Does WONDER WOMAN’s Record Box Office Opening Hide a Critical Disappointment?

"Wonder Woman" still
Credit: Warner Bros.

So the much-anticipated Patty Jenkins-directed/Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman began Monday morning celebrated for its $103m domestic opening box office weekend. The figure, of course, easily sets the record for a female-directed film.

And it is only the seventh non-sequel superhero film to open above $100m (and that's if we're not counting Marvel's The Avengers or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as non-sequels).
And, of course, it’s one of the best-reviewed superhero films of all time and the resounding critical and commercial hit Warner Bros. theoretically desperately needed, breathing new life and credibility into the future of the DC Extended Universe.
So then why don’t I feel better about the figures?

Credit: Warner Bros.

To be clear, my disappointment has nothing to do with Jenkins, who delivered a terrific film, the potential of which should never have been in doubt because of her gender, though legitimate questions existed in regards to her résumé.
She answered those résumé questions resoundingly, however, and should be genuinely proud of the glass she’s shattered.
That said, her new benchmark is likely less an issue of box office performance per se - I doubt many mainstream moviegoers choose films based on the gender of the director - and more about the historic lack of opportunity afforded women to direct big-budget tent-pole films.

Credit: Warner Bros.

On that same note, Warner Bros. marketed the film as well as can be expected. I can’t find criticism in either the substance or the volume of their efforts to make audiences aware of the film and its reception.
That’s why this morning, while the press mostly basks in the feel-good reports of the superlatives of the film’s opening performance, I lean towards a different view.
And so there is no confusion let me state upfront, I don’t think Wonder Woman let down audiences... I think audiences let down Wonder Woman.
It’d be very easy to just to be satisfied with the benchmarks set and hopefully the direction Wonder Woman pushes things in, and Warner Bros. understandably has to present that front this week, but with a deeper dive into some numbers I also can’t think of good reason why the film didn’t do better... except one reason, that is.
Let’s look at the opening of other superhero films, just for comparison’s sake…

Credit: Marvel Studios

Iron Man (2008): $99m May opening weekend (in 2008 money) – Remember Iron Man was a Paramount release and the first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, meaning the Marvel Studios/MCU brand only had anticipated (not bankable) brand equity. Its star Robert Downey Jr. at the time was not the box office draw he was now and in fact this was something of a career comeback from oblivion for him and a risk because despite his recognized talent he was, at that stage of his career, box office anti-matter.

At the time an Iron Man film was considered a C-list risk and industry wisdom suggested Marvel has already farmed out its only A-list properties to 20th Century Fox and Sony. 
Like Wonder Woman, Iron Man enjoyed critical accolades heading into its debut weekend and the film actually have much in common - both feature leads who get called to heroism when they abandon sheltered lives and are faced with the horrors of war.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Man of Steel (2013): $117m – Reviewed more lukewarmly than god awful (like Batman v Superman), Man of Steel was officially the launch of the DCEU, but then moviegoers really didn’t know that at the time. It entered the market as the fifth big-screen Superman film, following 2006’s sort-of-relaunch/not-really-a-reboot disappoint-ish Superman Returns, and a maybe start to a possible shared universe.
It also starred the virtually unknown Henry Cavill in the lead role.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Deadpool (2016): $132 - In February … with an R-rating … also starring box office-allergic Ryan Reynolds, featuring a relatively lesser profile but perhaps more contemporaneously popular character.
Much of has been made of Deadpool's multiple record-setting metrics, and like Wonder Woman and Iron Man was a critical darling. So how much credit here goes to Deadpool’s genre-busting irreverent voice and marketing campaign?
And here is the one that really stands out…

Credit: Warner Bros.

Suicide Squad (2016): $134m – Huh?
Critically drubbed (even more than Batman v Superman, if that’s to be believed), starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who opened Focus together a year before to $18m, featuring mostly D-level superheroes. I’ve heard lots of explanations for Suicide Squad’s performance, including the "Bohemian Rhapsody"-infused trailer; its more multi-cultural cast, interest in the screen debut of Robbie's Harley Quinn and Jared Leto’s Joker; and again the seemingly more irreverent tone it struck than Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. But at least in opening weekend terms, it was review proof, and/or the film would have soared past $134m even with middling reviews.
Each of the films opened to more receipts than Wonder Woman (Iron Man, again adjusted for inflation, opened to $111.7m domestically), some with serious box office disadvantages, including but not limited to rating, release month, and critical reception. And Wonder Woman featured … you know … Wonder Woman, arguably one of the four most iconic superheroes in the world along with Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man.
You can look in-between the margins for why those films performed better - like all of the reasons above, and perhaps because the character already favorably debuted in Batman v Superman and therefore the curiosity factor wasn’t as strong. Maybe being a period film hurt a little, or that Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad left a bad taste that finally caught up to a DCEU film.
And there are already signs Wonder Woman will have better legs than those films (pun entirely unintended) and will go on to have a strong box office life. But at the end of the day one has to wonder if the elephant in the room was indeed a factor - did men just not go to see Wonder Woman in comparable numbers than similar films?

Credit: Warner Bros.

Now I’m a journalist by trade and nature, so I’m compelled to concede the evidence is incomplete and circumstantial. There are neither hard numbers or a consensus to the any reasons why or why not. I'm winging it a little here. 

Credit: Warner Bros.

But Wonder Woman’s opening weekend was 52% female, an unusual and enviable figure for an action/superhero film Warner Bros. is rightfully touting today.
On the flipside, however, it was 48% male. Suicide Squad by comparison opened to a 46% female/54% male audience, considered a strong, surprising female figure in its own right at the time and it made 30% more. So the question is, did female audiences simply overwhelm the reliably male demo for Wonder Woman, and if male audiences came in the same numbers as Suicide Squad, why the differential?

Or did Wonder Woman's male demo underwhelm a little bit? 

Again, it is admittedly back of the envelope math to suggest male audiences simply weren’t as excited about the excellently-reviewed Wonder Woman, but it’s hard not to seriously consider the question as to why the film's ceiling wasn’t higher considering all its positives.
$103 million is no small feat and again the seventh best superhero, non-sequel opening of all time is a decent trophy for Wonder Woman's mantle, along with Jenkin's record. But I can’t help thinking the film deserved even better. And if any of my fellow males haven’t made the trip to the multiplex consciously or otherwise because the of the gender of the lead character, I hope you'll find your way there soon.

Not because it stars or was directed by a woman ... not to make a statement, but because it’s just a really good time at the movies and one of the best films of its kind.

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