Disney’s superhero adventure “Eternals” debuted to $71 million at the domestic box office, a tally that would typically be labeled a “disappointment” in the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel movies rarely miss at the box office; all 26 movies have opened at No. 1 in North America and many recent installments (pre-pandemic, of course) have ultimately glided by the $1 billion mark globally with ease. Box office observers and comic book super-fans have come to expect the franchise’s entries to generate more than $100 million in their opening weekends. Anything less, by Marvel standards, tends to be classified as a misstep.
In that company, “Eternals” isn’t quite stacking up at the box office. The big-budget adaptation, featuring an ensemble cast of Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden and Kit Harington, notched one of the worst opening weekends in the MCU — including the pandemic-era releases “Black Widow” ($80 million, plus $60 million on Disney Plus) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($75 million). In pandemic times, though, it’s not a bad start. “Eternals” landed the fourth-best launch behind “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” ($90 million), “Black Widow” and “Shang Chi.” So while $71 million may be lackluster compared to other MCU entries, “Eternals” has sold more tickets in three days than nearly every film released this year made in their entire theatrical runs.
“It’s below Marvel’s remarkable average for launching a new series, but we are still in thin air at the top of the theatrical business,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “The movie is a creative departure for Marvel. Different is good when it keeps it fresh, but it can also shake the fan base.”
Since “Eternals” premiered in the same year as three new Marvel-centric television series on Disney Plus, “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki,” in addition to two other big-screen feature films in “Shang-Chi” and “Black Widow,” it would be easy to attribute the box office results as a larger sign that audiences are starting to grow tired of all things superhero. There’s no denying that comic book fare, on the big and small screen alike, is more prevalent than ever. In the case of “Eternals,” however, it doesn’t signal that franchise fatigue has come to plague Marvel once and for all.
“‘Eternals’ had very unique challenges in that, outside of Angelina Jolie, it didn’t have any big-name stars,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s not like Marvel is taking a dip. They ran into a series of heroes that absolutely nobody had heard of.”
“Eternals” didn’t fall short of Marvel’s stratospheric box office expectations because moviegoers are worn down by Spandex heroes. Rather, it’s because the film didn’t resonate with audiences in the same way that prior entries in the popular series have. Reviews for “Eternals,” directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, have been far less enthusiastic than other MCU titles, and it has the unfortunate distinction as the first Marvel movie to get a “rotten” score on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Audiences were similarly mixed. It’s the only Marvel movie to receive a “B” CinemaScore. The first “Thor” landed a “B+” rating, while the remaining 24 movies have fallen in the “A” range. Given the lukewarm reception, the decline in ticket sales between its first and second weekend in theaters will reflect the degree to which word-of-mouth can affect Marvel at the box office. Tepid reviews could mean the film drops substantially in its sophomore outing. “Shang-Chi” didn’t have an exponentially better start than “Eternals,” but the well-reviewed tentpole held steady in subsequent weeks, propelling box office revenues to $223 million, the most of any movie this year. It remains to be seen how “Eternals” will stack up to “Shang-Chi” and “Black Widow,” but nonetheless, it will easily rank among the top 10-highest grossing films of 2021.
Marvel may not have to wait long for its next box office smash. Box office analysts believe “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which Marvel Studios co-produced with Sony Pictures, could be the first pandemic-release to cross $100 million in its box office debut on Dec. 17. The third “Spider-Man” movie to feature Tom Holland as the web-slinging hero looks poised to be a commercial triumph, especially because trailers for the superhero epic have teased the tantalizing promise of a multiverse — an alternate reality that allows multiple generations of “Spider-Man” actors to appear in the same movie. That means past Spideys Tobey MaGuire and Andrew Garfield, as well as villains like Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and Jamie Foxx’s Electro, may appear alongside Holland.
“Eternals” sets up the future of Marvel in a post-“Avengers: Endgame” world, one in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) bid farewell to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. A big challenge in Zhao’s film was getting audiences to care about several new characters who weren’t as ubiquitous as Spider-Man or Black Panther. That isn’t a problem for Marvel’s upcoming slate in 2022 and 2023, which features characters who have become household names, including “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “The Marvels” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
“Even before the pandemic, ‘Shang-Chi’ and ‘Eternals’ were considered outside the event Marvel movies we got used to,” Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro, says in reference to “Captain Marvel,” “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” — the last three MCU movies to hit theaters prior to COVID-19. “Once we get to ‘Doctor Strange,’ ‘Thor’ and ‘Black Panther,’ those are the heavy hitters.”
Or, as Bock puts it, “Marvel’s upcoming slate has characters we all know and love dearly. Those films will be just fine.”