These films are made with the general moviegoing populace in mind and distinct nods to the fans thrown in. It stands to reason they would want to put their individual stamp on the genre. Kind of like when you hear the words "a Miramax film" you have an idea of what you are getting, or at least you used to.