'Man of Steel' Shoulders Warner Bros.' Quest for 'Justice League' Movie

But 'Green Lantern' and 'Superman Returns' Showed the Perils

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In Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel," Superman tries to save the world from powerful villains. His real-life task is no cakewalk either: Turning the studio's DC Comics into a hit factory like Walt Disney Co.'s Marvel.

'Man of Steel'
'Man of Steel' Credit: Warner Bros.

Warner spent an estimated $225 million making the film in a bet that "Man of Steel," starring British actor Henry Cavill, can make a profit and be the start of a new Superman franchise. That could pave the way to movies based on the "Justice League" comics that bring DC heroes like Batman and Wonder Woman together to fight a common enemy.

Marvel used the "Iron Man" films, starring Robert Downey Jr., to introduce "The Avengers," which became the third-highest grossing movie of all time. In "Man of Steel," Time Warner's studio is taking a chance with the lesser-known Cavill and a brooding take on Superman -- who projected an earnest, wholesome image in earlier films -- from producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder.

"We need a character in Superman who is very charismatic," said Jeff Gomez, president of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based adviser on films including "Men in Black." "That's certainly what Marvel did with Tony Stark in 'Iron Man.' We love the character, and audiences find themselves putting money down for movies they might not see otherwise because he is in there."

"Man of Steel," opening today, is forecast to take in $115 million this weekend and a total of $357 million during its run in U.S. and Canadian theaters, the estimate of researcher BoxOffice.com. Ticket sales are split between the studios and exhibitors.

Based on the performance of Nolan's three "Dark Knight" films and previous movies from Snyder, whose credits include the somber "Watchmen," "Man of Steel" will probably return a profit for Warner Bros. and its production and financing partner, Legendary Entertainment, according to researcher SNL Kagan. The estimate is based on revenue from theaters, DVDs and the first round of pay-TV and broadcast showings, against production costs and marketing outlays.

The film is similar to Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies in that it lacks the tongue-in-cheek humor of previous Superman iterations. Its success may depend in part on the ability of Mr. Cavill, co-star of Showtime's "The Tudors" series, to generate enough star power to leave audiences wanting more, Mr. Gomez said.

"The thing that people have been responding to in the more successful superhero films is a sense of fun," Gomez said. "If there is warmth, a true beating heart amidst all the mayhem, then we're going to want to stick with it."

Out of 127 reviews catalogued by the website Rottentomatoes.com, 57% were favorable. That compares with a 75% "fresh" rating for 2006's "Superman Returns" -- which did not spawn a franchise.

Warner Bros. made four Superman films, beginning in 1978, with the late Christopher Reeve. The studio tried to reboot the series with "Superman Returns," starring Brandon Routh, but elected not to make a sequel after the movie, made for $270 million, returned $391 million in worldwide ticket sales.

Warner Bros., which is looking for a new anchor now that Harry Potter and "The Dark Knight" have run their course, expects to do better with this version of Superman. The studio confirmed a year ago in an e-mail that a "Justice League" film was in development. It also said it wants to restart the Batman franchise.

The film hints at a spinoff by featuring signs for Wayne Enterprises, the company run by Bruce Wayne, the fictional magnate who moonlights as Batman, said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.

Not all of Warner's DC Comics projects have fared well. "Green Lantern," released in 2011, cost about $200 million and generated $220 million in worldwide sales, before the ticket split with theaters, according to Box Office Mojo. Movies based on Marvel characters generally have performed better at the box office.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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