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'Justice League' aims to break through $1 billion after a rocky start for DC's comic franchise movies

  • 'Justice League' has a lot riding on next week's debut, after a rough start for DC's universe of box office super heroes.
  • Analysts expect the movie to be a blockbuster, but there are questions about whether it can hit the coveted $1 billion water mark.
Justice League
Warner Bros. Pictures
Justice League

Warner Bros. has a lot riding on the release of "Justice League" next weekend following a rocky start for several franchises and a flurry of reports that's left fans uncertain about future films.

Despite all this, analysts expect the superhero team-up movie to be a blockbuster. But better reviews, and a warmer response from audiences than some prior DC cinematic universe movies have garnered, could help vault "Justice League" over a major milestone.

"The difference between 'love' and 'like'" could mean hitting $1 billion worldwide at the box office — or not, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

While last year's "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Suicide Squad" were both commercial successes worldwide, lukewarm reviews weighed on U.S. earnings, and neither managed to surpass $1 billion.

This summer's "Wonder Woman," DC's first critical hit, broke records but also fell short of the high water-mark.

"Justice League" picks up where "Batman v Superman" left off. Following the death of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit a team of heroes to fight an impending threat to the earth.

For DC, "Justice League" is a crucial piece of the puzzle, because the film is expected to establish several new characters who will star in spin-offs, including the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. It's also a test of DC's pivot from the grim and gritty tone of its first three films, to the hopeful, more light-hearted style of "Wonder Woman."

Over the past month, tweets about the "Justice League" trailers have been 35 percent positive and just 4 percent negative, indicating that previews are generating the right kind of interest, according to marketing technology firm Amobee.

'Fairly irresistible' 

The release caps a choppy year, during which Warner retooled its DC comics strategy, modeled after the path Disney plotted for its multi-billion dollar Marvel superheroes series.

Fan websites breathlessly chronicled a steady drip of rumored cancellations, revised release dates and mixed messages from stars and filmmakers about which films would link up. Just this week, leading man Ben Affleck seemed to cast doubt about how long he'll play Batman.

While there's been much hand-wringing in the fan community over these reports, the typical movie-goer is more likely to take "Justice League" on its own merits, said Dergarabedian.

"The clarity of vision hasn't been consistent, and I think that can be confusing to true fans," he told CNBC. "But an average viewer says you've got Aquaman and Wonder Woman and all these great characters in one movie, and that seems fairly irresistible."

The film is currently expected to earn $110-$120 million during its North American opening.

Those estimates should be closer to $135 million, argued Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. "Justice League" dovetails with Thanksgiving weekend, and faces little competition until "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" premiers in mid-December, he noteed.

Bock also anticipated little blowback from Affleck's links to Hollywood's sexual harassment scandal. "Justice League" is somewhat inoculated because it will draw fans of the individual characters, as well as movie-goers eager to see Wonder Woman in action again, he said.

"The great thing for Warner Bros. is there's something for everyone there, and that will help expand the brand," he told CNBC.

Yet if "Justice League" wows audiences, there's no upcoming DC movie to capture the goodwill dividend, at least not immediately. The next release is "Aquaman," which Warner pushed back to December 2018.

In contrast, Marvel Studios will follow up this month's hit "Thor: Ragnarok" with "Black Panther" in February, "Avengers: Infinity War" in May and "Ant-Man and The Wasp" in July.

That matters in the context of a tough time for Hollywood, as superhero movies were one of the only consistent winners in 2017.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee, thinks Warner Bros. is doing the right thing by stepping back and focusing on the quality of each movie, rather than trying to match the Marvel playbook at all costs.

"Once their house style is more codified, those connective flourishes will likely start organically reappearing in their superhero films," he said.