'Wonder Woman' breaks record with $100.5 million debut

Key Points
  • "Wonder Woman" earned an estimated $100.5 million in its U.S. opening.
  • Director Patty Jenkins inherits the title of best American debut for a movie directed by a woman from Sam Taylor-Johnson.
  • Positive reviews and audience reactions indicate that film could avoid a sharp second weekend drop that other Warner Bros. movies based on DC Comics have seen.
A still from the movie "Wonder Woman."
Source: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Warner Bros. and DC Comics' "Wonder Woman" topped the U.S. box office this weekend with a $100.5 million opening, exceeding expectations and making it the best American debut for a female-directed movie.

The results confirmed what analysts had predicted: The film, starring Gal Gadot in the title role and director Patty Jenkins at the helm, would put to rest the notion that audiences are reluctant to see female superheroes on the big screen.

The three-day haul for "Wonder Woman" bested the results for films like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"and "The Amazing Spider-Man," as well as superhero team movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past." It also came just shy of the $102 million 2008 debut for "Iron Man," one of the best reviewed comic book movies of all time.

And while "Wonder Woman" grossed less than the three previous movies in DC's interconnected film universe, those movies all suffered sharp declines in subsequent weeks, in part due to poor reviews.

Stellar reviews could mean "Wonder Woman" avoids the same fate next week. Data from media measurement firm comScore showed 73 percent of people who saw the movie would recommend it, while 22 percent planned to see it in the theater again.

"'Wonder Woman' is the DC Comics movie that everyone has been waiting for and it did not disappoint," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. The film "effectively ushers in a new era for Warner Bros.' DC universe that of late has been a brand in search of the perfect movie."

It also crowned a new top opener for a female-helmed film. Jenkins now inherits the title from Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose "50 Shades of Grey" opened to $85.2 million in 2015.

In the weeks before its debut, "Wonder Woman" gathered momentum as glowing reviews poured in and the movie dominated much of the social media conversation. An annual survey from ticket-seller Fandango found it was the most anticipated film of the summer, beating out the upcoming "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment.

Tracking figures forecast "Wonder Woman" would haul in about $95 million in its North American debut this week.

With an estimated $120 million to $150 million production budget, "Wonder Woman" is the biggest bet yet on a film featuring a standalone female superhero. Studios have not gambled on a major release on a super-heroine since Twentieth Century Fox's "Elektra" and Warner Bros.' "Catwoman" — both of which bombed more than a decade ago.

Alisha Grauso, editor-at-large at genre website Movie Pilot, said studio executives have long been out of step with the fan community on this point. At the same time Hollywood has simply failed to make good films based on women superheroes, it has been more forgiving of male-focused movies, she said.

"You also have male-led superhero movies that bombed as well, but they kept getting made," Grauso told CNBC.

"But when a female-led superhero movie flopped, it's because, 'Oh, people don't want to see a female-led superhero movie.'"

Analysis of social-media sentiment showed "Wonder Woman" was "more than holding its own in terms of generating as much interest as movies dominated by male superheroes," said Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee.

Between Nov. 25 and May 25, "Justice League" drummed up 17 percent as much digital content engagement as "Wonder Woman" did, while "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Thor: Ragnarok" trailed by 64 percent and 132 percent, respectively, Amobee analysis shows.

To be sure, those movies are due out well after "Wonder Woman." Over the last year, however, "Doctor Strange" generated just 67 percent as much engagement as DC's Amazon warrior. "Logan," Hugh Jackman's final turn as Wolverine after 17 years in the role, had 21 percent more digital engagement.

The failure of "Catwoman" in 2004 and "Elektra" in 2005 created a narrative that audiences aren't interested in female-focused superhero films, said Cohen. But the idea that action films starring women can't succeed has since been proven false, he added, pointing to "The Hunger Games" franchise and "Suicide Squad," which largely revolved around antihero Harley Quinn.

Hollywood has a tough time properly manifesting female superheroes on screen, but Warner Bros. has finally gotten it right with "Wonder Woman," said Dergarabedian.

"The way Patty Jenkins has directed this, there's just so much depth to it. You feel that somebody really loves this character and understands her dynamic, her point of view," he said.