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Does ‘Justice League’ Show DC Cinematic Universe Needs Saving?

Disappointing $96 million debut shows WB isn't yet rivaling Marvel's hold on genre.

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Moviegoers clearly weren’t racing to theaters faster than a speeding bullet to see Justice League this weekend.

Warner Bros.’s big superhero team-up flick notched $96 million in its North American debut — good enough for first place at the box office and a strong haul for a mortal film. But it’s a huge disappointment considering how much the studio needed Superman and company to bring the DC shared cinematic universe onto equal footing with arch-rival Marvel Studios in a single bound.

Justice League was not that single bound — and critics may have delivered the box office kryptonite.

“The negative reviews really hurt,” said ComScore senior box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “In a year when you have a perfect track record for superhero movies  with Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, audiences are expecting a certain level of quality from the genre because the bar has been raised so high.”

To put the box office disappointment in perspective, Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, the third installment in one of the studio’s smaller franchises, opened with $122.8 million two weeks earlier. Industry experts had predicted Justice League would open in the $120 million range.

And it’s even more damning coming after the success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, which seemed to suggest that the DCU was pointed in the right direction.

Wonder Woman is proof that the DC brand can work, but every movie has to stand on it own as a movie,” said Dergarabedian.

Justice League
GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “JUSTICE LEAGUE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

But part of the problem is that after five films starting with 2013’s Man of Steel, it remains a work in progress. The big bang behind this cinematic universe was a business reaction to the success of Marvel’s 2012 movie, “The Avengers,” which united that studio’s biggest heroes, including Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk. The natural impetus was to tap into DC Comics’ own rich stable of characters and do the exact same thing. Only Warner Bros. didn’t want to wait to build each of the individual franchises first.

So ticket-buyers don’t get the same excitement out of seeing Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) join regulars Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) after having just five minutes of screen time to be introduced to the newbies.

And rumors swirl that Affleck is on his way out, meaning everyone will have to get used to yet another actor as Batman.

As comic book fans know, however, all of these heroes still have super potential.

“All of the characters have wonderful mythologies, great backstories and the perfect actors to play them,” said Dergarabedian. “The good news is that if they can learn what happened with this movie, and take the critical response to heart, I think people will line right up for Aquaman.”