Warner Bros.

'Justice League'

To quote one of my favorite Sarah McLachlan songs, hold on, hold on to yourself. For this is gonna hurt like hell.

Never did I imagine a situation in all these years where the eventual Justice League movie would snag a domestic opening weekend of less than $100 million. In a world where Suicide Squad snagged a $133m debut and Deadpool earned $132m in its Fri-Sun debut, it is almost beyond comprehension that Justice League, a movie that combines a well-liked Batman and a beloved Wonder Woman with The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and (spoiler?) Superman would sell about as many tickets as the R-rated, 2D Logan. But here we are, with a $38.8m Friday for the Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. release. As the kids say, I can’t even…

For most movies, a $38.8 million opening day, including $4.5m in IMAX alone, would be terrific (back in 2002, Spider-Man set a new record with a $39m opening day). But that’s just above the $38m Friday of Wonder Woman and way below the $46m opening day of Thor: Ragnarok, the $65m opening day of Suicide Squad, the $56m opening day of Man of Steel and the $81m Friday for Batman v Superman. Yes, the hope is that the film will be less frontloaded than Dawn of Justice, but we could very well be looking at a Justice League movie that opens with just $80m for the weekend.

Even legs like Wonder Woman (which had a better weekend multiplier than any prior DC Films or MCU movie) gets this movie to “just” $105 million, or about what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II earned ($92m in 2011/$103m adjusted) on its first day. But if it otherwise plays like a DC Films offering, then it’s a $75-$85m debut weekend. For some rather grim perspective, we may see a situation where Justice League makes less on opening weekend than Batman v Superman and the first two Avengers films made in their respective opening days.

And even if it gets to $90 million (or over/under the $92m opening day of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II) and thus avoids that embarrassment, the fact that it has yet to show any real legs this weekend doesn’t paint a healthy long-term picture. To wit, Wonder Woman made 29% of its $38m Friday via Thursday previews, Suicide Squad earned 30% of its $65m Friday on Thursday, while Batman v Superman earned 34% of its $81m Friday via previews. Justice League, despite a mere $13m Thursday, made 33% of its Friday money on Thursday, which is at least better than Man of Steel ($21m on Thursday for a $56m Friday).

Now the film is a kid-friendly good time and it’s quite possible that the film may pick up steam via matinees, but A) that’s not a guarantee and B) Wonder is turning out to be a pretty brutal bit of competition. But before you blame that Julia Roberts/Owen Wilson drama, do note that this is the same weekend where, in 2009, The Blind Side opened with $33 million while The Twilight Saga: New Moon snagged $142m in its Fri-Sun debut.

Speaking of Twilight, that first 2D Twilight opened in 2008 on this very weekend with $69 million, which would be around $86m adjusted for inflation and sans 3D or IMAX. That means, when all is said and done, unless it kicks butt today and tomorrow, then Justice League may well sell fewer tickets than the first Twilight did.  Once again, if this continues, then Twilight will have sold more tickets over opening weekend than Justice League.

Now WB can only hope that the film has legs comparable to that first Twilight and the Hunger Games sequels, as opposed to the massively frontloaded (over/under 2x) Twilight Saga sequels. Otherwise, Justice League will be a box office crisis of infinite proportions. As shocking as this seems, and I dared not presume things would go this badly, it is an almost natural end-result of the last four years of the DC Films franchise.

Folks were mezzo on Man of Steel, so WB gave us Batman v Superman. Folks were really dissatisfied with Batman v Superman, so Suicide Squad got a new coat of humor/upworthy paint and critics cried foul. Now we have Justice League, which is a direct sequel to Batman v Superman, with the same director no less. Even if we argue that Justice League is A) a better film or B) more of what the general audiences wanted from their superhero movies, you can make the case that audiences were twice bitten and three-times shy.

So yeah, longtime readers will understand that, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (a superior sequel to a hype-driven smash that flopped because folks didn’t like the first one), Justice League got itself Tomb Raider Trapped. Justice League may have been better or more commercial than Batman v Superman, but so many were turned off by that hype-driven 2016 mega-grosser ($873 million worldwide) that they opted out of a return engagement.

And you better believe that things may have been even worse had Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman not turned everyone into huge fans of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, even if that “added value element” clearly wasn’t enough. Assuming it gets to aorund $93 million for the weekend, it will have the same opening weekend downturn from Batman v Superman as did Divergent: Allegiant ($29m) from Divergent: Insurgent ($$52m).

Now a disclaimer before I get too grim. It is entirely possible that Justice League pulls a Kong: Skull Island this weekend and gets over $118 million for the frame, although we can debate to what extent that will be a victory for a movie like this. Moreover, with a decent B+ Cinemascore, it is also possible that the holiday legs will still give the film a multiplier closer to Catching Fire than New Moon, and if it does well overseas (it has $70.7m overseas thus far for a $109.5m global cume), then a $300m domestic total is a decent result.

But Wonder and Coco are going to chip away at that kid demo and we don't yet know if general audiences (as opposed to hardcore fans) have shown up or will show up. WB will hope for Fantastic Beasts legs ($232m from a $74.4m debut), which would be fantastic indeed. Yet, fair or not, it just as likely that it snags a $95 million weekend and (like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I) a 2.35x multiplier for what would be a $220m domestic total.

Yeah, this isn’t the triumphant culmination of DC Film’s grand franchise plans that they presumably expected back in October of 2014 when they slated a bunch of upcoming movies. And what I wrote in April of 2014 still applies: Warner Bros. didn’t really need a full-fledged DC Comics cinematic universe, and now they may wish they didn’t bother with one.

In terms of expectations, demands and reactions versus results, Justice League may (emphasis on "may") be the biggest-grossing "flop" of all time. Justice League will end an otherwise fine year on an awkward note and risk overshadowing several very year successes. And, I would argue, for Justice League to overshadow ItWonder Woman, Dunkirk and Kong: Skull Island would be a grave Injustice.

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