(Bloomberg) -- On paper, Warner Bros.’ new “Justice League” has it all: a writer with impeccable superhero chops, DC Comics’ best characters and a new star in Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman that movie fans and critics adored just five months ago.
That ought to be enough to launch the studio’s new series of big-screen superhero films, a multibillion-dollar commitment from Time Warner Inc.’s movie division that includes “Aquaman” next year and several more through the end of the decade.
Yet if this year’s drop in North American box-office sales has proved anything, it’s that movie fans don’t always go where Hollywood leads. Some recent Warner Bros. franchise films like “Man of Steel” and “The Lego Batman Movie” have disappointed, and “Justice League” registered an underwhelming 43 percent positive reviews from critics, the website Rotten Tomatoes said Thursday.
The studio needs the film to establish real identities for characters like Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg if its long-term plans for spinoff films are to pan out.
“DC has found financial success at the box office but, with the exception of ‘Wonder Woman,’ fans have still been left wanting,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, an industry researcher.
Early readings look mixed for “Justice League,” which stars Ben Affleck returning as Batman, Gadot as Wonder Woman and Henry Cavill again as Superman. Jason Momoa plays Aquaman, while Ezra Miller is the Flash and Ray Fisher is Cyborg. All three were introduced in previous DC Comics films.
The movie could produce as much as $130 million in more than 4,000 U.S. theaters this weekend, according to Robbins, outdrawing the June opening of “Wonder Woman.” Warner Bros. was projecting a more conservative $115 million. The film is also getting the biggest-ever simultaneous global release from Imax Corp., which charges a premium for its ultra-big-screen showings.
The longer-term prospects are less certain, with Box Office Pro forecasting $312 million in total domestically and $700 million globally. That’s well behind the $821.8 million first-time big-screen director Patty Jenkins delivered with Gadot as the Amazonian superhero.
Burbank, California-based Warner Bros. has spent several years developing a stable of movie superheroes to rival Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel characters, starting in 2013 with a revival of Superman in “Man of Steel.” With “Justice League,” the studio takes a page from the Marvel playbook by creating a mashup of leading characters in one big budget epic.
Warner Bros. hasn’t said how much it spent to make “Justice League,” though big-screen superhero epics typically run from $200 million to $275 million. The studio imposed an embargo on critics until two days before the opening, a sign executives may fear negative reviews.
Zack Snyder, who got less-than-stellar reviews for the earlier “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” directed “Justice League.” But in May he stepped down after the sudden death of his daughter, and the film was completed by Joss Whedon, the writer and director of Marvel’s hugely successful “Avengers” features. Whedon earned a writing credit for his work and oversaw additional shooting, too.
That shakeup followed earlier management changes at the studio. In May 2016, Warner Bros. gave control of its superhero efforts to DC creative chief Geoff Johns and executive Jon Berg. A few months later, it elevated Toby Emmerich, head of the studio’s New Line division, to president of the motion picture business.
The film that emerged after Whedon’s arrival is shorter than its predecessors at two hours and lighter in tone.
In this go-round, Affleck’s Batman enlists Wonder Woman to lead a team of superheroes against a powerful foe they can’t defeat alone. In the process, he discovers Aquaman, who has superhuman strength and another power: the ability to control aquatic life. They’re joined by the Flash, who has the gift of speed; the part-robot Cyborg; and Superman, who was believed dead at the end of 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
The Flash, played by Miller, adds levity to scenes with the usually serious Batman, and the studio has put a stand-alone movie for the character on the fast track.
While there may be more laughs in store for DC fans, Warner Bros. executives will be watching the box-office tally for clues to whether projections for a strong opening weekend can turn into a bigger success like “Wonder Woman.”
“The pressure for this film to further the brand’s equity and keep the DC Comics momentum going is particularly high,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at ComScore Inc. “Every film is a building block in the long-term success of a premiere brand like DC and for Warner Bros. this is a huge part of their future.”
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