The DC Extended Universe needs a hero. While Warner Bros.’ massive comics-based undertaking has been seeing solid returns at the box office with each new instalment, the DCEU has a bit of an image problem due to scathing reviews from critics and mixed responses among fans. Although the studio’s luck hasn’t run out yet, this year’s upcoming releases – Wonder Woman and Justice League – will likely mark a turning point for the franchise, for better or worse.
Wonder Woman is under particular scrutiny, since it’s not only the first live-action solo feature film about Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot), but also the first female superhero movie in a long time, and has a female director in Patty Jenkins (Monster). Jenkins is one of a very, very limited pool of female directors to helm a movie with a production budget north of $100 million – though not too far north. Wonder Woman‘s budget is estimated to be $120 million – a full $100 million less than Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel, less than half the cost of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and around $50 million less than villain team-up romp Suicide Squad.
The aforementioned scrutiny has attracted criticism of Warner Bros.’ handling of Wonder Woman – from fans expressing concern at the perceived lack of marketing, to articles pointing out that Jenkins is expected to deliver a box office hit with half the budget of the other DC blockbusters. But while those critics are likely correct in pointing to Wonder Woman’s gender as the reason behind the studio’s reticence, that relatively modest budget may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Though logic might dictate that a bigger budget increases a movie’s chance for success (and there is a broad truth to that), studios have frequently fallen foul of the belief that a franchise-starter needs a massive budget in order to make a splash at the box office. For an example of this, look no further back than this past weekend, which saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Guy Ritchie’s $175 million gritty reboot of the medieval hero, which was originally envisioned as the beginning of a cinematic universe – headed for an estimated $150 million loss.
Arthur isn’t alone. This decade alone has seen similar unhappy endings for John Carter (budget: $250 million), The Lone Ranger (budget: $215 million), and Robin Hood (budget: $200 million) – all potentially the first entry in a new or rebooted franchise, and all notorious box office bombs. That studios have continued in their dogged pursuit of this strategy seems all the more misguided when you take into consideration how the majority of successful franchises got started: with small or modest budgets.
To turn to one of this year’s biggest success stories, The Fate of the Furious grossed close to $1.2 billion worldwide, eclipsing its enormous production budget of $250 million. At this point – 16 years and 8 movies into the franchise – it’s easy to forget that the Fast & Furious series had humble beginnings. The Fast and the Furious, released in 2001, was a mid-budget car heist action flick, which was made for $38 million and grossed an impressive $207 million. For 2 Fast 2 Furious, the production budget was doubled. Fast-forward to Fast Five, for which director Justin Lin was handed a $125 million budget, and the global box office gross had likewise tripled. The Fast and Furious movies are now some of the most expensive projects on Universal’s slate, but those budgets were hard-earned.
The case for modest-budgeted franchise starters doesn’t stop there. To name just a few other examples: Star Wars (George Lucas’ 1977 labor of love was produced on a budget of just $11 million, or $44 million when adjusted for inflation); The Hunger Games (the first movie was produced for $78 million, while Mockingjay – Part 2‘s budget was double that); X-Men (their 2000 big-screen debut was made for $75 million); The Lord of the Rings (all three movies in the trilogy were produced for less than $100 million – on par with Wonder Woman‘s budget when adjusted for inflation); and Indiana Jones (Temple of Doom‘s production budget was $28 million).
There are counter-examples, of course. Transformers came hot out of the gate with a $150 million budget and was a big success, though it had the benefit of an established fanbase. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a big gamble for Disney – a $140 million pirate movie made during a time when the pirate genre was seemingly long-dead – but one that paid off handsomely.
Perhaps the most relevant example with regards to Wonder Woman is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This mega-franchise is so widely regarded as unstoppable at the box office, it’s easy to forget that one of the very first MCU movies was a flop. Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk has been quietly left swept under the rug, with Mark Ruffalo taking over the titular role from Edward Norton when Hulk returned in The Avengers, but Marvel’s $150 million green monster movie squeaked into the box office with a meagre $263 million worldwide gross. Fortunately, it was closely preceded by Iron Man, which was made for roughly the same budget but succeeded as a franchise-starter and largely set the tone for the many movies that followed.
But even as Marvel’s box office grosses have grown, the studio hasn’t allowed budgets to balloon correspondingly. Sequels and team-up movies like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron may have hefty price tags, but Ant-Man was made for even less than Iron Man, and Marvel movie budgets generally tend to stay under the $170 million mark.
The crux of all this is that Wonder Woman‘s $120 million budget is not too low – it’s actually pretty sensible, and it gives Jenkins’ movie an advantage over the previous entries in the DCEU. Whereas Batman V Superman‘s budget was so bloated that some analysts estimated the movie wouldn’t break even until it hit $800 million at the box office, Wonder Woman has a much lower bar to clear in order to be considered a box office success. If it makes even $400 million worldwide, it will likely be considered a win for Warner Bros. – especially if it receives favorable reviews.
While there are no doubt Wonder Woman fans who are hoping for this movie to be a billion-dollar hit and prove all the doubters wrong, a $400-500 million global gross is a much more realistic target – not because Diana is a female superhero, but because this is the character’s first solo movie, and audiences have so far only had a brief introduction to Gal Gadot’s Diana. While Wonder Woman is projected to reach at least a $75 million opening weekend, at this point the movie could still prove to be either an Incredible Hulk or an Iron Man. Let’s hope it’s the latter.