While there’s much ado online about the unprecedently mixed reception for Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” box office trackers haven’t budged from their projections for a $75-80 million opening. Fandango is reporting that presales are still going strong with $13 million in tickets already sold — 23% ahead of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which had a $75.8 million three-day opening in September.
The second weekend, however, will be the real test for Oscar winner Chloé Zhao’s MCU debut. With a 53% Rotten Tomatoes score, “Eternals” is the first ever MCU film to sport that infamous green splat on the review aggregator site. It’s beneath the franchise low of 66% for “Thor: The Dark World,” a film generally considered among Marvel fans to be one of if not the weakest of the 26 films in the Marvel canon. MCU has never been in a situation where it has had to shrug off bad reviews, and a movie from a director fresh off of her Oscar triumph for “Nomadland” was definitely not expected to be the first one to have to do so.
The opening weekend crowd for Marvel movies doesn’t care about reviews, and pre-release buzz may bring in casual fans for opening night and bump up launch numbers to the astronomical heights that Marvel consistently hit prior to the pandemic. So while the lofty hopes of Zhao and “Eternals” to bring the first post-shutdown $100 million opening are probably off the table, a solid start seems baked in.
The bigger concern, of course, is what comes after this weekend. Zhao’s Oscar pedigree aside, Marvel hasn’t attempted a film like “Eternals” before, even compared to titles like “Shang-Chi” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” that have introduced lesser-known superheroes. The film has 10 Eternals to introduce to the audience, along with Kit Harington as Dane Whitman (aka The Black Knight) as well as other characters like the Deviants and the Celestials that have never gotten big-screen treatment — and aren’t all that familiar to casual comic-book fans either.
That enormous checklist of characters and concepts has been a common criticism in negative reviews of “Eternals,” many of which say that the film spends too much time on exposition and doesn’t do enough to get the audience invested in Sersi or Phaestos or any of the other Eternals the way “Guardians” got people to fall in love with its protagonists.
“Whereas ‘Guardians’ had a sentient tree, a talking not-a-raccoon, a tattooed maniac, a green-hued assassin and Peter Quill, ‘Eternals’ has twice the number of protagonists and they are all basically humans in different-colored skin suits,” Paste’s Michael Burgin observen his review. “‘Captain America: Civil War’ had those numbers, but every character had a robust comic and movie pedigree, allowing … ample opportunity to say less, show more and advance the plot without mind-numbing exposition.”
And for fans who love the overarching MCU saga, “Eternals” might not provide that much to sink their teeth into. While the recent Marvel Disney+ shows have pushed forward the immediate narrative and “Shang-Chi” brings in characters from past films in the credits scenes to give fans that burst of recognition, “Eternals” is more focused on long-term development of the cosmic side of the MCU. No Earth-bound characters like Nick Fury or Captain Marvel show up, which means less fuel for fan theories about how and when the Eternals will show up next in the franchise.
If either of these problems become a common complaint among opening weekend audiences, “Eternals” could quickly lose that “can’t miss” status that allowed “Shang-Chi” to become the first film this year to gross over $200 million in North America. Also unlike “Shang-Chi,” which was the sole popular release in September, “Eternals” faces a more crowded slate of major studio releases in November.
It won’t have to worry about competition on its second weekend, as the only significant release will be Paramount’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” But after that comes Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” on Nov. 19 and then Disney’s “Encanto” and MGM’s “House of Gucci” on Thanksgiving weekend. Each of these films appeals to a different audience segment, which could peel off wider support for “Eternals” later in its run.
“Given how COVID conditions improved and how films like ‘Venom 2’ and ‘No Time to Die’ did in October, it would be a big disappointment for Marvel if ‘Eternals’ falls off hard and ends up doing worse than ‘Shang-Chi,'” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock said. “That said, that just speaks to the high batting average that Marvel has put up. A $70 million opening and then a big drop is the kind of problem that other studios would love to have.”
So while “Eternals” could still be the tentpole that keeps the November box office on the same level we have seen during an encouraging October, any hopes for another big surge toward pre-pandemic ticket sales may be on hold for now. And the search for the first $100 million-plus launch of the year will shift to December, when the crossover extravaganza known as “Spider-Man: No Way Home” could give Sony a huge win just two months after its surprise hit “Venom 2.”