A panther just mauled the box office competition, and some suggest its next victim might be an upstart superhero movie operation.
The record-breaking debut of Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” further cemented the superhero movie maker’s dominance over Hollywood. Yet Marvel’s counterpart, Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe (DCEU), has some serious catching up to do—especially after last year’s “Justice League” fell short of expectations.
According to Box Office Mojo, “Black Panther” has pulled in about $500 million globally since it debuted last week, en route to being the largest February opening weekend in movie history. And it’s not done yet: The African superhero may pull in another $100 million or so this weekend, and he’s set to make another appearance “Avengers: Infinity War” — almost certain to be a blockbuster when it debuts in May.
“Black Panther’s” massive haul is generally consistent with the public and critical reception of most of Marvel’s films. So if the DCEU was envisioned as Warner’s response to Disney’s endless revenue machine in Marvel, they’ve certainly got their work cut out for them.
To be fair, DC has seen its share of success: 2016’s “Suicide Squad” overcame harsh reviews to earn around $750 million globally ($325 million domestically). Meanwhile, 2017’s critically-acclaimed “Wonder Woman” earned over $800 million worldwide ($413 million in the U.S.), and went on to become the year’s 3rd highest grossing movie.
Still, the “Justice League’s” so-so domestic run of $229 million was considered a red flag. Writing in Forbes, film finance consultant and former studio executive Rob Cain said that the disappointing figure posed a threat to future DC projects like the upcoming standalone, “Aquaman”, and a potential “Justice League” sequel.
A representative from Warner Brothers did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.
So if DC expects to challenge Marvel’s current supremacy, what steps can they take to get there? According to Barna W. Donovan, a media studies professor at New Jersey’s Saint Peter’s University, the first step would be to lighten up.
“Although most of the Marvel films have serious sociopolitical subtexts, the movies also have a sense of humor, a sense of fun and exuberance that…is just missing from the DC films,” Donovan said.
“The DC universe so far has consisted of four films… that are dark, turgid, nihilistic, and often confusing,” Donovan said. “‘Wonder Woman’ is one exception and not surprisingly, the biggest hit in the DC universe.”
Amie Simon, director or marketing at marketing and publicity firm Smarthouse Creative, said that the DCEU could attract more movie-goers with more diversity in the casts.
“The biggest lesson DC can learn from its ‘Wonder Woman’ success, and Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ success, is the very clear and very obvious message that viewers want to see themselves reflected in the movies they pay to see,” Simon said.
Andrew Selepak, a professor at University of Florida, said that stressing diversity isn’t just about bringing in dollars for Marvel today. It’s also laying the groundwork for the studio’s future.
“The ‘Black Panther’ movie has a cultural value for African-American audiences who have otherwise rarely been represented at the center of comic book or sci-fi films,” Selepak said.
“The impact of the film will go beyond box office receipts and will highlight Marvel as the comic book brand that first showcased an African-American cast and director as a full-fledged blockbuster,” he stated. “The effect will create a loyal following among many people in society squarely behind team Marvel for years to come.”
Tom La Vecchia, founder of digital marketing firm X Factor Media, said DCEU would need to it bring in some fresh faces, and “recalibrate” their current slate of films.
“I would go in a different direction in terms of both director and talent. Cleaning house would be wise,” he told CNBC.
Despite the warning signs, author and entertainment writer Chris McKittrick said not to write off DC just yet. The studio managed to spot an obvious opening in the marketplace, and grabbed it.
With “Wonder Woman,” DCEU “saw the biggest gap in Marvel’s game plan, the lack of a recent superhero movie starring a female superhero, and gave audiences something it hadn’t seen,” McKittrick said.
Whatever the future holds for DC’s stable of superheroes on the big screen, industry watchers say it’s not too late for the franchise to get back on track—provided the studio plays its cards right.
“DC is down, but it’s not out,” Tom La Vecchia said. “However, they are a few bad decisions away from comic purgatory.”