Guardians of the Galaxy earned an estimated $94 million on its opening weekend, setting a new August record and validating the filmmakers and executives who took a chance on a tongue-in-cheek, big-budget sci-fi adventure based on a lesser-known cult title. With a solid $66 million opening from overseas markets and a sequel in progress, the Marvel Studios (DIS) film is already one of this year’s great successes. How great depends: Can Guardians break the box office curse of summer 2014?
By almost every measure, this summer has been a disappointment at the domestic box office, a credit to audience fatigue, a crowded schedule of tentpole releases, and fewer mid-level hits along the lines of last year’s The Conjuring. For the first time since 2002, July’s total didn’t even hit $1 billion. And in spite of some huge opening weekends, no summer movie has managed to take in $300 million at the domestic box office. That hasn’t happened since 2001, when $300 million was a lot harder to reach (tickets were cheaper, and there were virtually no 3D or IMAX surcharges).
Even a sure thing like Transformers: Age of Extinction, despite opening to $100 million, isn’t likely to pass $250 million domestically. The well-liked Godzilla opened to $93 million in May—a number similar to Guardians—and it still hasn’t broken $200 million. The year’s highest-grossing movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, topped out at $258 million, after a $95 million opening in April.
Don’t cry for Hollywood just yet. All these films are pretty much minting money at the international box office. Transformers: Age of Extinction just passed $1 billion worldwide. But given the studios’ increasingly tentpole-driven strategies, a tepid U.S. box office may be an early harbinger of things to come. If domestic audiences are getting tired of nonstop blockbusters, there’s a good chance that international audiences eventually will, too.
Could Guardians be the one to break through that psychologically important threshold of $300 million? We’ll know more in a week. The second weekend of a movie is what usually indicates its potential staying power. It’s received glowing reviews (a 93 percent Tomatometer score) and a CinemaScore grade of A, but many of this year’s blockbusters have been generally well-liked by critics and audiences, too. Guardians may have broader appeal: The film’s opening-weekend audience was 44 percent female, well above other Marvel titles, and 55 percent of the audience was age 25 and older. Additionally, its competition next week is somewhat scattered, though a big-budget Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will surely compete for younger viewers.
Guardians is also more of an outright comedy, which may give it added durability: While action spectacles have posted huge numbers followed by sharp drop-offs, comedies as diverse as 22 Jump Street, Neighbors, Ride Along, Tammy, and The Other Woman have held on fairly steadily. The recent film that comes closest to Guardians’ mix of action and irreverent humor may actually be The Lego Movie, which also featured Guardians’ comic star Chris Pratt in the lead vocal role. After a $69 million February opening, Lego only fell 27 percent in its second weekend, buoyed by word of mouth. The Lego Movie wound up with a $257 million domestic gross—remarkable considering that it was in theaters in late winter-early spring, when studio movies are usually being dumped and the kids are still in school. If after its Marvel-fueled, supercharged opening Guardians of the Galaxy can similarly capture the public imagination, it may prove to be a real-life savior—the first and quite possibly only $300 million blockbuster of the summer.