The conclusion of a film’s credits is usually accompanied by the sounds of ushers sweeping popcorn amidst an otherwise empty theater. In the summer of 2008, however, patient moviegoers received an unexpected treat if they stayed for a post-credit scene of Marvel’s surprise smash hit Iron Man.
Following the closing credits, audiences were introduced to an eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson. Fury’s faithful words to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark about an “Avenger initiative” not only set in motion 2012’s superhero team-up movie Marvel’s The Avengers, but also began a journey that would culminate in Avengers: Endgame, the most successful interconnected story in the history of film.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZdQyRnBNh8))
Every Endgame, however, needs a beginning. Ten years after The Avengers ignited the global box office, the impact of the film still burns bright. Through an exploration of the origins of the film, the impact of Disney’s marketing campaign, the importance of positive reviews, and the astronomical box office success of the film, it is clear that The Avengers started a process that would forever alter the movie industry.
Marvel’s long-term storytelling set the stage for the enormous success of their superhero team. Prior to 2008, Marvel Studios struggled to gain financial footing within the film industry. Kevin Feige, a producer and content visionary, decided to implement a radical idea to change the course of the studios’ fortunes.
After his predecessors sold off successful franchises to other studios like Fox and Sony, Feige noticed that Marvel’s list of popular characters to use on-screen was bare. While Marvel properties like Spider-Man and the X-Men were wildly successful franchises, Marvel could only receive limited financial benefit from their box office achievements as a result of their sell-offs.((https://fandomwire.com/superheroes-villains-marvel-studios-still-doesnt-own-the-movie-rights-to/#:~:text=While%20Marvel%20Studios%20owns%20the,makes%20at%20the%20box%20office.)) Therefore, Feige saw the value in not only owning the properties but creating interconnected stories on screen that more closely resembled the comics. The first movie within this interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe was Iron Man in 2008.((https://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2012/04/29/the_avengers_collects_all_your_favorite_marvel_characters_in_one_handy_wannabe_blockbustersuper_groupthe_avengers_assembles_all_your_favorite_marvel_characters_in_one_handy_wannabe_blockbuster/))
The movie was a huge hit, led by the incredible comeback of Robert Downey Jr. Buoyed by the success of Iron Man, Feige decided to implement his plan to create a team-up of the superheroes that were under Marvel’s creative control. The culmination of this vision was to take The Avengers from the comic book page to the screen.
In addition to Iron Man, the characters from The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) would serve as the nucleus of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The addition of Black Widow and Hawkeye would round out the team. The hiring of Joss Whedon, the nerd approved creator of cult hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, to write and direct the film helped assuage the concerns of hardcore comic book fans.((Currently, Whedon is embroiled in scandal due to allegations of improper workplace behavior while on the set of his projects. https://screenrant.com/joss-whedon-abuse-misconduct-allegations-accusations-explained/)) Marvel was on their way to box office immortality, but a big push from a powerful mouse never hurts.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel created a marketing boon for The Avengers and boosted the film’s prospects. After Disney acquired Marvel Studios for a four-billion-dollar sum that would make even Tony Stark remove his custom shades, The Avengers would serve as the first Marvel movie solely promoted and released by Disney.((https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/business/media/01disney.html)) The ubiquity of Disney’s marketing campaign was difficult to ignore in the lead-up to the film.
From cross-promotions with Disney theme parks, ESPN, professional sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA, and other Disney properties, Disney spent a record-breaking 150 million dollars to market the film.((https://deadline.com/2012/05/avengers-now-260-5m-overseas-could-reach-585m-worldwide-through-sunday-with-u-s-canada-russia-china-openings-265455/)) A huge marketing budget is designed to help raise awareness and interest in a film.
Disney was successful in that endeavor with a robust 62% of people surveyed holding an interest in seeing The Avengers.((https://deadline.com/2012/04/avengers-tracking-like-superhero-125m-opening-weekend-with-four-quadrant-appeal-255675/)) Marketing muscle alone, however, is not enough to generate record-breaking sales.
Marvel’s tentpole film’s large marketing push was supplemented by strong critical reception which continued to increase anticipation. One of the most underrated aspects of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that critics and audiences often align in their adoration. In the case of The Avengers, the promotional hype for the movie seamlessly transitioned to rave critical reviews. This sent anticipation for the movie into overdrive.
The film earned a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus being that with the film script emphasizing “its heroes’ humanity and a wealth of superpowered set pieces, The Avengers lives up to its hype and raises the bar for Marvel at the movies.”((https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/marvels_the_avengers))
One of the underrated aspects of movie promotion is the impact that early reviews can have on opening weekend gross. Marketing gets people interested, but strong reviews and buzz get fence-sitters to go to the theaters, which enhances a film’s box office potential. Earth’s Mightiest Screen Heroes benefited from this phenomenon and the glowing reviews were the cherry on top of a perfect marketing blitz.
The buzz and goodwill associated with The Avengers culminated in an unprecedented opening weekend. Opening in 4,349 theaters, Marvel’s team-up film grossed an astounding 207,438,708 million dollars.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl709199361/)) To put that number in context, the film beat the previous opening weekend record, set by Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 by over 38 million dollars.((https://deadline.com/2012/05/avengers-now-260-5m-overseas-could-reach-585m-worldwide-through-sunday-with-u-s-canada-russia-china-openings-265455/)) No film had ever broken a 170 million dollar opening weekend and The Avengers shot past the 200-million-dollar mark like Thor throwing Mjolnir.
As the hours progressed on the opening weekend, the projections on the film continued to rise and rise. Deadline Hollywood reported that as of Friday at 10:45 PM Eastern, rival studios expected the film to gross between “157-165 million” dollars on opening weekend. By that point in the evening, studios had hard data from theaters across the country and they still missed on predicting the gross of the movie’s opening weekend by 50 million dollars!
Again, studios do these projections for a living and even with information for one whole day of a three-day weekend, they undershot their forecast by a third. Needless to say, the opening weekend sent shockwaves through Hollywood. In a town in which understatement is tantamount to treason, one rival studio executive to Disney could only muster a two-word response to the opening weekend: “freaking phenomenal.”((https://deadline.com/2012/05/avengers-now-260-5m-overseas-could-reach-585m-worldwide-through-sunday-with-u-s-canada-russia-china-openings-265455/))
The goodwill that the film generated amongst moviegoers of all ages allowed the new opening weekend king to continue to dominate the box office. The following weeks would see Whedon’s creation rake in an astronomical $623 million-plus at the domestic box office and nearly $900 million internationally.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl709199361/)) Those totals would put the movie third on the all-time box office chart behind a pair of James Cameron created mega hits, Avatar and Titanic.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/chart/top_lifetime_gross/?ref_=bo_cso_ac))
In most cases, movies that open to such dizzying heights usually flame out quickly. After all, the demand for the product is quickly satiated and moviegoers look ahead to the next event film. In rare cases, however, gigantic opening weekends continue to build and word of mouth continues to keep the turnstiles moving at the multiplex.
In the summer of 2012, audiences could not get enough of their new favorite team. This was proven when no film released that summer would come within 175 million dollars at the domestic box office. Not even The Dark Knight Rises, the sequel to the previous high-water mark of superhero financial success could touch Marvel’s magnificent squad.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3745875457/))
The Avengers was marketed as the “Superhero team-up of a lifetime” and would become the most influential film of the 21st century.((https://deadline.com/2012/05/avengers-now-260-5m-overseas-could-reach-585m-worldwide-through-sunday-with-u-s-canada-russia-china-openings-265455/)) The question on the minds of all of Hollywood was simple: was this the apex of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or was this the start of an unprecedented run of success?
The following decade would show that Marvel’s first superhero collaboration was a global phenomenon and a precursor to an economic and cultural windfall the likes of which Tinseltown had never seen. Audience’s response to each subsequent Marvel release was downright pavlovian.
The fanatical devotion of moviegoers young and old drove the box office to new heights. For context, on the backs of The Avengers, 2012 became the highest-grossing movie year of all time with sales totaling over 10.8 billion dollars. Six years later, 2018 ticket sales eclipsed a remarkable 11.8 billion dollars driven in large part by Marvel.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/?ref_=bo_nb_hm_secondarytab))
Marvel Studios had changed the financial possibilities of Hollywood forever. After conquering the box office on Earth, the future of Marvel movies lay in distant universes and interconnected stories. To steal a phrase from another Disney-owned mega property, the distance between Marvel’s achievements and everyone else in Hollywood was about to become equivalent to the distance between Earth and a “galaxy far, far away.”