The Flash And Blue Beetle Tell A Harrowing Story About Modern Superhero Movies

BY RYAN SCOTT/AUG. 18, 2023 2:00 PM EST

"Blue Beetle" is hitting theaters this weekend and the hope is that the superhero origin story can finally deliver a win for DC in 2023. It's been a rough year for Warner Bros. in this arena, with "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" becoming, without exaggeration, one of the biggest superhero movie flops of all time. "The Flash," sad to say, wasn't all that far behind, relative to the burden of sky-high expectations. Despite a very big marketing push from the studio, director Andy Muschietti's big trip through the DC multiverse failed to catch on with moviegoers in a meaningful way. Now, the question must be asked: Did WB put their eggs in the wrong basket?

"The Flash" topped out at just $268.1 million worldwide against a $200 million budget. It will lose a great deal of money for the studio — no two ways about it. Yet, WB seemed to believe they had a surefire hit on their hands, with a very early screening at CiemaCon earlier this year kicking off a huge marketing campaign. DC Studios co-head James Gunn also called it one of the best superhero movies he had ever seen. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav also called it the "best superhero I've ever seen." The hype, in the end, amounted to very little.

There were signs that things were perhaps not going to go well. For one, there's star Ezra Miller, who had been mired in controversy due to their highly public transgressions in the year leading up to the movie's release, leaving them absent from the press tour. There's also the fact that Barry Allen's first solo movie went through a version of development hell that spanned well over a decade. It's rare such things end up working out.

Blue Beetle was cheaper to make than The Flash

So then, why is it that WB backed "The Flash" with seemingly every resource they had, while "Blue Beetle" had a far more modest marketing push by comparison? There may be no single, definitive answer, but there are several likely factors at play.

For one, director Angel Manuel Soto's "Blue Beetle" was a much smaller movie, with a reported $104 million budget. The movie was originally going to go directly to HBO Max (before it was renamed to just Max) which means it was always going to be a little smaller in scale, but that's certainly not a bad thing. The fact that WB decided to give it a theatrical release — especially when they scrapped "Batgirl" entirely — signified a great deal of confidence. Even so, they may have been marketing relative to that budget. So, one could possibly argue that half the budget would constitute half as big of a marketing push. Is that an oversimplification? Almost certainly, but it's worth considering.

For what it's worth, the studio's initial confidence seemed to be well-placed. The early response from both critics and fans has been largely positive, with some caveats, such as underdeveloped villains. "Blue Beetle" currently holds a 79% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes but, more importantly, a 95% audience rating. For the sake of comparison, "The Flash" holds a 64% from critics and an 83% from audiences. There is a clear winner here.

Even so, Warner Bros. Discovery may have been playing it somewhat safe with the marketing. The more you spend, the more you have to make in order to break even. At the same time, this is one of those areas where you have to spend money to make money. I don't envy the decision-makers who have to figure out where that balance lies for a superhero blockbuster like this.

The strikes didn't help matters

One thing that certainly impacted the studio's plans for this superhero origin story, whatever they may have been, is the ongoing strikes that have effectively shut down Hollywood for weeks. Both the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild are currently on strike with no real end in sight. As a result, members of both guilds are not allowed to promote any of their work. That means no big press tour with the cast, which includes "Cobra Kai" breakout Xolo Maridueña as Jaime Reyes, aka Blue Beetle. Having the cast on talk shows and speaking with publications goes a long way toward building awareness for a movie with the general public. That's not possible right now.

That being the case, it may feel like "Blue Beetle" isn't getting the gigantic marketing push that one might expect from a big superhero blockbuster. WB is limited in terms of what can be done. Soto can make the rounds, but he's one person. There's no ability to divide and conquer. The studio was able to mount an impressive marketing campaign for "Barbie," and that largely involved the cast doing lots of promotion. It also panned out, as the movie has made ridiculous amounts of money. It's possible, if not likely, that WB would have done something more significant for this movie as well, provided the opportunity to do so.

In a post- "Black Panther" world, it would make every bit of sense to lean into the fact that this movie features the first Latino superhero headlining their own movie. One assumes that Warner Bros. would lean into that as a strength, rather than lean away from it actively, in favor of promoting "The Flash" more heavily instead. We'll never know what could have been in a normal situation where the cast had been available. The marketing strategy undoubtedly had to shift dramatically.

Warner Bros. might be cutting its losses

Perhaps the most important factor is Warner Bros. betting all their chips on the future. DC Studios co-heads James Gunn and Peter Safran are getting ready to reboot the DC Universe beginning next year. The whole thing really kicks off in 2025 when Gunn's "Superman: Legacy" hits theaters. We're getting a new Superman, a new Batman, and probably a new Wonder Woman too. Even if they have been hesitant to phrase it as such, this is a full reboot that will all but completely abandon what we knew as the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It's going to be, more or less, a fresh start.

Granted, Gunn has left the door open for "Blue Beetle" to possibly be part of the new DCU, as it's pretty much entirely disconnected from the DCEU. But that really all depends on the reception. If it's a big hit? Jaime Reyes is probably coming along for the ride. If it's not? It's easy enough for Gunn and Safran to leave him behind. But there would be a level of risk in Warner Bros. assuming that this movie was going to be a big hit and declaring this the first proper new DCU movie. They've probably learned the dangers of putting the cart before the horse thanks to miscalculations like "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

"Fury of the Gods" and "The Flash" both lost tons of money. "Black Adam" didn't pan out last year. "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" cost a fortune and has gone through several rounds of reshoots. Warner Bros. may just be deciding to no longer invest heavily in what the previous regime cooked up. Instead, they're going to focus on the future of the DCU and hope that greener pastures lie ahead. "Blue Beetle" may just be getting the short end of the stick.

"Blue Beetle" is in theaters now.

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