If "Justice League" were a typical Hollywood release, Warner Bros. would be ecstatic right now. After all, the movie debuted to an estimated $94 million, easily conquering the box office chart.
But of course, "Justice" is not a typical Warners release. It's a $300 million superhero saga that, by bringing together all the biggest heroes in the DC Expanded Universe for the first time in a live-action film, was supposed to be a cornerstone of the studio's business plan for the next several years. It was supposed to be DC's own "Avengers"; indeed, Warners even hired "Avengers" series director Joss Whedon to complete the film after director Zack Snyder had to drop out partway through due to a family tragedy.
Back in September, after "Wonder Woman" had become the most successful domestic box office performer in the DCEU franchise so far, pundits were predicting a $150 million premiere for "Justice League." In recent weeks, they downgraded that estimate to about $110 or $120 million. So a $94 million debut is an embarrassment, both for being so far off and for failing to crack the $100 million mark. It's also a sign of trouble for a movie whose production and marketing costs are so high that it'll have to gross about $1 billion worldwide just to break even. And as the lowest debut among the five DCEU movies to date, it's an ominous figure for a multibillion-dollar franchise whose next several installments depended heavily on this one being a hit.
Why were the experts so overconfident about "Justice League," and why didn't it enjoy a more superheroic opening? Here are three reasons.
If you were scheduling the release of a DCEU superhero epic, would you do it just two weeks into the run of a superhero epic from rival Marvel? Probably not, and yet "Justice League" was hobbled right out of the gate by having to contend with "Thor: Ragnarok," still going strong this weekend with an estimated $21.8 million.
Also, for "Justice League" to succeed, it needed to draw upon a broad audience that included both men and women. Unfortunately, there were many more movies in the multiplex with appeal to both demographics this weekend. There was Julia Roberts's drama "Wonder," which opened in second place with an estimated $27.1 million. That was about $9 million above expectations, thanks perhaps to especially strong reviews (84 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and audience word-of-mouth (an A+ grade at CinemaScore). Many families also went to see Christmas-themed family cartoon "The Star," which opened in sixth place with an estimated $10 million. Like "Wonder," "The Star" pleased both critics and audiences enough to debut well above expectations, by about $3 million. And then there were holdover hits "Daddy's Home 2," "Murder on the Orient Express," and "A Bad Moms Christmas," all films that appealed to numerous audience segments, which sold a combined $35.5 million in tickets this weekend.
Altogether, it was a very good weekend at the multiplex, the fourth best of 2017 so far and the biggest in the more than four months since the July premiere of "Spider Man: Homecoming." The total take for all movies was just $35,000 shy of $200 million. It could have pushed past that benchmark if only "Justice League" had been a stronger choice in the face of so many worthy alternatives.
2. Theater Count
It's easy to forget how important this is. "Justice League" was booked onto 4,051 screens, which sounds like a lot, but the four previous DCEU movies screened in even more theaters, one or two hundred more. Of course, they also all enjoyed higher per-screen averages than "Justice League," but some of them not by much. "Justice League" claimed an average of $23,698 per screen, compared to $24,790 for "Wonder Woman" and $27,720 for "Man of Steel." Given those numbers, if "Justice League" had played on just 169 more screens, it would have cracked $100 million.
"Suicide Squad" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" both had much higher per-screen averages, well above $30,000, but they also opened at less competitive times of the year (August and March, respectively). Taking into account the current crowded marketplace and the lower theater count, analysts should have realized how unrealistic it was to expect a "Justice League" debut of $150 or even $110 million.
3. Bad Buzz
There will be a lot of grumbling over how poorly the movie fared at Rotten Tomatoes, where aggregated reviews from critics averaged out to a poor 40 percent fresh score. There was some controversy over the site's refusal to divulge the score until the last minute, though that was apparently more a gimmick to get people to watch the reveal on "See It/Skip It," RT's streaming show on Facebook, than to aid Warners (a minority stakeholder in RT's parent company) by keeping the low score hidden from advance ticket buyers.
Paying customers had a similarly middling response, judging by the B+ grade they gave it at CinemaScore. That's better than the B they gave "Batman v Superman," equal to the grade they gave "Suicide Squad," and weaker than the A- they gave "Man of Steel" or the A they gave "Wonder Woman."
The meh response among fans and critics alike points to a larger problem for the franchise, which has been execution. DC has an ardent fan base, for whom such characters as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman have built up nearly eight decades' worth of good will. They'll come see any DCEU movie, whether out of loyalty or FOMO. But the DCEU's grim, dour treatment of their stories has alienated many viewers. (Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy offered a similarly stoic treatment of Batman, but it was also more thought-provoking and substantive than the DCEU movies have been.) A lot of critics and fans blame Snyder, who set that tone with "Man of Steel" and continued it with "Batman v Superman" and now "Justice League." Whedon came aboard after principal photography ended, writing and directing enough additional scenes to earn a co-screenwriting credit, and he may or may not be responsible for the lighter tone and more streamlined plotting of "Justice League"; nonetheless, critics and fans have found the tone and performances inconsistent.
With "Wonder Woman," director Patty Jenkins showed that DCEU films could successfully strike a balance between levity and seriousness. Her tone and Gal Gadot's enthusiastic performance won over diehard fans and casual viewers alike. Their movie showed that there was another way forward for the DCEU, but it also may have raised expectations so high that "Justice League," with its difficult production history, simply couldn't meet them.
It's not all bad news for "Justice League," which has already earned an estimated $185.5 million overseas. Still, even if it performs as well over the next few weeks as the most successful DCEU installments ("Batman v Superman" and "Wonder Woman"), it'll likely top out at around $800 million worldwide. After you deduct the theater owners' share of the grosses (about half), as well as production and marketing costs, that figure won't be enough to make "Justice League" profitable.
If future DCEU movies are going to be the mass crowd pleasers they have to be in order to earn the 10-figure grosses they need to justify their cost, they'll have to find another creative approach to the characters. Whatever they're doing now, it's not working as it should.