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It has been 14 years since Iron Man scored the second-biggest non-sequel opening weekend, behind Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, 20 years ago, with $102 million. It has been ten years since The Avengers solidified the MCU as a theatrical powerhouse, riding a wave of “Holy s***, they actually did it!” buzz to the first $200 million-plus domestic debut. Seven years ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron opened with $191 million and pundits screamed “Superhero Fatigue!” Four years ago, Avengers: Infinity War dethroned Star Wars: The Force Awakens with a $258 million launch, only for Avengers: Endgame to open with $356 million a year later. Audiences don’t want superheroes. They don’t even want comic book movies. They specifically crave Marvel Comics superhero movies, specifically ones set within the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. They often show up for DC Comics flicks too, but you get the idea.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (review) grossed a massive $90 million in North America on its first Friday, including $36 million in Thursday previews. That’s a somewhat high 40% of the opening day figure via previews, which may mean a relatively front-loaded opening weekend. Still, even if it frontloads like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II ($169 million from a then-record $91 million Friday), the Sam Raimi/Michael Waldron flick will still open with sad/shameful/pathetic $168 million this weekend. That would still be a bigger jump from Doctor Strange (+98% from an $85 million debut in November 2016) than even Captain America: Civil War (+88% from Winter Soldier’s $94 million debut). And that’s the worst-case scenario. 2x gets it to $182 million, just above Iron Man 3 ($174 million) and Captain America: Civil War ($179 million).
Even with solid-but-not-superlative reviews (75% fresh and 6.5/10 on Rotten Tomatoes) and a (frustratingly indecisive) B+ from Cinemascore, this isn’t a #CanThisFranchiseBeSaved? or #SuperheroFatigue situation. The film earned more in one day than Eternals, Black Widow and Shang-Chi earned in their opening Fri-Sun weekends. Not only is it guaranteed to snag the second biggest Covid-era debut behind Spider-Man: No Way Home ($260 million from a $121 million Friday last December), its $90 million Friday gross would be the fourth-biggest opening weekend since 2019 behind only Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($90.03 million), The Batman ($134 million) and Spider-Man 3 version 2.0. If it legs out on par with the three Avengers sequels and Captain America: Civil War, it’ll nab a $205-$220 million opening weekend. While Doctor Strange 2 is a solo, stand-alone MCU sequel, it’s certainly opening like a “mythology episode.”
The marketing’s promise of multiverse cameos, possible links to Disney+’s WandaVision and other “must-see for the big picture” elements implicitly sold the film as an MCU event movie. And the delays created by Covid and related issues created a situation where Doctor Strange 2 was positioned, opening three years after Avengers: Endgame, as an unofficial sequel to the “Infinity Saga” finale. Moreover, while it has been 6.5 years since Doctor Strange (it opened theatrically just days before Donald Trump pulled off a shocking presidential electoral victory), Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer-Not-So-Supreme has cameoed in Thor: Ragnarök and Avengers: Endgame while appearing in supporting/co-starring roles in Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man: No Way Home. The answer as to whether these ensemble appearances would lessen or increase the value of a straight-up Doctor Strange sequel has been answered with a $91 million opening day.
Will word of mouth be impacted due to the film’s stand-alone nature, where the buzzy cameos and connective tissue are merely seasoning (as is usually the case with the MCU, natch), and via it not being a monumental Civil War-level event? Will the passionate Wanda fans be put off by the (very early) reveal that Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch has become a Terminator-like villain? Will chatter about the film’s horror elements and violence (it’s a Peter Jackson PG-13, not a Peyton Reed PG-13, and my ten-year-old quite relished the campy carnage) scare off parents? Will any of these things matter in the long run? In a skewed way, this is probably Marvel’s most subversive movie since Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. However controversial that movie now is nine years later, it still earned $409 million domestic and $1.215 billion worldwide.
Iron Man 3, which was The Power of Nightmares for kids and whose Mandarin plot twist angered those wanting the genuine article, earned better reviews (77% and 7/10 from Rotten Tomatoes) and an A from Cinemascore back when the MCU was more of a periodic event and less of a regular occurrence. Doctor Strange 2 is the third MCU movie to earn below an A-, along with Thor (a B+ way back in 2011) and Eternals (a B last November). The films may be slowly becoming more fan-centric (even if the “for fans only” ceiling is still ridiculously high) and thus more vulnerable to the whims of what differing fandom segments expected. Nonetheless, we’re talking about a movie that might crack $200 million domestic and (with $229 million global so far) $400 million worldwide this weekend, so “problem” is a relative term.