The Amazing Spider-Man 2 crossed $700 million at the worldwide box office last week. When all is said and done, the Sony sequel may surpass the $710m earned by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, yet the earlier picture will surely be the unofficial winner in said unofficial battle of superhero sequels. Fair or not, a token part of the overall feeling of “disappointment” regarding the Spidey sequel is that Captain America 2 opened earlier and over-performed. It continued a long pattern of the “summer kick-off film” periodically snatching the spotlight away from the presumptive summer champion. Sony should remember the game, because Spider-Man did the same thing to Star Wars 12 years ago. As Warner Bros. (Time Warner, Inc.) and Walt Disney continue their DC/Marvel chess game in May 2016, Warner has an opportunity, if they so choose, to solve a problem by striking a similar blow with their Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman/others team-up sequel.
Warner Bros. kicked off summer 1996 with the tornado thriller Twister, which opened with a near-record $41 million and then went on to make another $37m the next weekend. Suddenly the presumptive summer champion, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible, wasn’t quite as impressive even with a then-record $74m in six days. The (underrated) Brian DePalma gem confused audiences unwilling to pay attention and ended up grossing less domestic and worldwide ($181m/$457m) than Twister ($242m/$497m). That was the periodic pattern, whereby the summer kick-off film over-performed and thus stole the spotlight away from and/or lessened the prestige of the presumptive champion’s box office success.
Paramount’s early-bird summer 1998 kick-off picture Deep Impact, which had the benefit of its trailers playing in front of Titanic for five straight months, earned a robust $41 million two weeks ahead of Sony’s much-hyped Godzilla. The first of two asteroid disaster pics that summer slightly out-grossed the monster movie in America ($140m vs. $136m) and almost matched it worldwide ($349m vs. $379m) on half the budget. Obviously Godzilla‘s poor quality was a factor as well, but having “that killer asteroid movie that wasn’t Armageddon” open so well and perform so well made it easier to (perhaps unfairly) trash Godzilla as a genuine flop.
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace was expected to rule 1999 and absolutely did so ($435m domestic/$925m worldwide). But its somewhat weak reception from fans was made all the more glaring by the unexpected artistic and financial triumph of The Matrix ($494m on a $60m budget) a month prior. The Matrix was a new and unexpected sci-fi classic, something that ironically took the same Joseph Campbell heroic journey that formed the first Star Wars and apply it to a new-wave fantasy action picture. Star Wars wasn’t the only game in town, and The Matrix was a perfect bat with which to (fairly or not) bash The Phantom Menace.
The presumptive favorite in summer 2000 was Paramount’s Mission: Impossible II, but the John Woo action spectacular had its thunder stolen completely by the critically-acclaimed and crowd-pleasing Gladiator two weeks prior. The Tom Cruise adventure out-grossed the Russell Crowe epic domestically ($215m vs. $183m) and worldwide ($546m vs. $457m), but which one was everyone talking about when summer ended? Or better question, which one ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor? People saw and mostly enjoyed Mission: Impossible II in the summer of 2000, but Ridley Scott’s Gladiator become the proverbial “film of the summer” despite grossing less.
The Mummy Returns nearly broke the opening weekend record in early May 2001 ($69m) and Shrek broke out the weekend before Memorial Day, leaving Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor unexpectedly on the defensive even as it earned $75m in four days and eventually earned $449m worldwide, more than The Mummy Returns ($433m) and second only to Shrek ($484m) that summer. Absent the strong performances of the earlier summer entries, pundits might not have been so quick to presume that Pearl Harbor ever had a chance at some mythical (at the time) $100m+ four-day debut for the three-hour war drama. The Mummy Returns had the bigger opening and Shrek had the word-of-mouth momentum, and they combined to completely neuter what was supposed to be the biggest movie of summer 2001.
In 2002, the out-of-nowhere $114m debut of Sony’s Spider-Man made 20th Century Fox’s Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones look like a welter weight contender with a “mere” $80m Fri-Sun/$110m Thurs-Sun opening weekend two weeks later. What was the third-biggest debut on record now looked like a disappointment because Peter Parker had swung so high. Spider-Man earned $403m domestic/$821m worldwide, which made the shoulda-been impressive $310m/$649m take of Attack of the Clones feel inferior not just to Phantom Menace but to the shockingly successful Spider-Man. Six months prior $80m would have been a record. By mid-May 2002, it was considered a “disappointment.”
In 2008, Paramount’s Iron Man surprised everyone by pulling a $102m opening weekend and $320m domestic total. This made Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s $150m five-day Memorial Day weekend debut and $317m domestic total appear “disappointing.” Dr. Jones out-grossed Mr. Stark worldwide ($786m vs. $585m), but the narrative of newbie upstart Iron Man thrashing old-man Jones was too juicy to resist. When The Dark Knight surprisingly out-grossed both of them in mid-July, just as Independence Day had done in 1996, the respective presumptive champion was even more relegated to the status of “also-ran.”
Summer 2012 was kicked off by The Avengers, which opened so high ($207m) and played so well ($623m domestic) that The Dark Knight Rises (arguably the presumptive summer champion going in) found itself on the defensive for “only” grossing $160m on opening weekend and “only” grossing $448m domestic. It’s a little different as the two films opened so far apart, but the concept remains the same. The obscene debut of The Avengers had box office pundits inexplicably expecting the 2D Batman vs. Bane sequel to open to $180-$200m. Long-story-short, The Dark Knight Rises was never going to open with $200m and the film was never going to challenge the $533m domestic total of The Dark Knight.
Most of the “also-ran” films were still big hits in terms of pure gross, but perception is a funny thing. And now we have The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which (I would argue) was hurt in terms of perception and narrative by the surprisingly strong performance of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Would a $91m opening weekend and $700m+ final gross been less “disappointing” had the April upstart not managed the same feat a month earlier?
So should Warner Bros. extricate themselves out of the current game of release date chicken by doing what Walt Disney did this year and starting summer on its own darn schedule? Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has more to lose than Captain America 3, especially if that Comic Con release date slate that Nikki Finke dropped turns out to be true. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice a month before Captain America 3 can avoid any immediate negative perceptions right out of the gate because it has only itself to compare to. It won’t be expected to break any records beyond “biggest April debut” so it can spin as a win anything over $100 million into a month of relatively competition-free play. The Batman/Superman team-up film can fly or fall on its own terms.
If Captain America 3 launches noticeably higher, well the Justice League prelude will have already made most of its money in the first four weeks anyway and Warner can spin the April start date as a would-be alibi. That will be an issue, but a different one than a head-to-head “loss” would bring about. And if an April-performing Batman V Superman plays substantially better than an early-May Captain America 3 and completely wins the war of media narrative, that’s just icing on the cake and establishes a permanent extra month for the summer season. It also gives The Amazing Spider-Man 3 somewhere to run in 2017, but that’s another story.
Walt Disney continued the unofficial tradition of early summer kick-off films overshadowing presumptive champions, with Captain America 2 announcing itself as a summer blockbuster outside of the traditional summer season and stealing much of the glory from Amazing Spider-Man 2 and making the latter sequel look and feel disappointing by default. It was a risky play that paid off, as aghast as I am that we’ll probably never get a Captain America film over July 4th weekend. Absent an actual desire for a head-to-head match-up or a date change to July, Warner Bros. has the option to try the same playbook and potentially reap similar rewards.
We’ve been talking for the last couple years about the notion of year-round blockbusters and/or summer starting earlier and earlier. If early April is now officially the start of summer, and it may-well be in the near future, then Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice still has a chance save face and avoid a potentially crippling box office showdown. Under this move, be it the best choice or not, it also gets to be the official summer kick-off film, with all the potential benefits that come with that.