‘The Avengers’: Hollywood Wasted 10 Years Chasing Marvel’s Box Office Success

Opening overseas ten years ago, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was quite possibly the final nail in the coffing which Hollywood had been building for itself since Jaws. Star Wars sent Hollywood on a mad dash to make A-level versions of B movies, while Batman convinced Hollywood that any untapped property could be made into a blockbuster franchise. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings both positioned mega-bucks four-quadrant action fantasy IP as the only ideal game in town (while convincing the industry that every property should be a trilogy). Michael Bay’s Transformers showed the value of essentially making big-budget kids flicks aimed at nostalgic adults. But the blowout success of The Avengers may have cost theatrical the game, both due the sheer number of “wrong lessons” learned and the sheer time/money spent (as streaming was quickly gaining relevance) on attemtping to approximate its singular success.

Here’s what Hollywood took from the once-unthinkable superhero team up ensemble opening with $207 million and legging out to $623 million domestic and $1.519 billion worldwide in the summer of 2012: Audiences wanted superhero cinematic universes, and that global success of The Avengers was such that it could only be replicated by a cinematic universe event actioner. As such, Hollywood prioritized their own superhero universes. Think Warner Bros. doubling-down on a DC Comics universe, Fox rebooting Fantastic Four, Sony (still) trying to turn the Spider-Man rogues gallery into a cinematic universe, Universal trying to pretzel the classic horror monsters like Dracula, the Mummy and the Invisible Man, or every studio trying to turn their non-superhero properties into the next Batman Begins (Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Legend of Tarzan, Robin Hood, etc.) or the next The Avengers (King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword).

Sony reacted to The Dark Knight by pretzeling The Amazing Spider-Man into their own Batman Begins and then reacted to The Avengers by marketing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 into a backdoor pilot for a Sinister Six smackdown flick. Hollywood reacted to the success of the MCU by offering up weak sauce “It’s like a superhero movie!” wannabees, which went over about as well as when Democrats run in the midterms as Republican-lite. Why vote for a mediocre, insincere imitation when you can just get the real thing? Moreover, with comic book superhero movies using genre appropriation (“The Dark Knight is a crime drama,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller” and Deadpool is a romantic comedy!”) to diversify themselves, moviegoers were then faced with choosng between a handful of Marvel/DC movies that were “superhero movies-plus” or “generic superhero flicks that weren’t even the genuine article.”

Marvel and DC films gained an even larger foothold in the blockbuster theatrical marketplace while the poor imitations were laughed out of court. The one unquestionably successful post-Avengers cinematic universe was James Wan and Walter Hamada’s The Conjuring Universe. Grossing over $2 billion over seven (or eight if you count The Curse of La Larona) films, the New Line series consisted of mostly stand-alone, period-piece, R-rated (but safe for your religious grandmother) supernatural horror movies that were the least likely “reaction” to the MCU you could imagine. Just as Twilight succeeded alongside Harry Potter by being nothing like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games succeeded by being nothing like Twilight. Oh, and just as Marvel waited for folks to embrace Iron Man before announcing the MCU, The Conjuring earned strong reviews and $320 million worldwide before anyone started talking sequels or spin-offs.

It’s been seven years, early 2015, since Fox’s adaption of Mark Millar’s Kingsman: The Secret Service grossed $411 million worldwide on an $80 million budget. That film was more 007-homage than superhero movie, but it’s also the last time a comic book not from within Marvel or DC spawned a successful theatrical franchise. Audiences didn’t want superheroes in the abstract, they liked and wanted movies centered on DC/Marvel characters. The Secret Life of Pets 2 tried to turn Buster into a caped hero to diminishing returns. Jupiter’s Legacy (also based on a Mark Millar property) was a $200 million bomb for Netflix. Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot did not spawn a Variant cinematic universe. And yet still Hollywood tries to make their non-superhero movies more appealing by discussing them in super heroic terms. See just recently, the trailers for Firestarter and Elvis. Speaking of Vin Diesel…

As much as Hollywood discussed (and still does discuss) The Avengers in peak box office terms, here’s what happened three years later: Avengers: Age of Ultron earned “just” $459 million domestic and “just” $1.405 billion worldwide, leading to online declarations of “superhero fatigue” (and the birth of my own long-running joke about the absurdity of that notion). Moreover, Furious 7 opened a month earlier and grossed $353 million domestic and $1.515 billion worldwide (including $392 million in China). And a month after Age of Ultron, Jurassic World broke The Avengers’ opening weekend record with a $208 million debut, earning $652 million domestic (longer legs than The Avengers) and $1.671 billion worldwide on a $150 million budget. Both Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($1.308 billion) and Fate of the Furious ($1.236 billion) would earn more than any non-Avengers flick save for Black Panther ($1.346 billion).

Marvel/DC movies weren’t dominant before The Avengers (Iron Man 2 had grossed $623 million, below even The Twilight Saga: Eclipse in summer 2010) and weren’t after The Avengers. In 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction topped $1 billion while The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies earned $955 million. Marvel movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million in 2014) and DC flicks like Man of Steel ($668 million in 2013) were in the thick of it, but even Ant-Man would earn a lot less than Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation while Fantastic Four would bomb in the summer of 2015. The comic book superhero movies of 2011 (Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Cowboys and Aliens, etc.) would pale in comparison to the year’s comic book champion: The Smurfs with $563 million. Thor earned less than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Hollywood (or the investor and pundit class) lost sight of the notion that there was more than one way to build a blockbuster. We/they ignored the sky-high successes of the Fast and the Furious and Jurassic franchises and pretended that the only thing that mattered was cinematic universes and/or a superhero continuity. Alas, audiences didn’t want superhero franchises based on characters they had never heard of. They didn’t want existing IP pretzeled into cinematic universes. They just really liked Iron Man, Thor and Captain America and really loved The Avengers. They loved the witty Joss Whedon character interaction (especially the bromance between Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner) and they loved the idea of these established cinematic superheroes teaming up to save the world from aliens in a battle royale that played like a wish-fulfillment reimagining of the 9/11 attacks.

This wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood would learn the wrong lesson from a singular success. Avatar didn’t mean that everything should be in 3-D. Batman didn’t mean audiences hungered for 1930’s pulp actioners and Inception didn’t mean audiences wanted a remake to Total Recall. But the cost of The Avengers would be multiplied. Reacting to Avatar by making John Carter is a problem. Reacting to The Avengers by prioritizing half-a-dozen films within a single theoretical franchise is a very different one. By the time the industry realized that the better path was creating franchises that were specifically appealing for their own distinct reasons, a massive sea change had taken hold due to competition from prestige television (which provided the kind of “just a movie” offerings audiences claimed Hollywood was ignoring) and streaming platforms (by convincing audiences that any non-event movie could be watched at home).

Starting in late 2015/early 2016, the bottom fell out on the studio programmer, with general moviegoers choosing to see (to a much larger degree) the very biggest “can’t approximate this at home” event movies (Star Wars, The Fast Saga, the MCU and the Disney mega-flicks) in theaters but holding everything else until streaming (or outright ignoring them for the latest media-manufactured Netflix binge obsession). Gone was the idea that Fox could win 2014 market share with movies like The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl along with How to Train Your Dragon 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Gone was the idea that Lucy, an original, R-rated sci-fi flick starring Scarlett Johansson could earn $455 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. Gone was the idea that audiences would show up for original, reasonably budgeted comedies starring Will Farrell, Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Hart.

It’s not The Avengers’s fault that audiences started prioritizing marquee characters (Wade Wilson, Michael Myers, Elton John, etc.) over actors or even IP. It’s not Kevin Feige’s fault that audiences will seemingly only take a chance on a new-to-you IP franchise when it’s encased within the existing DC or Marvel continuities. But I do blame Hollywood for thinking that The Avengers and its specific success could be simply copied and pasted onto other IP. Spending years (Zack Sndyer’s wobbly-at-the-start DC Films), and years (Sony’s Spider-Man villains’ universe) and years (the Transfrmers universe “writers’ room”) and years (the Dark Universe) prioritizing multi-pronged franchises deprived Hollywood of their last chance at fighting back against streaming as a pop culture focal point. They came to their senses right before Covid. The Avengers was a singular hit that couldn’t be easily replicated, and Hollywood may have dug its own grave proving that.

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