What the ‘Bob Marley’ Movie’s Triumph Over ‘Madame Web’ Signals About a Shifting Box Office

Bob Marley biopic
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Not too long ago, it would have been considered a box office suicide mission to pit any new release against a superhero movie.

But this weekend’s showdown of Sony’s comic book adaptation “Madame Web” versus Paramount’s musical biopic “Bob Marley: One Love” demonstrates that’s no longer the case — superhero tentpoles no longer hold all the power.

“One Love,” a PG-13 drama that’s aimed at older female audiences, towered over the newest Marvel (adjacent) flick, earning $52 million over the extended holiday weekend. Suspense thriller “Madame Web,” a “Spider-Man” spin-off starring Dakota Johnson as a paramedic with psychic abilities, generated a paltry $26 million over the same six-day period. It cost $80 million, so it will have a tough time turning a profit in its theatrical run since theater owners get to keep roughly half of ticket sales. The Bob Marley biopic carries a $70 million price tag so it’ll also need to keep jamming on the big screen, but it’s far better positioned.

“Once upon a time you could pluck a character out of a popular superhero movie and make a hit film about them,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “That was more than five years ago.”

It’s worth noting that the movie is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that turned Iron Man and Thor into household names, but instead hails from the Spider-Verse of characters that Sony licenses. Disney’s Marvel movies have had their own high-profile struggles, as evidenced by recent releases, “The Marvels” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

In the case of “Madame Web,” it doesn’t help that the film was skewered with comically terrible reviews. It has a dismal “C+” CinemaScore from audiences and a grim 13% Rotten Tomatoes average among critics. (“One Love” wasn’t exactly a critical darling, but it was embraced by moviegoers with an “A” CinemaScore.) But at one point, even critically derided comic book adventures could open at the box office. Sony’s first Marvel spinoff, 2018’s “Venom,” debuted to $80 million despite earning a puny 30% on Rotten Tomatoes. And 2022’s “Morbius,” which somehow had worse reviews than “Madame Web” and is also based on a lesser-known character, launched with $39 million (before quickly falling off at the box office).

“If you look at the reviews for ‘Bob Marley’ and ‘Madame Web,’ audiences think of these in terms of a good film versus a bad film,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

It’s not that all superheroes are floundering on life support. Disney’s “Deadpool & Wolverine” (July 26) and the Warner Bros. sequel “Joker: Folie á Deux” (Oct. 4) are expected to be two of the biggest movies of the year. Meanwhile, Sony will try again with “Kraven the Hunter” (Aug. 30). But studios are operating in a new reality in which they can’t throw just any Spandex-clad hero on the big screen and expect a smash in return. Not every comic book character has blockbuster potential.

It’s also a sign that popular taste may be changing. Genres regularly rise and fall at the box office; Westerns were the hot ticket from the ’30s through the early ’60s while Biblical epics were big in the ’40s and ’50s. In the ’80s and ’90s, high-concept, star-driven thrillers were all the rage, where Hollywood’s mandate seemed to be making a new “Die Hard” on your vehicle of choice. At the turn of the century, R-rated comedies were popular before falling out of favor at the dawn of streaming. And now, superheroes are showing wear-and-tear as musical biopics are one of the trends on the up and up. Fantasy musical-comedies, a la “Barbie” and “Wonka,” have been other surprise draws.

“One look at the hits and misses of 2023, and there is clearly a new blueprint as to what can constitute a hit,” says senior Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Music-based films have been mainstays while venerable franchises and superheroes have become less of a guarantee.”

Musical biopics come with their own headaches, including fighting to obtain rights to key songs and getting the support of a family or estate (which usually means needing to sanitize storylines). But the results can be a modest-to-outsize commercial success. Even better: these films rarely cost as much as effects-driven superhero epics. After 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ($910 million) and “Elvis” ($288 million), Hollywood has responded quickly to the surge in the genre’s appeal. Already, Antoine Fuqua is turning Michael Jackson’s life story into a feature film, Amy Winehouse is getting the biopic treatment with “Back to Black” and Ridley Scott is in talks to direct a movie about the rise of the Bee Gees. Is an Engelbert Humperdinck movie far off?

Analysts believe the coming flood of movies about music legends is good for the box office because it means that new genres are enticing audiences. And these movies are a reminder that teenage boys aren’t the only people eager to hit up the multiplexes. There’s also been higher demand from female moviegoers, with 53% of ticket buyers for “One Love” and 46% for “Madame Web” identifying as female (not bad for a Marvel movie). It’s a signal that Hollywood needs to continue to prioritize movies that appeal to women, as well.

“Balance has always been key at the box office. We need all the genres we can get,” Bock says. “With superheroes leading the charge for so long, it’s a sigh of relief that there are other films that audiences will go to see.”

From Variety US