8 Apr 2016

Thought Balloon: A DARKER FUTURE FOR THE DC MOVIE UNIVERSE?

Stewart R: It's safe to say that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (from here on in forever abbreviated to BvS:DoJ to save my keyboard and my fingers!) is well and truly with us having rolled into its second week in cinemas around the globe and now eyeing its third weekend on release. It's also safe to say that the first cinematic meeting of Gotham's defender and Metropolis' champion has found the ire of the critic, divided the opinion of comic book readers and fans, and defied some expectations in breaking box office records across numerous territories and then showed some worrying declines after a very strong initial push. With so many uncertainties still hovering over the long term opinion and success of DC and Warner's biggest gamble to date, what does this mean for the future of their plans?

I'll start here by stating that I am no lover of BvS:DoJ. For me, personally, I felt as if the character I know Superman to be (and was loosely hinted at in Man Of Steel) failed to materialise, too mired in doubt of his place in the world and then hamstrung by apparent guilt at inaction and inability to save people. I felt his long time comic book arch-nemesis, the infamous Lex Luthor, was criminally mischaracterised and miscast to prevent the viewer ever thinking that Jesse Eisenberg's blue-chip, genius, billionaire could find his way to a seat in the Whitehouse, let alone becoming a proper foil for his Kryptonian foe. I thought Ben Affleck did well in a Batman role which plays loosely in the 'hero' stakes, straying too closely to vengeful, hate-fuelled vigilante rather than moral defender of justice. There are other elements that I believe led to a sub-par debut meeting of DC's premier cast, but will admit that I did enjoy some moments and can appreciate just why others are as enamoured with this blockbuster as they are.

Regardless of my opinion of the film itself, it's clear to see that the DC/Warner partnership is on a trajectory to bring as many of their top-hitters to the big screen in as quick and as organised fashion as they can so as to maximise their impact in what has fast become a crowded marketplace. DC have been lagging behind Marvel in creating their cinematic universe thanks to the need to complete Nolan's standalone Dark Knight trilogy, the failure of Green Lantern at the global box office and, from an outside perspective, constant uncertainty in the creative and 'powers that be' ranks. Following on from a fairly positive Man Of Steel experience, we were initially to be given Man Of Steel 2, a straight sequel, which quickly turned into Batman V Superman, which then turned into a feeder for a wider Justice League arc. You couldn't go a month without something apparently changing and a new character being mooted to join the show, and famed source material being leaned upon for new plot elements.
With the film now dissected and the studio's plans (pretty) clear for all to see, the next four years are getting packed:

(Current release dates via Newsarama with the 'Untitled Project' updates from this very week)

2017 = Wonder Woman + Justice League Part 1
2018 = The Flash + Aquaman + Untitled film (rumoured Batman pic)
2019 = Shazam + Justice League Part 2 + Untitled film (rumoured Suicide Squad sequel)
2020 = Cyborg + Green Lantern Corps

So that's twelve films total across five years (including this summer's Suicide Squad and BvS:DoJ) and whatever else DC/Warner decide to announce at any of the big conventions through the course of 2016. Wonder Woman is already filming and with the November 2017 date for Justice League they're due to kick that into production pretty soon. If you filter through the majority of the praise and positives for BvS:DoJ it seems that Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman was not only a highpoint, but also one of the main reasons that many handed over money and put bums on seats in the first place. Whatever initial trailers end up looking like, it's a reasonable bet that the warrior princess of the Amazons will perform strongly at the initial box office thanks to her appearance in BvS:DoJ. It's not unreasonable to also assume that lower production costs should also help Wonder Woman turn a profit when it lands.

The far, far bigger worry for the studio has to be the second week drop off for BvS:DoJ's takings at the global box office (and the projected 3rd weekend plummet) and what that could mean for Justice League Part 1 being perceived by many as a sequel to BvS:DoJ. After a stellar opening which surprised many, this past weekend has seen a worrying drop in ticket sales as the film suffered a rough 70% Stateside drop Friday compared to the previous opening Friday (albeit with Thursday previews considered in that opening figure), an overall drop of 69% domestically for the weekend, and a 66% drop at the international box office to boot.

Five days after release all talk suggested crossing $1bn worldwide for cinema revenues with no great struggle, today it looks like $900m is the clear target to claim a smaller victory and at least recoup all around costs, maybe eke out a profit, and even then, that target is looking shakier than it did before. There are some extenuating factors to consider with the drop: the NCAA basketball Final Four games fell on a Saturday in the States and as Avengers: Age of Ultron will attest to with the Mayweather Jr V Pacquiao fight, a big sporting event can hit the numbers rolling to cinemas on a Saturday night, while in China BvS:DoJ was confronted by two, large domestic features which robbed the film of Middle Kingdom screens in its second frame. In any case, it's more likely to be those poor critical reviews and mediocre word of mouth coming back like Kryptonite to rob the picture of further momentum.
And here's the important point for DC and Warner Bros to now chew over: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (once more with the full title for effect) WAS supposed to be the big clash, long in the waiting, the flame to the fuel, igniting audience excitement for this superhero universe and leading to big numbers all around and studio profits galore for half a decade to come. That of course was best scenario, but now the studio sits with an expensive investment that may only just recoup its costs if lucky (when considering front and back end expenses) and offering up more concerns than are desirable for Justice League Part 1's chances when delivered to audiences in 2017. People will remember the critical mauling and word of mouth counts for a sizeable portion of 2nd, 3rd and 4th frame viewing these days. The fanboy/girl contingent, who can usually be relied upon to purchase those advance Thursday/Friday tickets in droves as well as repeat viewings, could seek to avoid the early doors showings next time around, refusing to enthusiastically witness Zack Snyder's third effort in the franchise if their nose remains out-of-joint, the bitter taste still dancing upon their metaphorical tastebuds.

You take a look at the main competition and even Marvel struggles with sophomore efforts for some of it's heavy hitters. Iron Man 2 took less domestically than Iron Man, Avengers: Age Of Ultron less than The Avengers. Even those films where the sequel took more than the debut - Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier - only offered up middling increases Stateside when increased production budgets are taken into consideration. Marvel of course are assisted by generally positive reviews for their movies, a clear sense of identity for their universe, something of a spendthrift sensibility as a studio and a stable, loyal fan base who, it seems, will turn out in good numbers in opening frames for every movie they release.

DC are building this universe afresh, so there are no previous successes to properly rely upon outside of Man Of Steel, and their vision at times has seemed a touch haphazard. The love for Batman and Superman as characters and desire to see their big screen adventures will still guarantee a wealth of enthusiasm, such is the draw of these icons, while the growing global audience, outside of the previously reliable Western markets, is still showing an avid thirst for these blockbuster franchise films which at least tends to help bolster the coffers for movies with less than stellar reviews and figures from the staple US/UK/Euro arenas.

And so Justice League will perform its 'superhero landing' in cinemas November 2017 with Zack Snyder's opinion-dividing direction curating the spectacle and a potentially wary audience eyeing its wallet, their friends' social media feeds and the review columns. You can picture the studio executives nervously hand-wringing and producing flop-sweat at what will transpire over that weekend and the run through to the Christmas period. Suicide Squad performing well this summer and Wonder Woman hitting it out of the park June 2017 will alleviate some of that concern and there will be hope that those aforementioned growing markets will come back for more next time around. But this is pure, hopeful optimism. When you add up the trends and anecdotal evidence along with the predilection of DC/Warner's to meddle and change plans you can't help but worry for the future of their enterprise. That's also providing that they make the release date - Justice League is likely to up the stakes and the spectacle and we can never rule out the possibility that it could be put back if production hits any snags at all.
There's a strange, smaller race in play here to also consider in that DC are keen to get their key antagonist, Darkseid, to the screen before Marvel pitch in with Thanos as the two are very similar indeed in terms of general appearance, malevolence and character. Darkseid's comic book creation came first, but to cinema audiences that matters little. A villain would surely not be high on the list of things to worry about when you set out the stall for movie promotion and universe building, but DC are playing serious catch up here and seem to be all too aware of close comparisons that will not play well for them and could, arguably, cost them further ground. This appears to be an element driving the velocity of their plans and rushing projects of this size brings with it a level of risk.

While early hype for Wonder Woman seems to be positive they might also be concerned that selling the likes of The Flash and Aquaman as solo efforts for 2018 may be far harder propositions. The former already has an unrelated TV series to contend with in the identity stakes along with multiple versions of Marvel's speedster Quicksilver already hitting the big screen, while the latter has been something of a longstanding joke in the comic book circles as 'uncool' and 'useless' before efforts by the publisher were made to redefine their King of Atlantis. Justice League is going to have to act as a launchpad for these two properties (as well as the 2019 due Cyborg movie) with lesser known acting talent and that's an awful lot to try to hit the mark with while also trying to produce and deliver a clear, well-written and entertaining superhero ensemble blockbuster. One issue that even supporters of BvS:DoJ have been willing to acknowledge is that the plot suffered under the weight of the multiple character threads in play so how will Justice League deal with this when the hero count is doubled?

At this juncture I know that it's no guarantee that I'll be going to see Justice League opening weekend when a few years ago I'd have said it was more or less a certainty. I'm just that uneasy with Snyder and the studio's early vision for this comic book universe that I'll be looking closely at what the critics at the time say. With the numbers it's putting up in the face of negative critical opinion, BvS: DoJ may yet still be regarded as a financial success, but how many people who will have paid money into that success will be more cautious with their cash when it comes to the main event of the 'DC Cinematic Universe'? If it proves to be a lot, could it lead to a 'Final Crisis' of some kind for DC's future plans?

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