Warner Bros.' DC films are no longer trying to be Marvel, and that's a good thing

Key Points
  • Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe struggles to mimic the success of rival Marvel.
  • Missteps have led to diminishing returns at the box office, particularly in the U.S., and a disappointed fan base.
  • Looking at Warner Bros.' slate, one thing is clear: It's course correcting.
Justice League
Warner Bros. Pictures

It's no secret that Warner Bros.' DC movies have struggled to mimic the success of rival Marvel.

While films about Superman and Batman have done well at the box office, the franchise has been no match for Marvel. As Marvel prepares to release the 22nd film in its cinematic universe, its movies have already earned $18.5 billion at the global box office. "Avengers: Endgame," a major climactic event, is setting records for advance ticket sales, and fans are already asking for more.

Warner Bros. has released only six films in the DC Extended Universe since 2013, and they have garnered just under $5 billion. "Shazam," a lighthearted popcorn flick that opens Friday, will be the seventh.

Estimates for the film have been set low, about $50 million for the weekend's haul, but expectations are high. The film currently has a 92 percent "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a good sign ahead of its opening.

More importantly, "Shazam" is a chance for DC to continue to build on its recent successes with "Wonder Woman" and "Aquaman." It spins the tale of a young teenager who transforms into an adult superhero when he shouts the name "Shazam" — think "Superman" meets "Big."

Trailers for "Shazam" have been bright and packed with humor, something DC's universe has been sorely lacking. In the last six years, DC's wave of superhero films have been dark, droll and disappointing to fans.

If it succeeds, it will cement the idea that audiences are more willing to open up their wallets when Warner Bros. strays from the Marvel strategy of continuity between films and embraces its more unique — and even obscure — characters.

"They have a formula that's working," said Brock Bagby, executive vice president at B&B Theatres. "If they continue that, they'll gain even more loyalty. Just like Marvel, [DC] has to be consistent if it wants to be highly successful."

The not-so-golden age

Warner Bros. has a long history with superhero films, particularly from DC. It distributed the original Superman flicks starring Christopher Reeve in the late '70s and '80s. It also distributed a number of Batman films — from Adam West's take in 1966 to the days of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney donning the cowl in the '80s and '90s.

Although considered by some today to be campy classics, these films paved the way for the modern superhero film. As audiences became more sophisticated, so too did Warner Bros.' comic book content. In the mid-2000s, the production company greenlighted Christopher Nolan's gritty standalone Batman trilogy, which was well-received by critics and audiences alike and took in more than $2.46 billion at the global box office between 2005 and 2012.

It did not quite see the same success with its reboot of Superman in 2006. "Superman Returns" earned only $391 million worldwide and was so widely panned that Warner Bros. scrapped any possibility of a sequel.

The success of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy inspired a darker retelling of Superman's origin in the form of 2013's "Man of Steel" from director Zach Snyder. While the film was ripped apart by critics for turning the optimistic superhuman boy scout into a brooding antihero, it made nearly $700 million globally, guaranteeing a second installment.

By the time "Man of Steel" hit theaters, however, Marvel Studios had already cranked out six films. This included the blockbuster "Avengers" flick, which grossed a whopping $1.5 billion at the global box office, according to Comscore data.

"This was years in the making," Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Comscore, said. "Marvel was not an overnight success. Marvel had these building blocks where they literally created something that audiences were intrigued by and then got hooked on and had to follow."

Marvel had spent the years between 2008 and 2012 laying the groundwork for a massive team-up film. It took a chance on the then-uninsurable Robert Downey Jr. to take on the role of Iron Man, aka billionaire Tony Stark, a B-side Marvel hero so low in status that most non-comic book fans associated "Iron Man" with a Black Sabbath song of the same name.

Robert Downey Jr attends a photocall for 'Iron Man 3' at The Dorchester Hotel on April 17, 2013 in London, England.
Dave J Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Over the course of four years, Marvel introduced audiences to the Hulk, Thor and Captain America in standalone features that incorporated several secondary characters such as Black Widow and Nick Fury. The films were praised for how they weaved together humor and drama.

Marvel, which was acquired by Disney in 2009, proved that audiences were not only hungry for superhero films, but would show up in droves to see their favorite characters work together to defeat a common enemy.

"Kevin Feige has been the mastermind. Even though they've had a bunch of writers and directors, they still had one guy overseeing the whole thing," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice, said of Marvel.

In a rush to keep up with the rampant success of Marvel, Warner Bros. used Superman's sequel film to introduce Ben Affleck as an older Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, two key members of the Justice League. The goal was to quickly establish these characters so that the production company could release a "Justice League" film.

"Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" was the team-up movie that comic book lovers had longed to see for decades. The caped crusader from Gotham and the Man of Steel had never appeared in a live-action adaptation together before this film's release in 2016. Fans raced to theaters opening weekend, shelling out $420 million worldwide during its debut to see the spectacle. However, reviews were sour, and ticket sales during the film's second weekend shrunk 70 percent.

"If you chase what another entity is doing, that doesn't really work," Dergarabedian said.

He noted that it was the brand-name characters — Superman and Batman — that drove a lot of the ticket demand. The film itself was not quite as beloved as its comic book stars. The film ultimately grossed $873 million worldwide, according to Comscore data.

"Marvel has always understood that it is first and foremost about characters," said Alisha Grauso, editorial lead at ticketing site Atom Tickets. "We are in an age now where we are very character-driven, and the fact that DC veered away from the fundamental core of its characters, I don't think that worked."

Warner Bros.' "Suicide Squad" brought together a team of famous and infamous DC comic book super villains who were more endearing than their hero counterparts. However, a shoddy story arc and thin character development earned it a 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. Still, the film earned $746 million globally.

Source: Warner Bros.

"Wonder Woman" was a breath of fresh air for the franchise in 2017. The film, lighter in aesthetic and tone, resonated well with moviegoers. Idealistic Diana, an Amazon from the mythical Themyscira, was charming, and fans were eager to root for her. The first female-centric superhero film on the big screen was directed by Patty Jenkins and hauled in $821 million.

"[Wonder Woman] is a really beloved character," Grauso said. "Warner Bros. got the character right with Diana's compassion and her strength ... it was the first movie that they really took the time to craft the character."

However, the praise for Warner Bros. would fade before the end of the year. "Justice League" hit theaters less than six months after "Wonder Woman," and the reception was lackluster, to say the least. Murky visuals, weak storytelling and poor chemistry between the major characters earned the film a 40 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

The film earned $657 million at the global box office, less than half of 2012's "Avengers" haul.

The dark tones and palate that worked for Batman don't work for a bigger universe, said Jonathan Gray, professor of English and popular culture at John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center. Warner Bros.' biggest misstep came from trying to shoehorn lighter, more optimistic characters such as Flash, Superman and Wonder Woman into that gritty setting.

"That's where they went wrong," he said. "You look at Superman, who is tonally the opposite of Batman. He's hopeful where Batman is pessimistic. He's light where Batman is dark. But when you look at the Zach Snyder Superman movies, they are Batman movies. They are dark and pessimistic, and that for me was the problem."

Turning the tide

From 2013 to 2017, the DC Extended Universe films made $3.7 billion, a huge feat for Warner Bros. However, none of its films had grossed more than $1 billion until "Aquaman." While some called the film and its CGI "cheesy," for the most part, it was well-received for Jason Momoa's charisma and its action-packed but playful script.

Source: Warner Bros. | DC Comics

Currently, there is no official word on whether a "Justice League" sequel will be coming to theaters, but if one is on the docket it probably won't show up anytime soon. Henry Cavill will no longer don the cape as Superman, and Affleck has hung up his cowl.

Ezra Miller, who played the Flash in "Justice League," made a bid in March to pen the script for a Flash film to ensure that he could stay on as the speedy Barry Allen in his own feature film.

And it is unclear if Cyborg, another hero from "Justice League," will find his way to the big screen.

"There is some fatigue on Batman and Superman, but there's such a deep vault of superheroes and villains that have been untapped with DC," Bagby said. "There's tons of potential."

Looking at Warner Bros.' slate, one thing is clear: It's course correcting.

Quirky heroes, dark villains

"DC has had a different style, a different tone, following the Dark Knight Trilogy," Dergarabedian said. "Now it's about learning from what fans liked or didn't like from previous films. I think they really have a handle on what they need to do."

After "Shazam," there will be the much-anticipated standalone "Joker" film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, in October. The film deviates from the comics by focusing on Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who is driven insane and, thus, turns to a life of crime in 1981 Gotham City. The film is expected to be dark and psychological, just like the Clown Prince of Crime himself.

Joker Tweet

"Warner Bros. is realizing they don't necessarily need the Justice League right now because individual characters and stories not tied to a massive interwoven cinematic universe can still do well at the box office and with moviegoers," said Erik Davis, managing editor at Fandango.

"By focusing more on character than building out a universe, Warner Bros. isn't beholden to a larger story — instead, the studio can focus on telling one great story one film at a time, and then develop additional stories depending on what fans want to see more of," he said.

Margot Robbie's take on Harley Quinn in "Suicide Squad" was so well-received by fans that she's slated to reprise the role in three more feature films due out over the next few years. She'll be seen alongside a rogues' gallery of characters from the DC universe in "Birds of Prey," "Suicide Squad 2" and "Gotham City Sirens."

In 2020, fans will get a new Wonder Woman film. Although Jenkins returns to direct, it won't be a sequel. "Wonder Woman 1984" will link back to 2017's "Wonder Woman" in some fashion, showing what Diana has been up to in the 40 years since we last saw her, but it's a standalone film.

In the works is also a standalone Batman film directed by Matt Reeves, an "Aquaman" sequel and an "Aquaman" spinoff film called "The Trench."

"The biggest indicator that Warner Bros. is turning the ship around is the critical reviews and fan reaction," Grauso said. "For Warner Bros. money is always important, but more than anything, it's about rebuilding trust in the brand."

Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC, owns Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes.