Ever since the start of the new millennium, there have been very few constants in pop culture other than X-Men. Music fads have come and gone. Popular film franchises have flamed out and been rebooted (e.g., we’re already on our third Spider-Man). Television shows, both network and cable, are virtually unrecognizable from what they used to look like (unless they’re on CBS). YouTube stars now outpace film and TV stars in the hearts and minds of modern kids. But the X-Men films have stuck with us, delivering new installments every 2-3 years. We haven’t always liked these X-Men movies, but we know there’s always a new one – hopefully a better one – just around the corner.
For example, everyone seems pretty down on Apocalypse right now, and understandably so. It’s a perfectly diverting action movie, but it’s also overstuffed and lacking in new ideas, which can be seen in some of the performances (Jennifer Lawrence, in particular, seems like she couldn’t care less any more). As a result, while Apocalypse took the Memorial Day box office crown it did so in completely unremarkable fashion, coming in on the absolute low end of expectations with $65.7m for the traditional weekend, $79.8m for the 4-day holiday. Before the weekend, analysts had it finishing anywhere between $80m and $100m.
As per usual with just about any big budget film these days, the studio prefers to focus on the bigger picture. “We’re very happy with this result as we introduce new characters in the X-Men universe,” said Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson. “And for us to be at this number globally already ($265m after 10 days) means we’re in good shape.”
Yet here’s the odd thing about the X-Men franchise from a box office standpoint: it doesn’t seem to matter whether we like these movies or not. They all post acceptable opening weekends, sometimes even record-breaking opening weekends, but after that they disappear faster than Quicksilver listening to a period-specific pop song.
- RottenTomatoes: 81%
- Opening Weekend: $54.4m
- Records: Fourth-biggest Friday opening ($20m), sixth-biggest debut of all time, single biggest debut for a non-sequel
- Second-Weekend Drop: 56%
- Final Domestic Gross: $157m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #8
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.9x
- Industry Average That Year: 5.08x
X-Men was the movie which changed everything for superhero movies. It taught us to love spandex again after Batman & Robin broke our hearts. It exceeded all expectations, creatively and financially, but in some ways it predicted the big-opening-followed-by-big-drop pattern which would later become so typical of all Hollywood blockbusters. In 2000, anything above a 50% second weekend drop was seen as troubling, and a 2.9x multiplier was positively pedestrian. The average multiplier among the year’s other top 10 films was a more robust 5.08x. Yet, as of this writing 2.9x is still the franchise high.
- RottenTomatoes: 86%
- Opening Weekend: $85m
- Records: Fourth-biggest Fri-Sun debut in history (behind Spider-Man and the first two Harry Potter films)
- Second-Weekend Drop: 53%
- Final Domestic Gross: $215m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #6
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.5x
- Industry Average That Year: 4.34x
X2 was a classic case of a bigger and better sequel with an opening weekend built off of the goodwill audiences felt toward its predecessor. Plus, by coming out in the first-week-of-May it also benefited from the Spider-Man halo effect, which set a new opening weekend record ($114m) exactly one year earlier. Audiences were suddenly conditioned to want to see a new superhero movie during the first-week-of-May every year from that point forward. X2 certainly delivered. Its final box office totals bested X-Men in every way, but it still wasn’t in the same league as Spider-Man. Both Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 had bigger openings ($114m, $88m) and better multipliers (3.51x, 4.23x) respectively.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
- RottenTomatoes: 58%
- Opening Weekend: $102m (Fri-Sun), $122m (Fri-Mon Memorial Day)
- Records: Second-biggest single day ($45m Friday) behind Revenge of the Sith‘s $50m debut, fifth biggest four-day total of all time
- Second-Weekend Drop: 66%
- Final Domestic Gross: $234m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #4
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.3x
- Industry Average That Year: 4.24x
After the fanboys and girls had their fill in those first 4 days, The Last Stand took an epic box office plunge, to the point that it holds the dubious distinction of having the lowest domestic gross ($234m) among any film to open at or above $100m. The next closest is 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction ($245m).
Look at those opening day/weekend records, though! People were clearly geared up for this movie. They wanted to love it, and tell their friends to go see it. This could have been the time when the franchise entered into mega-blockbuster territory. Instead, it was such a creative disappointment that there is now an entire sequel which explicitly erases this entire film from continuity. Perhaps all could have been forgiven if the next franchise installment hadn’t been…
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
- RottenTomatoes: 38%
- Opening Weekend: $85m
- Records: None
- Second-Weekend Drop: 69%
- Final Domestic Gross: $180m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #13
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.1x
- Industry Average That Year: 4.8x
Sigh. Thus ended this particularly brutal one-two punch which the franchise has been apologizing for ever since. After the way The Last Stand belly flopped post-opening weekend, it’s somewhat impressive that Origins: Wolverine‘s debut was only a 17% decline for the franchise. After that, Origins fell off faster than any X-Men film, before or since. Its multiplier of 2.1x paled in comparison to the 4.8x average for 2009’s top 10 highest-grossing movies. In fact, Origins was the first X-Men movie to not crack the year-end top 10.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
- RottenTomatoes: 87%
- Opening Weekend: $55m
- Records: None
- Second-Weekend Drop: 56%
- Final Domestic Gross: $146m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #17
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.6x
- Industry Average That Year: 4.38x
First Class improbably emerged as one of if not the best X-Men films of all time, led by a truly killer new trio of Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. It just didn’t seem to matter, though. The damage done to the franchise by Last Stand and Origins was seemingly irreparable, or at the very least it was going to take not just one good new X-Men movie but several of them to win back the Last Stand/Origins haters.
That’s not to say First Class‘ quality went completely ignored. Word of mouth was strong enough to result in the franchise’s second best multiplier to that point. Plus, considering the decade which had passed since the first X-Men many fans first came to the franchise through First Class.
But talk about deja vu. Despite its creative bonafides, the first X-Men still had to contend with a stigma, i.e., those who would say, “I don’t care how good it is. I’m not seeing another superhero movie, not after Batman & Robin.” It didn’t find its widest audience until home video, which fed directly into the sequel. That’s exactly what happened for First Class, but this time around the studio wasn’t willing to do a straight sequel. It was time for an all-star team-up. Before we could get there, though, we had this curious little detour:
The Wolverine (2013)
- RottenTomatoes: 70%
- Opening Weekend: $53m
- Records: None
- Second-Weekend Drop: 59%
- Final Domestic Gross: $132m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: Didn’t make the cut (#22)
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.4x
- Industry Average That Year: 3.51x
And this is when America became just another marketplace for the X-Men movies. Both First Class and Origins had been saved by strong international showings ($193m and $207m respectively), but The Wolverine was the first X-Men film to be released in 3D. It didn’t so much matter, then, that it set a franchise low for domestic gross because it also set a franchise high for international gross ($282m), thus combining to make it the second-biggest X-Men film of all time worldwide ($414m, behind The Last Stand’s $459m)). Wolverine did all of that despite being a much smaller movie, both in budget ($120m) and scope, than usual for the franchise, somewhat predicting the small bet-bigger returns formula perfected by Deadpool.
Moreover, by this point in film history all superhero movies were starting to become just as front-loaded as the X-Men movies always had been. Wolverine‘s 2.4x multiplier is right in line with 2013’s other superhero efforts – Iron Man 3 (2.35x), Man of Steel (2.5x) and Thor: The Dark World (2.4x).
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
- RottenTomatoes: 91%
- Opening Weekend: $90m (Fri-Sun), $110m (Fri-Mon Memorial Day)
- Records: Fifth biggest Memorial Day opening
- Second-Weekend Drop: 64%
- Final Domestic Gross: $233m
- Position in the Year-End Top 20: #9
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.5x
- Industry Average That Year: 4.21x
It’s still somewhat stunning that Fox took such a huge swing with this movie, committing the second highest budget in studio history to a franchise which had financially peaked nearly a decade earlier. The gamble paid off, just not exactly in the way everyone expected. Due to 3D and general ticket price inflation, Days of Future Past was thought to be a lock to at least topple The Last Stand‘s $234 franchise high (it fell $1m short). But that’s such a 2006 way of looking at it. By 2014, it was more important that Days of Future Past obliterated the franchise records for international ($514m) and worldwide ($747m) gross. Sure, it was still front-loaded domestically, trailing the 2014 top-10 average of 4.21x, but so did all of the other comic book movies that year (Guardians of the Galaxy – 3.54, Winter Solider – 2.72, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – 2.21).
- RottenTomatoes: 83%
- Opening Weekend: $132m
- Records: Biggest All-Time Opening (R-Rated, President’s Day, February, Winter)
- Second-Weekend Drop: 57%
- Final Domestic Gross: $362m
- Weekend-to-final multiplier: 2.74x
I hesitate to bring Deadpool into this. I know there are a couple of scenes at Xavier’s mansion, and Colossus is around (along with Negasonic Teenage Warhead). So, technically, it’s part of the X-Men franchise, but, c’mon, this isn’t an X-Men movie. Not really. Its themes and tone are completely its own, and its unique box office profile (R-rated, released in February) limits the usefulness of comparisons to prior X-Men movies. So, screw it. Let’s just put a big asterisk next to this one, and note that while it currently stands apart from all other X-Men installments its eye-popping box office totals will likely significantly alter the franchise from this point forward.
What have we learned? X-Men movies are as reliable as the sunset, in the sense that there’s always another one on the way, but they consistently play to ever-faithful hardcore fans while only occasionally breaking through to wider audiences. However, being so front-loaded used to be seen as a bad thing; now it’s the norm. Plus, the franchise is currently at the height of its international popularity. Apocalypse, for example, is shaping up to be yet another domestic under-performer/international over-performer.
The path forward might be through Legion, the Noah Hawley-produced X-Men show just ordered to series at FX, as well as through more Deadpool-inspired franchise entries. The age of Wolverine is nearing its end, and McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult won’t come back unless they get seriously paid. Maybe it’s finally time to move on from Magneto, Xavier and Mystique. There are other X-Men characters out there, you know.
Whatever happens, at least this will remain the same: Didn’t like Apocalypse? Don’t worry. There’s another one on the way (Wolverine 3 in March) and another one (Deadpool 2) and probably more after that (The New Mutants, Gambit and X-Force).