It usually wouldn’t be much cause for concern when a big-budget franchise offering like Thor: Love and Thunder gets a “nice” 69% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 6.7/10 average critic rating) in the run-up to its opening weekend. Yes, that’s 57% among “top critics,” but more troubling is that the raw Tomatometer score (which is the percentage of participating critics who rated the film at least “good,” so a B- is the same as an A+) is among the lowest thus far for an MCU movie. It’s above only The Incredible Hulk (67% and Marvel’s first outright box office bomb back in June of 2008), Thor: The Dark World (66% and now considered one of the very worst MCU movies) and Eternals (the first generally panned Marvel flick with 47% fresh). Will this comparatively poor (or at least indifferent) critical reception impact the film’s global box office take? In a pre-Disney+ world, I’d have argued “absolutely not.” But now, with the caveat that this is *not* a prediction, I’m less sure.
Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarök was considered a franchise-saver after The Dark World. Yet now he delivers an installment about as “well-received” as Alan Taylor’s maligned sequel. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (happy 30th anniversary) earned decent reviews and record-breaking opening weekend box office yet came under post-debut fire for its macabre humor, graphic violence and unapologetic kinkiness. Burton was unofficially dumped, and Warner Bros. Hired Joel Schumacher to make the campier, more family-friendly (yet still slightly kinky and violent) Batman Forever. The film also broke the opening weekend record. It earned more than Batman Returns ($184 million domestic and $336 million global from a $53 million debut versus $162 million/$266 million from a $47 million debut) and was considered a franchise savior. Two years later, Batman & Robin (happy 25th anniversary) was wildly panned and dropped 64% on weekend two after a $43 million opening. The online geek news industry didn’t kill the movie; the paying audience did. It earned just $108 million/$237 million and “ended the franchise.”
Yes, the critical consensus was different in 2008 and even 2013 (when movies on the scale of Thor: The Dark World were still somewhat unique) than in 2022, both in terms of Marvel’s overwhelming popularity among geek-centric critics and their monoculture-like domination of pop culture. For various reasons, blockbuster franchise entries tend to get better reviews than they did in the proverbial olden days (the 1980s and 1990s). Think, offhand, a fan-specific critical establishment and a general upswing in production quality. All due respect, even a “bad” MCU movie like The Dark World is miles above the 1990 Captain America). Moreover, the current adults in the room were the kids who grew up during the slow normalization of mega-budget tentpoles like Independence Day, Jurassic Park and Spider-Man. It’s also why, to be fair, Keanu Reeves finally gets the respect he deserves and horror movies tend to be better reviewed than when I was a kid. So, will the mixed reviews affect the box office?
So far, the answer is “no.” Disney is reporting a $15.7 million opening day in 17 overseas markets, including Germany, Italy, Australia and South Korea. In “like for like” markets, it has earned 39% more than Thor: Ragnarök (which eventually earned $854 million, including $115 million in China) and 24% less than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (which didn’t play in China and still topped $950 million global). And to be clear, a Thor: Love and Thunder that grosses $715 million global (75% of Doctor Strange 2 without China and Russia) will be a rock-solid hit. Moreover, most negative reviews still “assure” audiences that it contains much of what you’d expect from a Taika Waititi-directed Thor movie. It features campy humor, visual razzle-dazzle, heavy metal needle drops, Tessa Thompson being awesome and Chris Hemsworth playing a himbo. However, the overriding narrative for even some positive reviews is that it is an inessential MCU chapter. It’s a “monster of the week” offering, a two-part Disney+ episodic, as opposed to a status-quo-shattering mythology episode.
That would be fine in a pre-Disney+ world (or even a pre-Bob Chapek world). That still might be the case since audiences who may not be addicted to the MCU still really liked Thor: Ragnarok and may still show up for more of the same. However, the casually interested may see the reviews and (depending on the audience buzz) may decide they can wait 1.5 months to watch the film “for free” on the streaming service they already pay for. That’s a new variable, one which saw Lightyear bombing globally both because it was a “nobody asked for this” solo spin-off origin story of an existing franchise character played by a different actor (see also Solo: A Star Wars Story) and because Lightyear followed three (acclaimed, original, inclusive) Pixar movies (Soul, Luca and Turning Red) which skipped theaters and premiered on Disney+. Once you’ve acclimated audiences to seeing your big-budget tentpoles “for free” on a streaming platform (and getting new MCU television content there), bringing them back into theaters is not easy.
It was a mistake to put Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness onto Disney+ after just 45 days. Shang-Chi and Eternals got over/under 70-day windows. While the film was mostly done at the global box office (and didn’t entirely drop dead after landing on Disney+ and PVOD), it signaled that Marvel movies wouldn’t be treated differently compared to other Disney flicks. There’s an enormous difference between “this film will be available to buy for $20 in 75-90 days and available to rent for $5 in 90-100 days” versus “this film will be available to buy for $20 or watch for free on your streaming platform in 45 days.” This new normal, combined with the comparatively middling reviews, may not affect the opening weekend. It may affect (even with no new live-action kid-targeted tentpoles between now and Black Adam) the post-debut grosses among the generally curious and casually interested. And if that happens, then Kevin Fiege needs to have a tough conversation with Bob Chapek about theatrical windows.