Features and Columns · Movies

‘Shazam’ Gives DCEU Its Smallest Opening (and That’s Okay)

The former Captain Marvel didn’t have a super-big debut, but like its onscreen hero, it should eventually take flight.
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on April 8th, 2019

If it weren’t for the international popularity of superhero movies, Shazam! would be in trouble. Only 5.9 million people said his name at the North American box office over the weekend, selling enough tickets to put the DC movie in first place but not enough for any distinction within its genre let alone franchise. In fact, the Zachary Levi-led superhero comedy had the lowest debut attendance for any comic book adaptation with such a hefty screen count (4,217) ever.

Fortunately, Aquaman‘s own opening was fairly modest a few months ago, too, and that DC Extended Universe installment had ginormous legs, and not just overseas. The previous entry in the franchise debuted to an audience of just 7.5 million and that first-weekend figure wound up being only 20% of its total domestic gross (the movie also boasts the biggest worldwide gross of the franchise). And Shazam! has a better CinemaScore grade (‘A’) and a better Rotten Tomatoes score (91%, the second best of the DCEU), so it could similarly hang around a while.

Here are the DCEU titles ranked by domestic debut with total attendance in parentheses:

1. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): 19.3 million (38.3 million)
2. Suicide Squad (2016): 15.7 million (38.2 million)
3. Man of Steel (2013): 13.9 million (35.3 million)
4. Wonder Woman (2017): 11.5 million (46.1 million)
5. Aquaman (2018): 7.5 million (37.1 million)
6. Shazam (2019): 5.9 million (TBD)

This is what the DCEU needs right now, quality movies that audiences may not discover right away but that garner fans eventually and see those fans return again and again. The worst-case scenario for Shazam!, other than it not finding its footing enough before Avengers: Endgame shows up later this month, is that too many dismiss the movie for being a superhero comedy rather than just a superhero blockbuster. For that subgenre, Shazam! had the best non-Deadpool live-action debut.

Outside of the comedic tendencies of some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, small-scale funny superhero films are not the most lucrative. But they’re also not always as costly as the real tentpole superhero genre offerings. Many box office pundits are comparing Shazam! to Ant-Man, which is the lightest installment of the MCU and unsurprisingly had the lowest debut attendance of the 21 movies in that series. At 6.9 million people, though, that’s still better than Shazam!‘s opening.

At the point of Marvel’s unstoppable run, however, Ant-Man couldn’t possibly sell any fewer tickets. The MCU brand was just too strong. Meanwhile, moviegoers have a lack of trust in the DCEU and may be taking their time with each new installment, especially one with a lesser awareness in the grand scheme of pop culture. It’s no wonder that Shazam! was tracking for fewer than 5 million ticket sales earlier this year. At least the movie over-performed compared to its forecast attendance, especially when you consider the fact that the movie had a soft single-night preview opening a couple of weeks ago.

Pet Sematary, meanwhile, underperformed. And that’s okay, too. The remade Stephen King adaptation pulled in 2.7 million people for second place, and that’s a strong second for being opposite a DC superhero movie. However, early tracking on this one gave Paramount the expectation of a number closer to 3.2 million, and Box Office Pro was still showing an anticipated opening figure equivalent to that number last week. The good thing is that Pet Sematary didn’t cost much either, and its domestic gross is already above the reported $20 million budget for the horror movie.

The question, though, is was remaking this movie worth it? Well, the new adaptation received somewhat favorable reviews to the 1989 version (60% versus 48% on Rotten Tomatoes) but audience reaction on opening night, via CinemaScore polling, showed some disappointment (‘C+’ grade versus the original’s ‘B’). And despite debuting on fewer than half as many screens, the 1989 adaptation still sold many more tickets (3 million) than the current release. In fact, the original is still among the top three debuts for a King-based movie. And will likely remain one of its top 10 hits overall. The new Pet Sematary will not go down as prominently in history.

Here are the top 10 King adaptations ranked by domestic debut with total attendance in parentheses, proof that outside of IT, we’re still not exactly seeing the fruits of the King movie resurgence at the box office yet):

1. IT: Chapter One (2017): 13.8 million (36.5 million)
2. The Green Mile (1999): 13.5 million (26.1 million)
3. Pet Sematary (1989): 3.03 million (14.5 million)
4. 1408 (2007): 2.99 million (10.5 million)
5. Secret Window (2004): 2.94 million (7.7 million)
6. Pet Sematary (2019): 2.7 million (TBD)
3. Dreamcatcher (2003): 2.5 million (5.6 million)
4. Sleepwalkers (1992): 2.4 million (7.4 million)
5. Misery (1990): 2.4 million (14.5 million)
6. The Dark Tower (2017): 2.1 million (5.7 million)

In other box office news, Claire Denis’ latest, High Life, had the best per-screen attendance with its opening weekend crowd of 11,000 spread out over just four locations. The new-old Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace also had a terrific average in its restart debut (the doc had a brief awards-qualifying run last December) with 9,700 tickets sold at just eight locations. In not-so-positive results, The Best of Enemies failed to make a lot of friends at the box office, while Disney’s Dumbo is falling fast, dropping more than 60% in its second weekend after initially disappointing in its debut.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Shazam! — 5.9 million (6.3 million)
2. Pet Sematary — 2.7 million (2.7 million)
3. Dumbo – 2 million (8.4 million)
4. Us – 1.5 million (16.9 million)
5. Captain Marvel – 1.4 million (41.4 million)
6. The Best of Enemies – 0.5 million (0.5 million)
7. Five Feet Apart – 0.397 million (4.6 million)
8. Unplanned – 0.36 million (1.4 million)
9. Wonder Park — 0.24 million (4.7 million)
10. How to Train Your Dragon 3 – 0.22 million (17.4 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.