Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara had a simple solution to concerns about "superhero fatigue" earlier this week, talking about the way in which diversity of genre can overcome audience boredom. "You have to take advantage of the diversity of these characters," he told an audience at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference on Wednesday. It's a good idea — so why aren't movie studios doing this already?
On paper, of course, it could be argued that Marvel Studios is very diverse: A WWII soldier, a mythical god and a technological genius all sound very different from each other, and that's before you get to the talking raccoons and alien assassins of Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, one of the selling points of the Marvel movies is their consistency; you know what to expect from a movie that has the Marvel logo at the start, and the fact that they are all (loosely, in some cases) connected to each other normalizes and excuses their similarity to a great degree. Marvel movies are Marvel movies, with very little diversity, and for many fans, that's a plus.
Warners' DC universe is more difficult to gauge in terms of how diverse it will end up being; for all we know, Shazam and Green Lantern and Man of Steel 2 will all be very different in terms of tone and target audience, with Justice League being the mass market vehicle that brings them all together in some way. Given the similarity in the pessimism level present in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel — and the fact that Snyder is introducing a number of Warners' future DC heroes in the follow-up to Man of Steel — it's not entirely unrealistic to believe that there will be a similarly similarity to the DC movies as to the Marvel ones.
If that's the case, however, it not only flies in the face of Tsujihara's comments, but ignores the depth of material available in the DC character library in much the same way that Marvel has done, for the most part. Even if Warners wanted to stay within the superhero parameters for its movie choices, there are a number of characters and concepts it could pick up that offer an alternative to the dark, grim Man of Steel take on the genre. The long-lived Legion of Super-Heroes is a massive jump away, for example — the Legion being a group of teenagers in the 31st century inspired by the historical adventures of Superman, Batman et al — that still conforms to the basic expectations of a superhero movie.
Similarly, something like Elongated Man (essentially, a superheroic take on The Thin Man) or Dial H for Hero (a mysterious dial gives whoever possesses it the chance to become a brand new superhero for a limited period) would offer a chance to extend Warners' superhero universe in new directions and out of the traditional "Superhero fights Supervillain" model for the genre.
It's not only DC that has such possibilities open to it; Marvel is only now starting to look outside of its comfort zone, with Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Doctor Strange, but could push further by adapting series like Runaways (teen drama with added superpowers) or Damage Control (a series based around the company that cleans up after superhero battles have wrecked the city).
Tsujihara is ultimately correct in saying that diversity is what is going to prevent box office decay for the superhero genre. The problem is that, on the evidence of both Marvel and Warners' efforts to date, diversity has been very low down on the agenda for both studios; not only is there little diversity in terms of tone or plot in what we've seen so far, neither studio has even managed to reach the level of diversity in which someone other than a white male takes the lead role in a movie. For that, we have to wait until 2017, with Warners' Wonder Woman (Marvel will follow with Black Panther in 2018).
Until the studios start to push beyond the admittedly-successful formula that we've seen for the last few years, as unlikely as it seems, both are leaving money on the table when it comes to reaching out to potential superhero audiences. There are still underserved superhero fans out there when it comes to the kind of comic book fare that ends up on the big screen. At least one of the two studio bosses in charge of the majority of superhero movies seems to understand that — but how long will it be before we see that theory put into practice?