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'Green Lantern's' disappointing weekend: Why do DC Comics films continue to struggle without Christopher Nolan?

June 20, 2011 | 10:00 am

  Photo: Ryan Reynolds in "Green Lantern." Credit: Warner Bros. DC Comics can count a surprisingly diverse group of characters among its roster: a Western bounty hunter, a hero afforded strength by a ring and willpower, a group of renegade special-forces agents, an ordinary-looking man who's faster than a speeding bullet.

All these characters do, however, have a few things in common. They've all been given the silver-screen treatment within the last five years. And they've all been turned into movies that have disappointed in one way or another.

Two of the four, the western "Jonah Hex"and the military-themed "The Losers," were outright flops. A third, "Superman Returns," performed reasonably well at the box office but cost a pretty penny, didn't inspire a sequel and prompted DC and parent company Warner Bros. to start again.

The fourth property, of course, became the basis of this weekend's Ryan Reynolds-starring "Green Lantern," a 3-D film that opened to just $52. 7 million, a number my colleague Amy Kaufman noted was "below even Warner Bros.' modest expectations."

These four films represent a striking contrast to another DC-Warner Bros. creation: the Christopher Nolan-led Batman franchise. The two movies in that series thus far, "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," have taken in $1.3 billion around the world -- nearly three times as much as the under-performing quartet (with "Green Lantern," of course, still going). Throw in its two tepidly received Alan Moore adaptations, "V for Vendetta" and "Watchmen" (sui generis properties but DC titles just the same) and its troubles getting a "Wonder Woman" movie off the ground, and you're left with persuasive evidence for an argument the skeptics have been making for a while now: Unless Nolan is involved, a DC-Warner Bros. production has a hard time on the big screen.

In some ways, of course, the numbers show how hard it is to create superhero blockbusters; even rich mythologies don't mean much when it comes to creating a film franchise. And there's an innate challenge here: As Hollywood expands its pool of characters beyond the A-list, it's invariably going to find it trickier to produce a hit.

But the middling performance of DC's "Green Lantern" also highlights a particular struggle for the comic-book unit.  Marvel, after all, has managed to take lesser-known properties such as Iron Man and create a blockbuster franchise. It also just made a tidy $420-million global hit out of the previous also-ran title "Thor." (Later this year it will try once again with a new "Captain America" movie.)

And it's not like Warner Bros. didn't spend on "Green Lantern" -- the movie cost an estimated $200 million to produce, one of the highest price tags of the year.

So is it marketing? The challenge of including both geek moments for hardcore fans and general scenes for everyone else? Longtime comic-book fans like to talk about the differences between Marvel and DC. One oft-quoted distinction (and a frequently debated one) has DC as the darker brand and Marvel the more pop-oriented one. That could potentially explain the box-office gap...except Nolan's movies are perhaps the darkest of the superhero lot.

Fortunately for DC and Warner Bros., the director remains involved with its two most vaunted properties, Batman (with his upcoming "The Dark Knight Rises") and Superman (via the "Man of Steel" reboot he is stewarding). But after a number of  superhero movies haven't lit up the box office this year, there may well be a shakeout to come in comic-book cinema. And with this weekend's "Green Lantern" numbers, DC titles will end up right in the middle of that conversation.


"Green Lantern" is No. 1 but hardly superpowered

Critical Mass: "Green Lantern" takes critics to blackest night

Footage of Ryan Reynold's "Green Lantern" shines a light, for some

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Ryan Reynolds in "Green Lantern." Credit: Warner Bros.