How Successful Is “Man Of Steel” When Compared With Other Superman Movies?

In raw numbers, Man of Steel’s $113 million opening weekend is Superman’s best-ever debut, but how does Henry Cavill really stack up against Christopher Reeve? (Best not bring Brandon Routh into this.)

Clay Enos

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

Man of Steel proved pretty damn mighty at the box office this weekend, bringing in an estimated $113.1 million — or $125.1 million when counting Thursday night promotional screenings with WalMart. That is by far director Zack Snyder’s best box office take to date, reversing a sharp downward trend for the filmmaker ever since his breakout 2007 blockbuster 300. The news is even better for DC Comics, which had struggled for years to establish a comic book movie franchise that didn’t feature Batman while Scrooge McMarvelStudios built their giant money pit next door. Maybe this means we can finally get a Wonder Woman movie this decade? Please?

Man of Steel’s debut is especially gratifying for Warner Bros. and DC Comics when considering it’s more than double the opening weekend gross for the last Superman movie, Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns. But how does today’s modern Superman, with his sci-fi suit and shredded pecs, compare when matched up against Christopher Reeve’s classic superman of the late 1970s and 1980s?

It’s a tricky question to answer. Even when adjusting for inflation, the explosion in movie theaters in the last 20 years greatly skews the numbers. Consider: According to Box Office Mojo, when Superman opened on Dec. 15, 1978, it appeared in 508 movie theaters (and ultimately expanded to 817). Man of Steel, meanwhile, just opened in 4,207 theaters — that’s more than eight times more locations.

There is, however, a rather imperfect solution to this problem, but it means getting pretty nerdy with box office numbers: the per-theater average, i.e. the number that tells you roughly how packed each theater really was. The higher the average, the busier the theater, the more popular the movie.

So, what happens when we level the playing field by taking the inflation-adjusted per-theater average of the previous Superman movies, and plugging it into Man of Steel’s astronomic theater count? Or, put another way, what if the earlier Superman movies opened in today’s multiplex marketplace? Which Superman movie would end up on top?

(Yes, of course, there are major caveats here about the differences in moviegoing behavior in the ’70s and ’80s, and how per-theater averages tend to decrease as the theater count increases. But for the moment, let’s not ruin the nerdy fun with quibbles.)

6. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Possible 2013 opening weekend (adjusted for inflation and theater count**): $32 million
Actual opening weekend (unadjusted): $5.7 million

Wow, no matter how you slice it, this movie was a B. O. M. B. And yet, if it had opened today, it could have made more in one weekend than it made in its entire box office run.

5. Superman Returns (2006)

Possible 2013 opening weekend**: $66 million
Actual opening weekend (unadjusted): $52.5 million

I’m actually part of the minority of folks who really admired this movie, but, yeah, ouch.

4. Superman III (1983)

Possible 2013 opening weekend**: $80.4 million
Actual opening weekend (unadjusted): $13.4 million

Along with Superman Returns, that is a bigger opening weekend than either Thor or Hancock.

3. Superman II (1981)

Possible 2013 opening weekend**: $121.3 million
Actual opening weekend (unadjusted): $14.1 million

Kneel before Zod, indeed!

2. Man of Steel (2013)

Estimated opening weekend: $125.1 million

I’m going to count the Thursday evening showings — a great deal of that business would have seen the movie on opening weekend even without the WalMart promotion. But if I hadn’t, Man of Steel would have come in third on this list.

1. Superman (1978)

Possible 2013 opening weekend**: $209.8 miilion
Actual opening weekend (unadjusted): $7.5 million

That is just a couple million better than The Avengersrecord-busting opening weekend — and given that this is the very first superhero blockbuster of the post-Jaws blockbuster era, that seems just about right.

Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday (excluding midnight showings on Thursday for Man of Steel), courtesy of Box Office Mojo:

1. Man of Steel* — $113.1 million
2. This is the End* — $20.5 million
3. Now You See Me — $10.3 million
4. Fast & Furious 6 — $9.4 million
5. The Purge — $8.2 million
6. The Internship — $7 million
7. Epic — $6 million
8. Star Trek Into Darkness — $5.7 million
9. After Earth — $3.8 million
10. Iron Man 3 — $2.9 million

*Opening weekend

**My methodology: Using Box Office Mojo’s figures, I calculated the per-theater average based on each movie’s opening weekend gross in 2013 dollars — for 1978’s Superman, that was $49,900 per location, just a few thousand dollars more than The Avengersper theater count last year. Then I multiplied that figure by Man of Steel’s 4,207 theater count, to arrive at a top-end estimate of how much the movie might have made if it had been released today. As I said before, it’s an imperfect solution, but it’s probably as close to a level playing field for comparison as we’ll ever get.

CORRECTION: Man of Steel made $12 million on Thursday due to a promotional partnership with WalMart. An earlier version of this item misstated the cause of the grosses. (6/17/13)

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