Everything surrounding superhero movies involves a perversion of scale. When spending the equivalent of the GDP of a second world nation on properties centered upon flying humans who defend planetary destruction from supernal villains standards can become skewed. In this fashion, the performance of “Justice League” has many — both executives and fans — shaking their heads.
For the weekend the film drew $96 million. That is an enormous amount of money. It is also an unqualified failure from the standpoint of the studio, Warner Brothers. Though not an outright “bomb,” Warners was looking for a better return on investment because everything is relative to these kinds of films. A massive audience reaction is expected, so a sprawling enterprise is created to attract them. This leads to very warped measures of “success”.
Now, how can it be that a $100 million opening weekend is considered a dismal return? Isn’t that a figure that usually leads to the term Blockbuster getting tossed around, so how could it be bad? One way is that “JL” is the lowest opening weekend for any title from what has been dubbed “The DC Universe.” This is made starker as this specific title was an event picture meant to greatly expand the DCU. To find a lower opening for a DC property you need to reach back to the laughably inept “Green Lantern” from 2011.
Measuring against other similar types of titles further explains the misfire. Marvel recently released “Thor: Ragnarok” which was warmly received and opened to a $121 million weekend. The precursor to this title was the Warners/DC release “Batman vs. Superman” which opened to $166 million. The “Justice League” numbers were actually close to those of “Wonder Woman” from earlier this summer.
Each of those is a character franchise entry, while “JL” is an ensemble piece with the appearances and introductions of numerous characters. It is considered a far more sprawling title. The direct comparison, of course, would be to Marvel’s group outing, “The Avengers.” That initial entry drew $207 million on its opening weekend, and its sequel (“Age of Ultron”) came close, with a $191 million debut. Also “Captain America: Civil War,” another multi-hero effort, drew $180 million.
The best illustration of the disappointment lies with the “Wonder Woman” comparison. While the two films are close in opening performances ($96m / $103m), “Justice League” cost twice as much to make, sporting a towering $300 million budget. As it stands, after rolling in other expenses like marketing and distribution, it has been estimated the film needs to gross between $700-750 million worldwide before seeing a profit.
So what exactly went wrong? How did this surefire event picture manage to repel audiences when they were expected to arrive by the truckload? To show you the challenge the studio now faces, with “Wonder Woman,” the opening weekend was a surprise and it generated exciting coverage. It became an event picture and people wanted to see what the excitement was all about, evidenced by the impressive 4x multiple. A film finally earning more than twice or three times its opening weekend is considered strong.
With “Justice League,” the opposite may occur. While “Batman vs. Superman” had a great debut, the word of mouth was largely disappointment. This was displayed by its final box office take being only double its opening weekend. If JL incurs that same kind of backlash then trouble may be ahead. This has not been a critical darling either. Rotten Tomatoes has the title sitting at a poor 39%. While many like to claim these films are critic-proof there is always some fan-boy fervor surrounding the critical aggregator with their beloved titles. Face it — while bad reviews may not prevent fans from going they will not drive additional people to theaters.
The BvS lead-in was also a drain on this release. For all of the flaming that early effort absorbed from fandom, the studio did little to address those issues. Director Zach Snyder returned, and he delivered a film that was just as dark and moody and distancing. Even the late inclusion of director Joss Whedon was not enough to perk up the result with his trademark froth and dialogue. (Snyder left the project for a family tragedy, just after principal photography wrapped. Whedon took over the reshoots and editing process.)
Another drain on the film’s finances was that other heroic entity in theaters, “Thor.” Released just 2 weeks prior, Marvel’s god of thunder pulled in $21 million this weekend. Move that cash over to the JL side of the ledger and you have the movie coming in right around its projections. But “Thor” represents another issue with the DC films. Marvel originally intended to release their film in the summer, but in an effort to be sure it was getting the elements correct the studio was willing to push the date back. That discipline was rewarded, as “Ragnarok” is performing better than the two previous “Thor “ releases.
The fact is DC has a number of challenges facing them in the coming months, based on this early return. For this ambitious, expensive, character-launch of a film to perform in this pedestrian fashion — and in a holiday box office frame, no less — has to deliver shudders. With the greater DCU hinged upon this particular property, the depressed turnout should be cause for Warner Brothers to step back and reassess much of what it is planning for its future slate of titles.