Box office: The cutting message of Hugh Jackman's 'The Wolverine'

By now even the most cautious observer has come to admit that this has been one of the most topsy-turvy U.S. moviegoing summers in years. Overall revenue numbers are up by double digits over last summer--yet many studios are bleeding hundreds of millions on a bevy of big-budget flops. Nearly every Hollywood major has a surprise hit ("The Conjuring," "The Heat," "This Is the End"). But nearly every one also has seen a big hope struggle ("Pacific Rim," "The Internship," "After Earth"). There hasn't been a live-action opening of $75 million or more since the middle of June.

The only consistency of any kind has come from superhero movies, with the season's two major entries ("Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel") landing in the box office top three for the year.

That turned this weekend into a clear arbiter of where we stood. In Fox’s "The Wolverine," we had a big-budget movie opening. The film had no new competition. And it of course was a superhero movie. If it succeeded, it wouldn't necessarily mean all the weirdness and money-losing was over. But there would at least be a sign of stability, a signal to studios that Americans still want to see a certain kind of movie in these warm summer months.

Then it faltered.

VIDEO: 'The Wolverine' movie review by Kenneth Turan

“The Wolverine” took in just $55 million, well below the previous “Wolverine” film ($85 million), a fair amount below industry expectations ($70 million) and somewhat below even Fox’s own estimates ($60 million). The total made it just the ninth-best opening of the year--not what any studio wants to see from a big-budget high-profile debut opening against no new competition. “Wolverine's” opening-weekend total is also the lowest among all six "X-Men" movies when adjusting for inflation.

The film, directed by James Mangold, will likely come out in the black thanks to its international opening of $86 million. But the $55 million is a rough sign for American moviegoing.

It's possible, of course, that this is a function of story and character issues related to this film--though reviews suggest otherwise. It's also possible the film felt victim to mid-summer moviegoing fatigue, as some Fox execs suggested. But it’s not like moviegoers have been pouring into big-budget spectacles all summer. And if fatigue really is the issue, then studios would never be able to have a bona fide hit past the middle of July.

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 There is a more logical explanation—that the weariness attendant to big-budget spectacle can attach itself to superhero movies too. It can particularly do so for a movie that fields a very familiar character. This is, after all, the sixth “X-Men” movie in 13 years--something that did not equally afflict Iron Man, appearing this year in his fourth movie ever, or Superman, appearing in his first movie in seven years.

The familiarity problem is a worrisome sign for a business looking to double down on superheroes. Fox has another “X-Men” movie coming next summer. Sony aims to release three new “Amazing Spider-Man” movies over the next five years. Disney’s Marvel will continue cranking out new pictures. And Warner Bros. just announced it will bring a new Superman-Batman movie to the screen.

With all these woes at the domestic multiplex, Hollywood can of course decide it wants to be overwhelmingly in the export business. But creating a world in which three-quarters of your take or more comes from international receipts is not as simple or consequence-free as it sounds. Nor, apparently, is releasing a new superhero movie.


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