With THE MARVELS having just arrived in theaters, there is a growing sense that superhero films have lost their way. The sequel to CAPTAIN MARVEL is on a path toward an opening near $55M, a far cry from its predecessor’s $153M debut. In fact, MARVELS may make less in total than CAPTAIN made in its opening weekend.
Six weeks ago, MARVELS looked like it had a shot to open near $100M. So, what changed? There have been plenty of think pieces about what happened to this film, ranging from reliance on characters from two Disney+ programs and the lack of a clear villain, to tonal inconsistencies in the trailers. Regardless of the reason, we can see a general malaise around the film in the tracking, specifically in the interest numbers.
As films get closer to release, we expect interest to rise. That’s exactly what happened with ANT-MAN (light blue). Flatlining interest is a yellow flag, while declining interest is a red alert. THE FLASH (black) is an example of the former; MARVELS (dark blue) is an example of the latter. Over the past two weeks, interest in MARVELS has slid from 58% to 53%.
In September, interest in MARVELS was higher than ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA ($106M opening). Today, MARVELS is only a point higher than FLASH. The film’s precipitous decline in interest is driving the drop in its opening weekend forecast.
As MARVELS struggles in the tracking, signs are emerging that AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM—the last superhero title of the year—may also have a rocky road ahead. AQUAMAN opens on December 22nd, almost exactly five years after the first film dominated the 2018 holiday season with a $68M opening and a $335M total haul.
Like MARVELS, AQUAMAN looks poised to come up short in the face of oversized expectations. The chart below shows interest in AQUAMAN (dark blue) against THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (sky blue), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: Vol. 3 (black) and DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (teal).
All three of these reached at least 60% interest by the time they opened. AQUAMAN, however, has been trending down. It now sits at an alarmingly low 47%. Based on its current trajectory, the film seems unlikely to reach that 60% threshold.
Since it was announced, AQUAMAN seemed like the clear film to beat during the holiday 2023 window. It certainly looked that way on paper. But today, audiences no longer take DC and MCU films on blind faith.
As a result, AQUAMAN is no longer a shoo-in to win the holiday. Though, to be fair, none of the late December films look especially dominant. Of the holiday films, WONKA poses the greatest threat to AQUAMAN. As of now, WONKA is topping AQUAMAN in two key metrics. It is up by one point in awareness and seven points in interest.
WONKA may in fact be the film to beat.
Look, it’s been a pretty terrible year for the DCU and MCU. And there have been too many misfires this year to simply dismiss them. Audiences have become much more discriminating about the superhero films they’ll see. A whiff of bad buzz is much harder to overcome. We have seen that with BLACK ADAM, THE FLASH, BLUE BEETLE, and now THE MARVELS and AQUAMAN.
Perhaps the next great test will be DEADPOOL 3. If a marquee property featuring one of the original MCU cast members stumbles, it becomes much easier to say that the best superhero days are in the rearview mirror.
At the very least, 2023 showed that studios can no longer automatically assume that audiences will automatically show up. They will need to step up their game. And as for this holiday season, we may find ourselves with few, if any, breakout hits. Instead, those box office dollars may be more evenly spread out than in recent years.