In Suicide Squad, the big-budget film that Warner Brothers is set to release on Aug. 5, a motley crew of villains with superpowers are released from prison and sent on a mission to save the world. The film might also end up breathing some cinematic life into DC Entertainment, the venerable comic book company that hasn't generated a supersized hit for parent company Time Warner (TWX) in years.
Unlike Walt Disney's (DIS) - Get Report Marvel unit, which has regularly produced monster hits such as Iron Man for its parent company, films based on DC characters of late have suffered from bloated budgets and underwhelming box office performances. The most recent, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, cost $250 million to make and more than $100 million to market and was considered a disappointment even though it generated $872.7 million in worldwide sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
Disney's Captain America: Civil War has grossed nearly $1.2 billion in worldwide sales after its May 6 release. (Studios generally collect about half the revenue generated by domestic ticket sales and as little as 25% in some major markets such as China.)
"It goes back to Superman and Green Lantern," Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible said, referring to the 2013 film Man of Steel that generated $668 million in worldwide sales and the Ryan Reynolds 2011 Green Lantern that sold a woeful $220 million in tickets. "They've done some damage to the asset, unlike Marvel, which has become one of Disney's premiere assets."
A Warner Brothers spokesman had no comment.
On top of its $250 million budget, Warner Brothers has spent more than $100 million marketing Suicide Squad, including putting an earlier than usual number of trailers on social media that has amped up the movie's word of mouth, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for ComScore. The film, he said, ranked either first or second for the past three weeks on the measurement company's PreAct Most Talked About Movies chart.
Dergarabedian figured that the film, based on a DC comic that first appeared in 1959, likely will open with more than $115 million in ticket sales for its opening weekend, which would set a record for films opening in August and beat the $94.3 million opening weekend in 2014 for Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy. That movie, made by Marvel, went on to generate more than $773 million in worldwide ticket sales.
Director David Ayer "has done a phenomenal job of making a very unconventional anti-superhero film that certainly reflects the darker tone of the DC Comics ethos yet is a fun ride that will have everyone talking," Dergarabedian said of Suicide Squad.
To help stoke the box office, Warner Brothers added Will Smith as the sharpshooting assassin Deadshot and rising Australian star Margot Robbie, who appeared in this summer's The Legend of Tarzan, as the crazed former psychiatrist Harley Quinn.
At the annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, the studio set up Harley Quinn's Tattoo Parlor, giving away free temporary Suicide Squad tattoos. The movie's cast descended on San Diego's annual Comic-Con gathering of comic book geeks in 2015 and 2016, with its stars appearing on panels and working the booths. At this year's event, which wrapped up Sunday, the studio staged a Squad Up! costume contest and awarded winners free tickets to the premiere.
Warner, which already has produced a video game based on Suicide Squad, is banking on a hit that will translate to hefty merchandise sales, much as Disney seems to do with each of its Marvel films. Mattel (MAT) - Get Reportis gearing up to produce a line of toys, while Warner's consumer product unit also has signed up Under Armour (UA) - Get Report for sports gear, retailer Hot Topic for apparel, Accutime for watches, Converse for footwear and other partners.
Suicide Squad could be riding a wave of raunchy superhero films that have performed well of late at the box office. In addition to Guardians of the Galaxy, earlier this year Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) - Get Report scored big with lower-budget film Deadpool, based on a Marvel property, that generated $782.4 million in worldwide sales.
Still, just to be sure, Hollywood insiders say Warner Brothers spent more than $10 million after initial shooting for Suicide Squad wrapped, doubling down on its already hefty bet by adding scenes with more comedy in a bid to make the film more palatable to audiences than the far darker Batman v Superman.
"And I also got some more action in there," Ayer said in an interview with entertainment site Deadline Hollywood. "It's all a tough process, because in essence, you're on trial and you have to defend your movie. There's definitely a lot of pressure that was put upon this film because of the circumstances that it was never intended to bear."
Time Warner shares on Monday morning were up 8 cents to $78.45.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Disney and Mattel.