Time to sound like a broken record regarding box office logic.
In the battle of Marvel vs. DC, it looks like the latter had a win over the weekend as Suicide Squad squashed the August box office record previously held by the former’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But it’s really a story of a tortoise and a hare. Marvel’s movie was slower out of the gate with its $94m debut ($101m adjusted for inflation) but wound up with a very impressive domestic total of $333m ($357m adjusted). Suicide Squad shot out with $134m, but it’s very possible that in the long run it will fall way behind.
The analogy works further, as the Marvel and DC superhero mega-franchises are very different in their approach and quality. Marvel, of course, took a long time finding its footing as a source for comic book movies, and when the publisher spawned a studio and started on the course of what became the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they did so with unproven characters. But because they produced strong stories featuring those characters, they managed to get hit after hit. Eventually they’d built a popular empire.
Guardians was certainly one of those unproven properties. Even a lot of people who’d been familiar with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, weren’t at all aware of Star-Lord, Gamora, or Groot. And it wasn’t really a superhero property, so despite Marvel’s successes through 2014, that year’s second MCU tentpole was not expected to be another sure thing. It could have been too weird or just too obscure for the masses. Strong marketing helped for a decent enough opening, but fortunately the movie had legs.
Compare that to the DC Extended Universe, which has been rushed and sloppy as a result. But the thing DC and its longtime studio Warner Bros. have had to their advantage is a head start. They’d made many great movies out of Superman and Batman and have additional brand awareness from numerous TV shows, such as the ‘70s Wonder Woman series. DC has hit some walls over the years, but they’re still able to ride on their reputation, especially thanks to The Dark Knight being the peak of the genre.
The mainstream familiarity of the DCEU staples has turned out to be a problem more than a benefit, however. Although it’s clear the makers of this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad intended to deliver interesting and entertaining movies, they still didn’t put enough thought into them, and perhaps they didn’t have enough time to, especially when it came to changes made past the pre-production step. And for the studio, they didn’t need to, because they knew the audience would come.
But premature excitement isn’t always a good thing. It makes for front-loaded success but no staying time. And the movies themselves are front-loaded in title and premise. Batman v Superman is an idea, not a movie, and DC thought that title, given its high demand, was enough to slap anything together just to fill the carton featuring that product name. To sort of steal a bit from the movie and use it against them, they had a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947, spilled out the wine, and filled it with piss.
Ironically, there’s very little that Zack Snyder could have done with Batman v Superman to make it satisfy whatever we all anticipated from the premise and its promise. Suicide Squad is a little different. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, at its base it’s a strange, less-charted concept with a lot of characters as unknown as Superman and Batman are famous. Still, it is an intriguing idea, grouping a bunch of villains as a team of antiheroes. And DC sold that idea to us hook, line, and sinker, as a gunpowder-filled barrel of fun.
That wasn’t enough, though. The movie also had to throw in Batman v Joker as a marketable asset. It’s like if Marvel had tossed in Iron Man and Loki into Guardians just to make sure. Well, you don’t have to just make sure if you have the goods. Sure, great movies fail all the time. But not so often these kinds of movies. Neither Guardians nor Suicide Squad are going to open low, because they do have their franchise brands stamped on them and they’re at least slightly essential to following those franchises forward.
For evidence that Suicide Squad is not going to go the distance against Guardians – more hard fact than just returning to the tortoise and hare analogy to point out that the tortoise literally has more legs – we can look at the former’s 54% drop in attendance from Friday to Sunday. That’s very close to as bad as Batman v Superman’s record 55% fall. Comparatively, Guardians had only a 34% drop. And that was still great for Marvel. This year, for instance, Captain America: Civil War had a 45% decline.
Basically, we need to stop paying so much attention and definitely so much value on strong opening weekends and box office record-breaking. I sound like a broken record myself when it comes to this issue, but movies are going to keep breaking records because ticket prices are going to keep rising. Every industry sees record-breaking of that nature due to inflation, but Hollywood is the only one that keeps trying to deceive us with its supposed significance. Movies like this will open big. On the first day and the first weekend.
What is always more interesting is the long tail, and what could be more interesting about this story is that Suicide Squad could wind up doing better than Batman v Superman in some aspects. It might be a slightly more re-watchable movie. It’s actually less logically comprehensible but it also has more individual enjoyable moments and characters. Unless the reviews (also a front-loading issue) turn enough people off, it could have more stamina than its bigger franchise brother and take in more money.
At least domestically. Batman v Superman made less than Guardians at home but more worldwide. It also did better initially in many global markets than Suicide Squad, though the latter did out-gross its sibling in a few, including Australia (thanks to Margot Robbie and maybe Jai Courtney and his boomerang-throwing national cliche of a character). But thanks to its darker content and maybe its supernatural elements, Suicide Squad probably won’t be playing in China, which gave Batman v Superman almost $100m.
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Suicide Squad also has more room to grow. Many who disliked or were disappointed by the movie wouldn’t mind seeing some characters return for an improved sequel or spinoff. Robbie’s Harley Quinn, for example, is still a favorite. Will Smith’s Deadshot has some fans. Whereas audiences walked away from Batman v Superman unsure of the future for those title characters and other heroes. But DC doesn’t really have to worry about that, because Justice League already has most of them returning for the name alone.