The sheer predictability is almost becoming tiresome. Another Marvel opening, another blazing box office success for the studio behind Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man.
This time it’s Stephen Strange’s turn to dominate the multiplexes, after “Doctor Strange,” the first big-screen appearance for the Master of the Mystic Arts, was the top ticket seller this weekend with a $85 million debut. It marks the 14th straight first place opening for a Marvel film, a feat matched only by Pixar.
“The unbroken streak of critical and commercial success that Marvel has achieved is remarkable,” said Dave Hollis, domestic distribution chief at Disney, Marvel’s parent studio. “One of the reasons Marvel is a cut above is the emphasis and care they put on each character’s development and particular journey.”
The latest exercise in costumed heroism concerns a brilliant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who turns to magic after a devastating accident prevents him from plying his craft. The story of Doctor Strange may be globally known after this weekend, but the character was hardly a household name before the movie hit. That’s been a strength of Marvel’s. In recent years, the studio has been particularly adroit at turning lesser-known superheroes such as Ant-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy into blue chip properties.
“No matter what genre they delve into, no matter how esoteric the brand or the superpower of the lead character, people will show up if they put the Marvel name on it,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore.
“Doctor Strange” wasn’t the only film to resonate with consumers. “Trolls,” a DreamWorks Animation offering based on the popular toyline of flamboyantly coiffed creatures, drew family crowds to the tune of $45.6 million. It cost $125 million to produce.
“Trolls” features the voices of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick. It got a boost from the ubiquity of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the peppy anthem that Timberlake penned and performs in the film.
“There’s so much negative stuff out there right now that this provides some nice respite,” said Chris Aronson, distribution head at Fox, the studio that is overseeing the rollout of the film. “The music and the colors and the feel-good vibe just translated to a wide swath of people.”
Lionsgate’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a World War II drama from Mel Gibson, kicked off with a respectable $14.7 million. The film hopes to be an awards contender. Though Gibson won an Oscar for his work on “Braveheart,” his career was derailed a decade ago after he was arrested for drunk driving and was recorded making anti-Semitic remarks. If “Hacksaw Ridge” can build on its solid start, it could mean professional rehabilitation for the filmmaker.
The $40 million film is a biopic of Desmond Doss, a U.S. medic and contentious objector, who received the Medal of Honor for his work ministering to the fallen at Okinawa.
“It’s an unbelievable story, and I think audiences were totally engaged by Desmond’s heroism and its celebration of the human spirit,” said David Spitz, co-president of Lionsgate’s theatrical distribution team.
“Doctor Strange’s” opening trumps those of “Thor” ($65.7 million), “Captain America: The First Avenger” ($65 million), and “Ant-Man” ($57.2 million). That’s impressive given that Captain America and Thor are better known figures. Still the good doctor couldn’t quite reach the stratospheric heights of “Iron Man” ($98.6 million), “Captain America: Civil War” ($179.1 million), or “Marvel’s The Avengers” ($207.4 million). Those films benefited from having Robert Downey Jr. or featured superhero team-ups. “Doctor Strange” wasn’t cheap to make. Disney and Marvel spent $165 million to give the Sorcerer Supreme the celluloid treatment.
Globally, the film is a monster, having earned $240.4 million since it began rolling out overseas last week. That includes a $44.3 million debut in China, with Korea ($30.4 million), the United Kingdom ($18.9 million), and Russia ($15.4 million) among the top-performing territories.
“Doctor Strange” played well in Imax, earning $24.2 million globally, as well as in 3D, earning 47% of its domestic grosses from RealD screens. The film’s worldwide total stands at $325.4 million. Earlier this week, Disney announced that it had reached a new company pinnacle for global ticket sales with $5.85 billion. The box office power of “Doctor Strange” coupled with upcoming releases such as “Moana” and “Star Wars: Rogue One” mean that Disney is on pace to set a new industry-wide record, passing the $6.89 billion mark established by Universal in 2015.
In limited release, Focus Features debuted “Loving,” a drama about the court battle to end state bans on interracial marriage. The film earned $169,000 from four theaters.
“This film has struck a chord,” said Lisa Bunnell, president of Focus Features. “It’s a subtle, beautifully done film about the obstacles people faced in the not so distant past.”
Focus bought the film out of the Berlin Film Festival as part of a shift in strategy that has the indie label returning to its art house roots. The company briefly tried to make more genre-oriented pictures, such as horror films and thrillers, but ultimately abandoned that approach in the face of disappointing commercial results. It hopes to be a major player in the awards race this year with “Loving,” and upcoming releases such as “Nocturnal Animals” and “A Monster Calls.”
“Moonlight,” perhaps the most acclaimed film of the year, continued to impress as it widened its theatrical footprint. The drama about a young black man grappling with his sexuality added $1.3 million to its $3 million haul. It is playing in 83 theaters.
The combination of the Marvel warrior and those cuddly trolls turbocharged the box office. Ticket sales this fall have struggled, but the movie business appears to be rebounding. Revenues were up nearly 19% from the year-ago period — a weekend that saw the release of “Spectre” and “The Peanuts Movie.”
Perhaps the comeback has something to do with the headlines. As the presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sprints towards Election Day next week, “Doctor Strange” and “Trolls” may have provided a needed break from a campaign that has been among the most negative in history.
“These movies were a great escape from the election,” said Dergarabedian. “A good movie can be the salve for any wounds.”