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Why ‘The Batman’ Stands Out From Its Superhero Competition

I have no idea how many people watched batman on its first day over at HBO Max, nor do I know how many will choose to rent (for $25) or buy (for $32) the film now that it’s available on every major VOD platform. But we do have box office receipts, so we know that the $185 million-budgeted action drama has earned $365.5 million domestic and $752 million worldwide, making it easily the biggest-grossing film of the year and the fourth-biggest global earner of the last 2.5 years, behind only No Time to Die ($774 million), Battle at Lake Changjin ($910 million, 99% from China) and Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.891 billion). Moreover, its $365 million domestic gross puts it as one of the biggest “part one” comic book superhero films ever, even when adjusted for inflation.

It has just passed the unadjusted $363 million domestic cume of dead pool and now sits behind only spider-man ($402 million), wonder-woman ($412.5 million), Captain Marvel ($426 million) and Black Panther ($700 million). If you factor inflation, it sits behind only those three along with dead pool ($387 million adjusted), Hombre de Hierro ($318 million in 2008/$406 million adjusted), Superman: The Movie ($134 million in 1978/$525 million adjusted) and Batman ($251 million in 1989/$576 million adjusted). If batman stands out on that list, it’s because it’s the only one that’s not the first time audiences saw that given superhero in their own “modern” movie. Hombre de Hierro was the first Iron Man movie, wonder-woman was the first wonder-woman movie. spider-man arrived after years of legal challenges and near misses. batman is the tenth Batman movie in 33 years.

All of those other movies have their own pre-release/post-release stories. wonder-woman clicked in the “first year of Trump” zeitgeist as “the movie we need right now,” the first spider-man arrived six months after the 9/11 attacks and the first Hombre de Hierro kicked-started the MCU while initially pitched as a comic book superhero movie (complete with older movie stars like Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges and Gwynneth Paltrow) for audiences otherwise too cool for comic book superhero movies. dead pool represented a kind of redemption for Ryan Reynolds’ X-Men Origins: Wolverine incarnation of the character while selling itself as a cheeky R-rated date movie. Superman was the first modern superhero movie with budget-busting spectacle while offering a healthy helping of post-Watergate optimism. I’m assuming you don’t need me to explain why Batman and Black Panther we were a big deal.

But, yes, all of those movies represented “the first time” those (relatively) popular, well-liked and/or iconic characters got their own big-budget theatrical movie. In that sense, it matters that batman, a blank-slate reboot with no real marquee stars (no Jack Nicholson as… The Joker!), no connective tissue to existing franchises (no Robert Downey Jr.’ Iron Man in a much-advertised cameo!) and no “ movie we need right now” zeitgeist (no “You mess with him, you mess with New York!” moments) still managed to reach a domestic total on par with all but the biggest “first on the big-screen” part-one superhero flicks. It earned more in unadjusted and adjusted grosses than any reboot despite just being “another Batman movie.” None of the potential trouble spots (the length, the kid-unfriendly tone, the similarities to batmanbegins and Gotham) seemed to matter.

There’s been a lot of chatter as to whether the Robert Pattinson/Zoe Kravitz flick should have passed $1 billion worldwide, and I’ve always argued that such a milestone was never, ever a bar for success. First, Batman movies tend to do closer to 50/50 in terms of domestic/overseas business, although The Dark Knight Rises ($449 million out of $1.084 billion) is an exception. Second, this is the fourth “new” live-action Batman franchise (fifth if you count batmanforever as a soft reboot) since 1989, with Pattinson being the sixth such actor to don the cowl in 33 years. Third, if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which was a breakout sequel to one of Marvel’s most popular franchises, couldn’t crack $870 million (with $100 million from pre-Covid China), then no way was batman flirting with $1 billion.

Ironically, the second Forbes posts I ever wrote, back in April of 2013, was about the dangers of normalizing the $1 billion-plus grosser as a bar for success. This was early 2013, after a year with four-such grossers (The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Skyfall and TheAvengers). My thoughts haven’t changed on that, even as Disney’s overwhelming domestic successes (Black Panther, Beauty and the Beast, The Force Awakens) and China’s temporary role in artificially enhancing global totals (studies only get back 25% from China) of already successful movies indeed made the milestone more common from 2015 to 2019 than it probably will be in a Covid-era world. Nonetheless, batman is impressive in that it’s the tenth Batman movie, the fifth “new” Batman movie since 1989 that played like it was the first one ever.


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