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Warner Bros. is reporting that the March 1 IMAX-specific preview screenings for The Batman have already sold out in every key market throughout America. The preview showings, whose grosses will I presume be included in the March 3rd preview screenings or at least the overall opening weekend (as was the case with Aquaman and Shazam!), make up 350 theaters nationwide, with a single 7:00 pm showing of Matt Reeves’ 175-minute Dark Knight Detective murder mystery flick. Regular tickets will go on sale tomorrow. Needless to say, interest among the devoted is quite high, and there’s little reason not to expect mainstream/general audience excitement as well.
Look, is it possible that the Robert Pattinson-starring grimdark crime flick, featuring villains we’ve already seen (Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman) played by lesser-known actors (Paul Dano, Colin Farrell and Zoe Kravitz are not butts-in-seats draws) in milieu that seems only slightly removed from Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins will only earn “most of the money?” Sure. I will remind you that Nolan’s terrific Christian Bale/Cillian Murphy/Liam Neeson flick “only” earned $205 million domestic (after a leggy and buzzy run following a slightly underwhelming $72 million Wed-Sun debut) and $371 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. It only made that much by being damn-well spectacular.
The film had to win back goodwill after Joel Schumacher’s ill-received Batman & Robin ($238million on a $160 million budget), while essentially educating audiences on the very idea of a start-from-scratch reboot. While stacked with excellent performers, none of its cast qualified as anything more than added value elements and the film lacked marquee villains (sorry Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul). It was sold as, essentially, “Here’s another Batman movie” with little else “new” to offer for those not already interested. As such, it earned domestic grosses that summer “only” on par with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wedding Crashers. It barely out-grossed Fantastic Four ($330 million) worldwide.
Ironically, 17 years later, The Batman faces a similar situation, as it’s “just another Batman movie” being sold as a grounded crime flick that has to win back goodwill after the ill-received Batman v Superman and Justice League. Moreover, the damage done to the DC brand both in terms of the early Zack Snyder-led flicks (including David Ayer’s mangled Suicide Squad) and the lost momentum due to Covid (they were on a commercial and/or artistic winning streak with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam, Joker and Birds of Prey) creates yet another unfortunate situation whereby Batman must “save” the DC Comics film brand.
That’s not fair, as no brand that scores buzzy smash hits with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam movies should still be treated like damaged goods. And hell, those Snyder films (especially the longer cuts of the last two) have aged relatively well in terms of now at least being different from the pack and existing as their own proverbial Elseworld flicks. In a sane world, the Oscar-winning and $1 billion-grossing Joker would have been followed by the well-liked and relatively well-received Wonder Woman 1984 (which likely would have earned decent reviews and around $700 million worldwide in June of 2020) and The Batman.
Even if James Gunn’s R-rated The Suicide Squad was always commercially doomed (no Will Smith, no Joker, no love for Suicide Squad = no chance), it would have been seen as a “for the love of the game” flick following a slew of well-liked hits (or in the case of Birds of Prey, a well-reviewed cult favorite that fell victim to the whole Film Twitter is not the real world” trap). Wonder Woman 1984 was sacrificed to the HBO Max gods, The Suicide Squad performed even worse due to Delta and Zack Snyder’s Justice League moved that unpleasantness back to the front of the narrative.
The hope is that The Batman is as good and successful as hoped next month, and that Black Adam (July 29), The Flash (November 4) and Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom (December 16) get the job done in terms of reminding folks that they really liked the last few pre-Covid DCEU flicks. As far as “good and successful,” we should use the Batman Begins example as why it may “only” earn grosses on par with, ironically, Man of Steel ($291 million domestic and $668 million worldwide) as opposed to The Dark Knight Rises ($448 million/$1 billion).
If the budget is closer to Aquaman ($165 million) than Batman v Superman ($250 million), and if it inspires excitement and anticipation for what comes next, which Man of Steel did not (hence throwing Batman into the sequel), that will be fine. If it does go full-Joker ($1.073 billion without China), all the better. Once upon a time, DC didn’t need a Batman to save them, just a Wonder Woman. Alas, due to Covid, DC, Warner Bros. and frankly the entire theatrical industry is in a position where, sorry/not sorry, The Batman is the hero they don’t deserve but very much need right now.