This Weekend in Box Office History: Dark Knight Sequels, Inception, & Dunkirk Establish the “Nolan Frame”; The Lion King Remake, Harry Potter Continues, MCU Origin Stories, & More

Photo Credits: Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox; © Warner Bros. / Wally Pfister, 2010 ("Inception")

Summer marches on as we continue reminiscing over the top box office performers of the past.

Our attention turns to the 29th frame of the year in this week’s edition, one which has become a staple for filmmaker Christopher Nolan over the past twelve years, as well as other major blockbusters that have delivered top-line summer earnings.

Prior to COVID-19 delays, this particular 2020 weekend was originally slated to see the release of Nolan’s own Tenet and 20th Century Studios’ Bob’s Burgers big screen adaptation. As of this writing, Warner Bros. plans to open the former of those on August 12, while Disney has shifted the inherited Fox property to April 9, 2021. With regards to Tenet, however, recent virus spikes across the country have increased the likelihood of another delay in the near future, although that hasn’t been confirmed at the time of this writing.

On with the countdown…

July: Nolan’s Good Luck Charm?

As alluded to, this weekend’s chart of top box office openings has become dominated by Christopher Nolan in recent years as the auteur filmmaker has opened four of his most recent five films on this exact frame.

The trend began in 2008 with his massively anticipated first sequel to Batman Begins. Leading up to release, The Dark Knight had already captured the cultural zeitgeist thanks to an intense marketing cycle from Warner Bros. which featured Heath Ledger’s Joker at the forefront of multiple viral-based ad campaigns. The film was an early pioneer in that realm of the modern film industry, while the actor’s tragic and untimely passing that January further added to the mystique of his final role as the iconic Joker character.

Upon its release, The Dark Knight set the all-time opening weekend record with $158.4 million — eclipsing the previous titleholder, Spider-Man 3, which with $151.1 million in May 2007 had recently bested Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest‘s $135.6 million mark in 2006.

Dark Knight proved it was about more than a massive opening, though, with staying power that defied expectations for such a major blockbuster at the time. In North America, the film remained in the top spot for four weekends and eventually remained in the top ten for ten frames. The sequel legged out to $533.4 million domestically and $1.003 billion globally by the end of 2008.

Easily ranking first atop the charts that year on both fronts, the highly influential comic book adaptation became the second highest grossing film in North American history behind 1997’s Titanic ($600.8 million at the time) and the third highest worldwide behind the same James Cameron pic ($1.85 billion at the time) and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($1.14 billion).

Among its many other influences and accolades, The Dark Knight received eight Oscar nominations and won two — including Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor award. The film’s unpopular exclusion among that year’s five Best Picture nominees is widely pointed to as a key reason behind the Academy’s decision to expand the field to ten nominees one year later, since revised to include varying numbers of nominees based on voting.

To this date, The Dark Knight remains the highest grossing title released from the world of DC Comics, and now trails only three Avengers films and Black Panther in the overall comic book adaptation realm.

Nolan next took a break from the franchise films to helm his first big-budget original project: Inception. The film was viewed as something of a financial risk at the time (despite Nolan’s budding credentials) given its $160 million budget and lack of any ties to a built-in fan base like that of a major comic book property.

Fears were quickly alleviated, though, as he assembled a star-driven ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio — who himself was entering the prime of his career and a decade in which he objectively proved to be one of the world’s most reliable box office draws. His work with Martin Scorsese during the 2000s helped elevate his presence in any film to one that appealed across a variety of audiences, something that helped drive interest in Inception itself.

The film went above and beyond DiCaprio’s stardom, however, with another brilliantly coordinated marketing campaign from Warner Bros. and Nolan’s thought-provoking, passion-project screenplay that drew praise as both as a piece of pop entertainment and high-brow filmmaking.

Inception debuted to a strong $62.8 million in July 2010, and its final scene helped solidify the picture as a true “water cooler moment” in cinematic history. Word of mouth kept the film a hot topic of discussion for weeks as it remained in the top spot for three frames and in the top ten for eleven weekends.

Ultimately legging out to an impressive $292.6 million stateside and $828.3 million globally, Inception remains of the top performing original films in modern cinema history. It ranked sixth domestically for 2010 — behind five franchise films — and fourth worldwide behind Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, cementing Nolan’s ability to draw international audiences on his name and work alone.

Beyond Nolan himself, the film’s many contributors were recognized for their work — ranging from Hans Zimmer’s now-iconic score to Wally Pfister’s cinematography, among many more. Inception was nominated for eight Oscars that year (including nods for Picture and Original Screenplay), winning four trophies in technical categories.

Nolan stuck to his two-year breaks between films and returned to finish his Dark Knight trilogy with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipation was growing at a feverish pace from the day Dark Knight wowed audiences with its rousing climax, but Nolan never fully committed to another stab at the Batman franchise until after Inception released.

Again expanding the franchise’s ensemble cast with Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rises was, naturally, one of the most widely anticipated sequels of all time as fans and casual viewers wondered how Nolan would conclude his trilogy — especially without Ledger’s Joker.

Rises debuted to a stellar $160.9 million that year, third highest of all time only behind the previous year’s Harry Potter finale ($169.2 million) and Marvel’s Avengers, which had just set an historic record with a $207.4 million debut two months earlier. Rises did hold the benchmark for highest debut by a film not releasing in 3D, though, a format which was still somewhat lucrative in the early 2010s thanks to its surcharges and kid-friendly appeal. That’s a record which the film still technically holds to this day.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne trilogy closed out on many high notes critically and commercially, though its staying power wasn’t quite as strong as its predecessors as the film topped out with $448.1 million domestically and $1.08 billion worldwide. The asterisk beside those and Rises‘ opening weekend figures (particularly on the domestic front) is that the film’s massive midnight rollout was associated with the tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Consumer enthusiasm for the remainder of that summer’s box office market was somewhat deflated by fears of copycat crimes and elevated security in cinemas. Rises ultimately became the last major tentpole to employ a midnight release as studios and exhibitors shifted toward Thursday evening releases in the months and years after, largely in response to the events of that opening weekend.

On the charts themselves, Rises stood second only to Avengers ($623.3 million) on the domestic front and third behind that film’s $1.5 billion and Skyfall‘s $1.11 billion globally among all 2012 releases. It ranked ninth on the all-time global chart at the time of its release.

It would be another half-decade before Nolan returned to this weekend as he began taking more time between projects, coupled with opening Interstellar in November 2014 instead of his usual summer landing. 2017 saw his return to this spot on the calendar, though, with Dunkirk.

Among the risks taken up to this point in his career, some could argue Dunkirk is among the most intriguing. Granted, Nolan was already as close to a household name by 2017 as any modern filmmaker outside of Spielberg, Cameron, Tarantino, or Scorsese — but he again pushed the boundaries of storytelling with his take on the “war film” genre, doing so with another big budget and a (mostly) unknown cast.

Despite the lack of a DiCaprio, Christian Bale, or Matthew McConaughey in the lead, Dunkirk was another hit out of the gate thanks to Nolan’s reputation. The pic drew $50.5 million in its domestic debut, comparable to his Interstellar ($47.5 million) and Inception openings. The film won two weekends at the box office and remained in the top ten for nine weeks.

By the end of its run, the film had legged out to $188.1 million domestically and $525.3 million worldwide. Although those figures ranked “modestly” in 14th and 19th places for 2017, the historical evacuation epic also competed with a glut of franchise and star-driven films.

Among wholly original titles, Dunkirk posted the second best debut of the year (behind Coco‘s $50.8 million), the second highest domestic total (again, only trailing Coco‘s $209.7 million), and the third best global total (Coco earned $807 million, while The Boss Baby also edged out Dunkirk and tallied $528 million).

Beyond the box office, Dunkirk marked another major award season contender for Nolan. The film was nominated eight times (noticing a pattern?) by the Academy, including Best Picture and Nolan’s first Directing nod. It won three trophies, again in technical categories.

As noted, this year (and this exact weekend) was to mark the fifth time Nolan would have released a film in July had Tenet not been delayed from its original July 17 release. Combined with Nolan’s penchant for casting Michael Caine as his “lucky charm”, it’s no surprise that the filmmaker and Warner Bros. have chosen this point on the calendar so many times given that four of his top five box office performers, as a director, have opened around this time of year — just before his July 30 birthday, no less.

The Lion King Takes the Throne

One year ago, Disney claimed this frame’s new best opening after a seven-year reign by the aforementioned Dark Knight Rises. With their hugely anticipated remake of The Lion King, the Mouse House introduced the classic story to a new generation of kids. The return of director Jon Favreau, who had previously shepherded The Jungle Book to excellent remake returns in 2016, provided additional appeal.

Alongside that new generation were nostalgic parents and adults who had grown up with the beloved 1994 film. With an array of voice talent led by Beyoncé and Donald Glover in this computer-generated remake, plus goodwill from Disney’s previous modern remakes, 2019’s Lion King exploded with a $191.8 million domestic opening — the second highest of the year following Avengers: Endgame‘s otherworldly $357.1 million record-smasher. In fact, Lion King stands as the eighth highest domestic opening in history, and the second best ever outside the Marvel and Star Wars franchises (trailing Jurassic World‘s $208.8 million).

Although this remake ended up a bit more front-loaded than some of Disney’s other re-imagining efforts, it still boasted a significant share of fans that kept the film in the domestic top ten for eleven weekends. The film finished with $543.6 million domestically and $1.66 billion worldwide, again ranking second on both fronts only behind Endgame‘s monster numbers ($858.4 million and $2.8 billion, respectively).

All-time, The Lion King remake stands at eleventh domestically and seventh on the global front.

Harry Potter‘s Second Act Concludes

Prior to its record-breaking finale in 2011, the Potter franchise made its third summer appearance in 2009 with the adaptation of the penultimate book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

In fact, the film was originally scheduled to open in November 2008 like some series predecessors, but Warner Bros. opted for an eight-month delay after seeing the success of The Dark Knight in July earlier that year — not to mention some lingering impact of the 2007 writers strike which had left the studio without many big summer titles in 2009.

The move was successful, resulting in a $77.8 million three-day weekend as part of a $158 million five-day start dating back to its Wednesday release. While arguable that the delay had any significant impact on the film’s bottom line — Potter films, as discussed previously, had become remarkably consistent by this point — the studio certainly wasn’t complaining.

Half-Blood‘s word of mouth was generally on par with its franchise predecessors as fans continued to turn out in the lead-up to what would become a two-part finale in 2010 and 2011. The sixth film finished with $302 million domestically (ranking third among all eight Potter films in the end) and $934 million worldwide. That was strong enough to finish third in 2009 behind Avatar and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, while registering second only behind the former James Cameron global champion.

Marvel Cinematic Origins

This weekend has also been home to two popular Marvel Cinematic Universe introductory films, beginning with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

By the time of its release, Cap’s origin story represented the final missing puzzle piece in the lead up to 2012’s The Avengers. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers was last on deck after Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Thor had been introduced to audiences in the previous three years, and the Marvel brand was already establishing a name for itself.

Despite some skeptics’ doubts at the time surrounding the ability for an overtly patriotic character to find blockbuster success in the increasingly divisive 21st century, The First Avenger achieved a strong $65.1 million debut weekend — in line with Thor‘s $65.7 million start just over two months earlier. Staying power was notable as the penultimate chapter of Marvel’s first phase ended its run with $176.7 million domestically, ranking 12th for 2011.

Cap’s overseas appeal would take more time to build momentum as the franchise established his story and popularity with global audiences throughout the new decade, but this film’s $370.6 million, 18th place global finish was still regarded as a solid start for what would became the character’s blockbuster trilogy of “solo” films.

Four years later, at the tail end of the MCU’s Phase Two, audiences met Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang in Ant-Man after several years of behind-the-scenes creative differences that at one point saw Edgar Wright in charge of the film before Disney and Marvel brought in helmer Peyton Reed.

By the time of the film’s debut in 2015, Marvel was a fully established brand unto itself following a handful of blockbuster hits — not the least of which included Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier that summer. Ant-Man wasn’t nearly as well known outside the core franchise characters, adding perspective to what was a solid $57.2 million opening weekend.

Rather than turning out to be a fan-only event, though, Ant-Man filled the comedic gap with a more “grounded” character relative to the franchise’s higher stakes and large-scale epics. The film developed strong word of mouth and staying power to the tune of $180.2 million stateside and $519.3 million worldwide, ranking 14th on both fronts that year.

Early 2000s Holdovers

As we round out the top ten debuts from this weekend, the remaining two films have withstood their ground against a number of summer hits over the past two decades to still claim rankings on the chart as we kick off the ’20s.

The first among them was, again, an anticipated franchise sequel: 2001’s Jurassic Park III. Following 1997’s The Lost World, some fatigue was beginning to set in as it became difficult for the franchise to live up to the cultural impact of 1993’s original adaptation. That was partly evident in Steven Spielberg’s decision to vacate the director’s chair for this third entry (filled by The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger‘s own Joe Johnston), but fans remained enthusiastic about the return of Sam Neill’s Alan Grant as the lead character after he sat out the previous sequel.

The third film bowed to $50.8 million in July 2001, noticeably down from Lost World‘s $72.1 million four years earlier but still representative of a healthy debut during its time — ranking eighth for the year among domestic opening weekends.

Closing out the first trilogy of the franchise, Jurassic Park III finished with $181.2 million domestically, ranking ninth for the year, and $368.8 million, eighth place on that front.

Made for $93 million, the three-quel was a financial success for Universal, but the diminishing returns of the series led to the studio’s decision to put it on ice for more than decade before returning with Jurassic World in 2015. That sequel ultimately delivered the kind of historic numbers more closely associated with the original.

Three years later, another stalwart of late 20th and early 21st century summer cinema offered up another adult-leaning summer flick.

Will Smith led the 2004 adaptation of I, Robot hot off his successes in the Men in Black franchise and Independence Day during the previous eight years, and audiences were still eager for more Will by the mid-2000s. The adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction works registered a $52.2 million domestic opening in July 2004, delivering another instant winner for the iconic star.

Not only was it the eighth highest opening of the year (fourth among non-sequels), I, Robot marked a new career-high for Smith at the time by exceeding the $52.15 million three-day weekend debut by Men In Black II two years earlier. Despite end results not quite living up to Smith’s earlier mega-hits, this film further demonstrated the star’s drawing power as opening box office receipts were generally consistent with those previous summer blockbusters.

I, Robot‘s $144.8 million domestic and $353.1 million worldwide tallies weighed positively against the picture’s $120 million production budget in the end. The film ranked 12th and 11th, respectively, on the 2004 box office charts.

Top 10 Three-Day Weekend Grosses for Weekend #29

  1. The Lion King (2019) ($191.8 million, 2019)
  2. The Dark Knight Rises ($160.9 million, 2012)
  3. The Dark Knight ($158.4 million, 2008)
  4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($77.8 million, 2009)
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger ($65.1 million, 2011)
  6. Inception ($62.8 million, 2010)
  7. Ant-Man ($57.2 million, 2015)
  8. I, Robot ($52.2 million, 2004)
  9. Jurassic Park III ($50.8 million, 2001)
  10. Dunkirk ($50.5 million, 2017)

More Notable Three-Day Openings on Weekend #29

  • Bad Boys II ($46.5 million, 2003)
  • Ghostbusters (2016) ($46.0 million, 2016)
  • The Conjuring ($41.9 million, 2013)
  • The Equalizer 2 ($36.0 million, 2018)
  • Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ($34.95 million, 2018)
  • I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry ($34.2 million, 2007)
  • Girls Trip ($31.2 million, 2007)
  • America’s Sweethearts ($30.2 million, 2001)
  • Trainwreck ($30.1 million, 2015)
  • The Purge: Anarchy ($29.8 million, 2014)
  • What Lies Beneath ($29.7 million, 2000)
  • Hairspray (2007) ($27.8 million, 2007)
  • Mamma Mia! ($27.8 million, 2008)
  • The Mask of Zorro ($22.5 million, 1998)
  • Monster House ($22.2 million, 2006)
  • Eyes Wide Shut ($21.7 million, 1999)
  • Pokémon the Movie 2000 ($19.6 million, 2000)
  • Lady in the Water ($18.0 million, 2006)
  • Planes: Fire and Rescue ($17.5 million, 2014)
  • The Client ($17.2 million, 1994)
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ($17.0 million, 2017)
  • George of the Jungle ($16.5 million, 1997)
  • Stuart Little 2 ($15.1 million, 2002)
  • There’s Something About Mary ($13.7 million, 1998)
  • Jaws 3-D ($13.4 million, 1983)
  • The Island ($12.4 million, 2005)
  • Honey, I Blew Up the Kid ($11.1 million, 1992)
  • Lake Placid ($11.0 million, 1999)
  • Clueless ($10.6 million, 1995)
  • Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey ($10.2 million, 1991)
  • Aliens ($10.1 million, 1986)
  • Clerks II ($10.1 million, 2006)
  • Johnny English ($9.1 million, 2003)
  • E.T. (1985 Re-Release) ($8.8 million, 1985)
  • Arachnophobia ($8.1 million, 1990)
  • Hocus Pocus ($8.1 million, 1993)
  • Hustle & Flow ($8.0 million, 2005)
  • Robocop ($8.0 million, 1987)
  • Free Willy ($7.9 million, 1993)
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1987 Re-Release) ($7.5 million, 1987)
  • Bambi (1988 Re-Release) ($7.2 million, 1988)
  • Jaws: The Revenge ($7.2 million, 1987)
  • Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home ($7.0 million, 1995)
  • The Frighteners ($5.6 million, 1996)
  • Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie ($5.3 million, 1980)
  • Muppets in Space ($4.8 million, 1998)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982 Re-Release) ($4.35 million, 1982)
  • The NeverEnding Story ($4.3 million, 1984)
  • Endless Love ($4.2 million, 1981)
  • Arthur ($2.7 million, 1981)
  • Revenge of the Nerds ($1.5 million, 1984)

Suggestions for films or milestones to cover in future weekends? Let us know!

You can check out previous versions of this column in our archives.

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