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“Fake Black Widow” is No Match for Black Panther

Can Jennifer Lawrence actually open a movie on her own? 
Red Sparrow
By  · Published on March 5th, 2018

Can Jennifer Lawrence actually open a movie on her own?

There was no way any of the new releases were going to overthrow Black Panther in its third weekend, but both Red Sparrow and Death Wish still underperformed compared to last week’s forecast by Box Office Pro. The newcomers were each predicted for around $19 million, and they instead debuted to just $16.9 million and $13 million, respectively. The latter is actually more in line to Box Office Pro’s long-range forecast from two months ago, while the former’s opening is far worse than their early expectation for the spy thriller.

In his analysis of the Red Sparrow gross at Forbes, Scott Mendelson argues that in spite of its being disappointing, the $16.9 million figure is still positive for the career of Jennifer Lawrence, whom he claims proves herself a movie star with this opening. The young actress is still coming out of her split notoriety as, first, an Oscar-caliber actress, having broken out initially with her nomination for Winter’s Bone, and second, a franchise favorite, rising in fame through her lead role in the Hunger Games franchise and her part among the ensemble of the X-Men movies. Outside of those two areas, she’s not as successful. But nobody would be.

Red Sparrow is the latest of a kind of movie that has been doing so-so business anyway. Female-led spy and assassin movies aren’t a huge box office draw on their own, though the genre overall doesn’t wow with audience appeal anymore unless more action-oriented, a la James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible movies, or more comedy-oriented, a la Austin PowersCentral Intelligence, and Spy. One movie to which Red Sparrow begs comparison, given its sexy, R-rated European spy thriller elements, is last year’s Atomic Blonde. Led by its own Oscar-winning star, Charlize Theron, that film opened only slightly better ($18.8 million, adjusted for inflation), but it also cost half as much to produce.

Earlier this year, Proud Mary, led by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, debuted to just $10 million, again against a much smaller budget. Other similar movies from the last decade with women in the lead include Haywire ($9.8 million, adjusted), Violet & Daisy ($11,000, adjusted), Barely Lethal ($1,800, adjusted), Everly (no theatrical opening posted), Colombiana ($12 million, adjusted), Hanna ($14.1 million, adjusted) and Salt ($42.9 million, adjusted). The last of them is the only one with an impressive figure, and yes it stars Angelina Jolie, but it also promised a more traditional action movie and was received more positively from both critics and audiences.

Had Red Sparrow been of the same sort of action-light plot and serious tone but with a male star, it might not have fared any better. Look at spy films such as the Oscar darlings Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ($6.4 million wide-release opening, adjusted) and Bridge of Spies ($15.4 million, adjusted), which had the draw of Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg. Even the more fun and action-oriented The Man from U.N.C.L.E. only opened to $14.9 million (adjusted), and the name-branded reboot attempt Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit kicked off with just $17.8 million (adjusted). Even the most recent James Bond and Jason Bourne installments saw a decline from their previous films.

Spy movies just aren’t as popular as we might think (unless they’re wrapped up inside a Marvel movie, such as Black Panther). So when something like Red Sparrow does at least $16.9 million in its first weekend, sure it’s likely because of Lawrence’s star power with maybe some minor draw from fans of the Jason Matthews novel. Lawrence opened better with this than her last couple of non-franchise vehicles, including mother! ($7.8 million, adjusted) and Passengers ($15.5 million, adjusted), and it’s about equal with her last Oscar-nominated collaboration with David O. Russell, Joy ($18 million, adjusted), and was just below the one that came before, American Hustle ($21 million wide-release, adjusted). Silver Linings Playbook started off much lower but had tremendous legs thanks to its awards attention.

For those of us who do like Red Sparrow (just as with Joy, its predominantly negative reviews are baffling to me), it is a shame that the movie didn’t perform better so that we could be guaranteed adaptations to the sequels, “Palace of Treason” and “The Kremlin’s Candidate.” Perhaps the international box office (so far at $26.6 million from 65 markets) will make Red Sparrow profitable enough that Fox would consider the possibility — so long as Disney’s potential acquisition of Fox doesn’t kill any chance of more of this sort of R-rated fare. But it’s not just that I’d want to see them, I’d also be curious to see how they’d open, as a new franchise for Lawrence.

Death Wish

Meanwhile, Bruce Willis has long been considered one of the biggest movie stars of the last 30 years and he can no longer draw a large audience to a violent action movie remake like Death Wish. But has he ever been as big a draw as he’s seemed? He’s been in a career decline anyway of late, but his last major top-lining release, Red 2 (another spy movie), didn’t open much better. Outside of franchises, namely Die Hard and G.I. Joe, which themselves have been seeing diminishing returns, Willis hasn’t drawn much better than Lawrence in the last decade, and he was doing much worse for most of the 2000s.

As for the reigning champ, did Black Panther break any more records this weekend? Well, it’s now in the all-time top 10 for domestic gross, without adjustments for inflation. It passed Wonder Woman to become the domestic champ for a superhero origin movie, without adjustment for inflation (then it’s in fourth place behind Spider-ManBatman, and Superman). It’s now in second place on the domestic chart for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even with inflation adjustment, and its current gross of $501.7 million isn’t too far off from MCU champ The Avengers‘ adjusted gross of $517.4 million in the same timeframe. There’s still a chance Black Panther could take that throne.

It should also be pointed out, since we acknowledged how Black Panther has been in part compared to James Bond movies and the spy genre in general, that Marvel’s movie has far surpassed the domestic take of all 007 installments, even with inflation adjustment, save for the 1960s classics Goldfinger and Thunderball. And it’s made more globally ($899.9million) than all of them save for the very popular Skyfall, having just passed the last movie, Spectre. However, that was mainly because of its better domestic figure. Spectre‘s foreign total, $680.6 million, is still much higher than Black Panther‘s $398.2 million. Bond always does better overseas, so Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace also currently have better foreign takes, though those will be passed by Black Panther soon.

Finally, this week will be interesting to watch for any bumps courtesy of Oscar wins. Best Picture winner The Shape of Water already saw a slight increase over the weekend (grossing $1.5 million) just from people possibly trying to play catch up before Sunday night’s show. That and other Oscar nominees saw some increase in screen count for the weekend, but the only other film that saw week-to-week improvement was Best Adapted Screenplay winner Call Me By Your Name ($0.8 million), though Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor winner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ($1.3 million), Best Supporting Actress winner I, Tonya ($0.6 million), Best Costume Design winner Phantom Thread ($0.6 million), and Best Foreign-Language Film winner A Fantastic Woman ($0.1 million) saw somewhat steady business leading up to the awards. More on all that next weekend!

Here’s the estimated top 10 for the weekend, with new titles in bold and domestic totals in parentheses.

1. Black Panther – $66.3 million ($501.7 million)
2. Red Sparrow – $16.9 million ($16.9 million)
3. Death Wish – $13 million ($13 million)
4. Game Night – $10.4 million ($33.2 million)
5. Peter Rabbit – $10 million ($84.1 million)
6. Annihilation – $5.6 million ($20.6 million)
7. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – $4.4 million ($393.1 million)
8. Fifty Shades Freed – $3.4 million ($95.7 million)
9. The Greatest Showman – $2.7 million ($164.6 million)
10. Every Day – $1.5 million ($5.2 million)

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.