The Box Office Doesn’t Lie: Why the DCEU as We Know It Is Done

James Gunn and Henry Cavill have revealed that the actor will not be returning to the role of Superman in the Man of Steel’s next movie. Additionally, Gunn, who is the co-CEO of DC Studios, has announced that he’s writing that film, which will focus on a younger version of the character.

This news follows recent rumors that neither Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman nor Jason Momoa’s Aquaman will get a third solo movie amid the shake-ups Gunn and his DC Studios partner Peter Safran have planned for the DC movie-verse.

Meanwhile, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been making the case that Black Adam will be profitable. But with Cavill out as Superman, is the match-up between Black Adam and the Man of Steel that was teased at the end of The Rock’s movie even in the cards anymore? Will there even be another appearance by the actor as Black Adam, for that matter?

After years of promising that Black Adam would change the hierarchy of power in the DCEU, and now that the hierarchy of power in terms of who actually calls the shots in the DCEU has changed, The Rock definitely has something to prove in touting the financial returns of Black Adam. But what do the actual box-office numbers say about the performance of the DC movie-verse itself, including his film? We decided to dig into them, and you know what? It’s not that surprising that Gunn and Safran appear to be moving on from the DCEU that started all the way back with 2013’s Man of Steel.

What do the actual box-office numbers say about the performance of the DC movie-verse itself?

There’s a lot at stake for these big tentpole movies, especially in the Golden Age of Superhero Cinema (though at this point we must be in the Silver Age at least).

But as we see Gunn and Safran’s plan for DC slowly start to come together, it seems increasingly clear that even The Rock’s reportedly strong-arming the Henry Cavill cameo into Black Adam might not have been enough to get a sequel, nor did his basically spoiling the actor’s return.

Obviously, there’s a lot at stake for The Rock here, particularly since he essentially self-selected himself as the new champion of the DCEU. With Zack Snyder no longer around and Gunn and Safran not yet in charge, there was a stretch there with no fan-facing figure running things. In his own inimitable way, The Rock was basically trying to will his version of the DC universe into success. It clearly didn’t work out that way, but you have to admire the guy for trying.

Part of the reason why we decided to dig into the numbers on this whole thing is because of something The Rock tweeted. This tweet came after industry trade Deadline ran a story about how Black Adam was expected to make a profit. That story seemed to appear in response to a Variety piece that indicated that the movie “stands to lose $50 million to $100 million in its theatrical run.”

Anyway, The Rock’s tweet read in part that the film “will PROFIT between $52M-$72M” and “At almost $400M worldwide we are building our new franchise step by step (first Captain America did $370M) for the DC future.”

Look, Hollywood math can get fuzzy, but we can say with a fair amount of certainty that Black Adam cost at least $190 to $200 million. Add the marketing budget to that, which could be upwards of $80 to $100 million, and that theater owners get roughly half of the box-office take, and well… you do the math. Actually, we already did it, and here it is.

Sure, there’s also ancillary revenue to take into account, like Blu-ray and DVD sales and the such, so Black Adam could break even or make a profit down the road at some point. Warner Bros. ultimately expects the film to do so. (Sources at the studio say the break-even point is $425 million.)

But it’s the Captain America part of The Rock’s tweet that is most notable. You see, if we’re comparing the first Captain America movie to Black Adam, isn’t it only fair to note that the Marvel movie came out 11 years before Black Adam? And, basically, that Cap’s worldwide gross of $370 million needs to be adjusted for inflation if you want to make a fair comparison? Listen people, almost one-third of midterm election voters this year said inflation was their main concern, and not even someone with the powers of Shazam can avoid a campaign issue that big.

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So when making that adjustment, which we should note right here are going to be approximate numbers but are based on the latest US government Consumer Price Index data, we see that Cap 1 made about $490 million in 2022 dollars when compared to Black Adam’s $390 million. Essentially, the DC film didn’t do as well as The First Avenger, despite The Rock’s assertion that it did. And to be fair, The First Avenger cost $140 million to make, which in 2022 dollars is around $185 million… in the ballpark of the low-end estimates of what Black Adam cost. In that sense, The Rock’s comparison is apt.

Of course, there are other variables here. For one, at the time the first Cap movie’s biggest star was… Tommy Lee Jones, I guess? Chris Evans was an established actor, sure. But he wasn’t a movie star in the true sense of the word. So, in theory, shouldn’t a movie with a big star like The Rock actually have a better shot at success than one whose lead isn’t as well known? Conversely, perhaps one could argue that Black Adam isn’t as recognizable a character as Captain America, though I’m not sure that Cap was all that popular for mainstream audiences back when the MCU was still launching what were, after all, B-level Marvel characters at the time.

That’s because what were then the A-level characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men were mostly tied up in deals with other studios. As a result, Marvel Studios had to launch their first batch of self-produced movies with the characters other studios didn’t WANT – Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, none of whom existed at the level of a Spidey, Superman, or Batman at the time. (Yes, they also had the Hulk, who was probably the most recognizable of the Phase 1 heroes in 2008.)

Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars
Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars

Also, let’s not forget that the first few Phase 1 movies came out of a deal Marvel had made where Merrill Lynch gave them half a billion dollars to get the ball rolling on their cinematic universe. This was years before Disney would buy the company, so Marvel put up the rights to some of their characters as collateral in that deal, which means that if Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor had failed, Marvel as we know it today just wouldn’t exist, and neither would the entire genre of comic book adaptations that has overwhelmed Hollywood.

Essentially, when movies like these were being made, Marvel Studios was scrappy as hell, fighting for its corporate life. Black Adam, on the other hand, was made by one of the biggest stars in the world as part of a slate of DC movies that, whether it failed or succeeded, ultimately wasn’t going to matter all that much to the bigger superhero cinema landscape.

But let’s take a step further back and look at what other films Black Adam’s performance does compare to, again, adjusting worldwide gross for inflation. Since The Rock chose to compare his film to a Marvel movie, we’re going to just stick to Marvel and DC characters here too. Specifically, we looked at movies made since 2008, when the MCU debuted.

Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars
Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars

Starting at films that made less than a billion dollars worldwide, we see that Black Adam pretty much sits in the bottom third. Remove the films that were streaming only or released day and date on streaming and theatrical because of the pandemic, and we’re now in the bottom quarter of this list. Two recent Marvel debuts of obscure characters, Shang-Chi and Eternals, beat it by about $50 and $85 million respectively. And X-Men: First Class and Adam’s own DC brother Shazam! also outdid the title.

That said, The Rock’s DC debut has managed to inch past what is seen by many as a low point of the MCU, the Edward Norton-starring The Incredible Hulk. But from there we enter a veritable graveyard of mostly forgotten box office duds of the genre, from X-Men: Dark Phoenix to Green Lantern to the misbegotten 2015 Fantastic Four to Morbius. Say what you will about Watchmen and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but those films were bona fide bombs. And then there are the worst-performing titles of the bunch – Jonah Hex and Punisher: War Zone, both of which wound up in the measly $14 million range.

Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars
Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars

So what does any of this prove? Mainly just that Black Adam didn’t do nearly as well as The Rock or Warner Bros. wants us to think it did.

But pulling out even further on these numbers, we can also look at the overall performance of the DCEU. Which brings us back to the hierarchy of power in the DCEU, the end of Cavill’s run as Superman, and rumors that the new co-heads of DC Studios are possibly even dismantling the shared DCEU that first launched with Man of Steel back in 2013 for some new version of that DC universe.

Looking at worldwide gross adjusted for inflation again, these are the top 25 performing DC and Marvel movies released since the MCU debuted in 2008, including standalone franchises that, strictly speaking, don’t fit into the MCU or DCEU. You have to go all the way to numbers nine and 10 before you find a DC movie, specifically two of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Those are the best DC performers on this list, and they’re not even DCEU titles.

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So right off the bat – pun intended – we see that Warner Bros.’ biggest superhero hit was a full 10 years ago with The Dark Knight Rises. When the DCEU launched a year later with Man of Steel in 2013, that film brought in $547 million less than the Nolan movie had. (And just to be clear, we’re still talking in 2022-adjusted dollars here just to keep a level playing field.) Meanwhile, Marvel’s 2013 releases were Iron Man 3 at $1.5 billion and Thor: The Dark World at $824 million. Yeah, the first Henry Cavill Superman movie made just $30 million more than Thor: The Dark World.

Marvel, of course, had a leg up on the shared universe concept, and the MCU has been around for five years longer than the DCEU. But consider this: The 11 theatrically released DCEU movies have made an adjusted worldwide gross of $7.5 billion. Meanwhile, just the top three MCU movies on this list have brought in an adjusted gross of $7.8 billion.

Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars
Worldwide box office gross in 2022 dollars

The DCEU’s biggest hit has been Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, which sits at number 11 here. In fact, there are only three DCEU movies that topped a billion dollars adjusted or made this top 25 – the other two are Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman. Films like Venom, Deadpool, and the fifth X-Men movie all ranked higher than any other DCEU movie, and those were fairly niche characters or previously tired franchises that managed to do better than what should’ve been surefire hits like Man of Steel or Justice League.

Certainly, there are other factors to consider here. For one, some of these movies’ releases were impacted by the COVID pandemic. And then obviously we’re simply talking about dollars and cents, with the critical or audience response to any of these titles being a separate matter altogether. But the people making the decisions at Warner Bros. who Gunn and Safran report to are ultimately concerned with the bottom line more than they are about any perceived quality or lack thereof of a title, of that you can be sure.

Speaking of which, there is another DC movie in this top 25. It’s not part of the DCEU shared universe, but the Joker solo movie, which earned Joaquin Phoenix a Best Actor Oscar, was also a huge hit. What does that tell us about DC’s movies and the possible strategy Gunn and Safran could take? It’s all informed speculation at best of course, but maybe, just maybe, DC’s attempts at mimicking the shared universe of Marvel just never really worked out, and the two execs realize that.

If rumors of leaving the DCEU behind prove to be true, can you really blame Gunn and Safran for making that call? The DCEU debuted nine years ago at this point! Maybe it’s time to just try something else. More Jokers, less Justice Leagues. And, hopefully, less pretending what’s a win and what’s not.

Though probably not on that last part. This is Hollywood after all.


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