In the first trailer for James Gunn’s emotional and surprisingly downbeat Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) admits, “We’ve been gone for quite a while. But no matter what happens next, the galaxy still needs its Guardians.” While a majority of critics might agree, audiences seem less persuaded judging by Vol. 3’s opening weekend.
Despite being positioned in the same first weekend of May that many Marvel movies have previously occupied, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the third film opened at the box office well below what expectations were when Vol. 3 was announced. The threequel and trilogy-closer earned $118.4 million across the first three days of its North American run. While in a vacuum that might seem impressive, it’s less so when compared to the $146.5 million debut earned by Vol. 2 six years ago. A 19.1 percent drop is even more disconcerting when one considers how much ticket prices have inflated since 2017.
To be clear, it is far too early to suggest Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is in serious box office peril. After all, the movie grossed over $289 million globally in its opening weekend, which is a little more than the size of its reported $250 million budget. If the film enjoys subsequent weekend drops similar to Vol. 2 (which dropped 55.5 and 47 percent in its second and third weekends in the U.S.), it should certainly be on a path to turn a profit, although where that line is remains fuzzy. Conventional box office arithmetic for Disney releases suggests it will need to cross $500 million globally simply to earn back its budget, which does not account for marketing or publicity costs.
With that said, Vol. 3 duplicating its successor’s healthy drops is no guarantee in a post-Avengers: Endgame world. With the exception of Shang-Chi, every post-2019 Marvel Studios release has dropped at around 67 percent or more in its second weekend. And while some of them opened so huge that this proved less important—specifically Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latter of which opened on the same weekend as Vol. 3 last year to the tune of $187.4 million—it was outright fatal for this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which after having a franchise best opening of $106 million, proceeded to drop like a stone with a disastrous 70 percent fall-off in its second weekend. That film went on to gross $474.5 million globally, about $150 million beneath its 2018 predecessor and even below the $519.3 million earned by the first Ant-Man way back in 2015.
That film could probably be deemed a box office failure. It’s certainly a disappointment for a studio and industry that constantly demands growth for each subsequent franchise installment in the 21st century. For these reasons, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is unlikely to escape the label of “disappointment” to the Mouse House’s accountants when it appears unlikely to get near the same ballpark of Vol. 2’s $864 million total from over half a decade ago.
In other words, the long-awaited and triumphant return of James Gunn to the MCU, in a movie about some of Marvel’s most popular characters from the 2010s after they played an outsized role in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (2019), is failing to recapture that 2010s MCU magic at the box office. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to ignore the elephant in the room: superhero fatigue.
We admit it’s a loaded term, likely created by jaded film critics with fanciful notions of superhero movies “going away.” Certain filmmakers have likewise given it oxygen over the years, with Steven Spielberg speculating in 2015 “there will be a time when superhero movies go the way of the Western.” Just last year Quentin Tarantino compared the current boom of capes and cowls to musicals, whose heyday on the big screen also ended with the 1960s. Said Tarantino, “[Today’s filmmakers] can’t wait for the day they can say that about superhero movies.” So is it time to consider whether that day has come?
Perhaps, although it shouldn’t necessarily be treated as terrifying (or gleeful, depending on your disposition). A trend is definitely occurring where the biggest movies of last year were Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Jurassic World Dominion, all of which cleared at least $1 billion, a feat no 2022 MCU movie achieved, even Doctor Strange 2 after that stunning opening. Similarly, this past winter and early spring was a boon for a lot of studio franchises and genre efforts, save for Ant-Man 3 and, even worse, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the latter of which finished its domestic run with $57.6 million, a catastrophic $4 million above the 2019 Shazam’s $53.5 million opening.
And now Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is a direct heir to Marvel’s biggest boom years, is also falling well beneath the corporate logic that demands you must always be growing. (The added irony of this is that many wouldn’t have even called the first Guardians a “superhero movie” in 2014, but Disney intentionally changed that perception by putting the team in Avengers movies and then Thor: Love and Thunder.)
It is hard to argue a fatigue hasn’t seeped into the culture given Marvel Phase 4 being unable to recover from the pandemic, even as other genres are flourishing in 2023, including major blockbusters like Avatar 2, which soaked up north of $2 billion in the background. Yet that doesn’t mean the genre is in any danger of going away, or in fact that even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will fail to make money. Whatever its final domestic total, the film will almost certainly turn a profit between global ticket sales, home media, and merchandising. Which is to say no one should lose their shirt.
The movie is still a hit. It just isn’t the kind of hit that Disney and the theatrical industry should plan their entire fiscal calendar around. If the same narrative for a film was a little more visually reined in, so it cost $150 million instead of $250 million, executives could have even been popping champagne.
Which is to say that the superhero genre isn’t in a state of existential crisis—at least not yet. But its days as the 900-pound gorilla at the box office may be done. A logo that reads “Marvel Studios” may no longer be a guarantee for a film grossing above $700 million, or its sequel to add an “8” or “9” in front of those zeroes. But they still have a dedicated audience who shows up in droves opening weekends.
The industry readjusting expectations could be a healthy thing, both for allowing a greater variety genres to prosper at the box office (and in the conference room where greenlights are handed out), as well as superhero movies themselves which can far too often rely on a homogenous formula and aesthetics that have created an environment of diminishing returns in an oversaturated marketplace. Studios spending a little less money on spectacle in superhero movies, and a little more investment in innovating the type of stories and characters they create within the genre, could be a good thing.
Then again, this is still a trilogy-closer to a popular brand. So the full measure of whether this is a genre in mild decline or serious freefall may yet be determined when less seemingly sure-things like The Flash, The Marvels, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and next year’s Thunderbolts hit the big screen.
It also remains to be seen how much of this is just a fatigue in your core audience (which can be rekindled with time) or actual generational turnover, a la what actually happened to Westerns and musicals. It’s worth considering superhero movies have been dominant in Hollywood now for over 20 years, meaning there are teenagers who don’t remember a time when they weren’t cool or (gag) their parents didn’t like them.
Personally, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which in this writer’s opinion is the best thing Marvel has done since 2019. So seeing it fall short of expectations is, indeed, disappointing. But it remains to be seen if the fatigue in its performance suggests a future of other underwhelming openings or actual DEFCON 1 existential threats to a brand, as experienced by Shazam 2.
It shouldn’t be a deal breaker if your golden goose starts laying silver eggs… unless you’re trying to fill Fort Knox.