The competition to have the biggest superhero movie series stands as the most heated battle in the film industry. Superhero box office draw peaked with 2012's Avengers from Disney (NYSE:DIS), but its 2015 sequel is very likely to surpass its predecessor's approximate $1.5 billion take. Meanwhile, Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) Warner Bros. studio has been scrambling to build a superhero ensemble to rival the incredible success achieved by the Marvel superteam.
Now, the identity of an unknown Marvel film slated for a May 6 American release has been revealed and Batman vs. Superman is set to go head to head with Captain America 3 in a weekend that could mark the most dramatic box office showdown of 2016. Which film will generate more at the box office? Is this the right question to be asking? Could one of these movies be moved to a later date to avoid an oversaturation of superheroes?
Mounting a challenge to the biggest team in Tinseltown
It's undeniable that Disney and Marvel have done a better job of building an interconnected film universe than Warner. The successful lead-in to The Avengers, currently the third highest grossing film in international box office history, allowed Disney to strengthen the commercial draw of the individual members of the team and the combined appeal of the ensemble.
Warner's efforts to replicate this approach essentially started with 2013's Man of Steel. It's possible that 2012's Green Lantern could have laid some basic groundwork for the studio's interconnected comic book universe had it not been a critical disaster and a commercial underperformer. While Christopher Nolan's highly successful "Batman" trilogy brought in great returns and restored some much needed cool factor to the character, they will have no continuity relation to director Zach Snyder's Batman vs. Superman. The 2016 film stands as the most important project in development at Warner.
The makings of a pyrrhic victory?
There's little question that Batman vs. Superman will wind up being a bigger earner than Captain America 3. The prominent nationality of Marvel's red, white, and blue superhero means that the film will have less draw in foreign markets. 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger posted the lowest international box office numbers of the six Marvel-produced films released in the last six years by a substantial margin. While Captain America will likely enjoy some post-Avengers bump, Superman's 2013 outing nearly doubled The Captain's first box office go.
Throw the billion-dollar Batman into Man of Steel's sequel and it shouldn't be a contest. If Warner makes the smart move and gives Batman prominent billing in the title of the still yet to be officially named Batman vs. Superman project, the film shouldn't have much trouble nearing the commercial ballpark established by the first Avengers film. Whether Batman vs. Superman will outgross Captain America 3 isn't really in question. It's the potential that opening against a major Marvel movie has to dampen the perceived significance of Batman and Superman sharing the same screen that needs to be considered.
Captain America could get backup from his super friends
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier still yet to hit theaters, Captain America 3 is still at an early stage of production. If Disney can secure one of the other big Avengers stars for the 2016 film, it will have the opportunity to steal more of Batman vs. Superman's thunder. Should the company be able to get Robert Downey Jr. and his Iron Man character to play a significant role in the film, the power dynamic could change considerably.
There's room at the box office for The Avengers and the Justice League
Disney and Warner would certainly prefer to be the biggest superhero game in town, but there's no reason to believe that the box office only has room for one heroic ensemble. Avengers: Age of Ultron will be hitting on May 1, 2015, with another sequel expected to release in 2019. Warner's Justice League is slated to debut in 2017. There's enough separation here to justify the notion that the perceived competition could actually benefit the respective draws of these mega movies. If Batman vs. Superman does release in the same frame as Captain America 3, there will undoubtedly be cannibalization, however.
The expendable Avenger?
The scheduled May 6, 2016 showdown represents a much bigger threat to Warner than it does to Disney. Batman vs. Superman would almost undoubtedly win the box office battle, but Warner needs the film to be absolutely massive and anything that shifts attention elsewhere represents a serious obstacle on the studio's road to success. If a critical consensus emerged that Captain America 3 was a better film than Batman vs. Superman, it would be a huge embarrassment for Warner and damage the studio's Justice League ambitions. Another release date shift for the movie has the potential to make the studio look weak, but it could be the right move.