The third act twist in James Wan’s Malignant had people talking, but the movie is still a box office failure and there are a number of reasons for that. Before Malignant‘s release, Wan had taken a sabbatical from horror, much to the dismay of horror-loving audiences. Wan’s horror movies are what first made him a player in Hollywood, with Saw and The Conjuring both spawning immensely profitable franchises. However, after 2016’s The Conjuring 2, Wan turned his focus to directing DC’s Aquaman and prepping for its sequel.

It says a lot about Wan’s love for horror that he chose to slot a lower-budget horror movie in the middle of two superhero tentpoles, but unlike Wan’s prior hits, Malignant has drawn a highly divisive response. Whether one enjoys Malignant or not seems to depend on what they think of its now infamous twist, which reveals that the villain Gabriel is actually protagonist Madison’s parasitic twin and has been secretly commandeering their shared body to kill.


That reveal leads into a final act full of fast-paced gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, which basically boils down to Gabriel absolutely destroying anyone who dares get in his way. No one really expected Wan’s return to horror to turn into an action movie, but the switch certainly worked for some. Unfortunately, Malignant‘s many passionate defenders just haven’t translated into box-office dollars, and it’s currently far and away Wan’s lowest-grossing movie, and seems highly unlikely to start a new James Wan horror franchise. Here are some likely reasons why Malignant flopped so hard.

Malignant’s HBO Max Release

As with every other theatrical movie release from Warner Bros. in 2021, James Wan’s Malignant was also released simultaneously on HBO Max at no additional cost. Logically, one assumes many HBO Max subscribers opted to stream Malignant at home instead of heading to the theater, whether due to coronavirus concerns or simple cost savings. That’s certainly understandable, but likely hurt Malignant‘s box office totals, especially since HBO Max subscribers didn’t have to pay extra to stream the movie.

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At the same time, since HBO Max hasn’t released any viewing data on Malignant, it’s impossible to calculate how much potential earnings might’ve been lost due to the streaming option. It’s well-known that many directors weren’t pleased when Warner Bros. opted to move its entire 2021 movie slate to a day-and-date release model, most notably Dune helmer Denis Villeneuve, partly due to fears of it affecting box office performance. For his part, Wan hasn’t expressed any displeasure about Malignant‘s HBO Max release, but one wonders if Malignant failing to even make its $40 million budget back in theaters might cause him to change his mind. On the other hand, several other 2021 movies have still done well in theaters despite a simultaneous streaming release.

Competition From Shang-Chi

Another likely factor in Malignant‘s dour box office performance is that it was released only one week after the launch of Disney and Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest entry into Phase 4 of the MCU saga. While Shang-Chi and Malignant may not seem like movies that would have too much audience crossover, MCU releases tend to draw in viewers of just about every possible demographic. MCU movies are events for many, making Shang-Chi potential competition to literally every other movie playing in theaters at the time it released.

Shang-Chi has been one of the best theatrical performers of the pandemic era, and at nearly $400 million earned worldwide, has still hauled in a respectable enough number for a non-pandemic release. Even more impressively, Shang-Chi showed legs at the box office, holding onto the #1 spot on the domestic chart for the entire month of September. It’s hard to imagine Shang-Chi not serving as an impediment to Malignant gaining theatrical momentum, especially when combined with the fact that Shang-Chi played exclusively in theaters, so those interested in both were given an easy choice to make when deciding what to go see.

Malignant’s Weak Marketing

Not helping Malignant‘s box-office chances was also Warner Bros.’ noticeably weak marketing efforts. While horror die-hards were likely aware it was coming due to advertising on horror-specific outlets, the general moviegoer may well not have gotten much exposure to Malignant prior to release. While it’s a bit surprising on one level that Warner Bros. didn’t push a new entry on James Wan’s stacked movie resume harder given his successful track record, Malignant itself made marketing a difficult prospect.

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Thanks to Malignant‘s aforementioned shocking twist and wild third act, Warner Bros. seemed to go out of its way to advertise it in a vague manner, presumably to avoid potentially giving away the movie’s secrets. That’s commendable, and was probably a strategy endorsed by Wan, but the twist can’t work if audiences aren’t drawn in enough by the trailers and marketing to buy a ticket to see Malignant in the first place. Warner Bros. was likely hoping for word-of-mouth to be the real marketing for the movie. However, the conversation around the movie remained mostly within the horror and film criticism community, not the wider audience. The trailers made Malignant look like a fairly generic horror picture, and the conceit they played up involving a woman receiving psychic visions of a killer’s crimes has been done before in films like John Carpenter’s The Eyes of Laura Mars and In Dreams, which starred a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.

Malignant’s Mixed Reviews

Malignant‘s reviews from professional critics leaned positive by a good margin, as attested to by its 76% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Malignant definitely seems to be a case where critical and viewer opinions are far from in sync. Malignant‘s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is a much lower 52%, and considering how divided the reaction of even horror movie diehards has been to Malignant, that kind of dropoff isn’t surprising to see.

As mentioned above, Malignant‘s shocking Gabriel twist seems to be the main sticking point for most that didn’t enjoy it, although there have been a few odd cases where people didn’t like the movie up until things went bananas near the end. Of course, that’s why writing in a twist that changes how the rest of the movie is perceived can be so dangerous, with the most well-known examples being those written by M. Night Shyamalan. Many viewers found The Village to be a well-acted, well-shot, and well-written period horror movie, until it was revealed that the monsters weren’t real and it was really present day. While Malignant‘s twist hasn’t earned nearly a negative reaction as that one, it’s still a plot development that one tends to either love or hate, with no real middle ground.

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