‘The Suicide Squad’ Accomplished Its Real Mission at the Box Office

The movie opened in theaters, people went to see it, the studio made some money, and most importantly of all, it came out more alive than ever.
The Suicide Squad

Welcome to our weekly box office report, which we do a little differently. Rather than focusing on the money, FSR senior editor Christopher Campbell is more interested in the estimated attendance — or number of tickets sold. Because the value of money changes over the years, but the value of actual moviegoers remains the same. This week, we look at the opening box office attendance numbers for The Suicide Squad.

It’s easy to look at the box office for The Suicide Squad as a disappointment compared to its 2016 predecessor. The former grossed just $26.3 million (updated with actual figure*) in its debut over the weekend, while David Ayer’s Suicide Squad did $134 million in its opening five years ago. In terms of attendance, that’s around 2.9 million people** for the new movie and 15.5 million for the older.

While the difference is huge, it’s not surprising. For many reasons. Firstly, The Suicide Squad would have seen a massive drop from Suicide Squad anyway because that was a frontloaded hit that few people really enjoyed. The general public doesn’t necessarily pay attention to why James Gunn’s take on the same material with a near-identical title would be any better. Even with the impressive critical distinction and buzz.

The truth is that there are not a lot of recognizable characters in The Suicide Squad. Even compared to its predecessor, which features the Joker and a cameo from Batman. Sure, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn has become a sub-brand in cinema all her own. But even her last showcase, the early 2020 DC movie Birds of Prey, only sold around 3.5 million tickets in its opening weekend.

DC Extended Universe Box Office Attendance

RankDCEU TitleOpening Weekend AttendanceTotal Attendance
1Batman v Superman (2016)19.2 million38.2 million
2Suicide Squad (2016)15.5 million37.6 million
3Man of Steel (2013)14.3 million35.8 million
4Wonder Woman (2017)11.5 million46 million
5Justice League (2017)10.5 million25.5 million
6Aquaman (2018)7.5 million36.8 million
7Shazam! (2019)5.8 million15.3 million
8Birds of Prey (2020)3.5 million9 million
9The Suicide Squad (2021)2.9 million2.9 million
10Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)1.8 million5.1 million

The Suicide Squad vs. Black Widow

For the time of its release, we’re better off comparing the box office for The Suicide Squad with that of Black Widow. For one thing, box office is all different right now due to seventeen months of COVID-19 fears and limitations. And it’s only getting worse, again. Sure, even then, it’s a matter of 2.9 million tickets sold versus the Marvel movie’s 8.8 million. Again, there’s a matter of how the mainstream moviegoer is enticed over a new Marvel Avenger movie over another Suicide Squad movie.

But I’m not looking to compare apples to apples. I’m actually interested in pointing out the apples to oranges of these two movies.

HBO Max vs. Disney+ — Pricing

What I’m really wanting to compare here is a superhero movie opening simultaneously on Disney+ and a superhero movie opening simultaneously on HBO Max. There is one huge factor contrasting these models. Black Widow‘s Disney streaming option required a subscription costing $7.99 plus a “Premier Access” surcharge of $29.99. Meanwhile, The Suicide Squad was available to all main-tier subscribers of HBO Max, which costs $14.99 per month.

So, obviously, the more appealing option is to stay home and check out The Suicide Squad if you have access without any extra effort — or cost. Or even if someone didn’t have HBO Max already and only had to pay $14.99. Maybe for the one time and then cancel. For a movie that many in the general audience would be skeptical of, that’s especially attractive.

Sadly, for Warner Bros., they don’t get to highlight an extra $30 million or whatever from HBO Max like even Jungle Cruise did two weeks ago. But there’s a chance that more people actually watched The Suicide Squad at home compared to Black Widow. I assume a lot of underage teenagers who’d be turned away by theaters likely saw it, too. Parents don’t know any better, or don’t care.

HBO Max vs. Disney+ — Timing

Here’s where I think the streaming alternative hurts HBO Max additionally: Thursday night. I was surprised to see so many people I know watching The Suicide Squad at home the night before the movie’s official release date of Friday, August 6th. All major new releases hit theaters on the evening ahead of their release, but I thought day-and-date streaming had a delay.

But the other difference between Disney+ and HBO Max is their timing. The former make their Premier Access titles available at midnight PT on the official release date. That means, say, Marvel fans wanting to be first to see Black Widow would be better off going to an early Thursday evening movie theater screening anyway. HBO Max put The Suicide Squad up on the site at 7 pm PT (though a friend of mine says he accessed it around 8 pm ET). Not much later than the first screenings on the East Coast and around the same time as the first on the West Coast.

Imagine you’re a movie lover who really wants to check out The Suicide Squad, but you’re not really able to go out on Thursday evening. And even though you would probably love to see it first on the big screen, well, it’s right there on your streaming channels early enough before your bedtime. I bet the HBO Max streaming numbers for The Suicide Squad on Thursday are astronomical.

What about other recent Warner Bros. titles?

Warner Bros.

Should I actually be looking more at The Suicide Squad‘s box office performance compared to other Warner Bros. and HBO Max day-and-date releases then? A few weeks ago, Space Jam: A New Legacy opened in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. The Looney Tunes basketball-focused sequel sold about a half-million more tickets in its debut.

Well, there are a few factors at play here. Space Jam 2 drew families based on kids’ excitement for the sport and the cartoon characters and parents’ nostalgia for the original. The Suicide Squad faced a number of hurdles, including its R rating. Also, the increased health risks of the COVID Delta Variant.

There’s a chance that a lot more people still saw The Suicide Squad in its first three days comparatively. While there’s no scientific weight to this, I think it’s interesting that more than seventy-thousand people have rated the DC movie on IMDb while just over forty-thousand have rated Space Jam 2. It’s also just more the sort of movie that brings fans to actively check off their viewership. Not unlike Letterboxd, where The Suicide Squad shows 121,000 viewers and Space Jam 2 shows 74,000. But it’s still curious.

The Suicide Squad Box Office vs. Expectations

The box office attendance for The Suicide Squad was actually not much lower than expected. At least not from the outlook a week ago. On Thursday, Box Office Pro forecast an opening weekend gross equivalent to around 3 million. With a range of anywhere between 2.7 million and  3.8 million. So, the movie performed within the window of expectations.

Of course, just two weeks earlier, the same experts were saying The Suicide Squad would sell at least 3.8 million tickets. And the high end of the range was around 6.5 million tickets. That was a long time ago in terms of the pandemic news cycle, however. Before studios started pulling titles off the release calendar again.

Critics vs. Audiences?

Sometimes it seems like critics and general audiences are different species. A lot of time, in fact. But maybe not so much this time around. The Suicide Squad received great reviews (Certified Fresh with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, 74 on Metacritic). Among the best for the current DC movie franchise. And its audience scores (85% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.1 on Metacritic) are close.

The Suicide Squad also earned a decent B+ grade from ticket buyers on opening night via Cinemascore polling. But so did the previous Suicide Squad! However, that movie’s current audience scores are also fairly poor (59% on Rotten Tomatoes, 6.0 on Metacritic). Not much better than its abysmal critical reception (26% on Rotten Tomatoes, 40 on Metacritic).

Word of mouth could be better for The Suicide Squad despite having the same Cinemascore grade, but that only helps more viewers tune in to the streaming option. The grade and the circumstances are not great for non-believers and undecideds suddenly deciding to go to the multiplex.

Did The Suicide Squad Fail?

You could make some fun metaphors out of the box office situation for The Suicide Squad. The premise of the movie involves a group of well-intentioned villains sent on a “suicide mission.” You could say the same thing about the movie itself, being sent out on a suicide mission to cinemas. It could fail at the box office but ultimately survive in the long run, or it could succeed in the mission at hand of getting the release into theaters even if it dies there. Both are sort of true depending on how you skew it and view it.

Ultimately, this is as good as things are getting right now for most movies, and it’s unfortunate that most of the good DC movies of late are suffering in the wake of so many bad ones. Personally, I think the best DC Extended Universe movies are better than the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but at least the latter franchise is consistently pretty good. The DCEU has some stinkers, like the first Suicide Squad, and some winners, like this one.

The Overall Success of The Suicide Squad

In the long run, movie fans should favor the second take. Warner Bros. should sell more copies of The Suicide Squad on home video over the years. (I don’t want to get into The Suicide Squad box office compared to The Suicide Squad budget, which is reportedly $185 million, as that’s up to in-house accountants.) They should have made a good amount in new subscriptions to HBO Max over the last week (hopefully many of them realizing how great their library is and stick around).

And they should be better off going forward with an improved reputation.

The DCEU’s record over the course of eleven movies (including Justice League twice) is now 6-5 in terms of Rotten Tomatoes freshness. For the last seven releases, however, the record is 6-1. They’re on a roll, with three fresh films in a row. (I think the most recent rotten scorer, Wonder Woman 1984, deserved much better critically, by the way.) Everything is going to be okay.

Well, maybe not for theater owners for a while.

Box Office Attendance for August 6 - August 8, 2021

RankMovie TitleWeekend AttendancePer-Screen AttendanceTotal AttendanceStudio
1The Suicide Squad2.9 million7162.9 millionWarner Bros.
2Jungle Cruise1.7 million4017.1 millionWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
3Space Jam: A New Legacy0.47 million1656.9 millionWarner Bros.
4Old0.45 million1434.2 millionUniversal Pictures
5Black Widow0.43 million13819 millionWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
6Stillwater0.31 million1181.1 millionFocus Features
7The Green Knight0.28 million3731.3 millionA24
8Snake Eyes0.18 million882.8 millionParamount Pictures
9Escape Room: Tournament of Champions0.14 million1092.5 millionSony Pictures Entertainment (SPE)
10F9: The Fast Saga0.13 million7618.7 millionUniversal Pictures

*Initially box office grosses are estimated and then are later updated for actual figures.

** Ticket sales and attendance figures are determined with each year’s average ticket prices. Currently, for 2021, that average is $9.16.

All box office gross figures are sourced from Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, and Box Office Pro unless otherwise stated.

Christopher Campbell: 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.