There’s gold in them thar hills. Nuggets the size of your bulbous head. Great seams of it riven in the rock, opening up gleaming veins for the sun to bedazzle. Each one of those nuggets is a hero, and each hero is serious bank. Marvel’s got a sack full of nuggets, hell a whole damn trainload, all bound from the coast to amaze with their shinings at your local thee-ate-er and thousands more worldwide. And we all know money begets money, except when it doesn’t. Hell, many’s the time it doesn’t. But since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man in 2008, there’s been a conscious plan to make the most successful pantheon of interconnected movies this planet has ever seen. And gosh goldarnit, that plan is working. I don’t even know why I’m talking like a snaggletoothed prospector from 1849, but it seems pretty clear. While DC’s been panning in the river, Marvel’s built the mine, and those cars just keep coming up with their golden freight. Not every movie’s a major claim, but together, sons and daughters, together they’re the motherlode.
So those numbers on the left there are millions. Yup, big numbers, b-word numbers, and I’m not talking Rihanna, ma’am. I’ve done a wee bit of shenanigans, as any chartist should, but I think they’re fair shenanigans. The DC count is for their contemporary era, beginning with Batman Begins (2005), and includes the Batman and Superman movies, Green Lantern (2011), Watchmen (2009) and even Jonah Hex (2010). The Marvel count includes all the movies of the MCU from 2008 on, and doesn’t include the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises (with those included their numbers would be just ridonkulous). Clearly there’s still one big winner all-time, taking into account inflation and ticket prices. And George Lucas is a very happy man.
These are domestic numbers, and the global numbers are pretty significant, too, doubling most of the totals. But the Star Trek franchise didn’t have global inflation-adjusted numbers for the early original cast flicks, so I went with domestic values for the sake of comparison. If you go with the full historic canon for both DC and Marvel, Marvel still comes out ahead. (All of this comes via BoxOfficeMojo.com, if you ever want to look up piles of fascinating movie release stats.)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is made up of eleven movies so far (with a gajillion more planned). Here’s how they’ve done individually:
A few things leap out. People loves them some Iron Man. And the rest of the world likes Thor a good sight more than the U.S. The suits must be happy, too. As the series keeps rolling out of the gate, the movies are doing better. We’re just a few weeks into the Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) release, and it’s already done more box office than all of the movies except the original Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013). It’ll easily rival and quite likely surpass the original’s take by the end of the year. And the most recent sequels of each individual franchise hero have done better than the respective film before. That’s impressive.
The other crazy thing about how these movies perform? Like the most invincible heroes, these movies are pretty much bulletproof. The only “failure” on the list is The Incredible Hulk (2008), Edward Norton’s odd green-skinned foray which was tenuously tied into the MCU with a Tony Stark cameo at the end. The film still did nearly $135 million in domestic box office (its production budget is listed at $150 million, so close, but no cigar, Ed). And Iron Man 2 (2010), which really fucken sucked, pardon my not-French, still did nearly as well as the original with $312 million domestic.
The global numbers paint an even more impressive picture. Hollywood distributor Buena Vista has handled all the MCU movies except for The Incredible Hulk, which was handled by Universal as they hold the big guy’s rights. Their international network must be superb. It’s pretty mind-blowing to look at just how much bigger those green bars are than the U.S. blue ones.
Marvel’s “it’s all connected” strategy is paying off handsomely. Marvel president Kevin Feige was brilliant to capitalize on the core property of The Avengers, building up its individual heroes with their own films and then the massive group extravaganzas. The old strategy, and the one that DC employed until very recently, was to sell the rights to a specific hero to one studio, and see what they could do. This made for some successful franchises and a bunch of flops, pretty much your standard Hollywood endeavours. By linking the films in a much more direct fashion, Marvel is able to build an ever-growing snowball of hero-dom. They ink the actors to huge, multi-film deals (Sam Jackson signed on as Nick Fury for nine films!), ensuring continuity throughout the series. And as they’ve grown more successful, Marvel’s branched out, launching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on TV, and the fantastic Daredevil series on Netflix. In a world where media is ever-more interconnected, this cross-pollination strategy appears to be almost invincible.
Compared to their dour, brooding compatriots at DC, Marvel’s heroes capture the contemporary zeitgeist perfectly. They’re more sunshiney, poppier, not without angst but they don’t shrivel under the weight of constant existential dread. (Me, I still like those dark, damaged DC dudes, but it sure can get oppressive.) Tony Stark’s spirited, sarcastic genius billionaire is way more suited to the times than Bruce Wayne’s grim obsessiveness (though Christian Bale did try to lighten Bruce up a little with his caddish act, in the early going anyway). With the additional success of The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s proven they can bring even relatively minor characters into the fold, and the prospect of The Avengers and The Guardians combining forces is pretty damn awesome.
Can Marvel keep the hits coming? The future seems assured, but don’t count your chickens till you’re dipping the nuggets in the sauce. The original gold rush ran dry, its shimmering veins tapped out and depleted. Even this grand glut of superheroes in movies and TV must one day draw to a close. Have we hit ‘peak hero?’ That’s a question to take up another day. This here miner’s getting tired. Time to ruminate on the prospect of Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr. Strange (2016?). Now drink your sarsaparilla.