With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron -- the top-grossing film over the most recent weekend -- the 11 films in Disney's (DIS -1.79%) Marvel Cinematic Universe have a combined unadjusted gross of nearly $8 billion, making the franchise the most successful in movie history. What's more, at roughly $875 million worldwide a little more than a week into its release, Ultron is just getting started. The film could add another billion dollars to the series' cumulative total before its run is finished.
Time Warner Inc. (TWX) has had its own success with comic book adaptations, but its recent victories have been mostly limited to the critical and commercial achievements of its Batman trilogy from director Christopher Nolan. Now, Time Warner is taking a markedly different approach to deliver an expanded film universe in the vein of what Disney has achieved with the MCU, and the stakes are massive.
The Justice League members are being cast as underdogs
There has been a fair amount of skepticism surrounding Warner's DC film universe. 2014's Superman movie Man of Steel delivered a solid box office performance of $668 million worldwide, but it wasn't a breakout commercial and critical hit, and it created a less-than-ideal foundation for a broader franchise.
It's fair to say that Warner Bros. is taking a faster approach to building its interconnected superhero movie franchise, introducing its big characters faster than Disney did, and some executives and analysts are skeptical that the broader project will come together.
A recent report from the Hollywood Reporter indicates that the studio is having some trouble mapping out its extended film universe. Difficulties on the Wonder Woman project were already known, with differences of vision for the movie causing a change of directors, but the report generally suggests a "throw things at the wall and see what sticks" scenario.
The DC universe project has lacked a prevailing orchestrator such as Marvel's Kevin Feige, with Warner indicating that its projects will be director-led, which has raised some concerns about the extent to which beneficial synergy between projects will be utilizable. The company has at least 10 films in the franchise planned through 2020, and there's a great deal riding on introductory efforts Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016.
What Warner is getting right
The relatively dark tone of Warner's DC movie universe is among the myriad elements that have raised skepticism about the project, but the company and creative forces behind the projects are smart to pursue a style that is distinct from what Disney and Marvel are offering.
One look at promotional materials for Batman v. Superman, or even hearing the name Suicide Squad, and it should be clear that the DC films will generally be heavier affairs, punctuated with less comedy than the Avengers universe, and set against a darker color palette. This decision has the potential to limit the DC audience off the bat -- Disney's Avengers films certainly benefit from being viewed as family films, but it's a move that stays true to the DC Comics history, and one that creates a natural backdrop for the related characters, themes, and settings.
Warner has also been making some good decisions in terms of casting. Landing the right actors is considered to be crucial for success in the superhero movie game, a fact that has reportedly allowed Robert Downey Jr. to command a more than $40 million salary for co-starring in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War. Of course, it's too early to say how individual and ensemble performances in DC projects will turn out, but it's undeniable that Warner has top-tier talent attached to its superhero films. Ben Affleck and Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v. Superman, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in Shazaam, Will Smith and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad: These actors are draws and capable of turning in great performances.
The company has also picked the right idea to jump-start its extended superhero universe. The idea of Superman and Batman battling it out, and eventually teaming up, is one of inherent promise and sure to pack movie houses. The film should gross more than $1 billion without too much trouble, and if director Zack Snyder can deliver a film that resonates with audiences and lives up to the promise of the legendary match-up, Warner's franchise will be off to a great start.
Batman v. Superman will be a hit, but the fate of the universe is uncertain
As the closest thing the DC Comics universe has to an overseer, Snyder is tasked not only with delivering an epic throwdown between DC's two most iconic heroes, but also the introduction of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, all of which are set to receive stand-alone films in the next five years.
As of yet, stand-alone films for Batman and Superman have not been announced. That's not to say they won't arrive, but the apparent move not to augment the broader universe with stand-alone movies based on its biggest heroes appears unorthodox in light of the success of Marvel's movies. Batman v. Superman and 2017's Justice League probably aren't in great danger of under-performing at the box office, but the other components of DC's universe remain less certain affairs.