Why another Batman movie? Because it’s not just a movie. At a cost of $250 million, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is history’s most expensive promotion reel for a chain of 10 DC Comics tentpoles. It is not so much a movie as a “growth engine” (Kevin Tsujihara’s CEO-type words) designed to restore Warner Bros to its former dominance.
Considered even as a promo, BvS is a dark, aggressively retro exercise in contrast to the Marvel-Disney entries or to Fox’s downright frivolous Deadpool. There are somber stretches in the lengthy (2 hour 33 minute) film dealing with Superman’s god-like propensities and Batman’s broodings about terrorism – themes that may evoke mixed emotions with European audiences faced with real-life threats.
Also at question is the movies’ potential impact on the other major Warner Bros franchise – Ben Affleck. The actor has two more superhero appearances scheduled for this year and next (Justice League and Suicide Squad) as well as two “serious” Affleck films, The Accountant and Live By Night. “We are in the Ben Affleck business,” Sue Kroll proudly announced, but is Batman a productive by-product for the Affleck industry? In discussing Batman in The New York Times, Affleck commented that his character “is more broken, not slick. There’s a hole in his soul.”
Reflecting this point of view, Affleck delivers good brood but he has no colorful villains or eccentric subordinate characters to play off. Zack Snyder, who Warner Bros has designated as the artistic overseer of the DC industry, has chosen Jesse Eisenberg to play the heavy, but his Mark Zuckerberg-like perorations may strike audiences as more annoying than menacing.
To be sure, BvS is more about Warner Bros than it is about superheroes. The movie is planned as the cornerstone of a new era for the studio — coming up will be Wonder Woman, The Flash, two Justice League movies (one starts in April) and Suicide Squad, to be released this year. In development are ancillary characters like Aquaman and Cyborg. The company also is counting on video games, toys and other licensing material. Indeed, the DC industry originally came to Warner Bros via the acquisition of the Licensing Corp of America. The key incentive was always products, not movies.
But today DC ‘s ammo is laid out as a challenge to the Marvel lineup, which has been infuriatingly consistent with The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America as well as its more frivolous entries like Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy. While Warner Bros pits Batman against Superman, Marvel intends to put up Captain America against Iron Man. And I have a feeling it may be considerably less brooding.
Meanwhile, how will BvS resonate at the box office? Given the immense promotional thrust, the advance buzz on ticket sales is, well, cosmic, opening on 30,000 screens worldwide. Given its cost (I never believe published figures) of $250 million, it may have to generate between $800 million and $1 billion to break even. Deadpool has sold over $700 million in tickets worldwide. In any case, the franchise surely will improve the studio’s third-place ranking in market share – a sad reminder of its banner Harry Potter days.
The corporate rivalries provided an interesting background to the all-media screening in Los Angeles Tuesday night. Reviewers were invited to the Imax Theater at Universal City Walk – a curious setting for a Warner Bros film designed to challenge Disney. But by the time the film ended, audiences were well inculcated that this was not just a Warner Bros film but the beginning of a Warner Bros. industry. Wonder Woman appears in full regalia toward the end of the movie, practically shouting “I’m next.” And Superman makes it abundantly clear that he will be around for the sequel (were we worried?). The Warner Bros. “growth engine” is still purring loudly.