Quick. What’s your first thought when you think DC Cinematic Universe.
It’s widely considered a failure. It so far consists of five movies. Three are complete critical bombs (Batman v Superman. Suicide Squad. Justice League). Man of Steel is extremely mixed, to put it generously. Wonder Woman is the sole movie that’s managed to impress critically.
It’s not just a matter of critic/audience disconnect. The entire narrative surrounding these films presented by fans and entertainment media outlets is that these movies stink. Searching “DC Extended Universe” on Google News turns up articles that are almost exclusively about how the DC Extended Universe is a complete disaster, and how they alone are the ones who can fix it.
The narrative has become entirely detached from reality. “Just $567 Million worldwide” Forbes declares in its headline, as if the fact Justice League is going to make over double its budget in worldwide box office alone isn’t a success. That’s not including the massive merchandise sales inherent to a superhero franchise, nor does it include the increased value of DC heroes as licensed intellectual property. It’s undoubtedly making everyone involved a lot of money.
And by the way, this was DC’s least successful movie. Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman made 720 and 820 million dollars respectively on about half the budget. Batman v Superman made 870 million dollars despite being loathed by critics and audiences alike. We know that box office success doesn’t always correlate with critical opinion, but we also know that there’s a decent correlation between critical and commercial success. This is especially true in established franchises. The critically acclaimed entries in a franchise very consistently succeed while those that bomb are less successful or failures all together. In other words, what’s happening with DC’s movie franchise doesn’t follow the expected logic.
This video presents an excellent theory on why super hero movies in general dominate the box office. He calls it the six ticket theory, and it goes something like this:
Movie ticket prices have skyrocketed, which causes families to see an average of six movies a year. When going to see a movie is both very expensive and a rare event, movie-goers are largely going to seek movies that are predictable in plot, tone and quality rather than risk a dissatisfying experience. Marvel movies are the dominant box office power because they’re a reliable known quantity.
It explains the super hero boom, but D.C’s monetary success makes even less sense within that framework. They’ve been anything but consistent. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were both very dark, serious movies with very little humor. Wonder Woman was a very traditional super hero movie, slightly more serious than the average Marvel movie but very much had the same DNA. Suicide Squad and Justice League were both extensively re-shot messes. The studios demanded that more jokes be inserted in every corner and that both movies be cut down to 2 hours even if it made no sense to do so given the plots. Justice League in particular had hilariously poor production quality for a $300 million dollar movie, including a really bad fake CGI Cyborg suit and Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache removal.
The six ticket theory doesn’t explain D.C’s massive financial success, but I think it’s on the right track. I’d like to amend it with the Pokemon GO Ticket theory.
Earlier this year, I argued that #WomensMarch and Pokemon GO were caused by the same social phenomena. I argued that they were popular not because of any passion or desire to change anything, but because they were easy, low-effort ways to participate in what was popular and feel good about themselves. Because of the aforementioned six ticket theory, people go to movies they know everyone else is seeing and talking about because they don’t want to risk a wasted experience. Whether the movie is good or bad, they will at least get the Pokemon Go/#WomensMarch benefit of being included in the moment. It’s not a coincidence that movies have become so reliant on the first two weeks of ticket sales. These super hero movies have become miniature #WomensMarch like events.
D.C movies are popular because they’re popular. The movies before were popular because Marvel movies were popular.
The last two super hero movies to actually fail at the box office (rather than merely “disappoint”) were FANT4STIC and Green Lantern. The two common traits they had were that they were both complete critical bombs, on par or worse than Batman v Superman, and that they were both completely unconnected to any other super hero movies. D.C and Marvel by the nature of their new release strategy are incapable of meeting the second condition. I wonder at this point if it’s even possible for either of them to fail.