Look, up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's the expectations for Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel"!
The Superman picture comes at a crucial time for the studio. With the completion of the "Dark Knight" trilogy last year, Warner Bros. needs a new superhero franchise.
In the near term, Warner Bros. could also use a blockbuster. "Man of Steel," which was directed by Zack Snyder and co-produced by "Dark Knight" filmmaker Christopher Nolan, is opening Friday on the heels of the studio's somewhat disappointing "The Hangover Part III." And with the riskier sci-fi spectacle "Pacific Rim" slated to open in July, a strong showing for "Man of Steel" would ease pressure on Warner Bros. for the rest of the summer.
In the long term, the studio is hoping to bank on Superman as its new superhero centerpiece for several summers to come — the same goal it had for its 2006 "Superman Returns," which failed to deliver.
Beyond the likely sequels "Man of Steel" would spawn, the success of the film is key to Warner Bros.' plans for other movies from DC Entertainment, a unit of the studio that co-produced the Superman film. Among those could be a project based on the DC Comics series "Justice League," which would give the Burbank studio its own version of Disney's lucrative "The Avengers" franchise.
"Everyone is hoping this is the Superman to resurrect Superman — that this will reboot the franchise in a way the last one couldn't," box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com said. "Superman is obviously a crown jewel in the DC Comics universe and a big hit with 'Man of Steel' only enhances the potential for 'Justice League,' which is potentially as important to Warner Bros. as 'Avengers' is to Disney."
Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, acknowledged in an interview that expectations are high for "Man of Steel," but discounted the influence its performance could have on the studio or its future projects.
"It's hard to place too much importance on any one movie — we distribute 22 to 24 movies a year," Robinov said. "I don't feel a lot of pressure on the movie to fill a gap in our slate. The real obligation is to deliver a movie that is equal to the character, and I really think Zack and everybody has done that."
Pre-release audience surveys suggest the movie, which cost about $225 million to produce, could gross $90 million over its opening weekend. That would put "Man of Steel" on the road to profitability for the studio, which at one point was ensnared in an epic battle with the estates of Superman creators Jerome "Jerry" Siegel and Joseph Shuster over rights to the Superman character.
The case was resolved in January in Warner Bros.' favor. Had Siegel's and Shuster's estates both prevailed, Warner Bros. could have lost control of the rights to Superman.
Interest in a potential "Justice League" movie will only intensify after the release of "Man of Steel." But Warner Bros., a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., hasn't announced plans for a movie based on the DC comic book series, which focuses on a group of superheroes — led by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — who take on various super-villains.
But film executives at the studio are keen on such a project, according to several people close to the company. And it makes sense. Disney's 2012 "Avengers" film, which joined Marvel characters Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.
Robinov was mum on "Justice League" plans, saying, "Everybody has a right to speculate on what we are going to do. What isn't accurate is to make the jump that this movie is a lead-in to 'Justice League.'"
But Snyder recently told The Times that while he has no contractual obligation to a "Justice League" movie, "the door is definitely open" for a film.
And there is a nod to Batman toward the end of "Man of Steel" that could excite DC fans looking for signs of a "Justice League" movie or another similar project. In the film, which was also produced by Legendary Pictures and Nolan's Syncopy Films, a satellite is emblazoned with the logo for Wayne Enterprises, the fictional company headed by Bruce Wayne.
Success at the box office for "Man of Steel" also could erase audiences' memories of Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns," which was panned by some critics and grossed a disappointing $200 million in the U.S. and Canada.
"I think people can forgive and people can forget," said Jonah Weiland, owner of the comic book news website Comic Book Resources, which also covers film news. "This movie looks nothing like 'Superman Returns.'"
"Man of Steel" is an edgier — and sometimes dark — version of the classic comic book story. Actor Henry Cavill's Superman is at times bearded and brooding — a far cry from earlier takes on the character. That edgier story was expected, given Nolan's involvement. The filmmaker, who is credited with the picture's story alongside screenwriter David Goyer, is known for his dark reimagining of the Batman saga in his recent "Dark Knight" trilogy. Those films successfully rebooted the caped character for Warner Bros., which released two much-derided movies about the superhero in the mid- to late 1990s.
With a focus on Superman's origin, "Man of Steel" has many elements — among them a sci-fi component, father-son relationship drama and plenty of hand-to-hand combat — that could appeal to a broad audience overseas. Robinov, who grew up reading Superman comics, is confident the movie will connect with audiences globally — but even if "Man of Steel" is a worldwide hit, a "Justice League" feature wouldn't be guaranteed.
"[Superman] is a 100% full-blown American character, but the movie is a very broadly appealing film," Robinov said. "What happens next is another conversation, whether it is a Superman sequel, or the introduction of a different character. We are working toward making films that utilize the full DC universe, but none of that is tied to or limited by this one movie."
Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.