Editorial: Is The DC Expanded Universe Failing?

Unless you've had your head situated firmly under a rock for the last year you will no doubt be aware of the DC Expanded Universe (or DCEU for short). It is a cinematic universe based around superhero movies featuring the heroes and villains of Detective Comics. You will also be aware that it has some major problems. Critical mauling's, lower than expected box office returns and production strife have all been noticeably prevalent. But has the expanded universe failed?

That is a difficult thing to judge. In a vacuum, not taking into account critical perceptions or performances of other films in comparison, then there is no doubt that the DCEU isn't exactly where Warner Bros. would like it to be. However, Man of Steel is the highest grossing Superman solo film, making $668 million at the box office from a $225 million budget. It is also the second highest grossing reboot of all time, its opening day gross was the 20th highest of all time and the 2nd highest for a non-sequel, so to start with the DCEU wasn't much of a failure financially. And Suicide Squad grossed respectably for such a niche property, making $471 million from a $175 million budget. However, the biggest problem here is Batman vs. Superman. It did not perform poorly by any means, no-one in their right mind could say that $872.7 million gross from a $250 million budget is a bad return, but it was expected to make over $1 billion by Warner Bros. and most other people and that was a target it fell very short on, embarrassingly so for Warner Bros. Both BvS and Suicide Squad had another problem financially as well, the attendance drop off was almost catastrophic. BvS had the worst opening weekend drop off for a superhero film in history of 58%, beating the Fantastic Four reboot by 6%, and the second week drop off was around 81%, placing it in the top 100 for worst second week audience drop off in history. Suicide Squad faired little better, dropping 41% of its audience over its opening weekend and 79% by its second weekend. Those figures can't be comforting to the Warner Bros. executives, even if the films made profit.

And if we look at the films outside of that vacuum, things get worse. If you look at the critical reviews, Man Of Steel does very averagely, earning an accumulative score on Rotten Tomatoes of 55%. Meanwhile both Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad got savaged, both earning 27%, putting them in the same sort of leagues as films like 2003's Hulk and Daredevil. Fan response was more favourable, with non of the films getting below a B grade on CinemaScore's audience surveys (Man of Steel getting an A-, BvS getting a B and Suicide Squad getting a B+), so that gives some credence to the line "It's for the fans not the critics".

And what if we compare the financial and critical success to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? As much as DC and Warner Bros. do not want to have comparisons drawn between what they are doing and what Marvel are doing, it is inevitable as they are generally perceived as direct competitors and Marvel were the ones to start the cinematic universe craze with their superhero movie universe.

Well, if we look at how the first 3 films of the DCEU stack up against the first 3 films of the MCU, it actually comes out looking much better for DC. Overall, they grossed more from their first 3 films than Marvel did and their first two films out grossed the first 2 films Marvel released (Man of Steel- $668 million to Iron Man's $585 million, Batman vs Superman's $872.7 million to The Incredible Hulk's $263.4 million, with Suicide Squad grossing $471 million to Iron Man 2's $623.9 million). However, on a critical level DC don't do so well. Iron Man garnered an impressive 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes, whilst Hulk received 67% and Iron Man 2 hit 72%, meaning even the lowest reviewed of the first MCU films got a better critical reception than the best DCEU film. And you also have to consider that both Iron Man and Hulk were done on budgets less than Suicide Squad (the lowest budget DCEU film to date) and Iron Man 2 only had a budget that was $25 million more than Suicide Squad, but made $150 million more profit at the box office.

And things get worse for DC and Warner Bros. when you take into account that the first 3 Marvel films came out 5 or so years before the first DCEU film came out. If we compare the financial and critical success of the DCEU films to the Marvel films that were released the same year, the story is drastically different. Man of Steel was released in 2013, the same year as Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Bearing in mind Man of Steel grossed $668 million from a $225 million budget and had a RT score of 55%, Thor 2 grossed $644.6 million from a $170 million budget and had a RT score of 66%. This is the film that is widely regarded as the worst MCU film yet it still made more profit for its budget and was higher rated by the critics than Man of Steel. Then if you take Iron Man 3, which made $1.215 billion from a $200 million budget and had a 79% RT rating, comprehensively beating Man of Steel. Then if we look at the direct competitors to Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad, so far Marvel have only released Captain America: Civil War this year, but it has grossed $1.152 billion from a 250 million budget and received a 90% rating from RT, meaning that, yes when taken together the DCEU films have out-grossed Marvel so far this year, but Marvel still have another film to release this year, whilst DC do not.

But what about the future of the DCEU? Wonder Woman and Justice League are still on the horizon, there could conceivably be some salvation. Trailers for both films have been met with favourable reactions so far, but then, so were the trailers for Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman looks the more promising from the critical perspective, given that the screenplay is being written by Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg, both of whom are respected comics writers and have experience writing for Justice League characters, and directed by Patty Jenkins, most famous for her 2003 film Monster and having directing credits from TV shows such as Arrested Development and Entourage. However, it is more likely that Justice League will be the big success, despite not having a build up in the same way as The Avengers. Warner Bros. should expect to make at least $1 billion gross at the box office from Justice League, if not challenge the $1.5 billion that The Avengers made in 2012. At this point it may be to early to say that the DCEU has failed, but if Justice League does not hit its expected target, then it would be quite safe to assume that the nails are in the coffin.

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