Box Office Summer Slump: It’s Characters, Not Brands, That Attract Audiences

In a summer of sequelitis, it’s characters, not brands, attracting audiences to the box [...]

In a summer of sequelitis, it's characters, not brands, attracting audiences to the box office.

Disney-Marvel ushered in the summer moviegoing season with its $2.7 billion-grossing Avengers: Endgame, most notable for closing out the first 11-year chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sending off founding Avengers Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who have spent a respective 11 and nine years at the forefront of the bigger-than-ever MCU.

The box office peaked with the reigning champ — it has since eclipsed all but one movie on the all-time highest grossing films list worldwide — trailed by a string of box office failures and disappointments, among them a rebooted Hellboy, five-years-later sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters, another franchise sendoff in X-Men sequel Dark Phoenix, and a sequel-slash-spinoff, Men in Black: International.

Lionsgate's David Harbour-led Hellboy went down in flames in April with a $21 million global box office, leaving many longing for a second sequel reteaming original franchise star Ron Perlman with writer-director Guillermo del Toro over a start-from-scratch reboot.

Warner Bros./New Line's Shazam!, starring a little heard of superhero and a well-liked cast, fared better with $363m won worldwide that same month. Though the smallest performer of the DC Extended Universe, the draw of the positively-reviewed Shazam! was a core cast of likable characters — most or all of them being discovered by much of the audience for the first time. Despite its lack of name recognition, Shazam! proved itself a winner by connecting with audiences and a sequel is now in development.

Even the James Cameron-produced Alita: Battle Angel, the latest effort from director Robert Rodriguez, won $404m worldwide despite being arguably lesser known than bigger name brands Hellboy and X-Men.

Dark Phoenix, helmed by first-time director and series writer-producer Simon Kinberg, has petered out with a limp $209m worldwide since rolling out in most territories starting June 5. It's a franchise worst and numbers won't be helped when Dark Phoenix loses more than 1,600 theaters in just its third week of release with Toy Story 4 just out and Spider-Man: Far From Home and The Lion King on the horizon.

Despite Disney leaning on the near 20-year-old franchise's nostalgia when marketing Dark Phoenix after inheriting the project from Fox, audiences didn't turn out for the latest X-Men the way they did for Endgame. The latter is at least in part a character-driven performance: audiences care deeply for the many characters of the MCU, explaining its more than $20 billion lifetime total at the box office.

As Dark Phoenix and its many flailing colleagues prove, a brand name is no longer enough to attract audiences who have more entertainment than ever within reach at all times. Audiences, in general, clearly have not connected with the newer crop of younger X-Men — most of them introduced just three years ago in the poorly-received X-Men: Apocalypse — including Sophie Turner's Jean Grey, who is at the center of Dark Phoenix despite existing as a supporting role in the preceding film.

It's far from uncanny: even with an R-rating, Hugh Jackman's swan song from the X-Verse, Logan, grossed three times more than Dark Phoenix, with only Jackman and franchise veteran Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier at its center. Despite a Marvel-backed reboot looming, Dark Phoenix would have fared better had it involved characters audiences were given reason to care about.

Godzilla may be king of the monsters, but the stories-tall creature didn't rule the box office with his sequel: the followup to 2014's Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla has earned $347m worldwide since its late May opening. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins gave KOTM a touch of continuity as they both appeared in the last film, which has little connection to the 2019 sequel, mostly centered around the Russell family (Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Stranger Things breakout Millie Bobby Brown). Criticism of the human characters and an apparent lack of star power from the Godzilla brand resulted in a tepid box office.

Tying Dark Phoenix as the worst-received movie of the summer is Sony's fourth Men in Black — both at 23% on Rotten Tomatoes — which neglected to bring back trilogy star Will Smith's Agent J or his curmudgeon partner, Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K. Instead, MIB: International tried to sell itself on the chemistry exhibited between franchise newcomer leads Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Marvel Studios' Thor: Ragnarok and Endgame.

Like Godzilla, a touch of continuity existed with the return of Men in Black 3 supporting player Emma Thompson, but the spinoff barely managed to win just over half of the $54m its predecessor opened with in 2012. International's $30m opening weekend and $118m global box office since its mid-June start can be credited to both poor reviews and a lack of interest — a similar lack of interest plagued 2016's Independence Day: Resurgence, another Smith-less sequel to a Smith blockbuster.

As the Smith-led Aladdin shows, the star can still open a movie: Disney's latest live-action hit is among the steadiest and best performing movies of 2019, still adding to its $742m global haul after a month in theaters. Smith's Genie and Naomi Scott's Jasmine have been widely pointed to as standouts, helping explain its extended box office prowess.

The Guy Ritchie-directed reimagining of the 1992 animated classic is one of the top 3 winners of the year, the others being Disney-Marvel's Endgame and Captain Marvel.

Unlike many of the year's sequels and reboots, Captain Marvel had no presence as a brand: the Marvel Comics character was B-list at best and virtually unknown by wider audiences before blasting off with a $1.1b box office in March. Citing Marvel Studios is almost cheating as it's undoubtedly the biggest theatrical name brand in the world; the Endgame "prequel" certainly got a boost from its taking place in the MCU, but was mostly powered by Brie Larson's well-received Carol Danvers in her first appearance, a character who clearly resonated with audiences to become an instant star and pop culture icon.

Sequelitis struck again with Universal-Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets 2, which opened to $46m (a steep decline from the $104 OW won by its predecessor in 2016). Brand couldn't save the animated sequel, which stands at $172m WW in three weeks, putting the $875m earned by the first film far from reach. Whatever worked for the first film wasn't recreated here, as audiences didn't turn out for a second adventure starring Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K.), Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and Snowball (Kevin Hart).

In comparison, DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World soared to $519m worldwide, indicating moviegoers were very much invested in the relationship and story between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and pet dragon Toothless.

And it's Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang — not the Toy Story name alone — that is drawing audiences back for another reach into the toy box in the weekend premiere of Disney-Pixar's Toy Story 4.

In a summer of underperformers and bombs, a theme has emerged: like any great story, it all starts with character.