Are comic book movies bulletproof at the box office?
After Sony’s antihero adventure “Morbius” managed to pull in $39.1 million over the weekend despite terrible reviews, the answer is… sorta?
There are a few ways to slice the opening weekend revenues for “Morbius,” a $75 million-budgeted superhero tentpole from Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters. Ticket sales weren’t even close to matching 2018’s “Venom” ($80 million debut) and its 2021 sequel “Let There Be Carnage” ($90 million debut), which were Sony’s first attempts at spinning Spider-Man adversaries — the characters the studio licenses from Marvel — into cinematic riches. But business could have been way, way worse considering “Morbius” has a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes — an average score that’s somehow even lower than “Venom” and its embarrassing 30% mark.
“Sometimes there is a disconnect between the critical consensus and the sentiment of the fan base for whom ‘Morbius’ was still a ‘must see’ moviegoing event,” says Paul Derbarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.
So where does that leave “Morbius”? Well, it’s a sign that superheroes can galvanize ticket buyers in ways that few other genres can. But it’s also an indication that not every Marvel character has blockbuster potential. With competition on the way in the form of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” (April 8) and “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (April 15), box office experts believe “Morbius” will be lucky to cross $100 million at the domestic box office. That’s a benchmark that Marvel movies usually reach after just a few days on the big screen.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, “Morbius” stars Jared Leto as Doctor Michael Morbius, a renowned biochemist who turns into a living vampire after attempting to cure himself of a rare blood disease. The character is not nearly as recognizable to general audiences as Spider-Man, Batman or Venom, nor is the film clearly connected to a larger story like “Eternals” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Thus, “Morbius” wasn’t expected to match the receipts for recent comic book tentpoles based on those characters.
“We should keep in mind, this is not ‘Spider-Man,” Dergarabedian adds.
Overseas audiences will be key in getting “Morbius” to turn a profit in its theatrical run. Over the weekend, the PG-13 film took in $44.9 million at the international box office, boosting its global total to $84 million. It’s not a bad result, but it’s hardly the foundation that inspires the kind of sequels and spinoffs to fuel billion-dollar film franchises.
On the heels of opening weekend, here are takeaways from “Morbius” at the box office:
Marvel mania is alive and well.
Only a movie based on Marvel characters could withstand reviews that range from “[it] has no reason to exist as an actual movie” and “a forgettable, often laughable […] poorly edited, derivative time suck” and still manage to secure one of the top domestic box office opening weekends in 2022. (Granted, it’s only April so there’s not much competition for that particular metric.)
Somehow, the negative word-of-mouth wasn’t a death sentence for “Morbius.” And that’s thanks to the goodwill for Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, a nearly untouchable box office juggernaut that has turned Ant-Man and Groot into household names.
Given “pretty heavy critical headwinds” toward the newest, vampire-infused horror story, Derbarabedian says initial sales for “Morbius” prove “the Marvel brand in and of itself is a strong draw for fans.”
Audiences do not extend that level of confidence to all comic book empires. For example, the R-rated DC Comics adventure “The Suicide Squad” was widely praised (it has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes), yet the Warner Bros. movie debuted to only $26 million while landing simultaneously on HBO Max. That film ended its domestic box office run with a scant $55 million.
Not all superhero movies hit at the box office, but those from Marvel rarely miss. And audiences have taken notice.
Sony’s Spider-Man Universe needs quality control.
“Morbius” may have been spared from tanking at the box office, but Sony has to eventually churn out a decent solo superhero adventure to avoid alienating fans. Spider-Man not included, Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters has cranked out some critical duds. (The highest Rotten Tomatoes grade belongs to “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” with a bleak 56%. In contrast, Disney’s MCU films boast a 84% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Already, Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters is developing standalone stories on “Kraven the Hunter,” starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and “Madame Web,” featuring Dakota Johnson. In order to ensure people keep coming back to theaters, those movies will actually have to be watchable. In other words, upcoming Sony-Marvel properties in the works won’t necessarily be able to rely on the popularity of “Spider-Man” and his Spandex compatriots, even at a time when superheroes seem untouchable at the box office.
“The Marvel brand carries a prestigious selling point for moviegoers, but that’s a luxury that comes with great responsibility to deliver crowd-pleasing films of a certain caliber,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “Audiences are savvy, and their commitment to a franchise depends on consistent output of quality storytelling.”
Of course, fashioning a commercially successful film franchise doesn’t happen overnight. Not long ago, most people didn’t know the Guardians of the Galaxy or Hawkeye. With the right direction, Sony’s universe of Spider-Man-adjacent baddies could introduce other otherworldly figures to the cultural lexicon.
In a year with tons of superhero movies, not every otherworldly protagonist will cut through the clutter.
“Morbius” is the second comic book movie to open in 2022 following the Warner Bros. blockbuster “The Batman,” which has earned $350 million domestically and $700 million globally. And those aren’t even scratching the surface of what’s to come. Hollywood has six additional superhero movies on this year’s calendar: Disney’s Marvel entries “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (May 6), “Thor: Love and Thunder” (July 8), and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Nov 11), Warner Bros.’ DC adaptations “Black Adam” (Oct. 21) and “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” (Dec. 16), and Sony’s animated “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (Oct. 7). Will all of those movies be able to enjoy box office riches?
“Superhero movies have been a bit more inconsistent during the pandemic than pre-pandemic,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research.
He’s referring to COVID-era box office disappointments like “Wonder Woman 1984” (which debuted to $16 million prior to widespread vaccine availability) and “The Suicide Squad,” as well as relative successes “Black Widow” (which debuted to $80 million in theaters, plus $60 million on Disney Plus), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (which debuted to $75 million) and “Eternals” (which debuted to $71 million). Ticket sales for the latter were solid by today’s tempered standards, but those tallies were far less than prior Marvel installments. That doesn’t mean comic book movies are going anywhere.
“Superhero movies are going to remain the preeminent Hollywood genre because they still work in every market around the world,” Gross says.