Eternals” soared to the top of the weekend box office chart, buoyed by mania for all things Marvel. But its $71 million debut fell just shy of more bullish projections, which had the superhero film debuting to $75 million to $80 million. That’s a sign, perhaps, that the iffy reviews muted “Eternals'” results or a signal that the underlying intellectual property, the story of a group of god-like extraterrestrials, didn’t have the resonance of other comic book adaptations. Marvel has successfully introduced lesser-known heroes, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy, to movie fans and spawned successful franchises with them, but that series got a lift from critics and also debuted in a time before anyone had ever heard of COVID.

“Eternals” still scored the fourth-best opening weekend for any movie during the pandemic era, sliding in behind Marvel’s own “Black Widow” ($80.3 million) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($75.3 million) as well as “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” ($90 million), which was made by Sony but based on a Marvel comic creation. It’s an impressive number — and any other studio would be thrilled to have a launch of that size for its movie, especially given the challenging theatrical market — but, for a Marvel venture, it’s hard to not view it as falling short of sky-high expectations. Heavy the head that wears the box office crown and all that. Internationally, “Eternals” took in $90.7 million, bringing its global haul to an impressive $161.7 million. The film is playing in several major markets including South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico and Australia.

“Eternals” is directed by Chloe Zhao, fresh off the Oscar-winning “Nomadland,” but reviewers griped that the film is long on exposition and light on entertainment. It has the ignominious distinction of being the only Marvel movie to draw a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with only 47% of reviews marked as positive. Audiences were also lukewarm on what Zhao cooked up, giving the film a so-so “B” CinemaScore, which is also a low point for the MCU.

“You have to keep things in perspective,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “For for any other studio this kind of result would be a major, major hit. But the disturbing news for Disney is the critical reception for ‘Eternals’ and how that will impact word-of-mouth going forward. You could see a steep drop in the box office in its second or third weekends.”
“Eternals” boasts a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek and, in a mini-“Game of Thrones” reunion, both Richard Madden and Kit Harrington.

With “Eternals” looming large, other films in the marketplace had to settle for scraps. “Dune,” Warner Bros. and Legendary’s adaption of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, came in second with $7.6 million, pushing its domestic haul to $83.9 million. A sequel to the film was officially greenlit days after the first entry in the Dune-verse opened in theaters. Denis Villeneuve directs a cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson.

MGM and United Artist Releasing’s “No Time to Die” nabbed third place with $6.2 million, which pushes the spy film’s total to $143.1 million. The film, which marks Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, will be available to rent on digital platforms next week, just 31 days after it opened in cinemas. Most major releases wait 45 days to bow on demand, which is a lot shorter than it was pre-pandemic when studios gave theaters a 90-day exclusive window.

Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” took fourth position on the charts, with $4.5 million. The symbiote sequel has earned $197 million stateside. Twentieth Century Studios’ animated adventure “Ron’s Gone Wrong” rounds out the top five, earning $3.6 million. That takes its domestic haul to a doleful $17.6 million.

In the arthouse world, Neon’s “Spencer” opened to $2.1 million in just under 1,000 venues. The film, which features a chameleonic turn by Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, is expected to be a major player in the awards season race. It will need to keep generating word-of-mouth and buzz if it wants to turn a profit.

“Eternals” marks an important step in Marvel’s evolution. With “Avengers: Endgame,” the studio has bid farewell to some of its highest profile heroes, a group that includes Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America, so the studio needs to fill the void with a new collection of beloved super-powered beings. At the same time, the studio is moving more aggressively into the streaming world with series such as “WandaVision” and “Loki.” With “Eternals,” Marvel made much of its decision to grant Zhao artistic freedom, but her creative choices may have been alienating to some fans.

“This film did not follow the Marvel blue print in terms of its story,” says Bock. “Audiences have been trained to expect a certain kind of film from Disney and Marvel and this is left of center.”