'Aquaman' and 'Wonder Woman' blockbuster wins shake up the DC Justice League's future

Key Points
  • Deadline reported this week that Ben Affleck won't appear in the next Batman movie from Warner Bros. and DC.
  • A focus on other heroes has worked for DC: 2018's "Aquaman" and 2017's "Wonder Woman" grossed a combined total close to $2 billion.
  • "Justice League" grossed the least amount of money out of the DC extended universe.

Disney and Marvel Studios are headed to this year's Academy Awards and later this year will release what could be the biggest comic book blockbuster film ever, "Avengers: Endgame — proving it is possible to simultaneously score with ensemble superhero and single-hero films.

Warner Bros. and DC have some catching up to do.

DC's extended character universe has included a string of critical misses, and the future for several classic heroes remains uncertain. The last big DC team-up was 2017's "Justice League," which grossed the least amount of money out of the DC extended universe, a disappointing $229 million domestically. It took in $650 million worldwide, but against a film budget — excluding marketing costs — the Wall Street Journal reported at $300 million.

"Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"
Source: DC Comics

Karie Bible, a box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, believes that the ultimate problem with Zack Snyder's "Justice League" was the lack of character development in films leading up to an ensemble piece. "With the group movies like 'Justice League' ... you have several characters and it is harder for any one of them to really get much screen time or character development."

The idea for a cinematic universe was first kick-started by Marvel Studios back in 2008 with Jon Favreau's "Iron Man," the first of many comic book adventures that eventually lead to Disney and Marvel's billion-dollar "Avengers" in 2012. Since then, Marvel has had a string of multibillion-dollar blockbuster successes, including last year's "Black Panther" — the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars — and "Avengers: Infinity War." Worldwide, the three "Avengers" films — which also include "The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron" — grossed roughly $5 billion, according to Box Office Mojo, with a little less than $2 billion at the domestic box office.

DC has two "gold standard" characters — Batman and Superman — which makes the fact that it has not been able to replicate Marvel's success even more notable, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," the first film to feature more than one DC leading hero on the big screen, was met with mostly poor reviews and an underwhelming 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes "Tomatometer" score. And despite grossing well over $800 million at the box office worldwide and $330 million in the U.S., Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, stresses that the second week dropoff for the film was "huge."

Even that successful superhero duo — at least, measured in box office — is experiencing upheaval.

"Man of Steel" actor Henry Cavill has reportedly parted from the iconic role of Superman, with DC wanting to launch a "Supergirl" movie, according to Deadline. And on Jan. 30 it was reported by Deadline that Ben Affleck won't appear in the untitled Matt Reeves Batman project — Affleck himself retweeted the headline and said he is looking forward to the new "vision" for Batman.

With Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group — which is now owned by AT&Temphasizing in a January interview with the Hollywood Reporter that DC will focus on one movie at a time, the question whether or not comic book fans will see the Justice League in another extended universe film remains uncertain. There are no current plans for a Justice League sequel that have been announced by Warner Bros., though there has been speculation in the press that Zack Snyder did plan to helm a second film.

Warner Bros. did not provide a comment by press time.

People can enjoy a good old-fashioned 'good guys vs. bad guys' fight, but they crave a connection via the theme and character arc. A solo pic is afforded a better opportunity to deliver that.
Jeremy Jahns
YouTube film critic and media influencer

It may only be a matter of time rather than opportunity. DC's recent successes with single-hero films could ultimately give it the runway for an ensemble blockbuster.

"Solo films give audiences a chance to get to know the character, and giant ensembles work best when each main character and their motivations are already established in the minds of viewers," said Shawn Robbins, a chief analyst for Box Office.com.

"The solo films offer a deeper look into the lives of our heroes," said Jeremy Jahns, a YouTube film critic and media influencer. "People can enjoy a good old-fashioned 'good guys vs. bad guys' fight, but they crave a connection via the theme and character arc. A solo pic is afforded a better opportunity to deliver that."

DC's last two solo pictures, 2018's "Aquaman" and 2017's "Wonder Woman," grossed a combined total close to $2 billion — close to $750 million of that total coming from the domestic box office — and these solo adventures are far from diminishing.

Next up is "Shazam!," which comes out in April; further out is the highly anticipated "Wonder Woman: 1984," which releases in 2020. DC's villains have a clear future as well, even as the Justice League remain in limbo. DC will release "Joker" this year, and it has a super-villain team-up, "Birds of Prey," including the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn, set for release later this year, too.

"Wonder Woman"' and "Aquaman" truly helped DC discover their voice as expressed more concisely through the individual characters. Both films seemed more focused and consumer friendly," Dergarabedian said. "DC should take the lessons learned from their solo films and apply them to their future ensemble movies."

Source: Warner Bros.

The visionary behind the "Wonder Woman" movies, director Patty Jenkins, praised DC's solo film adventures and, when asked if she would ever consider directing a movie for the superhero team, said she hopes there is in fact a break from the Justice League franchise.

"I sort of hope that we don't do a 'Justice League' movie for a little while. Because I think that each of those characters are really great and I'm super excited to see each of their movies. I want to see "Aquaman 2," and I want to see "Flash." ... You never know, I would never say never. But I think everybody should have a moment to shine right now," Jenkins told the Hollywood Reporter at the Sundance Film Festival.

Box Office Analyst's Stone said DC's solo movies have been more entertaining than their team-up projects. "DC has plenty of characters to delve into, but the stories will have to be fresher and more accessible than what we've seen in the past. Thus far the one group effort 'Justice League' suffered from [is] lack of story and lack of an interesting villain."

"DC is having such great success with their solo movies right now, but that certainly doesn't mean they can't go down that ensemble movie path again," said Comscore's Dergarabedian.

"We can absolutely see a new team. DC needs to take the most appealing characters and take full advantage of their potential. Why wouldn't you? It is a great idea, similar to building a house with a solid foundation. It really comes down to character development," he added.

"If the next 'Justice League' comes out (sans Batman & Superman) and it delivers as a great movie, then fans will appreciate it. Especially if the stand-alone films leading up to it deliver in making the other heroes the heroes we want to love and root for," Jahns said.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.