LOS ANGELES — Last month, Warner Bros. sent Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and director Zack Snyder to China to promote “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But with the reaction they got from Chinese audiences, they really could have stayed home.
Despite a strong marketing push and relatively rare day-and-date release in China, the film about a clash between two iconic DC Comics superheroes looks like it will fall well short of initial projections. And that flameout could be ominous for Warner, which is coming off of a down 2015, has nine more movies in the DC Cinematic Universe pipeline, and needs to be relevant in what could be the world’s largest movie market as soon as next year.
The two-and-a-half-hour film made about $12.6 million at China’s box office over the weekend, a nearly 80 percent drop from its opening weekend — the largest ever for a Hollywood superhero move. The movie barely edged past Disney’s “Zootopia,” which has been playing for nearly a month. With a cumulative gross of just north of $86 million, “Batman v Superman” may not even get into nine figures — let alone anywhere close to the projected range of $150 million to $230 million.
“Batman v Superman” benefited from months of anticipation and a relatively clear slate of competing movies, and its big opening weekend alone was enough to deliver Warner Bros. a much-needed $424 million worldwide. But the movie — which has been hammered by critics and shows an abysmal 29 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — took a dive during its second weekend, as word of mouth seemed to get around.
Jonathan Papish, a Chinese movie industry analyst at China Film Insider, told International Business Times the film tanked in its second weekend the same way it did in the United States: People didn’t like it, and they told their friends. “I think it kind of mirrored exactly what happened here in the United States,” Papish said. “Marketing and fanboy reaction kind of fueled the debut weekend, and it dropped after that.”
Papish went to a midnight screening of the film in China last week, and told IBT that about one-quarter of the audience walked out before the movie was over. Most of the rest were playing on their phones, not even watching.
“I talked to some after the movie,” Papish said. “It was boring to them. They didn’t understand the character motivations. Why were these two superheroes fighting each other?”
He said the tepid reception the movie got in its first weekend — and the fact that it fell off a cliff during week two — has to be a big worry for Warner. Disney’s rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven appeal to Chinese audiences, and Warner rolled out a big marketing push to try to make a splash with “Batman v Superman,” which included bringing stars Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill to China and enlisting a local pop star as a “fan ambassador.”
“DC is already playing second fiddle to Marvel,” he said. “This just shows the Chinese market is not welcoming the DC Cinematic Universe.”
While Papish said Marvel’s bright colors tend to be more attractive to Chinese audiences than the dark aesthetic of “Batman v Superman,” he pointed out that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” another Batman movie, had a similar look and banked nearly $53 million back when China’s box office was about one-third the size it is today. But with Disney and Marvel getting ready to release “Captain America: Civil War” in the U.S. and China on May 6, Warner’s DC looks like it’s just going to fall further behind.
Papish said the next film in the DC pipeline, August’s Will Smith-headlined “Suicide Squad,” may not even make it into China, which could make the lackluster “Batman v Superman” performance even more of a problem. China’s film censors tend to leave the summer months for homegrown fare to take advantage of high season and leave some room for Hollywood’s holiday slate.