DC Gearing up Online, On-Screen to Challenge Marvel

Warner Bros. is swiftly making moves to catch DC up with rival Marvel, the undisputed champion of superheroes — for now

Marvel and DC's 70-year battle for superhero supremacy sure has tilted Marvel’s way in the past decade or so, with a string of high-profile hit movie characters like Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk (twice), the forthcoming Avengers movies, a Spider-Man reboot – even the crappy Fantastic Four – far outweighing one massively successful Batman flick.

Better hike up those tights, Marvel. It’s about to get interesting again.

Besides next summer’s “Green Lantern,” Warner Bros. now has Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”) signed on to re-imagine Superman — and there are even whispers of a Wonder Woman TV show in the works.

None are sure bets, of course. As “Superman Returns” showed in 2006, not even the Man of Steel can save every trainwreck.

But Warner Bros. — which demonstrated how serious it's getting about the DC properties by recently consolidating operations in Burbank — doesn’t have all its eggs in the big-screen basket.

DC Entertainment is also working on a promising pair of video games that, at first blush, look like they could put the entire Justice League back atop the pop-culture food chain in a single bound. And though suddenly digital-happy Disney may have some hero-centered interactive projects in the works we don’t yet know about, Marvel currently has nothing to rival them.

Next year, “DC Universe Online: The Legend Is You” (screen image below, left) introduces a much more sinister look and feel for the historically well-scrubbed DC heroes, including an ornery Superman with a 5 o’clock shadow and a chip on his shoulder. Joining him are Wonder Woman, Batman, Lex Luthor and a slew of Justice League heroes and Legion of Doom villains in a grim multi-player interactive online game that makes “The Dark Knight” look positively light-hearted.

More importantly, the shift in tone could be a trial balloon for a darker side of Superman that Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan are almost certain to explore.

Meanwhile, “Arkham City,” the highly anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed and best selling “Arkham Asylum” video game from 2009, arrives next September with all the hype of a Hollywood blockbuster, and for good reason. Although they’re not saying so publicly, Warner Bros. considers “Arkham City” is as “the build-up to the next Nolan movie,” a person at the studio told TheWrap.

That movie now has a release date, too: July 20, 2012. And by then, the DC/Marvel fists will really be flying.

That third and final Batman film – which comes four years after Nolan and Heath Ledger rewrote the rules for superheroes with "The Dark Knight" — will arrive in a much more crowded genre landscape than the one “Batman Begins” encountered in 2005. By then, the movie space will be stocked with even more Marvel creations, including a rebooted Spidey, Thor, Captain America, and maybe more Iron Man (if they ever get around to making a third).

But Marvel fires its biggest gun on May 12, 2012 – just over a month before the Batman sequel – with the Joss Whedon-directed “Avengers,” starring Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), and Mr. Blockbuster Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.

Of course, what seems like a brewing battle royale is really just a little bit of geek history repeating: The DC/Marvel rivalry, not unlike Chevy and Ford or Miller and Budweiser, has been a very real, very bitter branding blood feud that spans several decades.

DC Comics was founded in 1934 as National Allied Publications; Marvel started in 1939 as Timely Publications. The house of Superman dominated the comics publishing game until the 1960s, when Lee’s influence took Marvel in an edgier direction by tackling more serious subjects, injecting personal troubles into heroes’ storylines and favoring real places and current events over DC’s fantasy stylings.

Next summer, each house will reach deep into those archives to introduce new characters on the battlefield: “Green Lantern,” with Ryan Reynolds playing the guardian of the Galaxy, is coming out on June 17, 2011 — just over a month after Marvel’s “Thor” hits the big screen in 3D on May 6, followed on July 22 with Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Moving quickly with its assumed new franchise, Warner Bros. already has a screenplay for a “Lantern” sequel on decks and is prepping a “Flash” movie as well.

But in terms of buzz, don't count out DC's gathering online storm. The mega team-up of “Avengers” could seem like child's play next to the harsh and brutal “DC Universe Online: The Legend Is You.” (See video trailer below).

“We’ve got lots of murdering to do,” the heavy hardware holding Joker says in the trailer for “DC Universe.” The crazed clown is referring to the superheroes in the game – but it might as well be Marvel he has in his sights.