A little more than three years ago, Warner Bros. announced ambitious plans for its DC Comics properties. The film studio would undertake no fewer than 10 DC movies, Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara said. It would introduce various characters and build up to a pair of "Justice League" ensemble pictures, which in turn would allow it to spin off more stand-alone movies. The template? Rival Marvel, which began with "Iron Man" in 2008 and four years later evolved into a massively successful "Avengers" film, which then became the gift that kept on giving (17 movies and counting, including the smash "Thor: Ragnarok").
Recently, all those plans blew up. Despite its status as one of the most expensive movies in history, "Justice League" grossed just $96 million and appears headed to a quick exit from domestic theaters. So dismal was the opening that it throws into doubt some of those DC movies "Justice League" was supposed to spin off, including "Flashpoint," "Cyborg" and "Justice League: Part 2."
But "Justice League" represents more than a one-off failure. It's a repudiation of the mind-set that the shared-universe film, in which characters play off and feed interest in one another for future installments, can work for DC as it has for Marvel.
One factor may be tone. Marvel long ago found a successful formula, a kind of big-stake jokiness that keeps its movies just serious enough. DC films have not succeeded in that; if there's a go-to mode, it's the effects-heavy grimness of the "Batman" and "Superman" movies, which has proved far less popular.
The larger issue may be who's at the helm of these films. Under longtime studio chief Kevin Feige, Marvel has been a tightly run operation, creating just enough latitude for filmmakers without letting them forget whose ship they're really piloting. DC has struggled repeatedly to find the right guiding hand.
The studio could now go the opposite way. DC could become a handcrafted producer of stand-alone good movies. After all, the modern DC renaissance — indeed, the modern comic-book renaissance — began just this way. In 2005, Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" became a success because of the distinct mark of its director, who redefined what was possible creatively in a superhero film. Three years later, his "Dark Knight" expanded what was possible commercially for a superhero film when it became the first such movie to gross more than half a billion dollars domestically.
So far DC has not found the right directors to do this. This marks Zack Snyder's third DC film with no runaway successes. David Ayer didn't hit it out of the park with "Suicide Squad," by his own admission. The greatest hope no doubt lies with Patty Jenkins, whose "Wonder Woman" this year was a categorical hit and beloved by tastemakers.
And therein lies the paradox. Nolan's "Batman" movies became huge hits precisely because there was little or no corporate interference. But their success has made corporations interfere more. And that, as the box office for "Justice League" suggests, can yield some pretty weak results.