Before Warner Bros. gets too carried away with the record-breaking box office take of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” over the weekend, the studio might want to take a breath. The grim, galumphing behemoth has earned an admittedly impressive $424 million since Thursday, $254 million of it in overseas markets. But many observers estimate that “Batman v Superman,” which had a combined production and marketing budget of about $400 million, will need to earn at least $1 billion in order to break even, after theaters take their cut. Over the weekend, “Batman v Superman” earned an okay-not-great B CinemaScore based on audience polls — the gentleman’s C of the movie world. (The much-reviled “Green Lantern” and the quickly forgotten “Catwoman” earned similar marks.)
Even if word of mouth on the movie isn’t quite as damning as its poor reviews, chances are that business will drop off precipitously this week, making it hard to go too far past that magic $1 billion number.
For those keeping score at home, “Batman v Superman” was announced with great fanfare by its director, Zack Snyder, at ComicCon a few years ago, bringing DC Comics fans to near-fainting levels of anticipation. But what Snyder didn’t predict — and apparently wasn’t nimble enough to respond to — was how much the superhero gestalt would change while he was fitting Ben Affleck into a brand-new Batsuit and encouraging Jesse Eisenberg take his manically giddy Lex Luthor even broader. “Batman v Superman” was nominally Warner Bros.’ chance to get into the comic-book franchise game, which Disney has parlayed so brilliantly with its Marvel-based “Avengers” series. Boasting some adroit, ingenious filmmakers (Joss Whedon, Anthony and Joe Russo) and some truly inspired casting (Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth), the “Avengers” movies have defined the gold standard of spinning individual properties into intra-universe gold.
Warner was so successful with the Chris Nolan-era “Batman” movies that setting up the Caped Crusader for similar cross-pollination was a vertically integrated no-brainer. But even before “Batman v Superman” had started, they’d boxed themselves into a corner even he couldn’t fly out of. Nolan and his star, Christian Bale, were widely credited with lending soul and gravitas to the brooding, broken Bruce Wayne, who presided over a billion-dollar company by day and turned grim-faced vigilante by night. By the time of the final installment of the Nolan trilogy, though, the self-seriousness was starting to wear thin. “The Dark Knight Rises” earned a more-than-respectable $1 billion at the box office, but less of that came from American viewers than with its predecessor. Two years later, the big comic-book-based hit wasn’t a downbeat meditation on grief and the burdens of unchecked power, but “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a gleefully irreverent riff on superhero tropes.
This year’s version of the “Guardians” zag is “Deadpool,” a similarly cheeky, if far more cynical, exercise in self-referential japery. When “Batman v Superman” lurched into theaters with its unsmiling stars, paranoid vibe, weak-tea color scheme and by-the-numbers action scenes, audiences could be forgiven for experiencing cultural whiplash: Weren’t we just laughing at Ryan Reynolds profanely taking the mickey out of all of this stuff?
In counting on Snyder to usher in a new era of shared-universe glory, Warner Bros. might have made a fatal error: At a time when everything is “execution dependent” — a term that was once reserved for quirky one-off comedies and sophisticated dramas with no built-in audiences — the person behind the camera needs to have unerring instincts for fan service plus an impeccable sense of story, aesthetics, tone and performance. J.J. Abrams skillfully threaded that very needle with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” nicely teeing up that threadbare franchise for the brilliant director Rian Johnson to send it into genuinely novel and reinvigorating territory. In the right hands, Affleck and Henry Cavill could still make convincing caped confreres, and Eisenberg might even be able to dial his performance back to a recognizably human level of malevolence.
The question raised by the success of such movies as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” is whether they prove what many of us have been saying for years, which is the typical, monotonously glum genre that Hollywood has worked over like the bones of so much carrion is, finally, exhausted beyond resuscitation — at least in America. Although foreign markets are still eager to accept comic book spectacles into their spanking new theaters, here at home, an unmistakable malaise has set in when it comes to tight-lipped men in tights, marshalling their Y-chromosomal angst to once more do what a man’s gotta do.
Which explains a bona fide phenomenon that “Batman v Superman” might be credited with creating: According to a Fandango poll, most of the viewers who were excited to see the film this past weekend were most hyped about one character — the same one who received the only spontaneous outburst of applause at a preview screening a few days before. It should come as no surprise that the person best equipped to save superheroes for Hollywood is none other than Wonder Woman.