It’s well known that Warner has mismanaged their DC properties in the past decade. Whereas at Marvel, although having some of their own properties all over the place, they became biggest grossing franchise in movie history once they opened their own studios, arriving to release 14 movies in 8 years.
Of course, the process got pumped up after Disney acquired the brand, but why Warner never had faith in doing something similar before, especially considering not having any rights problem?
It’s probably a long answer, that could justify them, at least in part. And we should start this year:
1997 – Where this ‘story’ starts
First of all, just two DC characters have been properly established on the big screen: Superman and Batman.
The Superman movies performed decently back then at box office, but, considering the worldwide popularity of the character, the comparison with Star Wars was legit. While not defining them as low-remunerative (especially as the first two were shoot back to back, splitting the production budget in half), they weren’t as performing as the fan base would like us to think.
Batman, instead, revealed itself to be a box-office sensation for both Burton-directed movies, and be good enough to return the investment for the Joel Schumacher ones. However, the infamous Batman & Robin killed the franchise, halting any production of DC-related properties for years. In fact, Tim Burton’s Superman movie never saw the light of the day, due to the high-risk factors of the project (including budget), and the studio decided to go with Wild Wild West instead.
Although that decision seemed stupid, especially considering the very high budget of the steam-punk movie ($170 Million), at that time Will Smith was the hottest rising star in Hollywood, and him and Barry Sonnenfeld just did Men In Black, a Spielberg produced movie (which is always a plus), released that year, with outstanding box office results. When in 1997 that executive at Warner had to make a decision, a Will Smith starred movie was way more bankable than a Superman film.
Plus, there was something else.
Warner at the same time took part in a very risky project, which in 1997 entered pre-production. A project with high investment required… I mean, just take a look at any frame of The Lord Of The Rings to get an idea.
While a cultural phenomenon and iconic piece of literature, like any other high-budget movie the Tolkien adaptation meant high risk. Knowing that most of the resources needed to go towards sets, props, wardrobe, locations and special effects, they didn’t cast any superstar that would have guaranteed a minimum return (none of the cast was as famous as the biggest star at the time, Tom Cruise). As a consequence, although remaining visually faithful to the hardcore audience, they weren’t sure the movie would be as appealing as they were wishing.
On top of that, around the same time Lord Of The Rings was produced, The Matrix was given a chance too, and they decided to acquire the Harry Potter rights to continue the magic trend they would start with middle-earth, which for sure weren’t cheap (the Rowling novels were already big enough to think about a high budget movie) and the first film, which had not many guarantees, would have been also expensive to produce.
Crazy to think about it, but between Wild Wild West, Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix and Harry Potter the most bankable picture was Will Smith’s. The Matrix was the second: slated to have also Smith starring as Neo, he dropped out later and Keanu Reeves would be eventually casted, who, although not as popular as the former prince of Bel-Air, he already starred in action movies like Speed and Point Break, which were enough to at least keep somewhat of a star power.
Ultimate irony, the western film would be the least successful one.
After all four movie released, Warner would go on to have 3 franchises (two trilogies and one 7, then 8, movie series), which cemented Warner for a lot of years.
Thanks to this movies, the Burbank based studios would remotely considered to do something again with DC related properties. Guess what were the first choices? Batman and Superman.
They would risk it deep. While the supporting characters had some very famous names playing them, Bruce Wayne was played by a yet-to-prove-himself Christian Bale and it was directed by Christopher Nolan, a young independent filmmaker whose movies got some attention.
The movie did good enough at the box-office, and the critics really praised it, so Warner decided to go for a sequel.
On the other hand, Smallville was very big in both US and rest of the world, revaluing the Superman brand once again. This is perhaps the reason they gave the green light to Superman Returns. Even here, they casted a relatively unknown actor, Brendan Routh, to play Clark Kent, and once again they had a known supporting cast; on top of that, it reunited Kevin Spacey with Bryan Singer, who was coming from two X-Men films, both very praised by critics and public. So, on card, was really bankable.
Thing that didn’t come with Returns, which underperformed (didn’t broke even) and the audience didn’t love it, either. So, Superman was dead again. But, at least they had Batman.
Meanwhile, at Marvel…
Meanwhile, on the other side, Marvel properties were launching the superhero genre. X-Men and Spider-Man were crucial for this kind of movies to take over (although sadly 9/11 has been the psychological push). Fox had the rights for the mutants, while Sony for the wall crawler. The incredible success of those franchises pushed thos and other studios companies to want more from Marvel, getting Fantastic 4 and Daredevil (Fox), Ghost Rider (Sony), and Hulk (Universal) none of them revealing themselves to be as performing as the ‘original two’. This success made things great for Stan Lee’s company, that, even without having creative control, still got box office percentages.
Which, I guess, made them think to try something on their own: around 2006, Iron Man was announced to hit theaters in May 2008. While announced to be distributed by Paramount, it was actually produced by the newly founded Marvel Studios. The same year, the second Hulk movie, The Incredible Hulk, was hitting theaters one month later distributed by Universal but produced by Marvel Studios. In July, Warner instead would drop the film that would change the genre forever: The Dark Knight.
Anyways, those two Marvel movies would start something that no one would think possible. While Iron Man became a hit way bigger than anyone could predict, Hulk second stint in theaters didn’t go as well. However, in the very last scene of the movie, Tony Stark shows up, revealing for the first time a shared universe (I know, Nick Fury shows up in the post-credits scene of Iron Man, but it wasn’t popular to remain seated once the credits roll).
So, what now?
The rest of the story is known: Disney made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most successful franchise in history, while buying LucasFilm and make Star Wars their own property. For instance, their 2016 releases (Zootopia, Jungle Book, Finding Dory Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One and doctor Strange, not counting Star Wars VII) made more than $7 billion dollars at box office.
Warner, on the other hand, closed up the Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit and Harry Potter practices, making a couple of Oscar contender (winning the main statue with Argo), now struggling to launch without any drawbacks a new franchise. While George Miller will continue his Mad Max franchise (rightfully so), the Burbank based studio will give a second chance to the very beloved action sci-fi Edge Of Tomorrow, a King Arthur franchised directed by Guy Ritchie, rehashing the Harry Potter franchise with a spin-off series which has very little to do with the main story, and a King Kong/Godzilla universe, a second go to Pacific Rim and, of course, they are trying to relaunch the DC properties.
Now, clearly Disney created long term franchises. With the MCU, Pirates, Star Wars, soon Indiana Jones and the whole live-action adaptations of animated classics are basically endless pits to grab from.
Warner exhausted all the cartridge for their ones, and now find themselves to catch up to Marvel.
Things didn’t started well: Man Of Steel did decent but failed to impress, whereas the year after Jurassic World becomes the third box-office hit of all time with more than $1 billion and a half, Batman v Superman failed to arrive at even $900 millions, and while Suicide Squad performed well considering the not-so-popular IP, it is widely recognized as a horrible movie.
Of course, the BvS underperformance made Warner rethink about a couple of things. As of now, none of the movies that have already released that are part of a franchise reached $1 billion, most of them got to $700 millions really slowly. .
Now, I don’t think they had any idea they would arrive to no active billion dollar franchises at this point. They are finally trying to expand The Matrix, which to me has always been an obvious choice.
Did they do a mistake to have not focused on the DC universe earlier? Maybe, but a lot of those movies they made (Mad Max, Pacific Rim, Edge of Tomorrow) are awesome, and the movies they did after Batman & Robin… Do we really have to talk about them?
Unfortunately, they didn’t have rights problem with their characters, which would have helped them to establish the universe easier.
My point is, stop bashing on Warner for being late. Sure, I bet annoys them too the fact they arrived second in time (and quality, since they could have started it better), but hey, better now than never, and they can solve a lot of problems.