Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated comics adaptation Justice League finally hit theaters this past weekend, and there’s no way around it: the film is a box office disappointment. The superhero team-up pulled in $94 million on opening weekend (adjusted down today from yesterday’s estimates of $96 million), the lowest bow yet for a DCEU film and well below expectations (it was pegged at $110 million last week). But you may be asking, how is almost $100 million a disappointment? It only made $7 million less than Wonder Woman, and that movie is considered a smashing success. Won’t it have legs? And what does this mean going forward? How did this happen? Well, it’s complicated. Let’s break it down.
First, here’s the opening weekend box office of every DCEU movie thus far:
Man of Steel – $103 million
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – $166 million
Suicide Squad – $135 million
Wonder Woman – $106 million
Justice League – $94 million
One of the primary reasons Justice League is considered a disappointment is simply because it’s a film teaming up all the major DC superheroes, and yet it opened to less than the previous standalone movies. That’s antithetical to what Warner Bros. was hoping with Justice League, and certainly in stark contrast to The Avengers’ record-setting $207 million opening weekend in the wake of four previous standalone Marvel movies. The idea here was for Justice League to be the biggest of the bunch, because theoretically you bring in the fans of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman as well as those curious to see what Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg are up to. Clearly that didn’t happen.
The other main reason Justice League’s box office is disappointing is math. $94 million may seem like a lot of money, but not in relation to Warner Bros.’ investment in the film. The movie’s production budget alone is said to be north of $300 million, and that’s not even including marketing costs, which add roughly anther $150 million on top of that. So, roughly, Justice League would need to make around $450 million simply to hit the break-even mark (it’s currently at $281 million worldwide). Justice League was clearly an expensive movie to begin with, but the costs ballooned even further when significant reshoots took place over the summer, said to total around $25 million extra.
So if Lady Bird, a movie with a budget of $10 million, scored a $94 million opening weekend that would be tremendous. But when a major superhero blockbuster sequel with a pricetag in the hundreds of millions of dollars opens under $100 million, that’s cause for concern. That’s part of the reason why Marvel Studios aims to keep the budgets of its films relatively in check. Thor: Ragnarok’s reported production budget was around $180 million, which is still a lot of money, but the margin for error is a bit bigger given that the break-even point is lower. For a more 1:1, the gross production budget of The Avengers—a comparable film given its large ensemble cast—was $220 million, but that movie scored over $200 million opening weekend and went on to hit over $1.5 billion worldwide. The investment was hefty, but so was the return.
Some are saying it’s unfair to call Justice League a disappointment at this early stage because the film could have legs in the weeks to come, just like Wonder Woman. And yes, that’s possible, but there are a few factors that point to a lack of longevity at the box office here. For one, we’re about to hit a very crowded corridor of new releases, from Coco to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Also, Wonder Woman enjoyed wildly positive reviews that convinced people to give it a shot in the ensuing weeks who may not have shown up opening weekend. The film kept going and going and going until it hit $821 million worldwide. Wonder Woman also enjoyed positive word-of-mouth, as evidenced by an A CinemaScore.
A quick digression: CinemaScore is a weird thing, and it’s important not to put too much stake in it. It works like this: on opening weekend, CinemaScore polls audiences leaving the theater on Friday night, asking them how much they enjoyed the movie they just saw. The polling sample is only those seeing the movie on opening night, so it’s less a general audience score and more an indication of how well the film played with those it directly targeted in marketing. If the idea of marketing is to sell a movie and convince people to see it ASAP, CinemaScore tells you what those people who were swayed by the marketing thought of the film. Most CinemaScores are in the A and B range, but it’s pretty heavily weighted—while a B+ may seem like a good grade, it’s somewhat low considering the folks grading it jetted out to the theater to see this movie the first chance they got.
So Wonder Woman’s A CinemaScore gave an indication the film might have strong legs, while Justice League’s B+ CinemaScore indicates there may be a chance that word-of-mouth isn’t as strong. For reference, Batman v Superman’s CinemaScore was a B, Suicide Squad was a B+, and Man of Steel was an A-. By contrast, the only Marvel Studios movie thus far to receive a CinemaScore below an A- is Thor with a B+—but again, that’s more an indication of how well those films matched their marketing than how “good” the movies are.
But back to the box office. How did Justice League open so low? Well a number of factors were likely at work. First, there was already apprehension about the DC Extended Universe. Reviews for Man of Steel were mixed, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad both scored mostly negative reviews, and Wonder Woman is the outlier with a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The track record, at least from a critical standpoint, was spotty at best, so some audience members may have been waiting for a critical consensus to see if Justice League was worth their time and money. As it turns out, reviews for the superhero team-up were once again mixed-negative, so that may have deterred some folks from seeking the film out.