DC’s Justice League, the long-awaited cinematic debut of objectively the best superhero team to have ever graced the pages of a comic book, finally arrived on the silver screen after more than a decade of failed attempts and false starts. And, surprise surprise, it turned out to be a commercial and critical success. According to Box Office Mojo, as of late November – two weeks after its release – the movie has only scored $500 million globally, half of what it was expected to make, and so far not even making its production and marketing budget back. The first two weeks are extremely important for a movie’s success, as that’s where the overwhelming majority of the profits come in. For example, The Avengers scored a total of $600 million in the US alone while it was playing, and $400 million of that came merely in the first two weeks. For comparison, Justice League only scored about $130 million in the US in the same amount of time, so by all counts, the movie will be a financial failure. And we shouldn’t have been surprised at all, because Warner Bros, or more specifically, the division responsible for their DC movies, has been making the exact same mistakes for over thirty years now.
The thing is, Marvel and WB/DC (which I’ll refer to as “DC” for simplicity, but I really mean “the branch at Warner Bros responsible for DC movies”, which is different from DC, the comic book company) have two completely different strategies when it comes to crafting their movies. Marvel tends to take smaller, less known characters (mostly because their big hitters are owned by other studios) and craft the best movie they possibly can in order to make people fall in love with characters they hadn’t even heard of before. Iron Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were all C-list superheroes at best, and yet Marvel’s visionaries were able to turn them into gigantic hits simply because, well, the movies were well crafted and enjoyable to watch. On the other hand, DC has always banked on name recognition. The actual quality of the movie is secondary to simply having a movie out there, on a certain date, with a certain recognizable name on the poster. Because when you overflood the market with ads for a new Batman or Superman movie, people ARE going to see it no matter how good it is or isn’t. These are two of the most recognizable names in pop culture, and that means something.
DC didn’t just start doing that recently, of course. Their practice of pushing any movie out there as long as it has a recognizable name attached to it dates all the way back to 1980. Just two years prior, director Richard Donner released Superman: The Movie, largely considered to be the very first modern superhero movie ever made, one which created a template that is still imitated to this day. While Donner had a contract for two movies, and was already hard at work on Superman II, his vision didn’t quite align with the producer’s, who merely wanted the sequel done as cheaply and quickly as possible. The original Superman had a budget of $55 million, and while it may seem like the trend is to make sequels bigger and grander, the budget for Superman II was a million smaller than its predecessor. And it worked. It didn’t matter that the director had been replaced by Richard Lester, or that it wasn’t as good as the original, audiences still went out in troves to go watch it because hey, it’s Superman! The movie made a hefty profit, as did its questionable sequel, Superman III, for which Lester returned.
But then something interesting happened. The fourth movie in the series, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, only barely managed to make its money back, ending the Christopher Reeve Superman era and depriving us from any Superman movies for twenty years. Remember this fact, it’ll be important later. The same exact fate befell the Batman movies of that era, the first two of which were directed by visionary director Tim Burton. Burton was fired after Batman Returns, however, as his movie was deemed too dark to sell toys, which is why Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, was noticeably brighter, friendlier and full of wacky characters to base toys on. That movie made a hefty $100 million profit, but the sequel, Batman & Robin, also by Schumacher, only barely made its money back. Huh. This is interesting, but let’s keep going.
In 2013, DC finally decided to try their hand at a shared universe after their last attempt, 2011’s Green Lantern, failed despite of HEAVY advertisement. For a while DC tried the Marvel method of taking a character that’s not quite as famous and trying to make him a recognizable icon through a quality film and advertisement. Green Lantern was everywhere for a bit – one only needs to look at this site with over 800 free online slots to find several familiar DC faces, including a Green Lantern slot. But ads can only take you so far when your actual movie isn’t good, and since Green Lantern was a pile of garbage, DC tried again with Man of Steel, which was relatively well received critically and financially. Then the next movie came out, Batman v Superman, which – following the pattern – was made for the purposes of just putting a recognizable name out there rather than making a decent movie. It was a modest financial success, prompting the release of even more films. And that’s where the cracks start to show. DC released two more standalone-ish movies, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad”, but since they’re not directly continuing the story of Zack Snyder’s DC universe we won’t look at them now. The next film continuing the storyline from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman was Justice League and we already know how that went.
So, why does this keep happening? Why does DC’s business model always fail at the end, despite proving to be successful at first? Well, because audiences aren’t idiots. The saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” is in full effect here. If a franchise is bad, and nothing seems to have changed, why bother giving it another shot? You know that the result won’t be very good. That’s why these franchises, that only bank on the name and not on the actual quality of each movie, always reach a point where the audience catches on and they fail, and it usually only takes a single bad film. If DC wants to have any success at all, their best bet is to scrap most of their universe and start completely fresh, this time really paying attention to their franchise and ensuring that the movie is the best it can possibly be. Because just churning out a piece of garbage with Batman or Superman on the poster isn’t enough, and it never has been.