Aquaman 2 Box Office Marks End of DC’s Worst Year Since Batman & Robin

Movies
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Ho ho ho! Santa Claus came to town last night and when he stopped over at the Warner Bros. lot, he seemed to leave two sparkling new presents in shiny wrapping paper… and a lump of coal they call Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.

Indeed, the strangest thing about this year’s four-day Christmas weekend frame at the box office is that technically Warner Bros. is overall having a pretty happy Christmas. The studio’s all-ages and holiday appropriate release from last weekend, Wonka, is projected as having a respectable 52 percent drop over the three-day weekend, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the fourth day is Christmas, which means it should make $26 million over the holiday (or really a drop of only 33 percent). Meanwhile The Color Purple is expected to join Wonka in the top three when it opens today. But what of the number one film of the season?

Well, technically speaking, Aquaman 2 is the biggest movie in North America right now, debuting to a projected $39 million (or so) over its first four days, and $28 million over the traditional three-day frame. That is on par with industry forecasts going into the holiday, which pegged The Lost Kingdom at netting anywhere between $35 and $40 million over four days. And by the time the sun sets, WB should have the three highest grossing movies of this Christmas Day. But we imagine holiday celebrations will nevertheless be muted in Atlantis, with Aquaman 2 still capping what is arguably the worst year the DC brand has seen since that time George Clooney put on Bat-Nipples and ice skated with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To just unpack the grim math around Aquaman, the truth is the film is crashing on the rocks of earlier, high expectations from its studio. The first Aquaman was released during the same (but longer) holiday weekend in 2018, and over three days it grossed $68 million. Furthermore, over five days it earned $101 million. Admittedly, Christmas fell on a Tuesday that season, allowing a full five-day holiday run. But even if the comparison is not 1:1, we can still look at how the first movie earned $83 million over four days. This means The Lost Kingdom earned about 53 percent less than the first film in four days in spite of half a decade’s worth of ticket inflation.

Worse still for the King of the Sea is the first Aquaman out-performed all expectations, grossing a staggering $1.15 billion around the globe. But that film played like gangbusters for its target audience, earning a sterling “A-” CinemaScore from polled moviegoers on its first day, which bore out great word-of-mouth. Aquaman 2, by comparison, garnered a tepid “B” CinemaScore, the same grade given to this year’s The Flash and The Marvels, which went on to have now infamous box office runs. And Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opened lower in four days than what both of those movies did in three (it also dropped significantly on Saturday, suggesting the WOM is similarly bleak).

In other words, things are not looking good for Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry, even before you factor in Aquaman 2’s budget was reportedly pegged at $205 million this time last year (not counting marketing or a rumored extra round of reshoots). If The Marvels’ recent November holiday run is any indication, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom may be facing stormy seas if it hopes to swim toward a profit.

Which may be a long way of saying the second Aquaman puts a grim capstone on what’s been the opposite of a banner year for Warner Brothers’ DC brand. Of course the studio has been aware of the headwinds and negative associations the DC Extended Universe has been facing these past few years. It is for that reason new DC Studios chiefs James Gunn and Peter Safran elected to reboot the DC Universe from scratch, which became public knowledge when Gunn signaled last January he would recast Kal-El in Superman: Legacy.

A pivot seems shrewd given how audiences received other recent DC fare like Black Adam before 2023, however it’s worth noting Superman: Legacy will not be out until 2025. By heavily implying the entire 2023 slate of four DC superhero movies was essentially a collection of lame ducks to a fanbase trained to view the genre as interconnected serials (and therefore advertisements for next year’s crop), it might be argued WB told consumers that superhero flicks like Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Aquaman 2 were irrelevant. It’s worth considering since both the Shazam and Aquaman sequels dropped spectacularly from the highs of their predecessors. Then again, The Marvels disastrously tumbled as well from the 2019 glories of Captain Marvel.

Whatever the reason, the DC brand has not looked this vulnerable in the marketplace since audiences abandoned Batman & Robin in droves only two years after Batman Forever grossed 42 percent more in the summer of 1995. The fallout of that calamity was Hollywood moving away from superhero movies for the next three years, and away from colorful ones for longer (much, much longer, in the case of Batman).

Of course the 2020s are not the 1990s, and fiscal calendars are too invested in capes, cowls, and dedicated fanbases to be spooked by one bad year. And luckily, if you squint at the box office this Christmas, you might realize deliverance is within reach, even for the bleeding DC brand.

While Aquaman 2 has been effectively lost at sea, the holiday season is a good one for Hollywood overall, and movie theater exhibitors in particular. Despite there being no Avatar: The Way of Water dominating multiplexes like there was in 2022, this four-day Christmas weekend is up three percent from last year. More reassuringly, moviegoing is up 22 percent overall between Jan. 1 and Dec. 25 in 2023. Which is to say audiences are getting back into the habit of going to cinemas, but apparently their interests have diversified, as represented in the rest of the top 10 below the superhero movie: you have a family film in Wonka, a make-you-cry musical in The Color Purple, an animated kids movie in Migration, and even a foulmouthed rom-com via Anyone But You doing relatively solid business.

Audiences want to watch movies, Hollywood just needs to produce more of them. As studios have chased increasingly massive four-quadrant blockbusters like Aquaman 2, they’ve counterbalanced those eye-watering $205 million price tags by simply making fewer mid-budget movies. But now they don’t have enough content to satiate wider consumer demand, and their superhero movie wares are so expensive that even when they are the biggest movie on Christmas Day, they can be immediately viewed as a flop.

Superhero movies are still popular with a large swath of moviegoers, and there is no reason a cape flick with a budget closer to, say, Barbie’s $140 million or even Oppenheimer’s $100 million price tag couldn’t be produced. It would just mean studios would have to rely more on quality writing and direction (ahem, also like Barbie and Oppenheimer) to get audiences excited enough to make it a cultural phenomenon. But even if it wasn’t, opening at about $45 million might be viewed as a healthy start instead of a head-on collision with an iceberg. Food for thought to accompany your holiday ham.

The post Aquaman 2 Box Office Marks End of DC’s Worst Year Since Batman & Robin appeared first on Den of Geek.

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