NEW YORK • Pitched battles between superheroes with huge fan bases? Check.
Enough explosions to flatten several Manhattans? Check.
Budgets costing more than US$250 million (S$344.9 million), not counting lavish marketing campaigns?
On paper, this season's big superhero action films - Captain America: Civil War and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice - from rival studios Disney and Warner Bros could almost be the same movie - so similar are their plots, action sequences and allusions to heavyweight themes of topical interest.
Still, Batman V Superman would seem to have the edge where it really matters to the studios, which is at the box office.
It opened first, on March 25. It had the two most valuable intellectual properties in the comic book universe, appearing together in starring roles. And it had enough A-list Hollywood talent to fill a multiplex.
Yet, the results are in and it is not even close. The theatrical run of Batman V Superman is all but over, with a worldwide box-office gross of US$871 million. Captain America has surged past US$1 billion in just three weeks.
Warner insists its film will earn a profit. However, given that the studio gets only about half the box-office gross, any profit margin will be slim after deducting the film's enormous production and marketing costs.
That has to be a disappointment, considering what the studio must have expected.
More worrisome for Warner and its parent, Time Warner, is that Batman V Superman was supposed to reboot the entire DC Comics universe and create a multi-billion- dollar superhero franchise to rival Marvel's. Now, that is in question.
"This is a significant misstep for the DC brand," said Mr Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Co.
"They've damaged their credibility with their audience. I'm not saying they can't recover, but their next few movies had better be really good."
At one level, the explanation for the outcome is simple: Captain America is a much better movie.
Critics have praised it and panned Batman V Superman.
After a big opening weekend, attendance at Batman V Superman plunged, suggesting bad word-of- mouth. On website Rotten Tomatoes, 91 per cent of the audience said they liked Captain America. Just 67 per cent liked Batman V Superman.
The starkly different outcomes show how difficult it is to make a successful blockbuster, even for a studio with an enviable track record like Warner Bros.
But whatever secret code of art and science produces a superhero blockbuster, Disney seems to have cracked it.
Captain America is the 13th consecutive successful instalment in the Marvel film universe. After buying Marvel for US$4 billion, Disney has turned even obscure comic book characters into box- office bonanzas (Ant-Man) and it has managed to combine them in unexpected yet captivating ways.
Much of the credit goes to Mr Kevin Feige, the 42-year-old president of Marvel Studios, who runs the studio with an unusual degree of artistic independence.
He reports to Mr Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who gives him wide latitude.
Mr Horn was pushed out as president of Warner Bros, even after overseeing the successful Dark Knight Batman trilogy.
People say Mr Feige lives and breathes the Marvel universe and has a deep and intuitive understanding of its characters and their fans.
"He's a total film and comic book buff," said Hollywood analyst Michael Nathanson.
By contrast, no one seems sure exactly who is responsible for Batman V Superman. Warner has long been known as a director's studio, meaning ultimate creative control lies with the director, which was presumably the case with Zack Snyder, director of Batman V Superman.
Still, "it felt like film-making by committee," Mr Creutz said.
"You can't just do it by formula. That's not how creativity works. You need someone with a vision who can make something great. There are only a limited number of people who can do that."
Snyder may not be one of those people. He previously directed the 2013 Superman re-introduction, Man Of Steel, which was not exactly a resounding success. It grossed about US$668 million and just 75 per cent of the audience on Rotten Tomatoes liked it.
"I haven't studied his work, but when Zack Snyder was named, I heard doubts about whether he was the right director for this movie," Mr Nathanson said. "He didn't have the track record to deliver a movie this important."
Mr Creutz agreed: "Looking at this objectively, he wasn't the right choice." Marvel has invested many years and billions of dollars building its stable of characters.
"Audiences have been with these characters for eight to nine years," Mr Nathanson said.
Mr Creutz added: "Marvel introduced its characters in stand-alone movies. Then, it did the big tie-in movie with multiple characters. Warner said, 'Let's start with the tie-in movie.' But multi- hero and multi-villain movies are very hard to pull off."
Warner seems to be heeding the criticism. It recently shuffled the management team overseeing the DC film universe.
"We've heard from the critics, the fans and the film-makers who worked on this," said head of corporate communications at Warner Bros Dee Dee Myers.
"We try to learn from every film and make the best movie we can the next time. We feel we're in a good position. We're very excited about Suicide Squad coming out in August and Wonder Woman."
Batman V Superman is just one film.
"What Warner is trying to do makes a ton of sense," Mr Nathanson said. But execution is difficult.
"Hopefully, the saga isn't over," he added.
NEW YORK TIMES