Prepare yourselves, true believers.
Marvel Studios is about to get out-Marveled.
Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are about to be disappointed. (Again.)
The record-breaking weekend box office number that Deadpool put up over Valentine’s Day weekend 2016? It’s going to stay at the top for comic book/superhero movies for a while, probably through the rest of the year.
How much did Deadpool make again?
According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, Deadpool, R-rating and all, brought in $132,464,639 in North America in its initial three days of release, including early Thursday night showings and IMAX showings. For the sake of keeping this analysis and projection as close to apples-to-apples as possible, this is the box office number to keep in mind, not the $150,000,000 four-day holiday weekend total often pointed to when talking about the film’s record-smashing success.
The reason for this is simple: two of 2016’s remaining major superhero films — Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Captain America: Civil War — do not open on weekends where Monday is a national holiday. Deadpool benefited from opening not only on Valentine’s Day weekend, traditionally a weekend when “date night” movie attendance goes up, but also on President’s Day weekend, so Monday business was more robust than it might have been otherwise. Yes, B v. S opens over Easter weekend this year, and Civil War has Mother’s Day weekend, but those holidays traditionally aren’t credited for boosting weekend box office take.
Giving Mr. Pool (and the studio behind him) his due
Credit Fox for a number of creative and marketing decisions that made Wade Wilson’s raunchy action romp such a juggernaut (apologies to Cain Marko) at cineplexes worldwide. The most important of these was, of course, the decision to trust in the dogged determination of those within the production, particularly Ryan Reynolds, who believed the product needed to carry an R-rating to give the fans what they wanted.
To fan boys and girls, that decision may seem like a no-brainer, but to bean counters and studio execs thinking about investments and not faithfulness to source material, this is a big deal. Going for an R-rating in a genre film generally equates to much lower box office expectations, as you’re cutting out (at least on paper) an entire demographic thanks to age restrictions. Have R-rated sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movies been blockbusters? Sure – The Matrix series, the original 300, and even The Crow way back in 1994 stand out in that regard. But it’s a relatively short list when compared to the number of highly profitable genre films that aimed instead for the PG-13 rating in order to keep families and the 13-and-under audiences in the mix when realistically projecting net revenue.
So yes, by showing some faith in the product and the view of the people in that product who knew it was only going to work if it was done a certain way, Fox positioned themselves to reap enormous benefits. Not only does Deadpool give fans what they want in terms of meeting source material expectations, it also provides a marked alternative in tone and content to the shinier, less bloody and less profane offerings coming from the other studios. Like it or not, Deadpool stands as evidence that there is a substantial market out there for ‘superheroes’ who turn profanity into an art form and leave large, bloody body counts in their wake via head shots and decapitations, something the others simply do not do.
So all that said, why won’t this year’s remaining tentpole superhero flicks match Deadpool‘s opening weekend success?
Bats and Supes in for uphill battle
To be fair, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice does have some elements working in its favor, perhaps the most important of which is anticipation. Audiences have been waiting now for two years plus to see Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go at each other, and there’s the added bonus of finally seeing Wonder Woman come to life on the big screen. Also, B v. S will benefit at least somewhat from the success enjoyed by its predecessor, 2013’s Man of Steel, which set box office records of its own when it first bowed in theaters in June 2013.
But coming on the heels of Man of Steel also has some drawbacks. For all the money that film made in its North American theatrical run — $117 million in its opening weekend, $291 million over 98 days of release — audience reactions to the film were decidedly mixed. The complaints ranged from the film being too long, too violent, too destructive, and too belabored in its third act climax to the fact that Superman was being portrayed by a British actor. Put all that together and you have an audience base that looks back at that film with ambivalence — if people are looking forward to seeing Batman v. Superman, its usually not because Man of Steel left them dying for a sequel.
There’s also the”Batfleck” factor. Regardless of the fact that Ben Affleck in the last decade has won Oscars, starred in and directed box office winners, and in general steered clear of box office stinkers, he’s still arguably defined by the period of his career marked by such howlers as Reindeer Games, Gigli, Surviving Christmas, Jersey Girl, and yes, his first outing as a costumed superhero, the much-maligned 2003 Daredevil film. For many people, especially Batman fans who didn’t unanimously embrace even a celebrated (if tempermental) actor like Christian Bale in the role, it’s simply impossible to see Affleck as the Dark Knight or his non-cowled alter ego, the handsome and haunted billionaire basket case Bruce Wayne. Granted, that skepticism can lead to the kind of morbid curiosity that often drives audiences to see films just because they can’t help themselves, but just as often it can lead to a production being written off altogether, or relegated to future Netflix or RedBox viewing.
And finally, well, Warner Bros. doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to bringing these projects to the success they seem bound for prior to release. To date, the only superhero property the studio has managed to deliver successfully on a consistent basis has been Batman. Yes, Man of Steel was a financial success, but its immediate predecessor, 2006’s Superman Returns, was considered a huge disappointment, and prior to that film the Superman film franchise was dormant for 19 years. Prior Wonder Woman feature films never got beyond the pre-production stage. The Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film is so maligned that even Reynolds himself took shots at it in Deadpool. And the 2007 Justice League film, which had a cast and a script in place, was doomed by an untimely writer’s strike. The studio seems snakebit when it comes to caped characters, and now they’re clearly rushing to play catch-up with the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel Studios profit train.
And speaking of Marvel Studios …
Civil War set to disappoint?
Honestly, Captain America: Civil War in all likelihood will deliver six figures when it opens on May 6. Unlike Warner Bros. and their previous track record, Marvel Studios has done nothing but deliver money-maker after money-maker, even when the fan base comes away from a particular film in the series less than satisfied with the results.
But there are signs of franchise fatigue, a phenomenon which could hold back Civil War from yet more unparalleled heights of profitability. One only has to look at last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron to see those signs manifesting themselves.
Believe it or not, from a box office standpoint, Avengers: Age of Ultron, despite being the #3 box office earner of 2015 behind #1 Jurassic World and #2 Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has been called a disappointment. Remember that line from Glengarry Glen Ross, delivered so memorably by Alec Baldwin?
“As you all know, First Prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
Prior to 2015, the idea that the Marvel profit machine could come in second, much less third, to any other genre property was unheard of. Yes, the might of the Star Wars phenomenon was undeniable, but how could the centerpiece of all of Marvel’s ambitions, the Avengers, fall short of beating out a dinosaur movie?
There’s also the fact that the first film did so well and raised expectations so high that Avengers: Age of Ultron was set up to fail by the very benchmarks it previously set. The film goes bigger, goes international, adds to the size of its ensemble, and, to be fair, does it all while maintaining the humor, balance of characterization, and eye-popping action that has been the hallmark of Marvel productions.
But the box office comparisons don’t lie: 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers made $207 million in its opening weekend. Age of Ultron, with all the anticipation built up from the phenomenally successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy behind it, “only” managed $188 million in its opening frame.
The lifetime theatrical grosses in comparison are even more telling. Marvel’s The Avengers? $623 million. Age of Ultron? $459 million.
What does that have to do with Captain America: Civil War? Plenty, if you consider that since the film’s enormous ensemble cast was announced, fans of the series have dubbed it “Avengers 2.5.”
IF that were actually true, and the film executed more like an Avengers film, then its potential for box office glory might actually be higher. But in truth, despite all evidence to the contrary, the main story beats that are being emphasized in the film’s trailers seems to point to this being a “Captain America” film, meaning its driven by Cap — his code of ethics, his relationships, his choices. And while Winter Soldier was a phenomenal success critically and commercially, Captain America’s appeal as a character to wider audiences simply is not the equal of some of his peers, perhaps most notably the appeal of the guy in the metal suit that Cap’s set to face off with in Civil War. How motivated audiences will be to see Captain America: Civil War will be determined somewhat by their enthusiasm for the Marvel series in general, but also by how invested they are in Captain America and his storylines, specifically.
So do people care about Cap trying to save Bucky, or potentially finding a love interest in Sharon Carter/Agent 13, played by the returning Emily VanCamp? Do they care about the world’s greatest soldier facing a crisis of conscience and a choice between which friend or friends to support and which to fight?
The answer just isn’t as much a resounding “Yes!” as Marvel and Disney would like to believe.
And what of Deadpool’s fellow mutants, the X-Men, and their new movie, also coming in May?
Fox’s “other” superhero offering this year (and isn’t it amazing that the X-Men franchise could be relegated to “other” status by a little movie starring the Merc with a Mouth) does have a few things going for it that B v. S and Civil War do not. For one, it opens on a bonafide four-day weekend, Memorial Day weekend, which may add to its Sunday totals as kids and families will be out a little later than they otherwise might be to see movies.
X-Men: Apocalypse also benefits from following up X-Men: Days of Future Past, a film that while its box office receipts fell short of franchise records was almost universally acclaimed by both critics and movie goers alike. DoFP currently stands at 91% on RottenTomatoes.com, and when it opened on Memorial Day Weekend in 2014 it delivered an impressive $90,823,660 three-day total in ticket sales. That may seem small in comparison with the six-figure takes we’ve been talking about thus far, but keep in mind that DoFP’s immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class, only managed $55,101,604 during its opening in June 2011. In effect, DoFP almost doubled First Class‘s initial take, and went on double the earlier film’s worldwide take. In every measurable way, X-Men: Days of Future Past legitimized the rebound of the X-Men franchise started with First Class, a rebound now continued by Deadpool.
That said, Days of Future Past had one thing going for it that X-Men: Apocalypse does not: Hugh Jackman and his alter ego, Wolverine.
Though the Wolverine solo films have been a mixed bag in terms of box office success, there’s no denying that having the character at the forefront of the X-Men ensemble efforts has done nothing but boost the films’ profit potential. When he’s been absent, as he was in First Class (no, the funny cameo doesn’t count), audiences have been less inclined to show up.
Yes, Apocalypse boasts the presence of two 2016 Academy Award nominees in prominent roles — Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender — and perhaps more importantly to fan boys and girls will introduce fan favorite character Betsy Braddock, a.k.a. Psylocke to the franchise. It will also re-introduce “classic” X-Men Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm played by younger actors, as befitting the film’s 80’s time frame, which should lend some curiosity value to the incentive for rushing out and seeing the film opening weekend.
But will that be enough? Again, look at DoFP‘s opening weekend – crushed by Deadpool‘s number. Apocalypse, despite its huge cast and equally impressive budget, in all likelihood just doesn’t have the mojo to beat out ol’ Wade out of the gate, and don’t be surprised if its totals for the entirety of its run fail to match, either.
Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe (and the DC one) … for now
So when will Deadpool‘s impressive box office number be topped next by another comic book franchise film?
Not in 2016, for certain. If the three major releases discussed here don’t do it, it’s a given that Doctor Strange in November won’t do it, either. Suicide Squad from Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment stands a better chance when it hits theaters in August, as its grittier tone and focus on villains bears a superficial resemblance to Deadpool in terms of approach. But a six-figure opening weekend is unlikely, even with fan favorite characters Joker and Harley Quinn prominent in the film’s marketing.
Look to 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to finally snatch bragging rights back to Marvel Studios from Wade Wilson’s lil’ bloody profane superhero movie that could.
Now if only the folks running Deadpool’s Twitter handle would keep up the snark and the gloating until then.