With the theatrical film business upended by COVID-19 and in the earliest stages of reopening box office, it is unclear how far out the road back to normalcy is.
What is clear is that Warner Bros. is readier than ever to let the DC banner lead its film slate.
And lead it must, as Warner Bros.’ film operations have become a weak link thanks to extended theater shutdowns and an already growing reliance on television as a revenue generator for the studio. Plus, a daunting round of layoffs just occurred as part of a massive restructuring at WarnerMedia.
As such, Warner Bros. saw fit to conceive its DC FanDome event this year as not only an inaugural showcase of DC properties but a replacement for the presence the studio would’ve had at San Diego Comic-Con had this summer been a normal one.
Given that Warner Bros.’ 2021 film slate is already packed with at least 16 scheduled releases, three of which belong to other key franchises (“Harry Potter,” “Godzilla” and “The Conjuring”), now is a better time than ever for Warner Bros. to up the DC brand and compare it to other pivotal IP due to the uncertainties of a new theatrical normal with more risk-averse audiences and smaller theatrical windows at play.
With no standalone entries of its own or familiar heroes leading its slate, not to mention “Avatar 2” getting delayed again, 2021 may be the first year in some time that Disney is forced to let another studio claim the spotlight, and this can certainly be Warner Bros.
The 2021 titles “The Suicide Squad,” “The Batman” and “Black Adam” are highly representative of Warner Bros.’ peak strengths with DC. Like “Joker,” the new “Suicide Squad” is part of a push for more R-rated superhero fare, while “Black Adam” has Dwayne Johnson as the titular hero, keeping it in line with smart casting decisions by the studio.
But most interesting is standalone trilogy “The Batman,” which sees Robert Pattinson playing the infamous vigilante even though Ben Affleck has been confirmed to still make appearances as Batman in official DC Extended Universe movies. The studio is perfectly comfortable managing a theatrical timetable with dueling A-list Batmen, as it now sees a better path forward for DC Films that isn’t so reliant on mimicking the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It makes sense to design a Comic-Con substitute centered around DC, as “Wonder Woman 1984” is still on track to release in October following two previous delays.
It can be reasoned that showcasing DC independently instead of as part of a greater consortium that could have included the soon-to-release “Tenet” was a move to stay future focused. “Tenet” has received more than enough press anyway due to constant COVID-19 coverage from every media outlet.
But high-profile sci-fi outing “Dune,” with A-list talent including Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac and Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa, is still set to release just before the holidays, so ignoring this in order to double down on DC is an obvious sign of what Warner Bros. views its most crucial asset to be throughout an oncoming period of theatrical recovery.
A look at the numbers gives a good case of why Warner Bros. ought to prioritize DC above all else.
Despite being a standalone entry independent of the DCEU, “Joker” went far beyond unanimous critical acclaim to also gross nearly as much globally as DCEU top earner “Aquaman.”
Such high performance of a title that was not meant to compete directly against Marvel proves DC’s initial approach to the DCEU was ill advised, as Warner Bros. sought to replicate Marvel’s output without having the films necessary to do so.
When Disney’s first Marvel film, “The Avengers,” skyrocketed to success in 2012, it followed five releases via Paramount that had already profiled each character, whereas when “Justice League” premiered in 2017, only two of its four heroes (Batman and Wonder Woman) already had titular films released.
Imagine how differently DC’s ensemble film could have performed if it was scheduled after “Aquaman.” Instead, it was a rushed product that capped the period in which DC was able to at least numerically match Disney’s superhero output.
But after the success of “Aquaman” and “Joker,” DC’s slate is in much better shape and will even exceed Disney’s Marvel output for the first time in 2021.
All the more reason for Warner Bros. to nail its DC approach, as Disney will hit back in 2022 with four sequels for well-received and high-earning Marvel heroes (Thor, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel). Like the schemes of many a superhero villain, the time for Warner Bros. to stand out while it can and avoid repeating its mistakes is ticking.