There’s little reason to believe that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will stall out before half-a-billion. It’s highly anticipated after a protracted period of interest and awareness, it’s the first live-action feature where two of the most world-famous superheroes are together, and, perhaps most of all, Warners has a lot riding on it.
New converts to the Marvel Method and periodic believers in the Go Big Model of Filmmaking, the studio has already pointed to the bleachers with its DC superhero slate of 10 films through 2020, and all of them are connected directly to BvS. That means all of them are connected directly to its success.
There are a few interesting things to consider here before we dig into the What If of BvS failing.
- Man of Steel took in $668m worldwide on a $225m budget; not the cork-popping success that would make announcing a sequel the same weekend obvious, but far from the failure some believe it to be.
- Iron Man – which launched the MCU – took in $585m worldwide (albeit on a much smaller budget).
- Iron Man 2 took in $624m worldwide ($44m less than Man of Steel) with a comparative $200m budget.
- Batman v Superman has the $200m budget, so doing Man of Steel numbers should spell success.
- …just maybe not the size of success that Warners is hoping for when looking toward 2020.
With all of this in mind, I didn’t want to ask whether it’s realistic for Warners to expect Avengers money with what amounts to their first outing with all their DC characters in this version of their cinematic universe, even though all the big characters are in it. There’s no doubt that Zack Snyder and company are looking to break March records, and there are good arguments both for the film cracking a billion and for it falling far short, but none of them will prove out until we see how good the movie is. I know it’s not common to say it, but the quality of Batman v Superman will matter a lot when it comes to staving off a big second-week drop. Warners can work magic to bring in a gigantic opening weekend, but if the movie is a mess, word of mouth will stab it right in the back.
For now, let’s flashforward to summer 2016 and assume that BvS stalls out at $400m. Every headline calls it a flop, and they aren’t wrong.
The Super Stuff
First of all, I think it takes an absolute bed-crapping for Warners to pump the brakes on the rest of their super lineup. Something like Green Lantern’s $200m worldwide on a $200m budget to get everyone to start sweating. That, almost assuredly, is a back-to-the-drawing-board moment. Yes, there are rumors that everyone loved Batman so much (again) that Ben Affleck is going to write/direct/star in three future stand-alones, but if the world isn’t as in love as test audiences, you’ll see a massive scramble to scrap every element in the hopes of starting fresh (again) in a few years.
That’s a key thing to keep in mind. Even if BvS is a monumental failure, Warners will undoubtedly resurrect Superman and Batman in just a few years. Green Lantern may not be so lucky. Wonder Woman and Aquaman would be in the same boat. Wonder Woman’s would just be invisible, and Aquaman would be swimming next to it.
But if we’re assuming that the movie made a confusing $400m worldwide, Warners is going to have some very tough decisions to make in regards to doubling down on a cinematic universe that stumbled out of the starting block (with its two biggest, buffest champions right there in the title). There are at least three scenarios that might play out.
One, Warners could decide to scrap everything (or most of everything) while doing a post mortem on why they thing the movie failed to land.
Two, they could decide to forge ahead as planned while absorbing audience responses to which characters in particular didn’t excite. This is where best laid plans and contracts might fall apart.
Three, they could get lucky and have a standout star emerge from the rubble of the failed film. Like Rebecca Ferguson stealing attention in Rogue Nation (which wasn’t a failure), Gal Gadot could really shine as Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash or Jason Momoa’s Aquaman might hit it big on social media enough for the studio to recognize the fan mandate to push forward on those stand-alones, even if they’re rethinking the team-up film they have scheduled only a year after BvS hits theaters. One of those characters might become a new foundation.
As a worst case scenario, considering the tertiary nature of the side characters being introduced in BvS, there’s a possibility that eight tentpole projects might hit the skids if BvS can’t produce.
What will really break everyone’s brains is if BvS is a modest failure while Suicide Squad becomes a surprise summer hit. If you’re a Warners or DC executive, how do you even process your next move after that? Give The Joker is own stand-alone?
The Other Stuff
While it’s easy to assume that Warners is pushing all-in on BvS and its Marvelesque plan for superhero dominance, the studio actually has a lot of other irons in the fire that exist as franchise starters or have the potential to break out.
Even without any superheroes, they’ve had a solid 2015 so far, hanging their hopes on a large amount of varied titles that haven’t exactly blown doors off (except for American Sniper and The Battle of the Five Armies, which hit theaters late 2014), but it’s also the end of The Hobbit series, and their largest eyes are on DC superheroes and Harry Potter.
In fact, I think the more interesting hypothetical question beyond BvS’s performance is what happens to the studio if it and the new Harry Potter franchise ignition switch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fail. If that happens, Warners would need to rethink just about everything about their tentpole business and look for replacement titles that have the potential to keep them in the billion-dollar club. It could spell an even greater reliance on the classic model of releasing a ton of different movies to see which break out (like American Sniper did).
The most obvious contenders for franchise success are Pan – another shot at a Peter Pan Cinematic Universe; Creed – the continuation of the Rocky franchise with Michael B. Jordan at its heart; Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur – which is begging for more characters after that colon; the LEGO movies (Batman, Ninjago) – no explanation needed there; and The Jungle Book: Origins – which hits in 2017 and has no pretense about wanting to be the first of many.
On the other end of the spectrum, Warners continues to defy the common wisdom of shrinking output to the largest-scale projects; they’re releasing almost double the amount that Disney is in 2015.
Since making an unseemly pile of money on the $35m they gave Todd Phillips to make The Hangover, there’s still a sense that hits can come from unlikely sources. They have a handful of different dramas and comedies in the pipeline with the optimistic expectation that one or two will find a huge audience. Hopefully the fact that one of them is called Our Brand is Crisis won’t become retroactively ironic when they close the books on 2016.
What We’ve Learned
This mental exercise is frivolous, obviously, but it does point to one interesting thing that breaks through the standard way we lump all studios together. Now that everyone is taking notice of Universal’s unmitigated dominance without any superhero or YA titles, we can appreciate that Warners would hardly be sunk by an imagined BvS failure. They are hoping for a grand slam, but it’s far from the only batter in their lineup.
It could create some chaos in the interim, and we could see a lot of spandex titles become collateral damage, and that implosion Steven Spielberg predicted might become reality, but the studio would sail on.
Plus, what are the odds of that happening?