“Black Adam” and “Ticket to Paradise” helped the box office deliver its biggest weekend in months. But would the two new films have managed to overperform in their respective debuts without major stars on the marquee?
For “Black Adam,” which ranked as the No. 1 movie with $67 million, as well as “Ticket to Paradise,” which took second place with $16.2 million, word-of-mouth proved strong enough to beat early projections. Yet neither film enjoyed particularly dazzling reviews; “Black Adam” holds a 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while “Ticket to Paradise” maintains a 55% score. But box office analysts believe that what those films lack in critical praise, they make up for in the unadulterated charm of their leading men and women.
“These two movies boast three of the biggest and truest movie stars in the world,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst with Comscore. “The time-honored tradition of a big star at the top of the marquee feels like it’s back.”
Still, “Black Adam” cost $195 million, so although it has earned $140 million globally to date, Warner Bros. needs the movie to keep playing in theaters to justify its massive price tag. And Universal’s $60 million-budgeted “Ticket to Paradise” is already a hit abroad with $96 million in the bank, but rival studios believe ticket sales needs to reach at least $150 million to turn a profit theatrically. (At this rate, it looks like it’ll get there.) However, both films need the idea of star power to extend beyond that initial weekend. Clooney, Roberts and the artist formerly known primarily as The Rock got people to show up for opening weekend, and now they need them to continue buying tickets.
Especially in the past decade, conventional wisdom says consumers care more about brand-name franchises (i.e. Marvel or Jurassic World) rather than A-list actors in splashy roles (pour one out for “The 355” and “The Last Duel”). The days that megawatt talent like Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio or Sandra Bullock could pack a theater on the strength of their name alone felt like they were long gone. But maybe, as this weekend suggests, there is something to be said about bankable names.
Yet it can’t save every genre. For example, the buzzy cast of Margot Robbie, Christian Bale and Taylor Swift didn’t come close to salvaging David O. Russell’s $80 million-budgeted period drama “Amsterdam.” Any potential excitement around the starry ensemble was effectively drowned out by particularly dismal reviews. “Amsterdam” collapsed with $6.4 million to start and $13.9 million to date, making it one of the biggest misfires of the year. It now stands to lose more than $100 million.
“A period piece is a tough sell with modern audiences no matter what,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
In the case of “Black Adam,” the idea of Dwayne Johnson playing an antihero who vows to change the hierarchy of power in the DC universe was compelling to audiences, despite Vanity Fair referring to it as “technically a movie” in the same way that “a McDonald’s hamburger is technically food.” Other publications, like NPR, didn’t mince words, decrying that “‘Black Adam’ doesn’t work.”
But reviews mattered less to audiences than the promise of watching a hulking, big-screen presence like Johnson, who rarely plays the bad guy anymore, in the first comic book movie of his career. After spending the majority of his press tour talking about the “15 hard years of fighting to make this passion project a reality,” the actor scored the biggest opening weekend as a leading man. (That doesn’t include “The Fast & The Furious Franchise” franchise, in which Johnson plays a supporting character in several installments.)
Of course, “Black Adam” exists in the DC universe, so it’s not relying on Johnson’s name alone to sell tickets. But despite middling reviews, its $67 million debut managed to fall in line with comparatively better reviewed origin stories in the DC Universe like Jason Momoa’s “Aquaman” ($67 million debut) and Zachary Levi’s “Shazam” ($53 million debut). Those films enjoyed exceptionally long legs at the box office, as “Aquaman” tapped out with $335 million domestically and $1.1 billion globally while “Shazam” ended its run with $140 million domestically and $336 million globally.
“His social media presence” — The Rock has 343 million followers on Instagram alone — “and popularity allowed ‘Black Adam’ to do as well as it did, despite it not having the best reviews,” Dergarabedian says.
Robbins adds that Johnson is “unrivaled in his ability to market himself and his work.”
Roberts and Clooney may not possess the same social media prowess (in fact, Clooney isn’t even on Instagram or Twitter… get with the times and join TikTok, George!). And critics weren’t particularly swoon-worthy about their exploits as bitter exes who travel to Bali to stop their daughter’s shotgun wedding. But their return to the rom-com nailed the comforting and familiar formula that helped the genre prevail in its heyday.
As Rolling Stone’s David Fear puts it, “While no one could accuse ‘Ticket to Paradise’ of being a ‘great’ movie, or even a ‘very good’ one, there’s something about watching Clooney and Roberts butt up against each other in front of a screen-saver background that scratches a long-dormant itch.”
Unlike superhero movies, which have been on a decade-long hot streak, rom-coms have remained on life-support, with the exception of “The Lost City” with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. That meet-cute story, which opened earlier this year to $30 million in the U.S. and eventually earned a sizable $190 million globally, leaned heavily on the action and explosives, allowing it to expand its appeal beyond the traditional rom-com. Otherwise, “Bros” (which opened to $4.8 million) and “Marry Me”(which opened to $7.9 million, while landing simultaneously on Peacock) crumbled at the box office for various reasons. With “Bros,” the well-reviewed movie didn’t t entice audiences in part because it didn’t feature a household name. And although “Marry Me” stars the one-and-only Jennifer Lopez, its day-and-date debut on streaming didn’t do the film any favors on the big screen.
In the months ahead, Paramount will release “Babylon,” an ode to Hollywood of yesteryear led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and A24 will distribute “The Whale,” a smaller drama that hinges mostly on the leading performance of Brendan Fraser, a refuge from the glory days of 1990s stardom who is currently experiencing a career revival. The potential success of those films against time-tested tentpoles like Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” and Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” may not — to borrow a phrase that Johnson exhausted while promoting “Black Adam” — “change the hierarchy of power” at the box office. But it could encourage Hollywood to take risks outside of the superhero space.