A little more than three years ago, Warner Bros. announced ambitious plans for its DC Comics properties.
The film studio would undertake no fewer than 10 DC movies, chief executive Kevin Tsujihara said. It would introduce various characters and build up to a pair of “Justice League” ensemble pictures, which in turn would allow it to spin off more stand-alone movies. The template? Rival Marvel, which began with “Iron Man” in 2008 and four years later evolved into a massively successful “Avengers” film, which then became the gift that kept on giving (17 movies and counting, including the current smash “Thor: Ragnarok.”)
This past weekend, all those plans blew up.
Despite its status as one of the most expensive movies in history, “Justice League” grossed just $96 million and appears headed to a relatively quick exit from domestic theaters. All the star power and extravagant spending — a budget reportedly near $300 million — couldn’t get the Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman film to a baseline respectable return of $110 million. In fact, four other superhero movies, nearly all with fewer stars and expectations, opened to higher numbers than “Justice League” this year alone.
So dismal was the opening that it throws into doubt some of those DC movies “Justice League” was supposed to spin off, including “Flashpoint,” “Cyborg” and, of course, “Justice League: Part 2.”
The studio was beset by specific problems on the film, not least a personal tragedy for director Zack Snyder that did not allow him to complete the movie in postproduction.
But “Justice League” represents more than a one-off failure. It’s a repudiation of the mind-set that the shared-universe film, in which characters play off and feed interest in one another for future installments, can work for DC like it has for Marvel.
One factor may be tone. Marvel has long ago found a successful formula, a kind of big-stake jokiness that manages to keep its movies just serious enough. DC films have not succeeded in finding find that; if there’s a go-to mode it’s the effects-heavy grimness of the “Batman” and “Superman” movies, which has proved far less popular. “Justice League” was perhaps the most mixed bag in that regard: the banging seriousness of Snyder with the lighter touch of Joss Whedon, the “Avengers” director hired to finish the movie after Snyder left.
But the larger issue may be who’s at the helm of these films and what they do with that authority. Under longtime studio chief Kevin Feige (and, in recent years, also as part of the Disney empire), Marvel has been a tightly run operation, creating just enough latitude for filmmakers without letting them forget whose ship they’re really piloting. Filmmakers such as Anthony and Joe Russo, Whedon, Jon Favreau and James Gunn have all added some flourishes of their own, but their movies have been distinctly of a Feige-ian piece. It’s a well-oiled machine that just happens to be made up of disparate parts.
DC has struggled repeatedly to find the right guiding hand. The most recent attempt came when, after a shaky performance by “Batman V Superman” last year, executives put DC comics veteran Geoff Johns in charge of the films, pairing him with WB veteran Jon Berg. The idea at the time was to get one smoothly humming machine moving in a single direction like that competitor down the road in Burbank. “With Berg and Johns, Warner Bros. is attempting to unify the disparate elements of the DC movies with a seasoned film exec and a comics veteran that together hopefully can emulate the way Marvel Studios has produced its films under the vision of president Kevin Feige,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter. Last weekend, that attempt to unify failed.
The studio could now go the opposite way. It could find directors who can override all the executive muddle — that is, DC could become less of a well-oiled machine and more of a handcrafted producer of stand-alone good movies by people empowered to do so. After all, the modern DC renaissance — indeed, the modern comic-book renaissance — began just this way.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” became a success because of the distinct mark of its director, who redefined what was possible creatively in a superhero film. Sure enough, three years later, his “Dark Knight” expanded what was possible commercially for a superhero film when it became the first such movie to gross more than half a billion dollars domestically.
So far DC has not found the right directors to do this. This marks Snyder’s third DC film, after “Man of Steel” and “Batman V Superman,” with no runaway successes. David Ayer didn’t hit it out of the park with “Suicide Squad,” by his own admission. The greatest hope no doubt lies with Patty Jenkins, whose “Wonder Woman” earlier this year was a categorical hit and beloved by tastemakers. She and star Gal Gadot are returning for the sequel. But Jenkins can only do so much. The company needs to find more directors like her and be willing to genuinely empower them.
WB has given some signals that it will renew its effort in this sense — hire top-end filmmakers and focus on making strong stand-alone movies instead of worrying about feeding into a universe.
Of course, that is easier said than done. Studios these days will always lean toward an ensemble or shared-universe movie because it makes springboarding from film to film easier than starting from scratch, both creatively and with marketing materials. They’d also prefer not do high-end stand-alones because it means working with directors who want more control — something studios are disinclined to give up. (It’s another reason Marvel hasn’t gone this way.)
And therein lies the paradox. Nolan’s “Batman” movies became huge hits precisely because there was little or no corporate interference. But their success has made corporations interfere more.
And that, as the weekend’s box office suggests, can yield some pretty weak results.