Box Office: From ‘Godzilla Vs. Kong’ To ‘Spider-Man,’ Safe Tentpoles Thrived In 2021

Throughout most of 2021, the previously surefire theatrical blockbusters mostly performed on par with pre-Covid expectations.

The overall domestic box office for 2021 sits at $4.462 billion. That’s 213% higher than 2020’s miserable $1.424 billion cume and 60% below the over/under $11.5 billion totals in 2019 and 2018. Without arguing right or wrong, that $4.462 billion figure likely would have been that much higher had Jurassic World: Dominion stayed in summer 2021, had Minions: The Rise of Gru remained in July 2021 and Top Gun: Maverick opened in summer or mid-November of last year. I’d wager that this year’s domestic cume may be closer to $8 billion overall, provided A) Covid infections don’t dramatically affect the environment and B) studios don’t get extra trigger-happy about sending their non-tentpoles to PVOD or streaming. But one key difference between this year and the last two years is that we’ll get a full slate of big blockbusters that audiences want to see.  

As I discussed way back in 2014, the whole cumulative box office stat is often dependent on what movies are being offered in theaters nationwide in a given season or a given year. The trades spent much of 2014 talking about a “slump” from 2013 as if it were a theatrical existential crisis, even while the eventual $500 million gap was essentially equal to a handful of tentpoles (Furious 7, The Good Dinosaur and Fifty Shades of Grey) that were moved to 2015. And since audiences still went to the movies just to go to the movies in 2014, a $40 million, R-rated original like Lucy could fill some of the gap with a jaw-dropping $450 million global cume while Guardians of the Galaxy could over perform ($773 million worldwide) alongside “just a movie” hits like The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl.  

The one bit of good news we got in 2021 is that audiences will still show up for the biggest of big tentpoles in numbers arguably approximate to pre-Covid expectations. With all the talk about Spider-Man: No Way Home deserving a Best Picture Oscar nomination due to its top-tier blockbuster performance (it should pass $1.4 billion worldwide tomorrow), it was merely the climax to a year whereby most of the surefire releases performed entirely up to snuff. Warner Bros. put itself on the metaphorical cross all year round, offering a slew of big and small theatrical releases, including quite a few (The Suicide Squad, The Matrix Resurrections and Space Jam: A New Legacy) which (quality aside) were arguably doomed even in non-Covid circumstances. They also gave the box office its two shots of hope with Tom & Jerry in February and Godzilla Vs. Kong in March. 

It was the $14.4 million opening weekend of Tom & Jerry in early February that offered up anything resembling optimism in 2021. Sony responded by moving Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway *up* to May 14, although it would eventually stick with June 11. The live-action/animated Tim Story-directed comedy was, and this was a term that would define much of the analysis in 2021, a “successful disappointment.” The $80 million flick earned $130 million worldwide, an obvious rate-of-return flop. But it was also pretty much how the film might have performed had it disappointed in non-Covid times. No such excuses were necessary for Godzilla Vs. Kong, as the IMAX-friendly, rock-n-roll monster mash nabbed $50 million in its first six days, a massive over performance compared to pre-release over/under $30 million projections. It would earn $100 million domestic, $188 million in China and $469 million worldwide on a $165 million budget. 

Godzilla Vs. Kong’s blow-out weekend was preceded by Universal moving F9 from May 29 to June 25 (while keeping its overseas debuts intact) while positioning it as a “welcome back to the movies” tentpole event. Yes, that includes Vin Diesel’s delightfully cheesy but entirely sincere commercial where he waxed poetic about the glories of theatrical cinema. it was followed however by Paramount pushing A Quiet Place part II from Labor Day 2021 to Memorial Day weekend 2021. The horror sequel had been tracking for a $55-$65 million Fri-Sun debut when its March 20, 2020 release was canceled just days away from the premiere. John Krasinski’s Emily Blunt-starring chiller opened 14 months later with $57 million over its Fri-Mon Memorial Day launch. So… about the same. It would earn $160 million domestic and $297 million worldwide on a $61 million budget, or about 87% of its predecessor’s $341 million global gross.  

That was the pattern for much of the year. The safest tentpoles would still play about on par with pre-Covid expectations, especially in North America, while anything comparatively dicey or uncertain would underwhelm or outright bomb. That studios held back the most important tentpoles (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, No Time to Die, etc.) and sold some of the biggest animated films (Luca, Hotel Transylvania 4, etc.) to streaming left much of the season filled with cheap horror movies (Old, Don’t Breathe 2Spiral, etc.), a few “big” flicks like F9 and Black Widow and frankly big movies that would have likely been doomed under any circumstance (Space Jam: A New Legacy, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, etc.). However, the safest tentpoles during and (especially) after summer mostly performed as good as necessary, at least in North America. 

F9 earned $173 million (tied with Hobbes and Shaw and 25% below the not-beloved Fate of the Furious) and $721 million worldwide (42% less than Fate of the Furious, including 49% less in China). Marvel’s liked-but-not-beloved Black Widow earned $184 million domestic and $383 million worldwide plus around $125 million in Disney+ Premier Access revenue (of which Disney gets around 85%). That was obviously way below MCU standards, but Premier Access complicated things. So did Scarlett Johansson suing Disney over promised theatrical bonuses. They settled (as happens in 90% of civil cases) and Johansson is still making Tower of Terror, but I’d argue the quick resolution was as much about keeping Kevin Fiege happy as avoiding “scandalous” discovery. Meanwhile, the $200 million (!!) Jungle Cruise earned an okay $116 million domestic but a miserable (likely Covid-caused) $200 million worldwide (plus Premier Access revenue). We’re getting a sequel anyway.  

Meanwhile, quality aside, giving James Gunn $180 million to make an R-rated Suicide Squad sequel without Will Smith and without cameos from Batman and The Joker wasn’t a good idea even before Covid. The film opened so badly in August ($26 million, or $107 million less than its predecessor’s opening weekend) that I had to spend a week yelling about how Suicide Squad, Space Jam 2 and Snake Eyes flopped because of the movies themselves and not just because of Delta variant concerns so Hollywood wouldn’t panic and cancel the entire year-end theatrical slate. We’ll see if the film (which grossed $168 million worldwide) will become a kind of loss leader when HBO Max’s Peacemaker spin-off series debuts in two weeks. A week after The Suicide Squad, Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer’s original, star+concept video game-centric rom-com action fantasy Free Guy pulled off a genuine miracle.  

Like Godzilla Vs. Kong, I’d argue Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer’s original, concept-driven video game-centric Free Guy overperformed ($122 million domestic and $331 million worldwide on an over/under $115 million budget) compared to realistic pre-Covid expectations. But it was Marvel and Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that truly saved the year-end theatrical slate. The well-reviewed and well-received Simu Liu-led martial arts fantasy demolished Labor Day weekend records with a $75 million Fri-Sun/$94 million Fri-Mon debut (tripling the $26 million/$30 million debut of Rob Zombie’s Halloween in 2007). The Destin Daniel Cretton-directed actioner legged out to a $225 million domestic finish, becoming the first pandemic-era $200 million-plus grosser and pulling a terrific 2.36 times its four-day debut. Yes, not playing in China (where it might have earned another $150 million) didn’t help, but $430 million worldwide, almost triple its budget, was good enough.  

Sony moved Venom: Let There Be Carnage to October 1 and, when Paramount pushed Top Gun: Maverick to May 2022 (likely because Tom Cruise didn’t want to embark on a global marketing campaign), moved Ghostbusters: Afterlife to snag IMAX screens for a mid-November launch. The Tom Hardy/Woody Harrelson sequel kicked off the post-summer season with a pandemic-high $90 million (12.5% higher than Venom’s $80 million launch). It earned $212.5 million domestic (just under Venom’s $213.5 million cume) and $501 million worldwide. That’s about what we’d expect from a Venom sequel. Its total is close to its sans-China (where Venom earned $269 million) cume of $585 million. Halloween Kills opened with $49 million despite being concurrently available on Peacock and earned $92 million domestic and $131 million worldwide on a $20 million budget. While well below Halloween ($159 million/$256 million), it’s about what I would have predicted in early 2020. 

James Bond finally returned after a six-year absence. Whether No Time to Die (distributed by MGM domestically and Universal overseas) really needed $800 million or $900 million to break even theatrically (due to budget overruns and Covid-specific delays), the fifth and final Daniel Craig flick earned $161 million (more than any other 007 movie save for the first four Craig entries) and $774 million worldwide (behind only Spectre and Skyfall) to become Hollywood’s biggest pandemic-era global grosser. It’ll be fine once post-theatrical revenue rolls in, and I can imagine the next 007 movie (with a newer, cheaper actor) will cost closer to $175 million than $250 million and won’t be delayed by two years due to a global pandemic. Add in a 15% “if not for Covid” boost (which frankly makes most of the tentpoles “whole”), and you have a global cume on par with Spectre’s $880 million total.  

In non-Covid times, a $395 million global cume (on par with The Golden Compass), including $107 million domestic (on par with Batman & Robin) from a $41 million launch, would be a “disappointment in relation to cost” for Denis Villeneuve’s $165 million Dune part One. However, the well-reviewed and relatively well-received sci-fi epic did what it needed to do, both in terms of getting a sequel (Dune part Two, or the second half of Frank Hubert’s 500-page book) and showing that there was some hope in audiences showing up for big films that weren’t just Marvel movies or legacy action franchises. And yes, on a Covid curve, I’d argue that Dune was at-worst a “successful disappointment” and another example of Warner Bros. doing what they do best, namely turning less-than-conventional event films (Magic Mike, Gravity, American Sniper, It, A Star Is Born, Joker) into genuine theatrical blockbusters.  

Chloe Zhao’s Eternals was a comparatively more inclusive MCU movie that also approximated the deconstructive contemplation of a Zack Snyder DC Films epic, was the first MCU movie to earn majority-negative reviews. It opened with $70 million but ended with just $164 million domestic, selling less tickets than any earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (Incredible Hulk’s $132 million domestic gross is around $171 million adjusted-for-inflation) while crawling past $400 million worldwide on a $200 million budget. Moreover, the bad reviews and bad buzz leaves Eternals as perhaps the first MCU movie not to spawn a franchise or really offer much of added value to other MCU movies. Along with Encanto barely crawling to $200 million worldwide (and a slew of high profile formally-Fox bombs like The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley, The King’s Man and West Side Story), Disney will now begin 2022 on the defensive.  

Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a modest hit mostly thanks to its modest ($75 million) budget. No, it won’t match the $126 million domestic and $229 million total of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, but it also didn’t cost $144 million. Quality aside, giving Lana Wachowski around $190 million to make a Matrix sequel that she only made because she knew Warner Bros. was going to make one without her either way probably wasn’t the best commercial play. Whether it might have performed better in non-Covid times, that it’ll earn less than 47 Ronin ($38 million domestic and $151 million worldwide in 2013) shows that the interest just wasn’t there. Ditto Matthew Vaughn’s “one for me” The King’s Man ($49 million and falling fast), which showed that just because audiences liked your movie (and its direct sequel) doesn’t mean they like the IP enough to want a prequel origin story.  

But what audiences really wanted were (motion) pictures of Spider-Man. Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home didn’t just become the biggest Hollywood movie of the last two years and the first $1 billion-plus grosser since The Rise of Skywalker in December 2019. It played like a Star Wars-level event in North America and an Avengers-level event overseas, earning a $260 million domestic and $600 million worldwide debut. The mix of MCU fandom, general Spider-Man fandom and the hook (unspoiled in the marketing but rumored for over a year) of having Tom Holland interacting with not just villains from the prior Spider-Man franchises (which the trailers outright revealed) but Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire proved a Force Awakens-worthy year-end event. It’s currently at $610 million domestic (with a 40/60 shot at $800 million) and $1.37 billion (having already passed Black Panther as the biggest solo/non-Avengers superhero movie ever). 

Yes, the success of Spider-Man 3 version 2.0 alongside the brutal relative failures of Encanto, Matrix 4 and the “cool movies for grown-ups” likes of Will Smith’s King Richard, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is a microcosm of the industry as it exists. Almost everything is struggling, but Spider-Man: No Way Home is about to become one of the biggest-grossing movies of all time, without a penny from China no less. I’d even argue it’s doing better today than it would have as just another summer tentpole had it opened sans-Covid in July of this year. But the year can be summed up by A Quiet Place part II. The buzzy sequel to a much-liked predecessor performed almost identically to how it would have had it opened before Covid or in a non-Covid world.  

That was the case for most of the year’s safest and biggest would-be tentpolesSince much of 2022 is stacked with a regular slate of “safe” tentpoles, new MCU movies, sequels to Minions, Sonic the Hedgehog and Avatar, more DC Films flicks, a Pixar space adventure starring Buzz Lightyear and threequels to franchises both safe (Jurassic World) and not-so-safe (Fantastic Beasts), there’s plenty of big movies for folks who only see “sure thing” biggies in theaters. Judging by the business-as-usual business for the films that qualified as low-risk, pre-sold, IMAX-worthy, established franchise offerings in 2021, the films that had little to worry about before Covid have little to worry about now. What that means for everything else, including quite a few old-school “movie-movies,” we can only guess. But it’s only because the tentpoles are holding up the tent that anything else has a chance.  

The Tycoon Herald