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Sorry, ‘Thor: Love and Thunder,’ but ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Has Already Won This Summer’s Box Office Race

The fourth "Thor" film could end up the summer's #2 film, but that still means someone else is #1, and we already know who.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

Despite some recent box office surprises — from Universal’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” opening to $107 million last weekend ($30 million above industry expectations) to the low turnout for Pixar’s “Lightyear” — tracking and industry source-projections usually are still reliable. But just like in election campaign polling, they can have last minute shifts, particularly when advance reaction leaks. At the same time, with advance ticket buying (similar to early voting), the early trajectory sometimes can be locked in.

That said, this weekend’s projection for Taika Waititi’s second Marvel Cinematic Universe entry “Thor: Love and Thunder” (Disney) is $150 million (+/- $10 million). Still, that could be off-target, both up and down.

Any elevated expectations for the film come from, perhaps more than anything else, the unanticipated performance of “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount). Already over $575 million, the Tom Cruise-led sequel now looks like it will end at somewhere between $700-750 million domestic. That would be tantalizingly close to what “Spiderman: Far from Home” amassed ($805 million) when it was hailed as the savior of movie theaters.

In a nutshell, that’s the problem for “Thor”: Much of box office analysis centers around rankings and comparisons, and then judging by expectations, rather than a more rational (and logical) reaction. Without “Top Gun” for comparison, an eventual haul of $350 million domestic would seem terrific for “Thor.” But both the industry and fans tend to assess winners and losers, with the former often basing future production decisions on the perception of results.

Marvel films, of course, are in no danger of going into any decline, but the issue of how “Thor” does comes at a sensitive time for Disney’s film division. Again, perception matters. “Lightyear” could be an anomaly among the studio’s animated releases, and it still has value after its weak $200 million+ ultimate worldwide box office, including likely early streaming on Disney+.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Marvel Studios' THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

“Thor: Love and Thunder”

Jasin Boland

But the MCU is central not only to Disney’s film slate, but the overall company. “Thor” opens at a time when the company seems vulnerable to media and investor scrutiny. Here’s what it is up against — when a franchise is the biggest in the industry (MCU has the four top grossing films since the start of 2018, including one from Sony; Disney has eight of the top ten) — and a top tier entry is placed on a prime July date, expectations can be overdone.

Not only will “Maverick” gross more, it will likely remain a headline story as “Thor” opens. It’s already won this summer’s box office race.

Why? It will reach more than the $600 million+ this weekend. Last weekend, its sixth, the film grossed $26 million. No film that had an initial wide release has done that since “Avatar.” And that’s triple what “Avengers: Endgame” made during its sixth weekend, and $12 million above “No Way Home.” (The record remains with “Titanic” which, adjusted, grossed $50 million its sixth weekend). That’s a phenomenon. “Thor” can’t compete with that story.

Arguments for a $150 million opening for “Thor” are myriad, and include: the $187 million start for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” two months ago, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” opening on the same weekend in 2018 and grossing $207 million, the mainstream Marvel nature of the title character, elevated interest with Waititi as director, and the impressive improvement in theater attendance over recent weeks.

The arguments against involve intangibles. The early reactions (reviews and otherwise) are sharply divided, which can have more of an impact when expectations are sky-high. With more choices of top movies to see, competition greater as we get deeper into the summer, the chance that Marvel saturation has arrived (it’s the sixth MCU release in a year), some signs that we have passed peak moviegoing for the season, and inflation factors (the cost of going to theaters has risen sharply) all might be cited if “Thor” doesn’t quite perform as well as expected.

Initial international dates started Wednesday, with $15.7 million in 17 territories. In comparable situations, that’s 76 percent of “Doctor Strange.” Exact correlation to domestic results would suggest around a $142 million total, at the low end of estimates.

A scene from Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios 2022. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

That an opening of “only” $142 million might be considered disappointing is a sign of the quick change in fortunes for theaters. Based on prior “Thor” entry performances of 2.5 times or greater multiples from opening, that would suggest a domestic gross of about $350 million, the highest in this character’s history. And it would be the fourth film this summer to reach surpass $300 million (with “Minions” likeliest otherwise to reach that level).

But even a more modest “Thor” will likely be no worse than the #4 film for a very strong summer, and if it tops “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($411 million), it will land at #2. That’s should, by any fair analysis, be good enough.

And watch out “Top Gun: Maverick.” It may be riding high for now, but “Avatar: The Way of Water” is still coming out this year, which means Disney could still end up with the biggest bragging rights among 2022 releases.

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