It was a foregone conclusion. Coming into 2015, Marvel Studios was the runaway favorite to have the highest grossing superhero film of the year. Not only did the studio have two out of the genre’s three entrants this year, but one of its films, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, was the sequel to the genre’s all-time highest earner. Fox’s FANTASTIC FOUR never stood much of a chance and we now know, with even greater certainty than we had imagined, that there will not be an upset.
The lack of strong competition takes some of the air out of the studio’s achievement in reasserting its brand dominance in 2015, but the streak Marvel has run up remains impressive. This is the sixth consecutive year in which Marvel Studios has produced the highest grossing superhero film. The last time Marvel Studios did not win this annual crown was 2009, which was the last and only time the company went an entire calendar year without releasing a single film. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE ($373.1 million) beat the R-rated WATCHMEN ($185.3 million) for the title.
The only year in which Marvel Studios released at least one film and did not have the genre’s top earner was 2008 when THE DARK KNIGHT became the first superhero movie to break the billion-dollar barrier. This was Marvel’s first year of releasing its own movies, so the chances of topping the first cinematic showdown between Batman (Christian Bale) and The Joker (Heath Ledger) in 19 years were always remote, but the $585.2 million IRON MAN pulled in made for a strong debut and a more than acceptable silver medal. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would be back and kickstart Marvel’s winning streak with his next film.
Marvel’s streak began in 2010 just as easily as it continued in 2015. IRON MAN 2 improved upon its predecessor’s financial performance with $623.9 million worldwide. The competition that year consisted of KICK-ASS ($96.2 million) and JONAH HEX ($10.9 million), so IRON MAN 2 was understandably a heavy favorite. The movie did what it was supposed to do, but it’s worth noting that the reason fans and box office pundits had any expectations at all was due to Marvel’s success with the first film two years prior.
Box office predictions were much more difficult in 2011. No one expected a win from THE GREEN HORNET ($227.8 million), but there were four films based on Marvel or DC characters that all stood a relatively equal chance of winning the year and none of them were sure things. Three of the four were new franchises, GREEN LANTERN from Warner Bros./DC Entertainment along with THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER from Marvel Studios. The fourth was X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which could have been a heavy favorite given the franchise’s previous success, but it featured an all-new cast playing younger versions of established characters and had no advertised Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) presence.
Marvel Studios prevailed by delivering the top two earners out of the group. THOR, appropriately, was king with $449.3 million while CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER earned a respectable $370.6 million (our expectations for new franchises were much more reasonable just four years ago). X-MEN: FIRST CLASS performed well enough for a bronze with $353.6 million while GREEN LANTERN’s emerald light dimmed at $219.9 million.
The first major upset in Marvel’s championship reign came in 2012. It was entirely possible that THE AVENGERS, the studio’s only film, could have been the third highest grossing superhero movie of that year. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, despite being a reboot, was still part of a franchise that averaged $832.1 million per film from 2002 to 2007. Its actual performance of $757.9 million was still well over Marvel’s best pre-2012 returns.
By most accounts, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was supposed to be the dominant film of 2012. Marvel’s THE AVENGERS offered the first ever superhero team-up, but the highest grossing film of any of its individual members was still IRON MAN 2 at $623.9 million. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was the sequel to THE DARK KNIGHT, which at the time was still the only superhero film to have made a billion dollars at the box office. Billed as the conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was a virtual lock to surpass the billion-dollar mark and it did with $1.08 billion.
By the time RISES hit theaters, however, THE AVENGERS had already surpassed every expectation and even most of the wildest imaginations by becoming a pop culture and box office phenomenon. Audiences, many of whom had likely not seen a single Marvel Studios movie prior to May 2012, flocked to see THE AVENGERS over and over again. The film’s $207.4 million domestic opening weekend was a record at the time (held until June of this year) and helped propel it to a worldwide total of $1.52 billion, a record for the superhero movie genre that still stands. While it was actually the third box office victory in a row for Marvel, 2012 was the turning point at which the studio became the clear brand leader in superhero cinema.
From the driver’s seat, Marvel held off its competition in 2013. IRON MAN 3 kept the momentum rolling with $1.22 billion, which was more than good enough to fend off Superman’s return to theaters, MAN OF STEEL ($668.1 million). THOR: THE DARK WORLD also gave Marvel the year’s third place finisher with $644.8 million, over THE WOLVERINE’s $414.8 million. That we did not consider it an upset for an Iron Man movie to financially outperform a Superman film in the same year is a testament to Marvel Studios’ ability to elevate its characters in the minds of global audiences.
Another upset was needed for Marvel to maintain its grip on the superhero box office in 2014. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST brought back the franchise’s original cast along with the newcomers from FIRST CLASS in 2011. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 looked like a possible return to form after THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN tried a little too hard to be BATMAN BEGINS and the sequel was expected to improve upon its predecessor’s $757.9 million. There was even some talk, most of which was probably on the Sony lot in Culver City, that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 could be the franchise’s first billion-dollar movie.
Marvel Studios had two offerings last year. The first was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. While the first Cap film performed well enough to get a sequel, it was the second lowest grossing movie of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. IRON MAN 3 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD both enjoyed a box office bump from THE AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER would surely get one, but it was not assumed such a bump would be enough for Cap to overtake genre heavyweights like Spidey and Charles Xavier’s gifted youngsters.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER ($714.8 million) was able to beat THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2’s disappointing (relative to the franchise and the film’s production and marketing costs) $709 million. The Cap sequel could not defeat X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, however, as that film rode positive word-of-mouth from critics and audiences to a franchise best $748.1 million. With only one film based on an obscure property left to go, Marvel’s streak was thought to be in peril.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was commonly (but incorrectly) labeled as Marvel’s biggest risk to date. It was based on a comic book many passionate Marvel Comics readers did not know much about and the particular team lineup used for the film did not come together as the Guardians of the Galaxy until 2008. It seemed like Marvel was playing with house money after THE AVENGERS, which was something the studio should have been doing, but that did not guarantee box office success. With none of the Avengers audiences already loved in the film, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY would have been viewed as a major success even if it finished well below the three 2014 superhero films already mentioned.
Marvel caught lightning in a bottle all over again, as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was great. Director James Gunn and his cast and crew told a story to which audiences connected so profoundly that they went back to enjoy the experience a second (third, and fourth) time. GOTG exceeded all expectations with $774.2 million worldwide, giving Marvel Studios a brand new franchise and another annual box office title. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became Marvel Studios’ biggest debut film for an individual property and only SPIDER-MAN ($821.7 million) earned more as the first film in a superhero franchise in 2002.
With $1.4 billion (and counting), AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON has allowed Marvel to cruise to victory in 2015. Marvel also has the second biggest superhero movie of the year with ANT-MAN taking in $361 million (and counting, as openings in Japan and China still loom). FANTASTIC FOUR has struggled to $129.7 million (and counting, slowly) as the only superhero film of the year not made by Marvel Studios. Marvel will carry its six-year winning streak into a much more competitive landscape next year, calling into question just how much longer its reign will continue without interruption.
It will not be an upset if Marvel holds on to its streak next year, but the competition in 2016 is like nothing the genre has ever seen. There are seven films based on Marvel or DC characters scheduled for release next year, more than ever before. With all due respect to Fox’s mutant Marvel universe, DEADPOOL, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (sans Wolverine), and GAMBIT are likely not going to challenge the two biggest competitors in this battle. This comes down to the powerhouse that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the emerging DC Extended Universe.
The 2016 box office, as far as superheroes are concerned, is about BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. That’s no slight to DC’s SUICIDE SQUAD or Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE. They are both likely to be hits with SUICIDE SQUAD offering The Joker (and a little Batman) and DOCTOR STRANGE having the potential to be so different from anything audiences have seen in this increasingly crowded genre.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE offers a lot of firsts, much like THE AVENGERS did in 2012. It is the first time Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) have ever appeared in a movie together. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is making her feature film debut. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) will be doing the same, though his presence is not likely to be quite as large. There is an event-like feel to BATMAN V SUPERMAN. There is also a major curiosity factor that should fuel its financial success regardless of how good it is.
As long as BATMAN V SUPERMAN is not bad on a FANTASTIC FOUR level, which it certainly will not be, then just about anyone who’s ever had any interest in superhero films is likely to see it at least once to make up his or her own mind about it. A billion dollars is not an absolute, no doubt about it lock, but it’s a very good bet as a starting point for BvS box office predictions. If the film is great, then it could enter the level of insane box office unpredictability that has resulted in crazy totals for THE AVENGERS and JURASSIC WORLD ($1.62 billion and counting).
Marvel does not have as strong of a “first” feel with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Most of its main characters have appeared on film (and together) before. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) will make his debut and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) will appear in the MCU and with other superheroes for the first time in the character’s cinematic history. Those are big deals and not to be discounted. They just aren’t quite as buzz-worthy as the “firsts” in BvS.
What CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR has going in its favor is the pre-existing trust and emotional investment of the audience. Both CIVIL WAR and BvS are about conflict between heroes, but the former offers a conflict between specific iterations of popular heroes with relationships that audiences already know and care about. This increases the emotional stakes. Marvel Studios has also earned the trust of its audience by consistently delivering quality films that moviegoers have enjoyed.
It’s a dead heat between BATMAN V SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, which increases the likelihood of the box office crown being decided just as it should, by which film is better. Both films offer their own intangible qualities that the other cannot match. Both feature characters, Batman and Iron Man, that have been able to produce billion-dollar films on their own. Audiences will probably like both films very much. It’ll be the one they like more that wins, even if it’s just by a little bit.
Whether or not Marvel prevails in 2016, it’ll have to be ready for an equally large challenge in 2017. DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE: PART ONE will be the first full DC superhero team-up even if it’s the second time Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman will have been in the same movie. Marvel will have GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, a Spider-Man reboot (yes, Sony is the distributor, but Marvel Studios is producing it), and THOR: RAGNAROK. If GUARDIANS makes a big leap from its first film, then it could be a contender, as could the Spider-Man reboot if his turn in CIVIL WAR goes well, but neither can be considered a favorite against JUSTICE LEAGUE unless BATMAN V SUPERMAN disappoints audiences in a major way.
Marvel has a good chance of pushing its streak to seven years in 2016, but making it to eight in 2017 is going to be a huge challenge. Even if the streak is snapped next year or the year after, Marvel should be back to its winning ways with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR PART I in 2018 in advance of another monumental showdown between AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR PART II and JUSTICE LEAGUE: PART TWO in 2019.
All of this is the business side of superhero films that may interest only me and a few others. Obviously, most fans are only going to care about which films they think are better and the most partisan among them are going to enjoy the films of their preferred brand more than the other. Those who prefer the taste of Pepsi couldn’t care less that Coca-Cola sells more sodas, and rightfully so. Ultimately, both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros./DC Entertainment are going to make boat loads of money off of superheroes and be successful regardless of which company’s fans get to stick more box office features in their caps.
Marvel Studios has earned its success and deserves credit for its impressive streak. It is great that the competition is going to get tougher with the DC Extended Universe and, okay, Fox’s mutant Marvel universe. The more legitimate contenders there are in the field, the better each of them will have to be in order to compete, which will result in the best possible product for fans.