Justice League Unlimited Logo

The title screen for the animated series, Justice League Unlimited. Source: DC Entertainment.

With how well Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel movies have done in recent years it's easy to dismiss Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) DC Entertainment as a lightweight challenger. In fact, Thor: The Dark World star Chris Hemsworth half-jokingly did just that in a promotional interview for the movie Rush. "We're just winning aren't we?" Hemsworth said. "That's not really a rivalry."

Maybe he's right. The Dark World seems on pace for $600 million at the worldwide box office and may out-earn last summer's DC hit, Man of Steel. But there's also more to the story. Having looked at the numbers for the first five movies of each franchise, I'd expect Batman vs. Superman to rival Iron Man 3's box office performance and a Justice League movie to either match or even outdo Marvel's The Avengers:
(Domestic / Total Box Office)
(Domestic / Total Box Office)

Batman Begins (2005)
$206.9 million / $374.2 million

Iron Man (2008)
$318.4 million / $585.2 million

The Dark Knight (2008)
$534.9 million / $1,004.6 million

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
$134.8 million / $263.4 million

Green Lantern (2011)
$116.6 million / $219.9 million

Iron Man 2 (2010)
$312.4 million / $623.9 million

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
$448.1 million / $1,084.4 million

Thor (2011)
$181.0 million / $449.3 million

Man of Steel (2013)
$291.0 million / $662.8 million

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
$176.7 million / $370.6 million

TOTAL: $1,597.5 million / $3,345.9 million

TOTAL: $1,123.3 million / $2,292.4 million

Source: Box Office Mojo.

Meanwhile, back at Avengers Mansion
Critics will note that my table excludes several Marvel movies and $3.3 billion in global grosses. True enough. I'm trying to get a sense of how well DC's "phase one" would compare with Marvel's first generation, which includes the five movies shown above and concludes with The Avengers.

Including Marvel's team-up film would put its "phase one" gross at $1,746.7 million  and $3,811 million worldwide. DC is already in spitting distance of those totals, and we've yet to see Batman vs. Superman or a Justice League film. Factor in a growing audience for the CW hit Arrow, and I think DC and Time Warner are better positioned for cinematic success than most fans and investors think.

Don't forget about the blackest night
Cashing in is a different matter, of course. Again, look at the table: Batman's adventures account for more than 70% of DC's box office haul to date. Green Lantern was at least as big a failure as Man of Steel was a success. DC and Warner can't hope to match Marvel's numbers without first figuring out how to make lesser-known characters marketable.

Arrow is already helping some. Adding the Flash and Wonder Woman to Batman vs. Superman, as is rumored, could also boost interest -- especially now, when moviegoers are taking to strong heroines in greater numbers than ever before.

Adding The Flash to Arrow could be a precursor to bringing the scarlet speedster to a Justice League movie.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Do you think a Justice League film could outperform The Avengers at the box office? Why or why not? Leave a comment in the box below to let us know what you think.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Walt Disney and Time Warner at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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