At first blush, “300: Rise of an Empire” managed a nice success this weekend. It took in $45 million, enough for the top spot at the box office and a plethora of “conquering” puns that inevitably followed. The Noam Murro movie, starring Sullivan Stapleton and Eva Green, is also conforming to the Hollywood formula of built-for-international product of tallying two-thirds of its sales overseas (pretty much exactly at 66%-34%).
But things may not be nearly as rosy for the swords-and-sandals sequel or the genre it represents. For starters, the film comes on the heels of a crop of disappointments. “Pompeii” and “The Legend of Hercules,” both made for pricey budgets, managed less than $25 million in the U.S. This after a few years of middlingly performing derivativeness: “Immortals” in 2011,” “Wrath of the Titans” in 2012.
What’s more, “300: Rise of an Empire” may itself not be as great a success as it appears. Despite heavy marketing from Warner Bros., the movie has a ways to go to catch the $456-million global take of “300” (it’s at $132 million after opening in nearly 50 markets, including many of the major ones).
Domestically? The new film came out in about 400 more theaters than the 2007 original but has managed barely half the opening-weekend total ($45 million to $79 million in today’s dollars). And keep in mind the film has the benefit of 3-D ticket pricing, which the first one didn't. Adjust for that, and the totals are even weaker.
All these numbers are more than just figures for a studio's profit-and-loss statement: They’re a glimpse into how moviegoers feel about the onslaught of movies from this genre.
With the release of “Gladiator” in 2000, the long-dormant swords-and-sandals movies had come back to life. Soon “Troy” followed in 2004, then the visually and viscerally impressive (if character-deficient) “300” from Zack Snyder became a genuine phenomenon in 2007.
But the seven years since have been disappointing, commercially and in other ways, The most financially successful movie of the lot, 2010’s “Clash of the Titans,” took in $493 million around the world but was hardly a groundbreaker. Its sequel, “Wrath of the Titans,” was epic, but only in the failing sense — the movie took in half of the original at home and barely two-thirds of the original abroad. It also set new low critical marks even by the low-mark standard of fight-to-the-death epics: just 25% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sequels, it's turning out, are a particularly shaky bet for this genre. Since so many of these movies are drawing on the same tropes anyway, the usual name-recognition benefits of a familiar brand are limited or unnecessary. Better to try a new movie that channels some of the originality of “300” than trying to square a number that’s been around a while (a "dull, monochromatic affair, its dingy gray palette barely enlivened by syrupy blood that spurts, squirts and gushes with metronomic regularity," as Anne Hornaday said of the "300" follow in the Washington Post). Or even better yet, to give it a rest entirely.
No such luck, though. This July we’ll get “Hercules,” Brett Ratner’s new film, the second such movie on the legend of Greek myth this year. Maybe by then we’ll get more fall-on-its-sword puns.
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