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Can Warner Bros.’ Expensive, Long-Awaited ‘Justice League’ Deliver the Hit That DC Needs?

Warner Bros. is holding its breath as the studio prepares to unveil “Justice League” this weekend.

The costly superhero team adventure carries a production budget of more than $250 million, according to several sources, and with it, the hope that DC’s interconnected cinematic universe of comic book heroes and villains can deliver huge audiences around the globe.

When tens of millions of dollars in worldwide marketing and distribution costs are added in, “Justice League” would have to bring in a lofty sum of around $600 million from ticket sales alone and additional revenue from ancillaries like pay-TV and home entertainment in order to turn a profit. 

Warner Bros. executives are already concerned that the movie’s debut this weekend — projected to be $110 million — is less than what they had hoped for. In comparison, last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” opened to $166 million. The film will also face some competition over the upcoming holiday weekend from another big release, Disney/Pixar’s “Coco,” though the animated film skews younger. So far, early reaction to “Justice League” has been mixed both among critics and fans. Some have panned it, while others have praised its lighter tone.

Also weighing on the picture is whether audiences will embrace new characters, the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, all of whom appear on the big screen for the first time. The trio will get their own standalone films, starting with Aquaman in December 2018. The Flash and Cyborg films are set for release in 2020.

DC’s cinematic universe has had a bumpy roll-out in recent years. While last year’s “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v Superman” collectively grossed $1.6 billion worldwide, they drew poor reviews and scorn by some comic book fans. Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” however, provided a much-needed jolt of success to the DC franchise, bringing critical acclaim, as well as $822 million at the global box office.

A “Justice League” dud would be sure to deflate DC’s sails and renew efforts at the studio to focus on individual films rather than on continuity between movies and characters.

“When you have iconic characters like this and a brand like ‘Justice League,’ and even the individual brands of those characters, there’s pressure on the movie to deliver,” said the film’s producer Chuck Roven. “We were really happy with the response creatively, critically and financially on ‘Wonder Woman.’ It would be great if this film could deliver some level of the same kind of response in those same areas. The fans are going to have to tell us.”

“Justice League” has a lot to live up to as 2017 has featured a slew of well-reviewed superhero films like Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnorok” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” both of which had Rotten Tomato scores above 90%. Rotten Tomatoes, which delayed releasing its score of reviews of “Justice League” until Thursday, reported a score of 40%. Rotten Tomatoes delayed the release of the score to reveal it on its new Facebook show, “See It/Skip It,” early Thursday morning. The movie ratings site, which is part-owned by Warner Bros., also recently held back the score for “A Bad Moms Christmas” to reveal it on the new Facebook program.

“The pressure is on to keep the perfect 2017 superhero track record alive,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for ComScore. “There’s a lot of pressure on many fronts. (“Justice League”) is a key building block of the future of DC.”

In promoting the film, Warner dealt with the conundrum of Ben Affleck as Batman. Affleck’s turn as the Caped Crusader has not been received with the same enthusiasm as past Batmans. Warner Bros. has instead focused its marketing on Gal Gadot, capitalizing on her newfound popularity from “Wonder Woman.” Speculation persists that Affleck’s appearance in future Batman films will end with “The Batman,” the Matt Reeves-directed film that was originally set to be directed by Affleck. Studio insiders say privately that they are ready to cast a new Batman, and in a recent interview with USA Today Affleck said he would like to find a “graceful and cool” way to exit.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why ‘Wonder Woman’ is front and center in all of the marketing,” Deragarabedian said, adding: “Any time you’re changing casting, it always presents challenges. While we’ve always seen iconic characters change casting, it is always tricky because you like to have a consistency there.”

The almost decade-long effort to bring “Justice League” to bear comes amid an evolution in style and tone for the superhero genre as a whole. It seems that sometime during the making of “Justice League,” the ground shifted beneath the feet of DC. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” started to bring a levity to films that had previously seen superheroes take themselves too seriously.

Fast-forward to “Ragnarok,” the Marvel entry that dialed up the funny with slapstick humor and witty writing, becoming the best-reviewed Marvel film to date.

DC films are adjusting, too, starting with Jenkins. “Wonder Woman” teemed with themes like love, hope and friendship – a stark contrast to the “Dark Knight” trilogy, as well as “Batman v Superman,” which explored far more darker views of humanity.

This past summer, Warner brought in Joss Whedon, known for his wry writing style, to take on “Justice League” after director Zack Snyder stepped away in May to deal with the death of his daughter. Re-shoots, made complicated by the competing schedules of all the actors, lasted two months and cost $25 million. Roven, however, said the film will be an amalgam of Snyder and Whedon’s styles.

“The DNA of the movie was already set, and Joss was working on script re-shoot pages with Zack,” Roven said. “Everybody kind of knew for the most part what was going to be shot. Of course, Joss is his own creative entity so he’s going to put some of his DNA into it also, but the vast majority of it was already set.”

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

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