Marvel Studios makes a ton of money. Thus far the only question concerning Marvel box office is “Did it make a lot of many, or an obscene amount of money?” So watching box office returns of MCU films seems a bit silly. On the other hand, how the box office is trending can reveal a lot. Is Marvel growing in popularity, or are things starting to regress? Such concerns may seem pedantic, but long time comic fans will remember days when superhero movies struggled to get a green light. Returning to those days will send a shiver up many a fan’s spine. Continued (and growing) box office success ensures more films and the expansion into new properties. In that spirit, here are a few observations about the state of the superhero box office in September 2016:
I’ll Cut Your Legs Off!
One major concern with box office receipts is whether or not a movie has “legs.” In other words, does a movie continue to make money for weeks or months after release, or is the gross front loaded into the opening weekend? The reality for MCU films is that the “multiplier” (total gross divided by opening weekend) is trending smaller. Here are the numbers as calculated by me, based on Box Office Mojo‘s raw data for domestic gross.
3.53-Guardians of the Galaxy 3.23-Iron Man 3.15-Ant-Man 3.01-Avengers 2.75-Thor 2.73-Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2.72-Captain America: The First Avenger 2.44-Iron Man 2 2.43-Incredible Hulk 2.41-Thor: The Dark World 2.40-Avengers: Age of Ultron 2.35-Iron Man 3 2.28-Captain America: Civil War (Still in theaters, but unlikely to rise above Iron Man 3.)
The overall trend here is pretty clear. With each phase of the MCU, the multipliers on average go down.
Opening Weekends and Total Grosses Still Up
The bad news of smaller multipliers isn’t the whole story because the opening weekends are generally larger. As a general rule MCU sequels open larger than their predecessor (with Age of Ultron an important exception.) This means that each Cap movie made more money than the previous, even though the multipliers were steady or declining. The balance of the earnings was just more front loaded.
Now this makes some sense if you think about it. These numbers tell us a story something like this. The average non-comic-loving individual saw trailers for The First Avenger and more than likely thought, “Eh, another stupid comic book movie.” Critics were relatively kind, the film made some money, and this average Joe noticed but didn’t care to see it. Then, when Winter Soldier came around, they were a little more curious. They saw Avengers, because who didn’t, and their workmates were now going on and on about this new Cap movie. After two or three weeks of positive buzz, this average cinephile decided to check the movie out. They loved it! So, when Civil War came out they went to see it opening weekend. The result is a pattern like this: (1) Relatively low opening and total gross. (2) Higher overall gross, with long legs. (3) Highest gross, with a small multiplier.
Now Marvel has a couple things to consider here. One is the saturation point. Are there many moviegoers left who have managed to avoid three Captain America movies but could possibly be swayed to see a fourth? The low multipliers suggest the room for audience growth is low. It seems inevitable that comic movies have little or no growth left. They are as popular as they likely ever will be. Domestic audiences are not likely to grow, so Marvel will increasingly look to international markets and 3D up-charges to increase revenue.
Established Franchises vs. New Franchises
Generally, the multiplier shows us how franchises are seen differently by the public at large. When something is new, it is far less likely to pull the monster opening weekend. A new franchise needs a good opening, good reviews, and good word of mouth. If those things happen, the casual fan comes to see the movie in week two or three or four. This phenomenon clearly happened with the long legged Guardians and Ant-Man. If you look closely you’ll see that only one Marvel sequel outperformed its predecessor on multiplier, and that’s The Winter Soldier, just edging out the first Cap film.
Given this phenomenon, the box office success of Doctor Strange isn’t so much about its opening weekend or overall gross. Marvel should be happy if they can nab a 3X multiplier on the opening. It’s positioned at a good time of year for that possibility, with only Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One coming to theaters as blockbusters the following eight weeks. The good doctor will be a hit for Marvel if he is still playing relatively strong by Christmas.
So is Civil War a Success?
We need to begin with the obvious. It’s impossible to make $1.1 billion in three months and be a failure in any way, shape, or form. The film is fabulously profitable and most studios would die to have one of these films in a decade, much less four. So no, Mickey Mouse and the other good people at Disney aren’t losing any sleep.
But from a fan perspective, the final tally is a bit disappointing. If Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed, Civil War is more critically celebrated and fan loved than Iron Man 3. The former also got a jump start with a better opening weekend. Despite these factors, the end tallies will be close. The Tony Stark threequel is likely to maintain its lead domestically and worldwide. (Civil War has slowed to a trickle and should end its run in the next week or two.) This is underperformance. A superior film, released several years later, to a larger opening weekend, in the same release window, is going to finish behind an inferior film. Some warning signs of the dreaded “superhero fatigue” are in this result.
As always, there is another side to that story, however. Domestically, the difference in box office is a wash. The real difference is in the international take. And such a result should be expected. Many people in the world question the role that the USA should play in world politics. In particular, international audiences are more likely to see American unilateralism as a negative thing. So a character wrapped in an American flag who thumbs up his nose at the UN is not an easy sell. If anything, Marvel has done an unbelievable job taking an obviously patriotic, nationally based character and selling him internationally.
Guardians Still Standing Tall
One side note on multipliers and “leggy” films is the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. The remarkable run of that film is being proved all over again when one compares it to the take of Suicide Squad. The latter started with a massive $45 million head start after one week of release. (You can compare the two over at Box Office Mojo.) Many commentators talked about how they were blowing records out of the water. And that was true for the opening weekend. But each week since that lead has whittled down. At this pace, it appears that Guardians of the Galaxy will manage to hold on to its crown as the all-time August champ.
This particular horse race is fascinating because it illustrates an interesting phenomenon. Most comic movies have small multipliers and big openings. This happens most likely because of the “fanboy” audience that wants to see the movie as fast as possible. The front loaded gross is common across all DCEU films, most of the X-Men movies, and recent MCU pictures. Guardians is unusual in its run, with the other example being Deadpool. Both of those movies are quirky, unusual superhero films that took advantage of the “it’s not a typical comic movie” buzz. Again, Doctor Strange should desire a similar result. But can it do so without the humor of those other high multiplier movies?
The Bottom Line
If the MCU is financially sick then everyone else in Hollywood is dead. Fans can rest easy knowing that a Marvel picture is the closest thing to a sure bet in the film industry. The courage of Marvel to take on seemingly impossible franchises shows their confidence. While Captain Marvel is considered a “risk” for some likely sexist reasons, it is a risk in many executives’ minds regardless. Tackling a female superhero with limited name recognition is an important step, but one few studios would take. It’s a move rooted in Marvel’s unparalleled success.
That said, the public is reacting to these movies differently. Marvel movies are now highly anticipated and expected to succeed. This perception has caused the overall gross to become front loaded. The next Avengers will succeed or fail on opening gross more likely than its multiplier. Early signs of some fatigue are showing up, but Marvel is so far in front of the pack it will take a while for anyone to catch them.