Saturday, August 13, 2016

Superhero Movies: Critics' Influence on Box Office

With the release and continued success of Suicide Squad, I got curious about what the data would say about the relationship between critic ratings (as aggregated on Metacritic -- I don't use Rotten Tomatoes anymore) and box office performance for superhero movies. To reduce the scope to something manageable, I decided to just look at the Top 40 superhero movies by worldwide box office performance. (And I haven't included Suicide Squad yet, even though it's already in the Top 40 after just one week. But at the end of this post, I will speculate on where Suicide Squad might end up.)

Here is the scatterplot of Metacritic rating (x-axis) and worldwide box office total in millions of dollars (y-axis), with the box office totals roughly adjusted for inflation.

First of all, we can see a positive but weak relationship between the Metacritic rating and box office performance. The correlation coefficient is approximately 0.32, so there is definitely some predictive power based on critical reception but there are many other factors that also go into the final box office total. Some of those other factors (e.g., audience reaction, word-of-mouth) are certainly associated with critical reception while others (e.g., marketing effectiveness, MPAA rating, 3D screenings, international markets) are independent of critical reception.

Critical reviews do not determine box office performance

For now, though, we'll forgot all those other factors and just look more closely at critical reception and box office performance. To see that critics certainly do not determine a movie's performance, just take a look at the 60-70 range for Metacritic scores. Within that column, there are about 12 movies and their box office performance runs the full gamut from less than $400 Million all the way up to $1.5 Billion. If critical reception were deterministic, this would be a much narrower range. (And recall that I've already adjusted for inflation, so it's not just that the lower movies were released earlier.)

Further evidence of the limitations of critical reception as a force on the box office is that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Batman v Superman performed quite well relative to their Metacritic scores. BvS, in particular, bucked the general trend of movies with a Metacritic rating lower than 58 being stuck below $750 Million. On the other end of the spectrum, The Incredibles pulled in the highest Metacritic rating of the set but was very middle-of-the-road in its box office total (although keep in mind that it's middle of the road with respect to the Top 40 superhero movies ... it's clearly above average with respect to all superhero movies).

Critics as a barrier to runaway success

Now, even though critical reception is not deterministic of performance, we can see that it (and its associated factors such as word-of-mouth) form somewhat of barrier for real break-out hits. All 8 of the movies that surpassed $900 Million adjusted worldwide had a Metacritic rating of at least 59. And with the exception of BvS, the 11 other movies that had Metacritic ratings below 59 all hit a ceiling at about $725 Million. In other words, if a superhero movie wants to make a run past $900 Million worldwide, then it is pretty much necessary (but not sufficient) to have a Metacritic rating of at least 59. It doesn't really matter if its in the 60s, 70s, or higher -- it just needs to get beyond 59 to remove that barrier from its success.

What does all of this mean for Suicide Squad?

Suicide Squad had a record August opening and a very strong follow-up week, but before it was even released, we knew that its Metacritic score was a 40. Based on the analysis above, this basically means that $900 Million was out of the question right from the start. And realistically, $800 Million wasn't going to happen either because Batman v Superman was a rare exception to the rule.

But something along the lines of $700-725 Million worldwide is not impossible. I, for one, think it is a much better film than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (the other superhero film with a Metacritic rating of exactly 40) and it is certainly better than the other poorly reviewed superhero movies that didn't even make the Top 40 graph above (e.g., Fantastic Four 2005). That at least gives it a fighting chance to continue up the box office ladder.

Not impossible, but I'd say $700+ Million is unlikely (even though I predicted $724 Million before the critical reviews came out). If I had to make a personal prediction based on its reviews and its performance up through its second Friday, I would say that Suicide Squad will finish out around $615 Million --- a good showing, placing it 25th on the list.


  1. Another nice and well-made article. I want to comment on something that I have been thinking about lately and kinda relates to this, and it's that I think is ironic (and a little bit sad) that some superhero movies that require multiple viewings in order to be fully appreciated (like MoS and BvS) are just watched once and then discarded by many people, while the ones that can be fully understood at just the first viewing are re-watched many times by those very same people (like the top 4 highest grossing of this list).

    I do hope that things change and that the $900m barrier is no longer determined by critical reception. We all know now that critics have a, maybe subconsious, cognitive bias against DC and "every single DC Film" will be critically bashed to no end. BvS was indeed an exception, but I do hope JL (both) will be an even bigger exception as well.

    1. Thanks. I've had some of the same thoughts. I really think BvS needs to be watched multiple times by anybody, even the most astute viewer. But yeah, a lot of people wrote it off after only one viewing because it wasn't immediately and supremely "enjoyable." And I think you're right, too, the masses went back multiple times to see the top grossing movies on the graph, but I think in general they were not really getting more depth ... they were just enjoying the fun ride again and maybe noticing small little connections, but not deeper themes.

      As for critics and DC, I'm going to be really curious to see the reception of Wonder Woman. So far we're only three movies in -- two involved Snyder and much-beloved characters, Superman and Batman, so the deck was stacked against him. And the third was not Snyder but it was, I think, not as high quality a movie either, so it didn't deserve ratings above 80 (in my opinion). But with Wonder Woman, hopefully it is an objectively high quality film and hopefully Patty Jenkins is different enough from Snyder and Ayer that she can get a fair shot in the reviews.

      If WW is good and it still gets bashed by critics, I'm going to be heartbroken.

    2. "If WW is good and it still gets bashed by critics, I'm going to be heartbroken."

      I must admit that I was kinda heartbroken when MoS came out, but I decided to give critics another chance with BvS, only to be disappointed with them again. And after SS, they've lost all my trust.

      It's true that it isn't 100% certain that WW will be critically hated, but I'm ready for it. And I hope you will be ready for that possible scenario as well.

  2. Hi Sam,

    What do you think of alot of joker scene being cut from the movie?? Even Jared Leto himself also kinda express a disappointment over it

    1. I can understand Leto's perspective, because he worked very hard on the part. But I'm fine with the filmmakers' ultimate decisions. I really liked the new take on the Joker and was fascinated by every scene he was in. Although I'd be curious to see more scenes, I honestly think that what they had was enough for the story they were telling -- and to keep it more of Harley's story rather than Joker's or Harley/Joker equally. I think it made sense to have him as a B-story even though lots of people would prefer to see him as a main character in the movie. (For people who didn't like Leto's Joker, I think it's a bit unfair when they compare him to Ledger of Nicholson because those two had entire movies that revolved around them.)

      I don't have a solid basis for this, but I'm speculating that the Blu-ray will have some deleted scenes included (not a full extended cut of the movie).

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