This weekend Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice experienced an extraordinary drop at the box office - even bigger than what analysts had predicted based on its opening weekend. That's not great, and it puts BvS in a weird position of being a movie that is making a lot of money but maybe not enough money. It's not the kind of failure that leads to heads rolling at the studio, but there is nobody at Warner Bros who walked into 2016 expecting to see their biggest superhero movie ever (and a major Hail Mary for a studio that has had a rough couple of years) struggle to outgross Deadpool, a low budget R-rated film. This was a movie that was swinging for box office all-timer status, and it looks like it may not break one billion worldwide (one billion worldwide being that magic number that puts you in the all-stars). In Hollywood when your movie is big and is aiming big, 'good' box office isn't enough.
But it isn't the long arc of the box office that should be giving Warner Bros pause, it's that second week drop. BvS opened well, a testament to the saturation marketing and audience interest in seeing these two characters onscreen. It opened big despite corrosive reviews, but it began quickly dropping off over the weekend because of the one thing a movie like this fears the most: bad word of mouth. The movie earned a B CinemaScore, which is straight up mediocre (even the worst, lamest blockbusters tend to get A/A- CinemaScores) and which reflected an audience dissatisfaction. The second week numbers drove this home - people don't love this movie and they're telling their friends not to go.
That's certainly bad for this film but it's a huge problem for the entirety of the DC Movieverse. They have set that universe up not as separate franchises that will come together, as Marvel did in their Phase One, but rather as a series of sequels to this movie. The entire universe spins out of Batman v Superman, so the audience's feelings about BvS could impact those films. The set-up was supposed to be a smart shortcut; by spinning all of the movies out of the enormity of BvS the lesser-known characters like Cyborg and Aquaman would get an automatic boost. But it was risky, and the risk backfired - if audiences loved BvS the spin-offs would be in great shape, but with BvS not quite hitting the spot (for whatever reason) the spin-offs are actually in a worse position - not only does Warner Bros have to convince you that an Aquaman movie isn't lame, they have to convince you that you'll like it better than BvS.
Warner Bros saw this coming as early as the beginning of this year. Suicide Squad is currently doing reshoots (they were on the Paramount lot, they're in Downtown LA next), some of which are intended to add more levity and character moments to the film. That decision wasn't made when BvS opened, but rather when WB saw a) what BvS was and b) when the audience went nuts over the fun Suicide Squad trailer. The studio already began course correction with that film, and I am guessing they will continue with all the films they have in development. Last week James Wan was at WonderCon where he emphasized how 'fun' Aquaman will be, a word that no one involved in BvS would have ever used.
The good news for fans is that Warner Bros is locked in on some of these films - Wonder Woman is shot, Suicide Squad is finishing up the last bits of reshoots and post, Aquaman is for sure happening. Cyborg, we'll see with that one. I imagine The Flash has a great chance of actually getting made. And some other films may make it on to the slate in an effort to continue correcting the course of things - Lobo, for instance will be chasing the Deadpool crowd. Looking for more sure-things WB will likely get The Batman onto the schedule sooner rather than later.The DC Movieverse will march on, if only because it must - as long as Marvel is able to crank out successful superhero films Warner Bros must stay competitive with their own DC properties. It's a matter of pride, if nothing else, but it's also a matter of keeping shareholders happy - people who invest in your company get mad when it looks like you're leaving money on the table, as WB had been doing with the DC heroes.
So the films will continue. They just may find themselves different. I think the move from here on out isn't to make and market these movies as extensions of BvS but rather as answers to them. You know that thing where a director is selling his new franchise movie and in the process explains why the last one was bad but this one was better? That's the whole campaign for Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad. And I imagine that the attitude in developing Aquaman and The Flash is to find another tone, since the tone in BvS doesn't seem to have landed (although to be fair the movie has a ton of problems that are not tone related. The tone is the easiest problem to identify, though). People who thought they were going to get a ten film slate of dour and angry DC movies are probably in for a rude awakening.
But what about Justice League? That movie is shooting soon - like in days or weeks. This is what I'm curious about, as Zack Snyder is directing it. These movies are always under construction - the script changes throughout production, the only things that are written in stone are the big CGI set pieces that are already percolating in some computer somewhere - so will Warner Bros demand changes as they head into production? Or had Snyder gotten all of the angry cynicism out of his system and always intended Justice League to be more upbeat and fun (to be fair the Batman arc of BvS indicates that Snyder was headed in a direction that was less unpleasant and more hopeful)?
You have to wonder what lessons Warner Bros is taking from this whole thing. There are many to be gleaned - don't risk it all on one big film, don't create a tone that repels the audience, don't spend three years pushing a movie, don't make a movie that is intended just for the hardcore fans - but the one I hope they walk away with is a simple one. It's the lesson that explains the success that Marvel has found, and it isn't about being comedic or silly, as many of the studio's detractors think. The lesson is this: create characters we like. It seems so simple that it's almost dumb to say it, but it's true. Batman v Superman created asshole versions of the titular characters, versions that are hard to like. They may be cool or badass or whatever else, but they're not likeable. I don't want to spend time in a movie hanging out with this version of Superman. He's not charming or interesting. And when he feels bad (which is most of the movie) I don't feel bad for him, I feel irritated by him. BvS brushes up against this concept - Batman and Alfred are very likeable and their interactions are the highlights of the movie - but a film like Justice League needs much more than that. It needs not only characters I enjoy hanging out with, it needs to be putting them together in interesting and unexpected ways. The Marvel movies aren't a hit because of the action or the FX, they're hits because people like the characters and they get excited seeing them talk to each other.
Remember, Zack Snyder made a movie where Superman doesn't speak one word to Wonder Woman. That's what makes me worried about Justice League. The characters don't need to be the Super Friends, hanging out and playing games, but they should have rich and fun interactions. They should bounce off of each other in ways that will surprise and delight us, which is precisely what Snyder didn't do in BvS (in fact the biggest joke coming out of the movie involves the two leads bouncing off of each other in a ridiculous way). These movies can still be serious and philosophically driven (I should use sarcasm quotes on that), but the characters have to be enjoyable. That's the lesson. That's what Warner Bros has to understand as they try to salvage the DC Movierse: fun characters first.