Why 'Wonder Woman' has to be a hit — with critics and at the box office — in 4 charts
As early reactions to Wonder Woman pour in, DC Comics can breathe easy. Coming on the heels of three critically derided releases, every bit of positive press helps combat the notion that the films of the DC Extended Universe are inferior to their Marvel cousins.
But the initial reception is just the beginning of Diana Prince's fight. Wonder Woman has enormous expectations on its shoulders to be not just a critical hit but also a commercial one. If star Gal Godot and director Patty Jenkins can pull this off, it'll help not just reverse DC's misfortune at the multiplex, but change the broader narrative about what kinds of movies work at the box office.
The film is already starting conversations about who is the audience for superhero movies. The Alamo Drafthouse's women-only screenings of Wonder Woman are drawing criticism from men, who are crying "reverse sexism." As the first DC or Marvel film solely about a female hero, this is the first chance for such screenings — so, naturally, they've already divided fans.
Is it a high-stakes situation? You bet. So in advance of Wonder Woman's Friday release, we've run the numbers and come up with four charts that prove exactly how crucial it is that DC's latest movie succeed.
(Editor's note: All box-office numbers cited in this piece are from each film's entire domestic box-office run, minus the film's reported budget.)
Wonder Woman must prove DC is viable commercially. Upon first glance at the DC Extended Universe movies' box-office numbers, they look solid enough. All three since the DCEU's launch — 2013's Man of Steel, 2016's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2016's Suicide Squad — have made hundreds of millions of dollars domestically. Only Man of Steel fell below $300 million, and not by much. DC hasn't had a runaway hit like 2012's Marvel's The Avengers, but it also hasn't yet released its massive team-up, Justice League (coming later this year), so it's an unequal comparison.
That said, the DC movies' remarkably high budgets drag down their overall box-office takes. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, released in 2014, told a story with much smaller, less notable heroes than Batman and Superman. Yet against their respective budgets, Guardians made over $82 million more than Dawn of Justice in profit. In fact, despite starring a rogue's gallery of villains, Suicide Squad actually performed the best against its budget among DC's movies — but still paled in comparison to Marvel movies like 2013's Iron Man 3 and 2016's Captain America: Civil War.
With its $100 million budget, Wonder Woman will have an easier hurdle to clear — and, if positive projections hold up, it should quickly turn a profit that will put it in the same class as Marvel's most profitable films.
Wonder Woman has to prove that DC can succeed critically. Unlike the box office, which only looks bad for DC with some close examination, critics have been outspoken in their distaste for the DCEU films. The best regarded of the three is Man of Steel, which pleased only 55% of critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes. That's positively astronomical compared to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, though; Man of Steel has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than those two combined.
Meanwhile, five Marvel movies have a critical approval of 90% or higher, and the lowest — 2013's Thor: The Dark World — still sits at 66%, 11 percentage points higher than DC's best performing movie. To say that Wonder Woman has to deliver on the quality front is an understatement; anything less than a solid score will make DC look incompetent.
Wonder Woman has a chance to verify that movies about women succeed at the box office. Back in 2015, we ran an experiment to challenge the commonly accepted idea that movies with male protagonists make more than those with female protagonists. To do so, we examined the top 25 domestic-grossing films from every year from 2006 through 2015, looking at gross earnings over budget.
The results were clear: The accepted truism is false. Among big-budget blockbusters — like Wonder Woman — movies about women make more of a profit on average. This is usually thanks to lower investment in budget; with less invested, higher-grossing movies make more on return. Films like 2011's The Help and Bridesmaids score huge profits against their relatively modest budgets. Meanwhile, movies starring men that look like hits, like 2011's The Green Lantern — which made nearly $117 million domestically — often suffer from outsized budgets ($200 million in this case) that cut into its gross.
Wonder Woman, which has a smaller budget than any of the DCEU's other movies, will almost certainly continue this rarely acknowledged trend.
Wonder Woman needs to establish that superhero movies with female heroes outperform. Examining the comic book and superhero movies made since 2000 reveals a fascinating trend: When the movies prominently feature a female hero — either solo, in a major supporting role or as part of a team — the movies make roughly $28 million more over budget than those without.
There are a couple of explanations for this. For example, team-up titles like The Avengers, which prominently features Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and is one of the top-grossing movies of all time, skew the sample. But that isn't an exception, and rather proves the rule: Movies with a diverse cast of heroes appeal to more demographic groups that see themselves represented, thus growing the potential box-office returns.
If it succeeds financially, Wonder Woman will prove once and for all that top-lining a superhero movie with a female character is not a risk, but a benefit. As all of these charts illustrate, this is a lot of pressure to put on one movie. But the idea that this film could change perceptions — for DC, for movies about women and for female superheroes — is truly, well, wonderful.
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