The Batman Box Office: When a ‘Soft’ Opening for a Franchise Is Still Great

The Batman does big pandemic business with a $128.5 million opening, despite being on the low side for recent Dark Knight movies.

Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz as The Batman and Catwoman
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It turns out Batman is both the hero movie theaters need and deserve in March 2022. Matt ReevesThe Batman, the ninth solo live-action Dark Knight film, stands poised to gross $128.5 million this weekend. The opening is the largest any movie has seen at the box office since Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: No Way Home in December, which debuted at $260.1 million.

It feels important to remind fans of that fact given some seem agitated on social media that The Batman failed to do Spidey numbers. But while that total might indicate a disparity between the current popularity of the Bat and Spider, The Batman is nevertheless only the second movie to open north of $100 million since the COVID-19 pandemic first crippled cinemas back in March 2020, and it is also the biggest tentpole theater owners have seen in the first quarter of 2022.

That news marks The Batman as a notable success in its opening days, and one which Warner Bros. can crow about given that it is a decidedly more somber and intimate depiction of the character than audiences have previously seen, and one that comes attached to a potentially intimidating three-hour running time. This also makes it WB’s biggest hit since Joker in October 2019. All while The Batman did little beyond promising audiences more of what they’ve already seen, but darker.

In that way, the new release’s box office provides an interesting case study in the modern lifecycle of Hollywood franchises, particularly in an era where no cinematic saga ever really ends—it just gets rebooted and recast, sometimes twice within a single decade.

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How The Batman Box Office Compares to Previous Dark Knights

If one were to only count live-action movies in which the name “Batman” appears on-screen, The Batman is the lowest grossing Batman debut since 2005’s Batman Begins, which opened nearly 20 years ago at $48.8 million. And the last film the character headlined in live-action was 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and that movie was viewed as a disappointment by the studio despite opening at a hefty $166 million.

However, expectations, and the public perception of the health and popularity of a franchise, is everything—and The Batman appears to be surer footing in that regard than the largely rejected BvS.

When BvS opened in 2016, it came out less than four years after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises opened at $160 million and went on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide (the second Batman movie to do so after the even more popular The Dark Knight from 2008).

Conversely, Batman v Superman followed what was seen as an underperformance for a modern Superman movie in Man of Steel, the Zack Snyder-directed 2013 reboot that was meant to imitate The Dark Knight yet opened at $116.6 million. That number was considered “soft” for a modern superhero blockbuster starring an A-list character in the 2010s, so putting Ben Affleck’s Batman in the sequel was intended to jumpstart the “DC Extended Universe” with box office comparable to an Avengers movie, or at least Nolan’s rapturously received Dark Knight sequels.

Instead Batman v Superman managed to open slightly above Dark Knight Rises but earn little of that movie’s general goodwill, or good word of mouth. Rises received 87 percent positive reviews, as aggregated by the website Rotten Tomatoes. But, probably more importantly to a studio hoping to relaunch a billion-dollar franchise, it received a sterling “A” grade from the industry pollsters at CinemaScore, suggesting audiences largely liked the movie. Hence it going on to gross $1 billion.

Batman v Superman, by contrast, was infamously slammed by most critics and currently sits at a dismal 29 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. More lethal for the film, it received a “B” CinemaScore. Anything below a “B+” is considered bad for word of mouth. For context, the Halle Berry-starring Catwoman and 2011’s Green Lantern also received “B” grades from CinemaScore. And that industry poll was borne out by the fact that despite opening slightly higher than Rises, Batman v Superman failed to match the gross of either of Nolan’s last two Dark Knight pictures, never mind The Avengers. At the end of its run, BvS crossed “only” $873.6 million.

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Once you also account for the last actual live-action appearance of the Batman character on the big screen in 2017’s Justice League, a film which opened at a grim $93.8 million and went on to gross $658 million, it gets worse. For Snyder fans who still wonder why Warner Bros. ultimately moved away from the Snyder/Affleck approach to the character, it has more to do with the disappointing box office and word of mouth than critical reviews. And that disenchantment with general audiences began before Justice League was crudely reshot and reedited in 2017. In fact, the theatrical cut of Justice League curiously has a slightly better CinemaScore than BvS, earning a “B+” in its opening weekend.

That is a key reason audiences are seeing a new and rebooted Batman starring Robert Pattinson inside of a decade since Christian Bale hung up the cape in July 2012.

Rebuilding the Bat

All of this provides an interesting context for The Batman’s relative success. The new Batman movie was initially slated at a more modest budget for a modern superhero movie with $100 million, but according to Variety, Reeves’ superhero movie actually cost $200 million. On paper and in a vacuum, that would suggest $128 million is as soft in 2022 as $116 million was for Man of Steel in 2013. However, in addition to the fact that The Batman is battling the pandemic, it is also battling franchise perceptions in the public, with there being notable skepticism toward seeing a third live-action Batman in relatively quick succession. And one that’s marketing strategy seems to be, “You think you know dark? The Batman was born in it!”

Which is why that word of mouth is, again, going to be intriguing throughout the new movie’s run. At the very least, The Batman is off to a solid start. Unlike the two theatrically released superhero movies with Affleck as the Caped Crusader, The Batman has largely been embraced by critics, earning 85 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as of the time of writing. And, more importantly to the studio, it’s being well-received by audiences which according to those polled by CinemaScore have awarded the movie an “A-” grade.

Assuming that word of mouth indicated by CinemaScore is vindicated by the weeks to come, The Batman could have a very long and healthy run throughout March wherein it will face no major competition until Sony Pictures’ Morbius at the end of the month. It also will have a lot riding on its Chinese opening.

No matter what, however, the perception of The Batman’s success suggests movie franchises are increasingly becoming like sports franchises: There can be ebbs and flows, dynasties and rebuilding years. This particular intellectual property has already seen this once with the aforementioned soft opening of Batman Begins in 2005. In the wake of events like Spider-Man becoming the first movie ever to cross $100 million in its opening weekend three years earlier, Begins was viewed as an initial disappointment for WB. In that exact moment in time, many suggested movie audiences were perhaps simply tired of the character after 1997’s abysmal Batman & Robin eight years earlier. Some even speculated Nolan would never even get to make a second Batman movie after that weekend.

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However, the word of mouth on Batman Begins was strong, and the film ultimately went on to gross $206.9 million domestically, revealing the movie to have a head-turning 4.2x multiplier (as in it more than quadrupled its opening weekend gross). This indicated strong audience approval, and with the movie being further discovered by viewers who felt tired of the character on the then-booming DVD market, the path was cleared for WB to go all-in on Nolan’s vision in a sequel which became The Dark Knight… the first superhero movie to gross $1 billion.

At the moment, The Batman appears to have the potential to follow a similar trajectory to Batman Begins, suggesting superhero franchises may need to literally rebuild every decade or so. And if that’s the case, Reeves may yet have his dynasty. Stay tuned, Bat-fans…