It’s been a good year for Marvel. Correction: It’s been a great year for Marvel. First, Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened huge in April and remains the biggest blockbuster of the year so far, outgrossing its 2011 franchise-starter around the world by 92 percent! Then, last week, Guardians of the Galaxy delivered a giant weekend, vindicating Marvel’s long-range plans for deep-cut superheros. The outside-the-box space epic is even ahead of Winter Soldier‘s box-office pace after five days. And if that wasn’t enough to celebrate, yesterday, Marvel received perhaps its most enjoyable gift of all: Warner Bros. announced that it was moving Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice off its May 6, 2016 release date, avoiding a potential opening-weekend showdown with the next Captain America sequel.
The news was met with hoots of derision: Warner Bros. and DC Comics had blinked. “Bawk bawk bawk!!!! WB is chicken!!!!” screamed the always eloquent internet. “Notice that they waited until one week after Comic-Con to make this announcement so they could avoid the mocking Marvel fanboy laughter,” sneered another EW commenter.
That Warner Bros. then immediately unveiled release dates for nine untitled DC superhero movies through 2020 didn’t exactly help matters. “There was a collective eye roll,” says an industry source familiar with Marvel’s thinking. “It’s almost like DC’s trying to create this fictitious PR war or this fictitious date war, but they’re coming to a gun fight with a knife. Guardians was Marvel’s 10th No. 1 movie, and it broke the mold. It’s a raccoon and a bunch of misfits. So Monday, of course, Sony comes out with their female superhero message, and then DC comes out with untitled dates until 2020—on the heels of Time Warner kicking Fox out of bed and announcing their earnings this week. Don’t think that’s all a coincidence.”
That might all be true, but here’s the thing: moving Dawn of Justice up to March 25—a month traditionally considered a box-office dead zone—might just be a brilliant maneuver. “There’s that perception [that Warner Bros. retreated], but I think at the end of the day, he who wins is just the one who’s smart,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Rentrak. “They’re going to have an incredible amount of playing time before the Marvel movie kicks off. Putting this movie on a non-conventional date is going to pay big benefits for Warner Bros., for the theater owners—who love films that have legs—and for the audience. [Customers] will have a really cool movie to go out and see in March.”
It’s a strategy that is unusual, but hardly unprecedented. In March 2012, the first Hunger Games opened to $152 million and ultimately grossed more than $408 million—proving to the industry that “summer movies” don’t need to play in the summer or holiday season. Adding fuel to the argument was the recent performances of Warner Bros. films like Gravity and The LEGO Movie, two hits that soared within unconventional corridors (October and February, respectively). Throw in the proven advantage of being the year’s first “summer movie” (see: Iron Man 3; Winter Soldier), and the short-term shame in backing down might be drowned out by a loud chorus of cha-chings in March 2016.
“The reality now is there really isn’t a bad week to open a movie,” says Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution. “If you look at the summer box office this year, you can see that there were so many movies, one after the other. You can start with Spider-Man, two weeks later Godzilla, and then Maleficent, and then Edge of Tomorrow, and then Jump Street and Transformers. And the one thing they all had in common, not one of them did over $250 million. We’ll be the first one up [in 2016], which is very important, and we’ll have six weeks before Captain America comes in.”
Warner Bros. could’ve saved themselves from the game of chicken in the first place by not being so confrontational. Marvel had announced May 6 first, but initially it was reserved for an untitled superhero film. Warner Bros., armed with its two biggest comic-book characters meeting for the first time on-screen, didn’t hesitate to trespass when it pushed back Dawn of Justice‘s original release date from July 2015. “In terms of going back and reviewing the situation, it looked to us—and maybe our reconnaissance wasn’t great—that they were not going to have a movie [ready] on that date,” says Fellman. “Just that they held onto it and they might not be able to deliver. But they took another position.”
That other position was solidified when Winter Soldier opened to critical accolades and more than $713 million globally, surpassing the total take for Man of Steel. Once Marvel announced that Cap 3 was the MCU film set for May 6, the showdown got serious—and potentially very costly for both sides. “Nobody wins in that scenario,” says Dergarabedian, and in fact, Warner Bros.’ recent date change might realistically make both camps richer by $100 million or more than if they stubbornly had stuck to their guns and fought it out in May.
So DC and Marvel will live to fight another day. Marvel is sitting pretty, with a string of blockbusters that has reshaped the industry. DC has a lot riding on Dawn of Justice, obviously, with the pressure to establish a super-superfranchise on par with The Avengers (or even Guardians of the Galaxy). Fellman says that some of those untitled DC movies should begin to be announced later this month—Shazam?—and that the first real Justice League adventure might be closer than you think. Might they build on the momentum of Dawn of Justice in 2016 with a quick sequel incorporating more classic characters, rather than waiting the traditional two or three years? “While it hasn’t been officially announced,” teases Fellman. “I think it’s a pretty good bet.”