LOS ANGELES – In Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel,” Superman tries to save the world from powerful villains. His real-life task is no cakewalk either: Turn the studio’s DC Comics into a hit factory like Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel.
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 Inc.’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, chief executive officer 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,” which opened Friday, was forecast to take in $120 million over the weekend, according to researcher Boxoffice.com, after it raised its estimate from $115 million based on indications the film may take in about $45 million in its first day. The site estimates $357 million for its run in U.S. and Canadian theaters. 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 Cavill, co-star of Showtime’s “The Tudors” series, to generate enough star power to leave audiences wanting more, 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.”
“Man of Steel” traces Superman’s origins, from being sent from Krypton as the planet nears destruction through his rural Midwestern upbringing and gradual discovery of his powers. Amy Adams plays reporter Lois Lane and Russell Crowe is Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane portray the Kents, the farm couple who take in and raise the infant.
Out of 127 reviews catalogued by the website Rottentomatoes.com, 57 percent were favorable. That compares with a 75 percent “fresh” rating for 2006′s “Superman Returns.”
“Marvel-size thrills await you and the generations of kids who still believe in Superman,” wrote Time magazine critic Richard Corliss. “The movie finds its true, lofty footing not when it displays Kal-El’s extraordinary powers but when it dramatizes Clark Kent’s roiling humanity.”
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. No sequel was made 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.
“We’re particularly excited about ‘Man of Steel,’ which is shaping up to be one of the biggest movies of the year,” Time Warner Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Bewkes said on a May 1 call. “It’s a real opportunity for us to re-launch the Superman franchise.”
The studio confirmed a year ago in an email 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.
Snyder, in an interview with the Hero Complex fan site, said he designed a “Man of Steel” universe that includes other DC characters. “Does a Justice League movie exist now? No,” he said. “Whether or not I ever get to make that movie, I don’t know.”
Jack Horner, a Warner Bros. spokesman, declined to comment.
An opening weekend of $100 million or more probably would guarantee a second “Man of Steel” film, said Jeff Bock, analyst for researcher Exhibitor Relations Co. He sees an opening weekend of as much as $115 million and up to $800 million in global sales.
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. The 28 Marvel-based films dating back to 1998 have averaged $190 million in sales, compared with $129 million for 23 DC Comics movies, starting with Reeves’ first “Superman” in 1978, based on Bloomberg Research. The figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.
Marvel movies have given a boost to Burbank, California- based Disney, which acquired Marvel Entertainment at the end of 2009 for about $4 billion. “Marvel’s The Avengers” in 2012 united Downey’s Iron Man with Marvel icons Thor, The Hulk and Captain America. Its $1.5 billion global box office haul ranks behind only “Avatar” and “Titanic.”
Disney’s ranking among studios has improved to second place this year, up from fifth in 2009. This year’s “Iron Man 3″ pulled in $1.2 billion worldwide, almost double 2010′s “Iron Man 2.” The Marvel characters created by Stan Lee, with artist Jack Kirby and others, have proven to be more accessible on the big screen, said Matt Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities in Denver.
“In these big event pictures, Disney appears to be in a better position relative to Warner than they’ve ever been,” Harrigan said in an interview. “The DC characters seem to have always been off in their own parallel universes.”