“Supergirl” embodies how DC Entertainment differs from Marvel in plotting flight plans for its “cinematic universe,” as the series uses a heavyweight to launch the second season’s opening episodes by featuring her better-known cousin, Superman.
Marvel-DC comparisons aren’t always fair. But as the two major comic-book brands engage in an arms race migrating characters to the screen — backed by their movie studio owners, Disney and Warner Bros. — they’re unavoidable. While their divergent strategies each possess certain strengths, they also have their own forms of Kryptonite.
Unlike Marvel, which has sought to create a fully integrated universe in which all of its movies and TV shows coexist, DC has stated that individual properties can essentially operate on their own. That means Superman can wing into Supergirl’s home town of National City without impacting the version of the Man of Steel played by Henry Cavill in the Warner Bros. movies.
DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson explained the rationale for that at a conference last year, citing concerns that adopting Marvel’s formula “could end up handcuffing our creators into trying to work with the same storyline.” (She did note that the one-universe template has “worked beautifully” for Marvel.)
In making the leap to the CW after a season on CBS, “Supergirl” takes off with a visit from Superman (Tyler Hoechlin), previously seen only in silhouette and swapping text messages to his cousin Kara (Melissa Benoist). In the premiere, the two face a threat together, adding muscle to a show that already features the more obscure Martian Manhunter (David Harewood) as one of Supergirl’s allies.
Superman isn’t DC’s only character straddling movies and TV. “The Flash,” starring Grant Gustin, is currently among CW’s most popular shows, and Warner Bros. is working separately on a Flash movie featuring Ezra Miller, who will be seen in the upcoming “Justice League” and has already had cameos in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad.”
The CW has sought to combine its various superhero shows, including a planned mega-crossover involving “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”
Still, providing a second version of an iconic character like Superman concurrent with the movies does pose some risk for Warner Bros., which thus far has enjoyed more creative success in TV than with its plans to emulate Marvel’s run of movie blockbusters.
While it’s hard to second-guess Marvel’s enviable movie track record, its TV series — specifically, ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” and the canceled “Agent Carter” — haven’t fared as well as offshoots of the movies. Nor have tie-ins with the “Captain America” and “Avengers” films appreciably goosed those shows’ mediocre ratings.
Marvel’s well-regarded Netflix series, meanwhile, such as “Daredevil” and “Luke Cage,” make only glancing references to the movies, operating on an almost wholly separate tier.
The producers of “Supergirl” have been pretty upfront about using Superman to help jump-start the second season, a challenge potentially made more formidable by the show’s move to CW, a smaller network owned by CBS and Warner Bros.
The decision nevertheless represents something of a gamble for DC, which has already discovered that when jugging superheroes you can’t be sure how well characters will fly until after you’ve taken the leap.
“Supergirl” airs October 10 at 8 p.m. ET on the CW.