Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War enjoyed an outstanding opening weekend at the domestic box office, to the tune of $179.1 million. That incredible total is the fifth highest domestic opening weekend in history, trailing only Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($248m), Jurassic World ($208.8m), Marvel’s The Avengers ($207.4m), and Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ($191.3m). This means Marvel Studios now lays claim to three of the five best opening weekends ever (giving Disney four of the top five including Star Wars) and four of the top six when factoring in Iron Man 3 ($174,1m).
Worldwide, the newest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has accumulated $673.1m in the week and a half since its international rollout began. The “A” CinemaScore from audiences and 90% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes suggest the film will have strong legs, which will carry it to a total well north of $1 billion worldwide. There is no doubt that Captain America: Civil War is an unmitigated success for Marvel Studios, a company that now holds the top four domestic opening weekends for superhero films and will soon hold the top four worldwide box office totals in the genre.
Captain America: Civil War‘s opening weekend actually exceeded Disney’s projection of $175 million. It did not, however, reach the $190m-$200m range that many industry insiders and box office pundits believed it could. In no way does this make the film’s opening weekend a disappointment or underperformance, as anyone trying to make such claims better have a reach that rivals Reed Richards, but it’s fair to wonder why Captain America: Civil War was not even more successful in its first three days in North America.
The trailers and TV spots do an excellent job of framing Civil War as both “Captain America 3” and “Avengers 2.5,” so it’s reasonable to evaluate the film’s performance from each perspective. As the Captain America series goes, Civil War shows a tremendous amount of growth. Civil War‘s opening weekend brought in more than the entire domestic run of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 and almost double the opening weekend of the franchise’s second film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in 2014.
For films prominently featuring The Avengers (or most of them), Captain America: Civil War ranks third out of three. That may not sound impressive and it’s easy to call it a case of diminishing returns, but we’re talking about truly rarefied box office air, so there are a number of factors at play and none of them really spell trouble, much less any false diagnosis of superhero fatigue. What follows is not a defense of Civil War‘s domestic opening weekend, since the financial performance proves that it doesn’t need defending. This is simply a look at why the film, as successful as it was this weekend and will continue to be, did not reach some of the more ambitious projections.
It’s worth quickly noting that Civil War does not have the word “Avengers” in the title, which could have left some mainstream moviegoers thinking that perhaps the film would not feature Cap’s teammates as much as the trailers advertised. This probably was not a major factor, but every little bit counts when trying to topple box office records.
It is also possible that some audience members were hesitant to check out Captain America: Civil War after perhaps not loving last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron quite as much The Avengers in 2012. While audiences gave it an “A” CinemaScore, the same rating they gave Civil War this weekend, the critical reception for Age of Ultron, while mostly positive, was not nearly as strong. I may not have agreed with the sentiment, but there were some rumblings last year about Marvel’s 2015 offerings not being different enough from the studio’s previous entries. Captain America: Civil War is an appropriate response to all of that, but that doesn’t mean everyone will immediately trust that Marvel is charting new territory until they hear it via word-of-mouth from people they know. Most moviegoers obviously have no trust issues with Marvel Studios, but those who do will probably get the feedback they’re hoping to hear very soon and will respond accordingly.
Captain America: Civil War also faced a challenge that The Avengers and Age of Ultron never had to deal with: Mother’s Day. While Marvel films have shown the ability to appeal to very broad audiences of all ages and genders, a big superhero fight isn’t necessarily at the top of every family’s wish list of activities to celebrate their matriarch’s special day. In the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor (2011) were released on Mother’s Day weekend. If the holiday weekend played any factor in Captain America: Civil War‘s opening weekend, expect to see a strong hold during the second weekend thanks to moviegoers making up for missing the movie during its first three days.
There’s also the obvious point that audiences, as much as they love Captain America: Civil War, may not love it quite as much as The Avengers. To date, The Avengers is the only superhero film to secure the rare “A+” CinemaScore while remaining the only film in the genre to score $200m on its domestic opening weekend. To quote Paul Bettany’s Vision, “There may be a causality.” While Civil War has plenty of stellar action sequences worth seeing again and again (especially the one at the airport), it still is not quite the immediately re-watchable romp that The Avengers, a cinematic amusement park ride, was in 2012.
While offering many firsts (Black Panther, MCU Spider-Man, an all-out Avengers-on-Avengers brawl), Captain America: Civil War is not as much of an overall first of its kind like The Avengers was. The Avengers was the first ever unification of four or more franchises into one film and the kind of milestone Marvel can never repeat. The franchise combinations can get bigger, the action more spectacular, and the stories even better, but there is a certain magic to the The Avengers that will remain exclusive to that film. Beyond Marvel, Captain America: Civil War is not the first major superhero showdown this year.
Marvel has done an extraordinary job of branding its films to stand apart from comic book movies made by other studios, but many moviegoers still can’t tell you why Wonder Woman is not an Avenger or why Iron Man will never join the Justice League. All the differences and rivalry between DC and Marvel is lost on a mainstream audience that largely sees all superhero movies as pieces of the same whole. That is why the phrase “superhero fatigue” is heard much more commonly than “Marvel fatigue” or “DC fatigue.”
It has always been better for the genre when a new superhero film is embraced. The Dark Knight and Iron Man each found tremendous success in 2008 and made it a banner year for the genre. It has pretty much always been bad for the genre when a superhero film is rejected, as it leaves an opening for broad assertions that “superhero fatigue” is finally setting in.
It really was not good for anyone that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received negative reviews from most critics while drawing a mediocre “B” CinemaScore from audiences. As soon as BvS‘ box office legs started shaking, I wondered if its reception had gone past the point of clearing the competitive path for Civil War and into a space where it turned audiences off to the idea of big confrontations between superheroes. There’s no way to know if Batman v Superman‘s reception had any negative impact on Civil War‘s opening weekend, but historically, one superhero film being a disappointment rarely helps the superhero film that follows.
Any one or any combination of these factors could have been in play this past weekend. It could be none of those things and a set of other unrelated factors. It’s not like box office performance always matches up with a film’s quality and we’re not talking massive box office differences between the Avengers series and Captain America: Civil War anyway. Sometimes franchises just ebb and flow without any one significant cause. Spider-Man 2, widely considered the best of Sam Raimi’s Spidey trilogy, actually has the lowest worldwide total and it’s hard to imagine audiences having already grown tired of the franchise on just its second film. The eight Harry Potter films rose, fell, rose, fell, and rose again, so diminishing returns were not constant. When the numbers get this high, sometimes things just happen and it’s impossible to pin down a precise explanation.
The bottom line is that Marvel has another massive success on its hands with Captain America: Civil War, no matter how anyone tries to slice it. All I’ve done for the last several paragraphs is explore my own curiosity and it’s a credit to your patience that you have followed along this far. The movie’s opening weekend shows that interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still incredibly high. Better still, the response from critics and moviegoers who’ve seen Captain America: Civil War shows that interest in the MCU has been renewed all over again and is likely to endure for years to come.