What a difference a week makes. Last Monday, the story of Suicide Squad was that it overcame a thrashing from critics to score an August record opening of $133.7 million. It was also the best opening ever for a new superhero property. Yesterday was far less celebratory when final box office numbers showed Suicide Squad dropped 67.4% in its second weekend, close to Batman v Superman‘s 69.1% nosedive five months ago.
Early tracking gave Suicide Squad a chance at a $50 million second weekend and a more respectable drop of 62.6%. As the weekend began and box office projections diminished, however, a familiar debate ensued. After five months of arguing over just how successful Batman v Superman was or wasn’t, people can now have the exact same argument over Suicide Squad.
The truth for both DC Extended Universe movies in 2016 is the same. Both have enjoyed significant financial success despite being lampooned by critics. Both films also have questions regarding general audience response that could lead to potential problems in the future.
In addition to its record opening weekend, Suicide Squad has amassed $466 million in global box office receipts thus far. That is already the sixth highest total for the debut film in a new comic book movie franchise. Suicide Squad will definitely surpass Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man ($519.4m) for fifth place and is likely to eclipse Iron Man ($585.2m) for fourth. It won’t go any higher than fourth place, however, as Suicide Squad will not have the legs or the release in China needed to catch Guardians of the Galaxy ($773.3m) for third.
Suicide Squad has an advantage over its fellow superhero movie rookies. It features advertised appearances by Batman (Ben Affleck) and The Joker (Jared Leto), two of the most popular comic book (and film) characters in history. Even so, finishing in the top four or five of rookie superhero franchises is an impressive feat.
Batman v Superman enjoyed its own box office success earlier this year. It had the fifth best opening weekend ever for a superhero movie ($166m) and finished with the genre’s eighth best global total ($872.7m). It can be reasonably argued that Batman v Superman should have taken in over $1 billion at the box office since Batman did that on his own in his previous two films, but underperforming is not the same as bombing.
Adding in Man of Steel and very conservatively ending Suicide Squad‘s box office at $550 million, Warner Bros. will have averaged a global haul of $697 million per DCEU entry. Some DC fans are happy to point out just how much more money the DCEU has earned in its first three films compared to Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the record, the MCU’s first three films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2) earned an average of $491 million per film. More realistically, Suicide Squad‘s final total should push the DCEU average over $700 million and widen the gap even more.
Understandably, this comparison makes DC fans (and probably Warner Bros.) feel better about the state of their preferred cinematic universe, but it rings false for multiple reasons. First, comparing the first three films in each universe isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples.
The DCEU began with a film about arguably the most iconic superhero of all time (Man of Steel), followed by a film featuring that hero and the only other superhero that might be even more iconic plus another huge icon in Wonder Woman (Batman v Superman), and then added a film about relatively unknown characters that still had appearances by Batman and the most popular comic book movie villain of all time — The Joker (Suicide Squad).
The MCU began with a character that was relatively unknown to average moviegoers in Iron Man. The was followed by The Incredible Hulk, a film about an iconic Marvel character, though not nearly on the level of Batman and Superman and not a team-up film. Iron Man 2, a sequel featuring the now popular title character, closed out the first three films of the MCU.
That does not change the DCEU’s early average being better than that of the MCU. It just points out that the DCEU, based on the films it released as its first three, should have had higher box office grosses than the MCU. The MCU may have even helped the DCEU out a bit by getting audiences excited about shared superhero universes once Marvel Studios really hit it big with The Avengers ($1.52b) in 2012.
There could be another difference in terms of profitability, as Marvel kept its production budgets at a reported average of $163.3 million compared to DC’s $216.7m. That said, estimating true profitability is tricky since the reported budget is not always the same as the actual production budget and none of those figures include marketing costs. Also, box office revenue represents only one revenue stream while these films have several via licensing, home entertainment, and more.
The biggest difference between the first three films of the MCU and the DCEU points to the potential trouble on the horizon for Warner Bros. There was much more positive consensus around the early MCU films than there has been for the DCEU’s initial entries. Marvel came out strong with Iron Man, one of the best-reviewed superhero films of all time (94% on Rotten Tomatoes). General audiences also loved it, giving the film an A CinemaScore and only a 48.1% drop in its second weekend.
The Incredible Hulk remains Marvel’s lowest grossing entry ($263.4m), but it still picked up a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes (67%) and an A- CinemaScore while dropping 60.1% in its second weekend. Iron Man 2 may not have the greatest reputation among MCU fans, but critics liked it enough (72%) while audiences awarded the film the same A CinemaScore as its predecessor. Its second weekend drop was 59.4%,
The DCEU has not fared nearly as well with critics. None of its films have a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad each posting an abysmal 27%. More troubling than that, however, is the response from audiences.
Man of Steel started things off with a respectable A- CinemaScore before falling 64.6% in its second weekend. That’s not a great hold, but it’s better than the aforementioned second weekend drops of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. In CinemaScore polling, audiences respectively rated BvS and SS a B and a B+.
Box office openings, holds, and totals are all hard, factual data, as are CinemaScore survey results. There is no way around what the numbers (or letters are). How that data is interpreted, though, can be a matter of opinion and it is when trying to figure out what all of this information means in terms of how audiences feel about the DCEU going forward.
Generally speaking, a CinemaScore below the “A” range suggests that general audience word-of-mouth will be okay, but not emphatically positive. Basically, the average moviegoer may have liked the movie, sort of, but he or she is not telling friends that they have to see it. The B CinemaScore audiences gave Batman v Superman is the same rating they gave such legendary superhero bombs as Catwoman, Elektra, and Green Lantern.
That is obviously not good company. Suicide Squad hovers a bit above that group with its B+ CinemaScore, but its second weekend decline is the ninth largest of any Marvel or DC-based superhero film since 2000. Batman v Superman‘s second weekend drop is the third largest in that category.
|Title||Rotten Tomatoes||CinemaScore||Weekend 1||Weekend 2||Drop|
|Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice||27%||B||$166,007,347||$51,335,254||69.08%|
|X-Men Origins: Wolverine||38%||B+||$85,058,003||$26,408,288||68.95%|
|Punisher: War Zone||27%||B-||$4,271,451||$1,383,898||67.60%|
|X-Men: The Last Stand||58%||A-||$102,750,665||$34,017,247||66.89%|
As I’ve been writing this article, I’ve been asked about a couple potential reasons for Suicide Squad‘s big drop. The first question was whether the big drop was simply the result of the film having such a huge opening. That theory does not hold up, however, because there have been fourteen superhero films that have opened at over $100 million and out of those, only three films (all in the table above) dropped more than 65% in their second frame. The average second weekend drop for the other eleven is 56.6%.
The other theory is that Suicide Squad dropped more heavily than it otherwise would have due to Sausage Party and Pete’s Dragon opening last weekend. That’s a fine theory since competition can always play a factor, but it still does not hold up as the primary cause here since superhero movies, when audiences love them, can withstand other strong contenders at the box office.
Two years ago, Guardians of the Galaxy opened the first weekend in August, just like Suicide Squad did this year. In its second weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy had to compete against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film with at least as much and probably more audience overlap than Suicide Squad‘s new competition last weekend. TMNT opened at $65.6 million, significantly more than the combined total of $55.8 million of Sausage Party and Pete’s Dragon. Against tougher competition, GOTG only dropped 55.3%.
Since you’ve read this far (thanks, you two), I’ll toss out one more potential argument against the significance of these second weekend drops. There has been some thought that superhero fatigue, that thing that has yet to be proven to have any meaningful existence, is to blame. This does not hold up any better than the last two arguments since the average second weekend drop for Marvel/DC-based superhero films since 2013 (when the DCEU began) is 61.3%, with all DCEU films having drops that were worse than the average. The MCU has an average second weekend drop of 57.6% in that timeframe with all seven films receiving an A- or better CinemaScore.
Audiences are still showing up to see superhero films and sending their friends to do the same when the movies are good. That process is still happening and it is something the DCEU has missed out on, especially this year. As we already established, though, the DCEU movies are still bringing in large sums of cash. The bigger issue with these CinemaScore grades and box office drops is what it all means for the DCEU next year and beyond.
The data suggests audiences are not loving the DCEU films as much as Warner Bros. would want them to and that could spell trouble in the near future. The massive opening weekends reveal strong brand interest and great work by the WB marketing department. That is fantastic news and it’s a starting point most studios would envy. Movies that do not live up to audience’s expectations, however, are a very real threat to the audience’s trust and interest in the DC brand.
If you’re looking for a definitive, historical pattern between CinemaScore ratings, second weekend box office drops, and follow up film performance, there isn’t one. I checked. There have been movies that did poorly in those respects, but still paved the way to successful sequels and movies that did well only to have their sequels tank anyway. They are important pieces of information, but not the be all end all of a franchise’s future prospects.
Part of the reason for the lack of a definitive pattern is a relatively small sample size. Most films that suffer from poor CinemaScore grades and steep box office declines do not get sequels. Most of the superhero films in the table above did not (to be fair, Watchmen was never supposed to). The exceptions are the X-Men films, which had to take a bit of a detour and suffer some diminishing returns with X-Men: First Class before roaring back with both The Wolverine and, to a much greater extent, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Warner Bros. passed on a sequel to Green Lantern after its poor audience reception (and is taking a very slow approach to bringing the property into the DCEU). Of course, that film completely bombed, which BvS and SS did not. Also, there’s a lot more at stake with the DCEU as a giant collection of franchises as opposed to just being a single series.
Outside of Marvel and DC, 2016 has been a cautionary tale for sequels to movies that had a mixed audience reception. It may not have been going on long enough to be a definitive pattern, but a trend is developing.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising followed up Neighbors, a B CinemaScore student, but could not even reach half of its predecessor’s worldwide box office. The same thing happened to The Huntsman: Winter’s War as it tried to follow up on Snow White and the Huntsman (B CinemaScore) back in April.
Of more interest to the superhero genre, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (A- CinemaScore) also suffered the same fate. Almost everyone who saw the film agreed that it was better than 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (B CinemaScore), but it was too late for more than half of the audience who did not even bother with the second installment.
Warner Bros. has to be looking at those sequels and similar examples this year and know that the DCEU needs to get better fast. There’s no need to abandon ship, but rather accept that everything is not necessarily okay and fix what isn’t working. The improvement needs to happen before the audience stops bothering to even check if the movies are any better.
Each film produced is a new opportunity to market to the mainstream audience and convince them that a studio’s upcoming film is worth seeing regardless of what’s come before. Marketing has already been huge for WB/DC, with Suicide Squad trailers that were so cool people no longer cared about what happened with Batman v Superman. The Wonder Woman trailer is great, so it’s possible audiences won’t hold any lingering disappointment from this year’s DC movies against WW next June.
This makes Wonder Woman the (new) most important movie in the DCEU. It was already important as the first Marvel or DC superhero film headlined by a female character in several years. Now it also needs to be the first DCEU film to deliver positive consensus across the board from critics, fans, and general audiences.
Wonder Woman is co-written by DC Entertainment President and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Along with Warner Bros. Executive Vice President Jon Berg, Johns was appointed to run DC Films in the wake of Batman v Superman a couple months ago. It was too late for Johns to do all that much about Suicide Squad, but Wonder Woman is a different story.
Production on Wonder Woman was pretty much done by the time Johns and Berg took over, but Johns co-wrote the script. He has obviously been an integral part of the film from early on, so people are not going to cut DC a break just because Johns was not in charge the whole time. He’s been there from the scripting stage and has the better part of a year to fix any issues stemming from production, which can include reshoots as needed.
When the guy who co-wrote the script is the one co-leading DC Films, there’s no better way to show the DCEU is finally in the right hands than for Wonder Woman to be as amazing as that trailer promises. Conversely, there is no worse outcome than having another mixed response to a DCEU movie that was co-written by one of the guys who’s in charge of DC Films and supposed to have been making things better for the past year.
Justice League is poorly positioned to play the role of DCEU savior. As the direct follow up to the general audience’s least favorite DCEU movie (based on the CinemaScore and steep box office declines), Justice League could be headed for TMNT: Out of the Shadows territory. It could be vastly superior to Batman v Superman, but suffer from the audience ruling it out in advance because of their previous dissatisfaction with the franchise. That challenge only gets more difficult if Wonder Woman extends DCEU’s streak of “Yeah, but…” successes.
It has to be Wonder Woman. While it’s generally unfair to pin so much on any one film, Wonder Woman is in a strong position to succeed. Everyone seems to be rooting for this film already. The trailer helped, but people already love Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman with many of Batman v Superman‘s toughest critics counting Gadot as a bright spot in the film.
Director Patty Jenkins made a great impression at Comic-Con and won many fans and even some DCEU critics over by passionately defending her film when an anonymous, former employee of Warner Bros. called Wonder Woman a mess in an open letter disparaging the studio. For what it’s worth, no one even knows what department that former employee ever worked in, so the “mess” claim seemed dubious to begin with.
There’s also the obvious point that people want Wonder Woman to succeed in order to show that there is and has been a huge market for superhero films led by characters that are not white men. The audience that shows up for every superhero film will be there, as will an under-served audience that has been waiting for superhero content more reflective of themselves.
Then there’s the less obvious point that Warner Bros., if the studio really lets him run the show, finally has the right person in charge with Geoff Johns. Nothing is guaranteed, but I can’t think of a single person currently employed by Warner Bros. who is a better fit to run DC Films (with Jon Berg) than Geoff Johns. As DC’s most prolific writer of the past two decades, Johns lives and breathes DC. He knows DC Comics through and through.
Better still, Johns is able to tap into the core concept of characters and amplify what makes them interesting to a broader audience. Sure, the movie bombed (not his fault), but Geoff Johns was the biggest reason Green Lantern became popular enough to get his own movie in the first place. Johns turned the nearly forgotten Green Lantern mythos into the most popular family of DC titles not named Batman.
Johns knows what works for DC. He also recognizes what DC has lost sight of along the way. His DC Rebirth one-shot this past May reads as a mission statement in getting DC characters back to a place of heroism rooted in optimism. The lack of hope has been one of the DCEU’s most frequently cited flaws and that is something Johns, if he truly has sufficient authority, will fix in 2017, beginning with Wonder Woman.
The DC Extended Universe has not died just as it was supposed to be getting started, nor has it enjoyed a completely successful introduction to mainstream moviegoers. The results for Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad have been mixed, but the rewards have been enough to incentivize Warner Bros. to keep working towards an improved product that should yield even better returns. Audiences love the DC brand enough to give it more chances, but that faith will need to be rewarded sooner rather than later.
June 2, 2017 sounds pretty good.