Some box office assembly required: The decade-long saga of how Marvel broke the box office record
Featured Stories - on May 11, 2012 by Shawn Robbins
If you're reading this, you're probably—and acutely—aware that Marvel's The Avengers obliterated box office records when it debuted to $207.4 million domestically in its first three days. You're also probably aware that the film has already tallied more than $800 million worldwide in just two weeks. But before we analyze The Avengers' inevitable place among box office legends, let's take a look back at exactly how Marvel and all of its partners carved themselves this history-making position.
Exactly ten years ago, Sony and Marvel broke box office records when Spider-Man became the first film to break through the $100 million opening weekend barrier, with $114.8 million, to be exact. The industry expected a hit, but like The Avengers and its $200 million threshold-smashing, very few saw a figure of that magnitude coming. (Last week, our own Phil Contrino was teased for being overly optimistic with his $170 million prediction.) For an added dose of irony: like The Avengers, that first Spider-Man flick also claimed the record by topping a Harry Potter film. Sorry, schoolboy.
Spider-Man's massive success, in conjunction with 2000's X-Men, laid the groundwork for Marvel to start adapting its other properties for the big screen. One of their first choices wasn't exactly a winner: acclaimed director Ang Lee's Hulk, which tanked at the box office and is widely regarded by fans as the one of the worst comic-to-film adaptations in history. The failure sent Marvel back to the drawing board as they watched other studios continue to adapt their beloved characters into feature films.
In 2005, Marvel Enterprises made its big move: it declared its independence as a studio and announced its plans to develop a series of films that would lead up to an eventual Avengers big-screen outing. It sounded like an impossible task, but three years later, Marvel's first self-produced film—Iron Man—kicked off the summer of 2008 with a $98.6 million opening weekend. Those who had insisted that a second-rank comic book character couldn't reap blockbuster success found their foots in their mouths. Not only did Iron Man open big, its strong reviews (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and word of mouth carried it to a $318 million domestic box office tally—a figure only Spider-Man's movies had before reached.
With the first phase of Marvel's Avengers plan off to a resounding start, the wheels began moving exponentially faster. That same summer, the "reimagining" (code for "it's a re-cast sequel that we hope makes you forget about the first movie") of The Incredible Hulk made a respectable $55.4 million debut. Marvel had reacquired the rights to the character after the failure of the 2003 film and, despite minor production issues, an inherent lack of continuity, and not starring Mark Ruffalo, the Edward Norton version is considered to be the second official chapter of the Avengers franchise. This Hulk, however, barely made back its $200 million budget.
With two established characters in the bag, Marvel went full throttle into filling the remaining pieces of the puzzle: films for Thor, Captain America, and naturally, a sequel to Iron Man.
The sequel struck first as in May 2010, Marvel again kicked off the summer. Iron Man 2 debuted to $128 million-the third highest opening weekend in history (at the time) for a superhero movie, even though fan response was lukewarm and critics agreed: the Rotten Tomatoes score dropped almost 20% from its predecessor. The biggest complaint about Iron Man 2, interestingly enough, was that Avengers-related storylines were wedged into the film against its better creative interests, creating concern among fans that Marvel's plan might flop.
One year later, Thor was the first true test of a generally unknown character plunging into movie theaters. At the very least, Iron Man had a well-known lead actor. But Thor relied upon the comic book fans. After debuting to $65.7 million on opening weekend, the size of the hardcore Marvel fan base became apparent. The first Marvel film with 3D illusion, it raked in a $446 million global take to barely reach the black on its $215 million budget—more than either of the previous Hulk films could claim.
Then came the riskiest film with Captain America: The First Avenger. Marvel (and the rest of the intelligent world) knew that the character of Steve Rogers would be the hardest yet to sell to a mainstream audience. Not only had the sense of old school patriotism declined in the United States itself, but the perception of America has struggled abroad-a huge factor in the studio's decision to emphasize "The First Avenger" in its international marketing). Domestically, the Cap drew in almost the exact same business as Thor, with a somewhat poorer performance in overseas markets. The film ultimately banked $368 million worldwide, but despite not quite breaking even at the box office it still generated mostly positive word of mouth. Combined with the modest success of Thor, fan faith in Marvel's plan remained steadily cautious.
With all of the pieces in place, the first clips from The Avengers debuted after the credits of Captain America. Anticipation built and in March 2012, the final theatrical trailer notched a record 13.7 million downloads from iTunes. Which brings us to now, seven years of work and five films later. The Avengers' $207.4 million opening bested the #1 slot held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II by over $38 million, and the film has yet to show any signs of slowing down. The next record it wants to break: the second weekend benchmark currently held by Avatar's $75.6 million. The Avengers is a shoe-in to surpass $500 million domestically and might even make a run for $600 million or more. Worldwide, the film should top 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon and its $1.12 billion tally—good enough for at least the fourth highest grosser of all-time—and could make a run for the final Harry Potter film's $1.3 billion total.
Marvel would be wise to offer Mr. Whedon whatever he desires in order to direct a sequel. But it's also crucially important for the studio to remember what made The Avengers so successful: characters with humanity, faithfulness to the source material's spirit, and top-notch production values. Marvel also has to figure out how to apply those achievements to its ever-expanding film universe that will no doubt manage to increase in scale-and sequels-as time goes on. To quote the Spider-Man that started it all, "With great power comes great responsibility." Use it wisely, guys.