“Justice League” was supposed to be the ultimate box office juggernaut.
The movie features a murderer’s row of superheroes: Wonder Woman, Batman, Cyborg, the Flash, Superman, Aquaman. Some of the world’s most popular stars — Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Amy Adams — fill out the cast. Joss Whedon, the writer-director behind “The Avengers,” one of the biggest ticket sellers of all time, helped write the screenplay.
Instead, “Justice League” collected a disappointing $96 million at North American theaters over the weekend, or 42 percent less than its franchise predecessor, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” had over its first three days in March 2016. Analysts had expected “Justice League” to take in at least $110 million based on surveys that measure prerelease audience interest.
Most movies would be instant blockbusters with $96 million in opening-weekend ticket sales. But “Justice League” is far from a typical movie. On top of the blue-chip characters it assembles, the film cost at least $400 million to make and market worldwide. (Overseas, “Justice League” collected an additional $185.5 million, with strong results in South Korea and Brazil.)
The lackluster domestic turnout for “Justice League” raises new questions about the ability of Warner Bros. to effectively exploit its DC Comics characters on the big screen. Warner has delivered successful television adaptations like “The Flash,” “Gotham” and “Arrow.” But four of the studio’s last five superhero movies — designed to sell mountains of merchandise in addition to tickets — have been considered letdowns, to one degree or another. “Wonder Woman” is the lone exception.
“Justice League” received mixed-to-negative reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, the powerful review aggregation site, delayed posting a score for the film until the last minute as part of a new video initiative. That move was interpreted as an effort to hide a “rotten” score, especially since Warner owns 25 percent of Rotten Tomatoes. A spokeswoman for the site subsequently said that Warner was not involved in the decision to delay the score.
“The path to ultimate box office is all about the extremely lucrative Thanksgiving week ahead,” Jeff Goldstein, Warner’s president of domestic distribution, said by phone on Sunday.
The mood was dramatically lighter at Lionsgate, where executives were doing cartwheels over the audience response to “Wonder,” a heartstring-pulling drama about a boy with facial birth defects (Jacob Tremblay), his kind parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) and his highly unkind schoolmates. “Wonder” collected $27.1 million, according to comScore, which compiles box office data — triple what analysts had expected before its release.
“Wonder,” which received strong reviews, cost Lionsgate, Participant Media and other financiers about $20 million to make. It was directed by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and adapted from the best-selling children’s novel by R.J. Palacio. The PG-rated movie received an A-plus grade from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls, an indication that it could be a popular choice for families over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Earnest emotions can be easily mocked, but they penetrate deep,” Erik Feig, co-president of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said in an email. “I think people feel besieged and uncertain about the world — wondering what is really in the hearts of their neighbors — and this movie shows that there is much goodness in most of us.”
Mr. Feig has built a reputation among book authors for cinematic adaptations. He worked with Stephenie Meyer to turn her “Twilight” novels into films. Other authors with whom Mr. Feig has worked include Mr. Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” started as a book) and Suzanne Collins, the force behind the “Hunger Games” book and movie series. Mr. Feig optioned the rights to Ms. Palacio’s “Wonder” before it was officially published.
Another family movie, “The Star,” an animated telling of the Nativity story, also arrived to sturdy ticket sales over the weekend. “The Star,” which cost Sony about $20 million to make, collected an estimated $10 million, which was a bit more than analysts had been expecting. Sony expects the movie, cofinanced with Walden Media, to chug along until Christmas.
It is possible that “Justice League” could make up lost ground over the Thanksgiving holiday. Only two movies are scheduled to arrive in wide release, both starting on Wednesday: Pixar’s “Coco” and the Denzel Washington vehicle “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Warner noted that ticket buyers gave “Justice League” a B-plus grade in CinemaScore exit polls, which could spur ample word of mouth. To compare, “Batman v Superman” got a B.
Warner seemed to have turned a corner with “Wonder Woman,” which wowed critics and audiences alike in June. But “Justice League” ran into unexpected production and marketing difficulties.
Mr. Whedon, initially brought in to rewrite scenes, ended up overseeing extensive reshoots when the film’s director, Zack Snyder, stepped away to contend with the death of his daughter. On the marketing side, Warner was somewhat hobbled by Mr. Affleck’s personal travails, which made him a less effective promotional force for the film.