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'Suicide Squad' poised to be the next underdog box-office record breaker

"Suicide Squad"
Source: Suicidesquad.com
"Suicide Squad"

A curious thing has happened at the box office in the last two years: a batch of lesser-known Marvel Comics properties have overcome obscurity to put up some of Hollywood's biggest numbers.

That trend may yet spill over into Warner Bros. Studios' and DC Comics' "Suicide Squad," when the super-villain team-up movie opens next weekend. The film is tracking for a U.S. debut somewhere north of $100 million that would trump the current record holder for an August opening — Marvel's surprise 2014 hit "Guardians of the Galaxy."

It would also make "Suicide Squad" the first movie to top the $100 million mark in an August premiere.

The comic book team of the same name debuted in 1987. It has periodically featured a rotating cast of ne'er-do-wells who embark on high-risk missions at the behest of a clandestine government agency. The rogues get commuted sentences, and the agency gets plausible deniability.

Though "Suicide Squad" features Batman's arch-nemesis the Joker — and a cameo from the Dark Knight himself — Warner Bros. is certainly reaching deeper into its bench after this year's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

Yet "Suicide Squad" has some of the ingredients that elevated past underdog superhero flicks: Namely an irreverent cast of anti-heroes, and a cult classic character with a die-hard base of fans.

'Redefining a superhero movie'

While "Suicide Squad" follows in the footsteps of recent nontraditional superhero films like "Guardians" and the heist movie "Ant-Man," it offers something totally new within the genre, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

"It's definitely a new twist. It doesn't feel like a superhero movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a movie that redefines what a superhero movie can be," he told CNBC.

Warner's iteration of "Suicide Squad" will lean heavily on Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, a deranged sidekick to the Joker introduced in the 1992 Batman animated series. Harley later crossed over into comics and amassed a cult following.

Her rise tracked the ascent of the Marvel Comics anti-hero Deadpool, another early 1990s rogue-turned-anti-hero who became a darling with fans. In February, the Twentieth Century Fox film based on Deadpool broke the opening record for an R-rated movie, and ranks as the No. 3 movie of 2016 with a $363 million U.S. gross.

Whether word of mouth skews positive or negative will likely also hinge on Jared Leto's portrayal of the Joker. The actor faces tough comparisons to Jack Nicholson's much-loved rendition of the crown prince of crime in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman," and Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning take in 2008's "The Dark Knight."

However, the initial reaction to the Joker's tattooed styling in "Suicide Squad" polarized fans. The response also spawned a number of unflattering internet memes, including a video edited to show Nicholson shedding a tear over an image of Leto in costume.

Another sleeper hit in the works?

Jared Leto
Source: Warner Bros.

Still, the early buzz for "Suicide Squad" and its eclectic ensemble suggests it could yet be a sleeper hit along the lines of Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy." The intergalactic band of misfits seemed like a long shot prior to its release in August 2014, but the movie went on to earn $773 million worldwide and place No. 3 at the global and U.S. box office.

But as the premier nears, positive chatter around the Joker has taken off on social media, data from intelligence firm Spredfast show. The conversation around Harley Quinn has been consistently upbeat, with extremely low negative sentiment.

Women also account for a significant amount of the online conversation swirling around the characters. In the last 90 days, Spredfast attributed 42 percent of comments around "Suicide Squad" to women.

The constant engagement has significantly raised awareness of the property, BoxOffice.com analyst Alex Edhill said in a blog post this week. He noted "Suicide Squad" has attracted 3.4 million likes on Facebook, roughly as many "Deadpool," and compared the consistent strength of its social media buzz to that of "Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens."

Other major releases have had "high awareness and impressive numbers ... but none tracked have ever matched the consistent chart-topping performances of the three," Edghill wrote.

Social media sentiment for the Joker and Harley Quinn

Since marketing for the film kicked off at last year's San Diego Comic Con, Warner Bros. has kept "Suicide Squad" top of mind with a steady stream of online content. The studio has taken a page from Twentieth Century Fox's remarkably successful social media playbook for "Deadpool."

Warner Bros. has maintained the momentum heading into the release, according to MoviePilot.com, a purveyor of fan-generated genre content.

Following this year's San Diego Comic Con, the film's trailers had picked up an additional 20 million views on YouTube and Facebook to reach 320 million — more than "Deadpool" had at the same time before its release (though Movie Pilot's data give "Deadpool" an edge in positive sentiment among those who viewed the trailers).

In the week through July 24, "Suicide Squad" topped comScore's list of most talked about movies on social media.

The film could also give Hollywood a much-needed boost after a series of big-budget disappointments have put the summer's U.S. box-office total 2.5 percent below last year's earnings.

But a "Suicide Squad" success would also be a coup for DC's fledgling entertainment division, which scored a commercial success with "Batman v Superman," but saw confidence in future releases shaken by lackluster reviews for the film, said Dergarabedian.

"This effectively erases any worry about DC," he said.