NOTE: Box office figures in this article are as of December 4, 2017 according to Box Office Mojo
Now that Justice League has been in theaters for a while and is starting to slow down with Star Wars: The Last Jedi fast approaching, it’s safe to say the film was not a box office success. This development has to come as a great disappointment for Warner Bros., who was hoping the team-up movie would be a lynchpin in their burgeoning DC Extended Universe. Though most of the installments in the franchise have proven to be divisive critically, they all were up to this point commercial hits. Earlier this year, the property got a massive boost when Wonder Woman grossed $873.3 million worldwide and received raves across the board. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save Justice League.
The ensemble piece was plagued by numerous production woes that have been well-documented by now, waning interest in the DC brand due to the polarizing reception of Batman V Superman, and mixed reviews that didn’t make Justice League stand out amongst the crowd. In the aftermath of this mess, it’s expected the $300 million investment won’t be able to top Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, at the box office, which is hardly what the studio was looking for. The numbers paint a rather bleak picture for what should have been one of 2017’s ironclad locks.
The troubles for Justice League came right at the start, when the film opened well below expectations at the U.S. box office. Debuting amidst a firestorm of controversy surrounding a suspiciously withheld Rotten Tomatoes score and Superman’s uncanny valley upper lip, it earned $93.8 million in its first three days. This was more than enough to win the top spot for the weekend of November 17-19, but many were alarmed Justice League got off to such a slow start. These days, it’s become commonplace for big studio tentpoles to gross $100+ million in their opening weekends. The four DCEU films prior to Justice League all did, and Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok came storming out of the gates to the tune of $121 million.
What was most distressing was the gap between Justice League and its various predecessors. The $93.8 million wasn’t even in the same ballpark as Batman V Superman ($166 million) or Suicide Squad ($133.6 million), was about $10 million below Wonder Woman ($103.2 million) and came up nearly $23 million short of Man of Steel ($116.6 million). While Diana Prince’s solo adventure had phenomenally strong legs due to its positive word-of-mouth, some of the others were hit by the second weekend blues, seeing massive drops due to the backlash. Batman V Superman, for instance, fell 69.1 percent, and Suicide Squad decreased by 67.4 percent. Justice League fared slightly better, but not by much.
In its second weekend, Justice League grossed $41 million domestically, losing the top spot to Disney/Pixar’s Coco. That was a 56.2 percent drop from the disappointing debut. While this figure is significantly better than Man of Steel (which was another 60+ percent decrease), Wonder Woman‘s hold was a lot healthier at 43.3 million. What’s more is that Justice League became the first DCEU film since Man of Steel to not hold on to the #1 position for at least two consecutive weekends. Coincidentally, both squared off against Pixar features in their second frames, illustrating that perhaps DC should look to avoid the animation powerhouse in the future. Justice League has also crawled to the $200 million mark domestically, making a grand total of $197.4 million through its first three weekends. To put that in perspective, the other DCEU movies had already eclipsed $200 million by their respective second weekends.
Besides the reactions, timing seemed to be the greatest threat to Justice League posting substantial numbers. It was sandwiched between two acclaimed Disney smashes, Ragnarok and Coco; the latter of which ate into Justice League‘s target audience and continued to draw sizable crowds even after DC’s titans finally united. And shortly after Justice League premiered, the general public got caught up in Last Jedi hype, since the latest Star Wars film was only a month away. The review embargo for Rian Johnson’s film does not lift until early next week, but thanks to another stellar marketing campaign and the goodwill generated by The Force Awakens, anticipation for The Last Jedi had reached a fever pitch. WB struggled to generate interest in the U.S., so they needed some help from their international friends.
It’s not rare for a movie to be a letdown domestically, but ultimately go down as a success thanks to the foreign marketplace. Unfortunately, Justice League is not one of those instances. Because of the astronomical $300 million budget, the film needed to make $600 million worldwide just to break even, and everything after that would be a profit. Time will tell if the movie ends up costing the studio $100 million, but as of this writing, its worldwide haul stands at $570.3 million, which is about $30 million away from that magic number. It’s safe to say this is not the conversation WB wanted to have four weeks into Justice League‘s run.
Justice League is in a tight spot because it has already opened everywhere it was scheduled to play. The film’s last debut was in Lebanon on November 30, so it’s going to have to salvage what it can before bowing out of theaters. One silver lining is that Justice League is the highest-grossing DC film in China with $98.6 million, though that is a minor footnote at this point in time. Overall, it hasn’t impressed, and even when it passes $600 million, whatever profit it turns will be minuscule at best. The fact that it still hasn’t hit that mark through 3+ weeks (with no new wide releases last weekend to stand in its path) is a bad sign, especially considering what’s lingering on the horizon.
There is one last major studio tentpole to lay waste to the box office this year, and that is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, followup to the $2 billion sensation, The Force Awakens. Early projections already have Episode VIII earning more than $200 million domestically in its opening weekend, and that’s before the (presumably good) word-of-mouth starts to spread. Lucasfilm will begin their global domination tour next Wednesday, December 13, meaning Justice League has one week remaining to make any meaningful headway before it’s completely overshadowed by the galaxy far, far away. We do live in the Golden Age of superhero cinema, but Star Wars (especially the Skywalker saga) remains the leader in the clubhouse. Even Wonder Woman 2 knew enough to move far away from 2019’s Episode IX once Lucasfilm slated the sequel trilogy finale for December that year.
Ultimately, WB is going to have to take a loss on this one. As stated earlier, Justice League has an uphill climb to reach the numbers of Man of Steel ($291 million domestically; $668 million worldwide), which would be well short of the studio’s goals for the first live-action Justice League movie. Thankfully, the studio itself can sustain such a blow thanks to Wonder Woman, Dunkirk, IT, and others all doing well this year, but this is nevertheless concerning. The DC Extended Universe was supposed to be WB’s crown jewel akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and instead it faces an uncertain future since their biggest (in terms of scale) project did not land with audiences as intended.
Perhaps the trio of Aquaman, Shazam, and Wonder Woman 2 will be all it takes to reestablish the DCEU as a force, but the filmmakers have their work cut out for them. Justice League left much of Arthur Curry’s mythology on the cutting room floor, making Aquaman arguably the film’s weakest player (hurting interest in that solo film). Shazam is an unknown quantity, hoping to become DC’s answer to Guardians of the Galaxy. Wonder Woman 2 seems like the safest bet for the time being, considering how beloved the first one was. With the dynamic duo of Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot teaming up again, the demand for that one will be high.
WB is going to have to do some serious soul-searching as they look to pick up the pieces and try to save the DCEU. It’s not totally foregone yet, though they will have to work overtime at generating buzz amongst casual viewers. Right now, the DC brand doesn’t have the same kind of appeal as Marvel or Lucasfilm, which have both earned the trust of moviegoers by consistently making quality products and savvy creative decisions. Justice League should have been the rebirth of the DCEU, but now its status is up in the air.