Can Warner Bros Make Its DC Comics Superheroes Fly Straight?

How the studio’s superhero movies are borrowing a page from Marvel’s playbook

Last Updated: May 19, 2016 @ 10:43 AM

Following the critical pans and underperforming box office of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Warner Bros. has switched things up, putting executive vice presidents Jon Berg and Geoff Johns in charge of it DC Films unit, according to an individual familiar with the studio’s operations.

It’s easy to read that as an informal demotion for Zack Snyder, whose direction of “Man of Steel” “BvS,” and 2017’s “Justice League” had — until now — made him the de facto overlord of Warner Bros.’ DC Comics movies. At the very least, it is a retreat from the auteur approach that worked well for the studio with the Christopher Nolan-directed “Dark Knight” trilogy. (Though studio sources maintain Warner Bros. remains focused on a filmmaker-centric approach.)

“That’s a great strategy when you have Chris Nolan,” said one senior film executive, who spoke to TheWrap on condition of anonymity.

The executive noted that the approach also worked for Marvel’s first two “Iron Man” films, which were directed by Jon Favreau, who further proved his abilities with this spring’s Disney hit “The Jungle Book.”

But aside from Favreau and Joss Whedon, director of the first two “Avengers” movies, Marvel has not placed its superhero properties in the hands of any lone filmmaker to the extent that Warner/DC has. The auteur approach is especially risky given how much Warner Bros. depends on DC Comics for key tentpole movies.

“They know they have a problem,” the executive said. “They have way too much riding on the DC movies.”

The fate of Marvel’s heroes lies not with individual directors, but with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who oversees an elaborate, overlapping cinematic universe in which individual directors are offered limited autonomy. Now Warner Bros., like Marvel owner Disney, seems ready to put more power in the clutches of executives.

Berg will be president of DC Films, while Johns will remain DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer, but also jointly run DC Films — a move that suggests that the studio has decided to inch closer to the Disney-Marvel model without diving in head first.

Reps for Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story.

News of Berg and Johns’ evolved focus comes a month after Ben Affleck, who took on the role of Batman in “Batman v Superman,” was named as an executive producer on the upcoming “Justice League” movies. He will also direct a standalone Batman movie.

So how did the studio find itself in need of a new approach?

It could have been as simple as luck of the draw. Marvel took a huge gamble on Joss Whedon to direct the first “Avengers” movie, which was then set up at Paramount. But it paid off with a hit that grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.

There’s no understating the risk: At the time, Whedon had a bomb with the 2005 sci-fi adventure “Serenity.” And while Whedon had built a loyal cult fan base with TV hits like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the genre-mixing space Western “Firefly,” he was far from a household name.

Similarly, Warner Bros. bet big for “Batman v Superman” on Snyder, who had a few bombs of his own to live down. The director had a hit with the stylized 2006 Grecco-Roman war film “300,” but he also directed flops like 2009’s “Watchmen,” 2010’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and 2011’s female-driven action movie “Sucker Punch.”

Neither his 2013 “Man of Steel” nor “BvS” have come close to the high billion-dollar-plus watermark set by movies in the Marvel universe. While “BvS” has grossed $870.1 million worldwide so far, that’s far short of what many analysts expected.

The movie’s performance is particularly crucial since Warner Bros. is ramping up production of additional DC Comics movies at a breakneck pace, with the supervillain mashup “Suicide Squad” due in August, two more movies hitting theaters in 2017 and three a year slated beginning in 2018.

That kind of output could be a serious change for the studio, which has released only four new DC Comics movies in the last five years: the misfire “Green Lantern,” Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Man of Steel” and “B v S.”

In that same time, Disney’s Marvel has released three Captain America movies, two Thors, “Iron Man 3,” “Ant-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and two “Avengers” blockbusters — all of them hits.

The test for Warner Bros. is whether that kind of creative output is possible under a model that puts just a handful of directors in charge, and how much authority Berg and Johns will be able to exert on shaping a growing slate of overlapping properties.