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In the summer of 2012, Milton Bradley went head-to-head with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and lost.
Armed with a colossal budget of $209 million, Universal Pictures and director Peter Berg (Hancock) set out to bring the iconic board game Battleship (streaming now on Peacock) to the big screen. The resultant film adaptation was packed to the teeth with high-end CGI effects, sky-high stakes, and a solid cast comprised of Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgård, and even Rihanna. Yes, that Rihanna. Everything about this Top Gun-meets-Transformers endeavor, which centers around the U.S. Navy attempting to repel an alien invasion, seemed pretty seaworthy at the time. However, an iceberg was already lying in wait, ready to send Battleship to the icy box office depths when it opened in domestic theaters on May 18 of that year.
That iceberg, of course, was Marvel Studios' first Avengers movie, the epic culmination of Phase One written and directed by Joss Whedon. Released two weeks prior to Battleship, the comic book crossover film absolutely dominated the cultural conversation, upending Hollywood's notion of the summer blockbuster and netting over $1 billion in global ticket sales. Nothing — not even Liam Neeson and one of the biggest pop stars on the planet — could stand in its way...at least in terms of the North American box office.
You see, by the time The Avengers arrived on the domestic battleground, Battleship had already been playing in a number of international markets, and it was doing pretty well. The high seas were calm, the sun shined bright, and after 10 days abroad, the nautical tentpole had already sailed toward $129.6 million. The real trouble began when it had to defend American shores from the likes of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
"The movie kicked butt internationally, but we kind of ran into a wall when Avengers refused to go away," Berg told MTV News at the time. "The Avengers outperformed everything. It was impossible for Battleship to get any oxygen. I would have loved to have come out three weeks before The Avengers domestically, like we did internationally. We did OK, but in hindsight — which my grandmother used to say is worth about a bucket of spit — we would have [released the movie] ahead of The Avengers, not realizing it would have become, I think, the second biggest film in history behind Avatar."
When Battleship ultimately returned to port, it did so with a meager $65 million in North American returns. International sales were much better with a little over $237 million, bumping up the project's global gross to $303 million. Less-than-stellar reviews from critics and audiences didn't do much to help the Stateside situation and the cinematic curse that plagues all game adaptations (be they of the board or video game variety) persisted. No sequel was produced and the hopes for a potential franchise sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Berg would steer clear of the large-scale blockbuster space in the years that followed, instead focusing on cheaper, character-driven dramas such as Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day — all of which were fronted by Mark Wahlberg. “I couldn’t say no to that challenge,” the filmmaker said of his Battleship experience during a 2013 interview with The New York Times Magazine. "I felt I had a new understanding of what went into making a blockbuster. I got a taste of a film’s global power. But I discounted the effect of Will Smith on Hancock’s success. I thought I could pull off Battleship without a big star.”
The director's overall takeaway was this: "I don’t want to tackle that kind of economic project for quite a while." And he's stuck to that statement for the last decade. As fate would have it, Mr. Berg will reunite with Rihanna, not for another crack at Battleship, but for a documentary about the artist's career.
"I think she's an extraordinary young woman and it really is kind of a pretty comprehensive profile of what goes in to making her this talent that she is," he teased to /FILM in 2018. "The work ethic, the talent, luck, the hustle, the vision. She's a really, really interesting woman... ."
Battleship is now streaming on Peacock.