July 20 (Bloomberg) -- In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christian Bale’s Batman suits up to save Gotham City one last time. Now Warner Bros. has to decide what’s next for the Caped Crusader.
The movie, opening today, marks the third and final pairing of actor Bale with director Christopher Nolan, who combined to create a rare hit franchise from Time Warner Inc.’s DC Comics library. “The Dark Knight Rises” is projected to generate as much as $198 million in U.S. ticket sales its first weekend, which would be the second-best film debut ever.
Batman will return in some form, according to the studio. The challenge will be rebooting the franchise without alienating hardcore fans. The first two Bale-Nolan films, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” collected $1.37 billion at the global box office and won a supporting-actor Oscar for the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.
“Batman has been around in the comics for almost 75 years,” Michael Uslan, executive producer of all seven Batman films from Warner Bros. since 1989, said in an interview at the Comic-Con fan show in San Diego last week. “There have been so many radical interpretations in the comic books, in the art, and the story and the tone. He has really proven he is relevant to every era.”
Starting with Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman and his alter ego, millionaire Bruce Wayne, in 1989, the films have brought in $2.63 billion in worldwide ticket sales, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.
Nolan’s three Dark Knight pictures are inspired by the comic-book and graphic-novel renderings of Frank Miller, who envisioned a gritty, brooding Batman, in contrast to the campy 1960s television show.
In the new Batman film, set eight years after “The Dark Knight,” an aging Bruce Wayne walks with a cane because of his many injuries and is facing financial ruin. He emerges from retirement to fight Bane, a physically and intellectually powerful villain who isolates Gotham City and orchestrates class warfare between the haves and have-nots.
While the character has been a success for Warner Bros., other DC heroes have fallen flat at the box office.
“Superman Returns,” the studio’s 2006 attempt to resurrect Superman, followed the Christopher Reeve films of the 1980s. Made for an estimated $270 million, the movie generated $391 million in global ticket revenue shared with exhibitors, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Green Lantern” flopped at the box-office and with critics last year, collecting $219.9 million in global sales against a $200 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo.
One challenge is how to use DC’s best-known characters, Batman and Superman, to enhance the box-office appeal of the others, such as Wonder Woman and The Flash.
One-Offs vs. Ensemble
Walt Disney Co. managed the feat with “Marvel’s The Avengers” -- a film that generated a record $207.4 million opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, on its way to $1.46 billion in worldwide ticket sales -- by joining Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America in a single picture.
“It’s a decision between two very very different methods,” said Jeff Gomez, chief executive officer of New York-based Starlight Runner Entertainment, which advised Sony Corp. on “Men in Black 3.” “The first is that Warner will continue to produce auteur-driven one-offs of their DC Comics characters, like they’ve been doing. There is more power in the collective than there is in these characters separated.”
The studio gives Superman another try with the June 2013 release of “Man of Steel.” Getting it right is a prerequisite to bringing Superman and Batman together, Director Zack Snyder said in response to a question at Comic-Con. The movie is being produced and by Nolan, who also gets story credit, according to Imdb.com, and stars U.K. actor Henry Cavill.
“We know that Superman is the jewel in the DC crown and really what we’re trying to do is get his house in order,” Snyder said. “And then, who knows what’s possible.”
DC’s comic-book group has had its own Avengers-like team, the Justice League, since 1960. The characters have united in print stories and television cartoons to battle villains. The studio had a Justice League script in the works that was scuttled by the 2007 writers’ strike.
The film is back in development, Warner Bros. said in a statement, without disclosing specific plans for Justice League or for Batman. The Burbank, California-based studio has hired screenwriter Will Beall to develop a script for a Justice League film, according to Internet Movie Database.
Time Warner’s film unit generated $1.26 billion in operating profit in 2011, a 14 percent increase from a year earlier and 20 percent of the New York-based media company’s operating profit, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Time Warner added 0.6 percent to $39.14 yesterday in New York and has gained 8.3 percent this year. By comparison, the S&P 500 Media Index has climbed 23 percent.
In “The Dark Knight Rises,” British actor Tom Hardy portrays Bane. Michael Caine returns as Wayne’s butler, Alfred, and Gary Oldman reprises his role as Police Commissioner Gordon. The film also features Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.
The movie has an 87 percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com. Of the 185 reviews compiled by the website, 161 are positive and 24 negative. The film accounted for 91 percent of yesterday’s advance sales at Fandango.com, the ticket site owned by Comcast Corp., according to Harry Medved, a spokesman.
Warner Bros. would be wise to introduce more of its DC characters before jumping into a Justice League project, Starlight Runner’s Gomez said. Batman and Superman are the only ones who have a real presence in film, he said.
“You’re rushing your introduction in a film that’s clearly going to favor Batman and Superman,” he said. “It would have to because those are the characters we know and love.”
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