Guardians of the Galaxy 3 Proves Making Better Movies Can Stop Superhero Fatigue

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is holding better in its second weekend than any Marvel movie since 2018. If this is superhero fatigue, the genre could use more of it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3
Photo: Marvel Studios

When James Gunn’s third and final adventure with Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and the rest of the gang hit cinemas last weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opened to a respectable if unspectacular $118.4 million across three days in the U.S. This was a healthy number, but one noticeably down from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which opened at $146.5 million in 2017. Hence early concern within the industry (and among ourselves) about what this could mean for Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole.

Opening weekends dropping by nearly 20 percent between installments is never something that growth-obsessed boardrooms and shareholders want to see. And, indeed, that drop still seems to suggest there is some kind of minor exhaustion with the superhero genre, which has had a very rough past nine months: DC’s Black Adam in October and March’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods both flopped while the once unbeatable Marvel suffered at least a major disappointment in the performance of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania this past spring. Additionally, all of the post-Avengers: Endgame Marvel movies dropped by more than 65 percent in their second weekends, except for Shang-Chi.

In other words, recent historical precedent was not on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s side to overperform after that debut… but it is. In fact, when using week-to-week holds as the metric, it’s performing better than any other MCU effort in the last five years. With the Disney estimates in, it looks like Vol. 3 grossed $62.6 million in its second weekend. That’s a miraculous 47 percent drop from week to week.

This number is lightyears better than recent Marvel Studios experiences at the North American multiplexes, where Ant-Man 3 dropped 69.9 percent during its second weekend in February, and last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness saw similarly mediocre declines of 67.7 percent and 67 percent, respectively. However, even better than topping the sluggish performances of Phase 4 films, Guardians 3’s drop marks the best Marvel’s seen since the first Black Panther fell by only 45 percent in February 2018. (Other MCU films to have such leggy second weekends include the first Doctor Strange falling by 49 percent, and Phase 1 films like The Avengers and the original Iron Man softly declining by 50 percent each more than a decade ago.)

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These are stunning numbers. Admittedly, part of the reason inevitably comes from the fact Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opened at a smaller number than, say, Spider-Man: No Way Home, which consumed entire multiverse worlds for a $260 million domestic debut. Nevertheless, the staying power of Vol. 3 seems to speak to something else: superhero fatigue is overrated when you put out really good movies.

Personally, Gunn’s farewell to his spaceship full of misfits is a high watermark in the MCU and the best thing Marvel Studios has done in more than a few years. What’s interesting though is that it would seem moviegoers’ word-of-mouth is generally reflecting that sentiment. Vol. 3 enjoys an “A” CinemaScore, according to the industry standard for audience polling. That’s the same rating as the first two Guardians films. It is also only the fourth MCU movie out of nine to earn that rating since 2019 (the others being Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Shang-Chi, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latter enjoying an “A+.”)

One week later, the box office bears out the CinemaScore rating, suggesting the word of mouth is strong for Gunn’s farewell movie. Despite being a heavier, slightly darker affair than most MCU movies, folks are telling friends and family to check it out (or seeing it for themselves a second or third time). This is a boon for a genre that has endured a noticeable decline in box office revenue over the last few years. When the aforementioned Thor and Doctor Strange sequels dropped like stones in their second weekends, similar to Eternals and Black Widow before them, the conventional wisdom went that this is just the new normal for blockbusters. But as those declines were compared to the healthier runs of non-superhero franchise fare like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, the industry-thinking shifted toward suggesting the superhero genre is itself in modest decline.

That then began looking more severe in a post-Black Adam and Fury of the Gods world. Yet as it turns out, when you make a film that most audiences and critics agree is a cut above… folks will show up, after all.

Vol. 3 still opened smaller than Vol. 2 despite six years of ticket inflation, and it also will not be able to rely on the Chinese box office for a major boost like its 2017 predecessor. But in spite of these setbacks, it is now on pace to gross at least in Vol. 2’s ballpark, which is north of $800 million globally. This is a much needed win for Marvel and perhaps a healthy reminder, both for the studio and its skeptics.

When Marvel Studios is working at the top form of its quality, the superhero genre is thriving and enjoying the type of good buzz that some might’ve taken for granted in the mid-2010s. When it’s not, as seemingly reflected by the third Ant-Man film (which had a mediocre “B” CinemaScore), the core fandom still shows up in droves in the first weekend but casual moviegoers may stay away directly afterward.

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This doesn’t quite dispel the concept of superhero fatigue, then. That test is yet to come in movies that are sequels or spin-offs from less beloved properties, such as this summer’s The Flash, and this fall’s Marvels and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Even so, it turns out if you want to beat the alleged “fatigue,” maybe you just need to make better movies? What a novelty.