Doctor Strange Kicks Off Summer Blockbuster Season
The summer box office season is finally arriving, and kicking it off is the latest from Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The franchise’s four 2021 releases made up nearly 30% of the combined domestic gross of all 2021 releases, and the total gross of those four films is just 10% behind the combined gross of everything that came out in the first four months of 2022. The extended universe’s success shows no sign of flagging with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the first MCU release since Spider-Man: No Way Home shattered box office records in the winter.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness comes almost six years after the first Doctor Strange, which with $233 million domestic and $678 million worldwide was at the low end of the Phase 3 MCU films. The new installment should go much further, being more an event film than the character’s introductory outing. Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) has since become an essential part of the MCU following his appearances in Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, which takes place shortly before Multiverse of Madness. The film also follows up the events of the Disney+ shows Loki, If and WandaVision, and it gives Wanda\Scarlet Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen) her biggest big-screen appearance yet. Disney is expecting Multiverse of Madness, which opens on 4,400 screens, to beat The Batman’s $134 million opening to become the best of the year and the second best since the onset of the pandemic. It is also looking to become a top 10 Marvel opener, besting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s $146 million. Though it is a long shot, it even has the potential to make the top five if it can surpass the $202 million of Black Panther. If that happens, it would become just the ninth film to open above $200 million and the sixth MCU film to do so. The opening weekend will get some extra juice from its Thursday previews, with showtimes starting at 3pm.

Sam Raimi steps into the director’s chair for this one, returning to do a superhero film fifteen years after he wrapped up the original Spider-Man trilogy that had brought the genre to new heights both creatively and commercially. The reviews are positive, and many critics are noting that Raimi was able to infuse his signature style into the franchise, though at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes the praise is less universal than the first film and some of the other major Marvel titles.

Multiverse of Madness is releasing in nearly every territory this week with just a few countries out of play, most notably China and Russia. In China, Dr. Strange 2 joins the company of recent MCU films in failing to secure a release, though the situation may yet change. The first film got 16% of its worldwide gross from China, bringing in $109 million from the Middle Kingdom, but the sequel should make it up by growing from its predecessor in other countries. In the 20 markets where it opened on Wednesday, the opening day was just 4% behind Spider-Man: No Way Home on a like for like basis, suggesting that the box office may end up on the upper end of the expectations.

Outside of Doctor Strange, there is little going on at the box office this weekend… or for most of the month of May. The month belongs to the MCU film up until the 27th when Tom Cruise’s long awaited Top Gun: Maverick hits screens. It’s not a total graveyard in between the blockbusters, with next week providing Firestarter, a Blumhouse-produced Stephen King adaptation starring Zac Efron (also streaming day and date on Peacock) and the following week having A24’s Alex Garland directed horror film Men and Focus’ Downton Abbey: A New Era.

While those films all have potential, the lineup of new releases is unusually and unfortunately light for May (and we saw a similar situation in March following The Batman), showing that over two years into it, we are still not out of the “pandemic era.”

As proof, May 2019 was also dominated by an MCU juggernaut as Avengers: Endgame opened April 26. Even so there were still 11 wide releases that opened above $5 million that month and three of which opened over $50 million (we're excluding the May 31 releases here). Including the second Doctor Strange, this May has a total of just six wide releases. While this summer has numerous films with blockbuster potential that could perform as well as they would prior to the pandemic, the overall box office numbers won’t return to previous highs until the volume of releases picks up.