When The Avengers opened in theaters in May 2012, it was a genuinely unusual offering for viewers—a film that both was and wasn’t a sequel, uniting the characters of various Marvel movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) for a new story about them functioning as a team. The novelty was such that box-office sales far outstripped previous efforts: The Avengers opened to a stunning $207 million, far above the previous Marvel Studios record ($128 million for Iron Man 2).
Since then, that’s been the sales plan for any “cinematic universe,” the comic-book storytelling template that Marvel applied to its films and that other studios have since scrambled to copy: Invest in big blockbusters that introduce your stars, then spend even more on the movie that sees them all sharing the same screen. That’s why Warner Bros. invested a reported $300 million in Justice League, making it one of the most expensive films ever shot. Here, finally, fans could see all of DC’s famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, plus new faces like The Flash and Aquaman—hanging out with one another.
But those fans didn’t materialize in droves as the studio had hoped. Justice League opened to a tepid $94 million last weekend, a figure that has set off a new round of murmurs in Hollywood. The weak ticket sales are proof that the wild success of Marvel’s grand comic-book experiment should be seen as an exception rather than the rule—that simply teaming up big-name heroes isn’t enough to ensure a financial win. In the five years since Marvel officially struck gold with The Avengers, every major studio has worked to plan scores of expensive franchise films intended to build up to a guaranteed payout, but audiences already seem to be growing tired of this scheme.
After the critical and financial triumph of Wonder Woman this summer ($821 million worldwide on a $150 million budget), it seemed like the DC Comics movies had finally turned their fortunes around. Earlier offerings like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad were critically reviled but made decent money anyway; Wonder Woman outgrossed them both domestically, despite a lower opening weekend, showing that positive word of mouth still mattered even for an action-packed superhero film. Justice League was more in line with previous efforts, recording a 39 percent Rotten Tomatoes score (compared to Wonder Woman’s 92 percent).
Even with that said, Justice League’s underperformance was startling. Studio estimates pegged it earning about $115 million, around what the Superman film Man of Steel opened to in 2013; it came in well below that. Whatever appeal Warner Bros. had hoped would be generated by the union of Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and Henry Cavill’s Superman was nonexistent. The film’s entire marketing campaign was centered on the movie’s lighter, funnier tone following criticism of the oppressively dark and brooding Batman v. Superman, but audiences either didn’t buy that change was for real, or weren’t actually eager for more jokes in the first place.
Hollywood’s franchise blockbusters have had an exceptionally bad year. There have been a few well-received hits—Wonder Woman, all three of Marvel’s efforts, Logan. But by and large, there’s a sense of colossal fatigue from audiences, depressing sales for sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, and stopping “cinematic universes” in their tracks (such as The Mummy, the beginning of Universal’s aborted “Dark Universe”). Even well-reviewed sequels like Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant failed to break the $100 million domestic gross barrier, a classic benchmark for success in Hollywood.
So Justice League’s failure shouldn’t just be attributed to the mixed quality of the DC movies, or to its comic-book rivalry with Marvel that many fans online seem invested in. It’s also a repudiation of a strategy that’s starting to wear out its welcome. When The Avengers debuted in theaters five years ago it stood out because it was different; the same goes for Avatar wowing audiences with 3D photography in 2009, or Spider-Man making the superhero movie appeal to more than just comic-book nerds in 2002. But the film business has long excelled at taking any kind of surprising success and replicating the mechanics of it to death. And despite other studios’ best imitative efforts, Marvel is the only one that has benefited from its particular storytelling approach.
So what will the next craze be? Horror films will certainly tick up after the huge success of It, Get Out, and Split in 2017. Disney’s policy of remaking all of its beloved classics isn’t going away anytime soon (Beauty and the Beast remains the biggest hit of the year). And perhaps the success of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s war movie made without any chance of sequels or team-ups, will convince studios that handing big budgets to proven directors is wiser than simply banking on the power of the branded sequel. Then again, there are at least 25 sequels, spinoffs, and remakes already on the release docket in 2018, including at least three team-ups (with the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Harry Potter universes). With projects this big, it’ll take more than one bad year to reverse any trend.