Superheroes riding a Marvel-ous wave at the box office
Superheroes riding a Marvel-ous wave at the box office
Scott Bowles and Brian Truitt, USA TODAY April 13, 2014
There was a time, legend has it, when only two men seemed suited to police the planet. Or at least Hollywood’s
Lantern-jawed, darkly handsome and fond of the American way of life, Superman and Batman had much in common
despite hailing from different planets. Both were born in the 1930s, dominated theaters and television and even
shared a New York mailing address: the headquarters of DC Comics.
But in 2000, a new strain of hero — a mutant strain — entered the big-screen spandex fray. X-Men, about an
academy for social outcasts with superpowers, collected an astounding $157 million at the box office, introduced an
Aussie named Hugh Jackman and made the fledgling Marvel Studios a sudden player in comic-book movies.
Just 14 years later, Marvel has taken on a new identity, as the industry’s most bankable studio for live-action hits. Its
most recent film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, nabbed a $95 million opening earlier this month, the largest
debut in April ever, then claimed a second straight week at No. 1, collecting $159 million in just 10 days.
Most of Marvel’s soldiers are warriors. Of the 33 movies featuring Marvel characters, each averaged $184 million
domestically and $410 million worldwide. The Avengers collected $623 million domestically in 2012, the thirdhighest-grossing
That success has been spread over more than a dozen characters and teams, from Spider-Man to Thor to the
Fantastic Four. And with the exception of a couple of turkeys such as Elektra and The Punisher, Marvel’s
unprecedented cross-promotional strategy of having superheroes do guest spots in each others’ movies has helped it
claim seven of the 10 top-grossing comic-book flicks of all-time.
In the process, Marvel has changed how Hollywood and moviegoers view comic-book films, which have morphed
from camp escapism to Oscar contention — and box-office domination.
“We are in a post-book era,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska
in Lincoln, who teaches a course on comic-book movies.
“We don’t read books or magazines much, and newspapers are hanging on by a thread,” he says. “But people are
connecting with these movies more than they used to. Characters have back stories. Spider-Man is concerned with
the same issues as his target audience.”
Super formula for success
Marvel has come up with a strategy rooted in the three R’s of blockbuster-building: relatable characters, risky
casting and really big budgets.
• Don’t skimp on the cash. Blade, Wesley Snipes’ film about a relatively obscure half-vampire, half-mortal, was
considered a pricey gamble at $45 million — until it collected $70 million. Marvel has never cut
corners: The studio coughed up $170 million for Winter Soldier and $220 million for The Avengers.
The cash has been put to good use. “They have mastered 3-D for these movies,” Dixon says. Movies in 3-D “used to
look like pop-up books. Now the depth is stunning.”
• Go for actors, not action heroes. From Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man to Jackman as X-Men’s Wolverine to
Robert Redford as Winter Soldier villain Alexander Pierce, Marvel has earned a reputation as a studio
that can stun — and occasionally infuriate — comics devotees with star choices. But fans usually
“Casting the movie is the most important thing — actors, directors, cinematographers,” says Marvel Studios
president Kevin Feige. “It’s putting that team in place to bring the movie to life in a way it can be and should be.
That’s always the hardest part. My anxiety level plummets when you get closer to the first day of shooting because
we’re looking pretty good at that point.”
• Even heroes need hang-ups. “If you look at what Marvel is doing, they’ve taken superheroes and made them
human,” says Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, in Winter Solder. He says Marvel
has made its heroes, even those that fly or shoot webs, “relatable, given them a sense of dignity and
pride that’s not so far off that you can’t relate to them.”
Mackie says the Marvel universe has many characters not simply waging battles of “good against evil, but fighting
for the betterment of man. We can all relate to that.”
Ultimate studio clash ahead?
Competing studios are relating to the millions Marvel is raking in, and the competition for young dollars is fierce.
Pixar Studios, which tends to draw younger kids, has the industry’s most impressive winning streak, with 14 straight
No. 1 movies, averaging $253 million apiece.
And DC Comics, whose stable includes Batman, Superman and The Justice League, is no slouch. Its heroes have
appeared in 25 movies, averaging $133 million each.
Analysts are salivating at the inevitable comics showdown. Already, the two are pitted against one another on May
6, 2016, when Captain America 3, distributed by Disney, is scheduled to open against the highly
anticipated Batman vs. Superman, released by Warner Bros.
Neither studio is commenting on strategy, though neither has announced plans to blink.
“You figure that someone will have to move, because they’ll cannibalize some business from each other,” says Jeff
Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “But it shows you how powerful this genre has become.”
And with power comes a great many sequels. Marvel has on tap The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on May 2, X-Men Days
of Future Past on May 23, and an Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, due May 1, 2015. The studio also plans to launch
a new superhero team franchise with Guardians of the Galaxy, out Aug. 1.
While experts don’t expect the tide of superhero films to fade, the movies could follow a path similar to that of the
comic books. Analysts expect a few developments:
• Heroes who die. Comic-book heroes die all the time and are brought back to life. “Killing off a hero is completely
possible,” says Caleb Williams, editor-in-chief and founder of the website Superhero Movie News.
“Marvel is not afraid to take risks.”
• Spider-Man against The Hulk? The Batman vs. Superman project and The Avengers may be the start of
crossover films if studios can negotiate rights. “Who says X-Men can’t fight Avengers?” Bock says.
“With this much money at stake, you know the brain trust is trying to figure a way.”
• Oscar-worthy films. Heath Ledger already won the first acting Oscar for a comic-book role, as the Joker in the
2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Could a best picture be far off?
“These have become the classic myths of our times,” Dixon says. “They’re bigger than the comic books themselves.
They are the future.”