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Iron Man 3 is heading into theaters this weekend with the best reviews of any film in the trilogy, plus $195 million already in the bank from its international opening. A year ago it was pretty much the same story-- The Avengers was riding a wave of enormous critical praise, and it went on to set the domestic record for opening weekend box office. Summer movie season is supposed to be "turn off your brain" season, but have critics suddenly developed the power to make the best movies the most successful ones?
Well, sort of. For every The Dark Knight or Toy Story 3 that lures audiences and critics in equal measure, there's a Transformers franchise or The Hangover Part II that laughs at its low Rotten Tomatoes score while burning stacks of money. But with superhero films being the dominant blockbuster genre of the last 15 years, and still the genre most capable of surprising critics with its quality, we decided to look at the numbers and find out for sure. If critics are kinder to a superhero movie, will it make more money? In the chart below, we've tracked films by their overall Rotten Tomatoes score, and provided both their opening weekend box office and total box office. We've focused on domestic box office only, both because that represents the moviegoers most likely to be influenced by the English-speaking critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and because those are the numbers frequently trumpeted in the press when a movie is a hit. Check out the results below, and click to see the chart larger.
If you squint, you can definitely see a very vague trend there, with the cream of the superhero crop-- The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man-- raking in the most cash, and the bargain-bin leftovers-- Elektra, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance-- barely registering at the bottom of the list. Many of the outliers-- the parts where the bar graph of cash shrinks back drastically before springing back up-- belong to the smallish oddball superhero films that never really aimed for mainstream success, like the violent Blade movies or Guillermo del Toro's imaginative Hellboy series. And the outliers on the other side, when movies make cash way out of proportion to their quality, generally come from sequels. Nobody liked X-Men: The Last Stand or Spider-Man 3 more than the first two, but they went to see them out of some sense of duty or momentum.
What's more interesting than the trend is pondering the story behind the outliers, especially the ones trumpeted as summer-dominating blockbusters that somehow fell a little short. X-Men: First Class is easily the biggest mystery in the bunch, a reboot of a successful franchise that arrived with the best reviews of any film in the series, but managed to gross less than all of the others (including X-Men Origins: Wolverine!). There's also Spider-Man 2, heralded by fans and critics alike as the best of the series, but making the least (though still more than Iron Man 2 or X-Men 2). The most depressing spot probably belongs to Spider-Man 3, a hot mess of a movie that still made more than anything else in the series.
The chart also clears up some misconceptions about which films did well with critics, and how much they made-- Bryan Singer's essentially forgotten Superman Returns had just slightly worse reviews than Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, and made more domestically than either. The Amazing Spider-Man, a largely successful reboot of a franchise that we remember imploding with Spider-Man 3, notched only slightly better reviews than that threequel; Iron Man 2, seen by many as the worst in the Marvel Universe series, was only a few Rotten Tomatoes percentage points behind brothers Thor and Captain America.
By looking at the bottom of this list-- say, everything below 40%-- you can feel vindicated. The worst of the worst gets rejected by critics, and audiences follow suit. The top of the list, until you get to Hellboy II at least, tells the other side of that story-- when movies like The Dark Knight and the Avengers and Iron Man debut to enormous acclaim, they're way more likely to become even bigger hits. Iron Man 3 is likely to add to that trend when it opens on Friday. But it's probably only a matter of time before another X-Men: The Last Stand comes along to screw up the graph all over again.