'The Batman' will attempt to defy the ultimate box office enemy — movies with too many villains

Key Points
  • 2021's "The Batman" starring Robert Pattinson will feature four villains, including Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin and Carmine Falcone.
  • But box office history has shown that films packed with too many villains haven't done well at the box office or with critics.
  • Industry insiders attribute the flops to poor writing and story conception.
Actor Robert Pattinson at the Marrakech International Film Festival, on November 30, 2018.
FADEL SENNA | AFP | Getty Images

The comic book genre has been a global leader at the box office for much of the last 10 years. But if there is one foe that creators of superhero movies have not been able to beat, it has been the tendency to pack too many comic book villains into one film.

Now, Warner Bros. and DC Comics' "The Batman" will try and prove that no number of bad guys — currently rumored to feature Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin and Carmine Falcone — will stop Batman Robert Pattinson in the 2021 reboot "The Batman" from scoring big at the box office.

Several comic book movies have featured an array of villains that have underperformed at the box office, despite their respective studios having high expectations. The 1990s consisted of three live action Batman movies — incorporating two to three antagonists per movie — yet each failed to gross more than 1989's "Batman," which earned a whopping $411 million worldwide on a $35 million budget, featuring just Jack Nicholson's "Joker."

In fact, director Joel Schumacher's 1997 "Batman & Robin,'' starring George Clooney as the title character, earned only $238 million worldwide on a $125 million budget. Arguably worse though than the film's soft returns was its critical reception, scoring only an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie featured Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, and Robert Swenson as Bane.

More recent flops include 2014's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which suffered from an overstuffed plot line — featuring Jamie Foxx's Electro, Dane DeHaan's Green Goblin and Paul Giamatti's Rhino — which led to Spider-Man's lowest outing at the box office and an inevitable reboot. 2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" did earn an impressive $827 million worldwide, but its bloated story line — featuring Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor and a CGI version of Doomsday — led to poor reviews and a disastrous financial outing for its 2017 follow up, "Justice League."

Kia Afra, a film professor at Chapman University, said stories with multiple villains can be problematic. "In many instances, they were simply poorly written and conceived, packing as many fan favorites in as possible without any thought as to how all these characters fit together," Afra said.

There have been rare exceptions. In fact, Disney and Marvel Studios' 2017 film, "Thor: Ragnarok," grossed over $850 million worldwide and reinvigorated Thor's character, all while throwing Cate Blanchett's Hela, and Jeff Goldblum's Grand Master into the mix — two of Thor's mightiest villains.

And Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy featured two or more villains in each of his respective Batman movies. Most notably, 2008's "The Dark Knight" featured Heath Ledger as the Joker and Aaron Eckhart as Two Face; 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises" featured Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Each film grossed over $1 billion.

"When it works, it can be incredibly profitable," Bruce Nash, founder of industry data website The Numbers, said about why studios overload comic book movies with bad guys. He cited the success Marvel and DC have achieved, as well as respected multibillion dollar franchises "Harry Potter," and "Lord of the Rings."

And Jeff Bock, senior media analyst for movie industry data firm Exhibitor Relations, suggested that "multiple villains certainly help sell toy lines."

But if the story is not done effectively, "the villainous characters that you bring in just cause confusion," Nash said.

Reeves is a great filmmaker. I trust him with my eyes closed.
Daniel Richtman
Media Influencer

Batman's reboot, helmed by "Planet of the Apes" director Matt Reeves, will require precise world building and character development to avoid that confusion. Besides introducing Pattinson as the title character, "The Batman" will also introduce Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, Paul Dano as Riddler, Colin Farrell as Penguin and John Turturro as mob boss Carmine Falcone.

"They [the big studios like Warner Bros.] think the more villains, the bigger the movie will look, making more people want to see the film," said Daniel Richtman, a media influencer.

In the years since Nolan's 2012 Batman finale, the character has been played by Ben Affleck in DC's lukewarm attempt to create a cinematic universe, similar to Marvel's. However, ensemble pieces — with either multiple villains or several supporting characters — have not performed as well as more traditional DC movies. For example, 2020's all female team up "Birds of Prey," starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, has underperformed so drastically at the box office that its name has been changed to "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey."

Yet whether or not 2021's "The Batman" can accumulate the same level of success as the "Dark Knight" trilogy remains to be seen. The film's plot has been kept under wraps. Warner Bros. did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

"Just get someone who loves and understand the characters and the world, which I feel like they did this time around," Richtman added. "Reeves is a great filmmaker. I trust him with my eyes closed."

Disclosure: Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, a subsidiary of CNBC owner Comcast.