We are just five weeks away from the theatrical debut of Warner Bros. Discovery’s
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse both met with box office success (to the tune of a combined $1.5 billion) and widespread critical and audience acclaim. Unfortunately, the story was worse for the rest of the 2023 superhero slate to date.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and The Marvels all met with varying degrees of underperformance to outright flopping. Combined, these five films have grossed just $1.13 billion, or about $400 million less than Guardians Vol. 3 and Across the Spider-Verse.
Granted, The Marvels is only around a week into its run, but the numbers so far and other combined factors working against it — which I discussed in detail here — sadly offer little hope it will gross more than perhaps $200 million on the lower end, or $300 million if it manages strong holds and finds its legs internationally.
These examples of how bad 2023 has been are just within the comic book genre, mind you. Plenty of other would-be tentpoles and presumed blockbusters-to-be wound up face-planting or otherwise disappointing at the box office, as audiences were far more selective in venturing to theaters.
The holiday season isn’t exactly off to a rousing start so far, although there remain a few weeks still to get the engine revved up. But I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of high performance for the rest of the year either. My expectation is that a few — perhaps half or less — of the releases will do well, most of the rest will underperform to varying degrees, and several bigger productions will disappoint or flop. And I think one film in particular danger at this point is the Aquaman sequel.
The studio spent $215 million on Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. This means if WBD spends $100 million marketing on Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, then the film needs to earn about $630 million worldwide to cover costs with box office receipts (studios get less than 50% of the total global ticket sales revenue).
That’s only around 55% of what the first Aquaman movie made back in 2017, which seems like it should be an easy enough task for a billion dollar franchise sequel.
But no DCEU film since that first Aquaman has even hit $400 million. And now, with even Marvel Studios suffering the ill effects of convergence of multiple factors — including the DCEU’s unpopularity with mainstream audiences seeming to feed any additional disenchantment or decreased interest in superhero cinema — the environment appears downright hostile to anything but the most sure-fire hits from Marvel or DC.
While it’s true the first Aquaman movie was itself a monster box office blockbuster, it released before even the DCEU had fully lost its appeal with mainstream audiences and Marvel was still flying high and on its way to even bigger success. Aquaman, in short, was another time. There is no guarantee whatsoever that Aquaman’s sequel can pull a rabbit out of the hat when Captain Marvel’s sequel couldn’t do it, without a few key factors falling into place.
First and foremost, the sequel has to be at least as good as the first Aquaman, if not better. The trailers and marketing, too, will need to be bangers that score massive viewership. And it will have to count on other contenders at the box office failing or underperforming.
The quality we won’t know until it bows, but the original Aquaman’s creative team is back, so that’s a good sign. Then again, there have been claims of a troubled production and questions of quality, and even the negative press alone can have an impact, as we’ve seen countless times before.
Regarding marketing and promos, the trailers and TV spots all look like large-scale fun and action-adventure spectacle mixed with humor and familial themes that we loved in the first movie. And there’s a wild trailer from Japan that is so good it makes me wonder why it wasn’t used everywhere. However, it’s also true that no matter how great they might look to me and other fans, do they demonstrate much different from the first film?
The villain is Black Manta, there are a lot of underwater creatures and battles, there are scenes of Aquaman on the surface world acting reluctant to return to Atlantis, we see Aquaman and Orm together a few times… all of which could be describing the first film’s trailers as well. They might look great visually, but to mainstream average moviegoers, do they make a strong case that it’s a new, different experience worth making this one of the few films they spend money to see in theaters? I’m not so sure.
After two months, the first trailer for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has a respectable 15 million views, but for comparison the first trailer for The Marvels has 22 million views over three months time, while the Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania trailer topped 33 million views. There’s still five weeks to go for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, but I think the film’s newer trailers and TV spots will dominate likely viewership of promos going forward, so I doubt we’ll see the first official trailer’s numbers climb much more.
There isn’t tremendous buzz ahead of the Aquaman sequel’s release, either, although that could of course change if the rest of the marketing plus tie-in merchandise promotions through the holidays raise awareness and potential interest in the film.
But with The Color Purple, Wonka, Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, Migration, and a few other dark horse contenders in the mix, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has to grab audiences’ attention and hold it, which is the third key to the super-sequel succeeding at the box office. Like the film’s quality, this is something we can only speculate at right now, but the numbers we do have (including those noted above for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom) are more favorable for other films.
While I don’t expect Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom to flop or to underperform as badly as most of the other low-performing 2023 superhero releases, I also don’t (as of right now) expect it to come close to matching the first Aquaman’s box office run. My guess is that the holidays will indeed provide a boost and better legs into the New Year, but that it won’t amount to enough to carry it toward much more than about $500 million worldwide, with a higher end of perhaps $600 million and a lower end of say $400 million.
Maybe I’m just jaded by so much wreckage in the theater space this year, and maybe the collapse of the DCEU these past five years and eight films is making me skeptical that the last chapter of that once-mighty but fallen world of heroes can muster any remaining magic at the box office. The more the rest of the Christmas season slate underwhelms, the more room there will be for Aquaman’s sequel to prove itself worthy to sit on the box office throne.
Regardless, I’ll be there to see Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in theaters — and wearing an N-95 mask because Covid isn’t done with us no matter how much we close our eyes to the reality, and I’ll be rooting for it to succeed (it’ll hit tracking ). And I’ll be sad to see it end, no matter how the box office turns out, since it will be the last of the DCEU.