This past weekend, movie theaters worldwide played host to a battle between two powerful forces. Fanboy enthusiasts collided head-on with an avalanche of negative critics deriding the latest superhero blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as a “disaster” and an “indigestible. . .mope-fest.”
The real winner—financially speaking, at least—might end up being Time Warner’s (TWX) Warner Bros., the studio behind Dawn of Justice. The movie overcame its critical pummeling to rake in an impressive $166 million in domestic ticket sales in its first weekend. Worldwide, the superhero spectacle collected roughly $420 million on its way to posting one of the highest-grossing opening weekends of all-time, and the fourth-highest ever for a comic-book adaptation. The film has already more than made back the reported $250 million Warner Bros. spent on the film, not counting marketing and promotion costs.
That’s obviously great news for Warner Bros., which has a lot invested in this movie as a launching-pad for at least 10 more DC Comics films planned for release over the next four years. However, while hype and endless marketing helped Dawn of Justice overcome the wealth of negative reviews for one weekend, it may still be too early for the movie studio to declare victory.
To say Dawn of Justice has received mixed reviews might be an understatement. The movie sports a very disappointing “29% Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on reviews from more than 260 critics), though 73% of moviegoers on that site say they like it and the film received a “B” rating from audiences through CinemaScore. Is it possible the film’s overwhelmingly negative critical reception will catch up with audiences’ initial excitement? Or, can Dawn of Justice ride its opening weekend momentum to become one of this year’s biggest films (it would have to overtake another superhero movie, Deadpool)?
“Long-term, you always want to have good reviews,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore (SCOR). Great reviews bolstered Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ long-term success last year, he notes, helping the movie generate more than $2 billion in global ticket sales over roughly two months in theaters.
According to Bloomberg, Dawn of Justice would need to gross $1.15 billion worldwide in order to match the profits of comparable recent superhero films such as Walt Disney’s (DIS) popular Marvel movies or Warner’s three most recent Batman films—a collection that includes many of the highest-grossing superhero films ever. Dawn of Justice is off to a great start, no doubt, but the film is due for a major drop-off at the box office starting this weekend, as is typically the case with even the biggest blockbusters.
A breakdown of three superhero blockbusters—Disney’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3, as well as Warner’s The Dark Knight Rises—from the past few years, with similar production budgets and opening weekend grosses to Dawn of Justice, shows an average drop-off in ticket sales between the films’ first and second weekends of about 60%, according to Box Office Mojo.
In terms of overall gross, those three other films made an average of 40.6% of their total domestic box office gross in their first weekend. If Dawn of Justice follows a similar trajectory—a big ‘if’—it would ultimately pull in an estimated total of $408.4 million in domestic ticket sales, and perhaps as much as $1.1 billion worldwide, based on its overseas performance so far.
In other words, the movie’s success so far puts it on a path that would effectively silence its (many) critics, proving that negative reviews aren’t necessarily box office kryptonite.
Of course, Warner Bros. still has reason to be worried. The film’s critical drubbing could prevent it from seeing the kind of staying power that some of its superhero blockbuster predecessors experienced. (The three other films mentioned above averaged 80% Rotten Tomatoes scores from critics, led by a whopping 87% Fresh rating for the previous Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.)
The Hollywood Reporter notes that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s massive opening was propelled by a variety of factors, including the fact the film opened simultaneously in essentially all of the world’s largest movie markets, including China. That means the movie can’t count on a future bump in overseas revenue due to a delayed release schedule. THR also noted that Dawn of Justice‘s opening weekend audience base was largely made up of young, white males—a demographic that includes what the industry refers to as “fanboys,” many of whom likely would have turned out to see the film no matter the critical reception. It’s not yet known whether moviegoers less devoted to the comic book adaptation genre will be as willing to ignore critics’ pleas to skip the film.
Another major factor in Dawn of Justice‘s blockbuster first weekend is much more simple: timing. Nearly two years ago, Warner Bros. made the strategic decision to move up Batman v Superman‘s spring 2016 release to late-March from early-May. The reasoning was that an earlier release would give the film weaker box office competition by avoiding the early-May release of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War (May 6).
That plan worked, as the movie’s biggest competition last weekend was from Disney’s popular animated holdover Zootopia and another sequel in comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Neither film grossed more than $25 million domestically over the weekend, and Dawn of Justice now has five more weekends to try to cash in at the box office before another major tentpole film arrives in theaters.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. can cross its fingers and hope that the positive financial buzz its movie generated over the weekend can manage to overshadow the seriously chilly reception critics have offered Clark Kent and the Caped Crusader.
One thing ComScore’s Dergarabedian is sure of is that he’s never seen this level of discussion around the disconnect between a film’s critical response and its box office success. What’s more, he adds, the fact that the industry and the media have spent so much time discussing these factors, “can only serve to make people more curious and interested in seeing the film.”