Warning: contains spoilers of some of the most epic Marvel moments of all time.
After the rousing success of The Avengers, Marvel Studios was on top of the world as the dominant global cultural commodity. Yet, phase two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe struggled to meet the lofty standards of phase one in both critical reception and box office gross.
With the exception of the surprising smash hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel seemed to be stagnating as a cultural product. This school of thought was confirmed following the steep decline in terms of critical consensus and box office for 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Film critics felt that the movie did not live up to the hype as they collectively rated Ultron 15% lower than the first Avengers team-up in Rotten Tomatoes’ critical score.((https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/avengers_age_of_ultron)) Unfortunately for Marvel, audiences agreed with the critical consensus.
The film domestically grossed over 163 million dollars less than The Avengers.((https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/marvels_the_avengers)) This alarming decline seemed to indicate that the high mark of the MCU had come and gone with 2012’s first Avengers film. In an art imitating life situation, just when the heroes were seemingly on the road to defeat, Marvel unleashed a three-movie stretch in 2018 and 2019 that forever changed the movie business.
Through the historical nature of Black Panther, the shock twist of Thanos’ victory in Avengers: Infinity War, and the sheer scope of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios reached the apex of pop culture and box office during the latter part of the 2010s.
Despite the success of the Marvel Comic-based Blade franchise in the late 90s and early 2000s, studios seemed disinterested in an African American-led superhero film. Fourteen years—an eternity in Hollywood—would pass before audiences would see another Black Marvel hero on the silver screen.
During that time, actors such as Wesley Snipes and Oscar-nominated director of Boyz n the Hood John Singleton sought to bring Black Panther to life.((https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/black-panther-wesley-snipes-reveals-untold-story-behind-90s-film-1078868/)) In a sign of the times, the biggest and longest-lasting roadblock for the film was the ignorance of studio executives. Snipes recalls his inability to convince executives that the film was not about the Black Panther civil rights group… “they think you want to come out with a black beret and clothing and then there’s a movie.”((https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/black-panther-wesley-snipes-reveals-untold-story-behind-90s-film-1078868/))
Ultimately, the film was never made, but the spark remained. In 2014, Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige set the blaze with an announcement of a 2017 release date.((https://www.ign.com/articles/2014/10/28/black-panther-movie-announced-for-2017)) After several delays, the film was finally a go for February 16th, 2018.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl2992866817/)) The question of the moment was simple: would the MCU’s first Black superhero film generate the interest necessary to become a success?
The lead-up to the release of 2018’s Black Panther would see a palpable buzz building for the film that foretold impending success. In a pre-film write-up for Time, writer Jamil Smith captured the energy of the moment by stating that the significance of Black Panther went beyond
“just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies [into] something much bigger. It hasn’t even hit theaters yet and its cultural footprint is already enormous. It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day black life.”((https://time.com/black-panther/))
Smith’s words highlighted the importance of Black Panther as “both a black film and the newest entrant in the most bankable movie franchise in history. For a wary and risk-averse film business, led largely by white film executives who have been historically predisposed to greenlight projects featuring characters who look like them, Black Panther will offer proof that a depiction of a reality of something other than whiteness can make a ton of money.”((https://time.com/black-panther/))
Overwhelmingly positive reviews helped increase the hype. Black Panther earned a stellar 96% on Rotten Tomatoes with critics raving that the film “elevates superhero cinema to thrilling new heights.”((https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/black_panther_2018)) The unreal hype met the unreal reality on Presidents’ Day weekend 2018 as a box office run for the ages commenced.
The box office success of Black Panther validated Marvel’s decision to finally diversify its superhero lineup. Variety’s pre-tracking prediction was that the Chadwick Bosman-led film would gross “150 million in its North American opening on the four-day Presidents’ Day weekend.”((https://variety.com/2018/film/box-office/black-panther-game-night-annihilation-box-office-openings-1202684191/)) Two weeks later, Black Panther actually grossed an astonishing 242 million dollars over Presidents’ Day weekend.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl2992866817/))
The astronomical overperformance of the film reinforced what a cultural hold the Wakanda set film had taken on the public at large. The film would go on to gross over 700 million domestically and over 1.346 billion worldwide. For context, despite no additional superhero support, the film outgrossed The Avengers at the domestic box office. In fact, at the conclusion of Black Panther’s run, the film stood third on the all-time domestic box office charts.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl2992866817/))
After being overlooked as a superhero for decades, Black Panther became the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time.((https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/12/11/18119694/black-panther-success-2018-marvel)) For Marvel, the film’s success was vindicating, but the time to savor the result was short-lived. After all, the follow-up to Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, was scheduled to be released a little over two months after Black Panther entered the cinema. How do you follow the biggest superhero film of all time? You build up the biggest villain in movie history.
Marvel’s ability to finally find a worthy challenger to The Avengers helped raise the stakes for Infinity War. One of the chief criticisms of the early Marvel films was that the villains were often overshadowed by the superheroes. Unlike the DC universe where characters such as Lex Luthor and the Joker proved to be formidable foes for Superman and Batman respectively, Marvel often lacked the big bad that made audiences fear for their favorites.
Even Loki, the villain in the first Avengers movie, was more of an irritant than an intimidator. The iconic scene of the 2012 movie was an angered Hulk smashing the mischievous manipulator.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31ZjnrHR8EA)) The conclusion of the first team-up of earth’s mightiest heroes would see the introduction of the titan Thanos, who would go on to be a subtle presence in subsequent Marvel films.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Paf3WoxGG1s))
This changed in Infinity War, where Thanos sought to collect the six infinity stones as a means to form a gauntlet that would give the wielder unprecedented powers. Thanos’ goal was simple: to instantly wipe out half of all life in the galaxy as a means to combat overpopulation.((https://marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Infinity_Stones)) The quest for the stones would serve as the basis for Infinity War and set the stage for the most dramatic villain triumph since Darth Vader told Luke he was his father at the conclusion of the Empire Strikes Back.
Thanos’ successful capturing of the infinity stones and snapping half of the galaxy’s population out of existence thrilled audiences and helped Infinity War dominate the global box office. The opening of Infinity War saw Thanos kill thousands of Asgardians, demolish the Hulk, and murder Loki by breaking his neck. All of this occurred within the first 10 minutes of the film!
Right off the bat, Marvel established that Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, was no ordinary villain. The character would also receive a rich backstory that was intentionally done by Infinity War writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. The writers stated that Thanos was actually the “main character of the story” who received “a proper hero’s journey…by defeating the antagonist Avengers.”((https://www.moviemaker.com/thanos-hero-avengers-endgame-avengers-infinity-war/))
Thanos’ stunning dismantling of The Avengers and his total victory over the crew culminates in him peacefully watching the sunrise before credits rolled. Audiences were shocked to see beloved characters such Spider-Man, Black Panther, and almost all of the Guardians of the Galaxy turn to dust.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCWPrEZa9o4))
Despite the downer ending, moviegoers flocked to the cinema. The film opened on April 27th and set the opening weekend box office record by grossing over 257 million dollars.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3043198465/)) Infinity War went on to gross over 678 million domestically, placing the film fourth on the all-time box office charts. Worldwide, the film grossed over 2 billion dollars!((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3043198465/))
In 2018 alone, Black Panther and Infinity War combined grossed an unheard of 1.3 billion domestically and nearly 3.4 billion worldwide. Marvel’s unique ending paid off in spades and set the stage for the all-hands-on-deck finale of Avengers: Endgame.
The sheer scope and success of Endgame punctuated phase three with the most audacious team-up film of all time. One year after Marvel set box office records, the studio sought to reach a goal that they had not previously achieved: the all-time number one spot at the worldwide box office.
To achieve that goal, every superhero from all three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be brought together. The use of time traveling aided in streamlining the process of superhero reunification. After all, half of the marvel superheroes needed to be reanimated from dust.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo returned after previously directing Infinity War. Their experience managing an array of actors helped prepare the duo to tackle the monumental task of incorporating 36 superheroes into the Endgame final battle scene.((https://screenrant.com/avengers-endgame-every-character-spoiler/)) The sheer scope of the battle was a worthy culmination of a process that began when Tony Stark first donned his Iron Man suit and emerged from a cave in 2008.
Eleven years later, all of the beloved characters that film audiences had connected with through the years earned their much-deserved curtain call in the form of memorable sendoffs. From Tony heroically sacrificing himself to Captain America getting a second chance at love, Marvel took care in honoring the pillars of the franchise. The crowd-pleasing finale earned a tremendous 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.((https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/avengers_endgame)) Global box office supremacy awaited Marvel after an unprecedented box office run.
The massive success of Endgame set box office records that will struggle to be topped in the distant future. Endgame opened on Friday, April 26th and would go on to gross 357 million on its opening weekend.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3059975681/)) Further context highlights this outrageous accomplishment. The film grossed nearly one hundred million dollars more than Infinity War, which was the previous record holder.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl709199361/))
The film also beat the original Avengers team-up by over 150 million dollars! This mighty record from earth’s mightiest heroes is likely to stand for an extended period of time and, if the film industry continues to decline, could stand in perpetuity. They say that records are meant to be broken, but studios are going to need something stronger than Thor’s hammer to break this one.
The film would go on to finish at 858 million domestic and nearly 2.8 billion worldwide.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3059975681/)) The latter gross finally allowed Marvel to claim the all-time worldwide record.((https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/21/avengers-endgame-is-the-highest-grossing-film-of-all-time.html)) Endgame was a fitting name for an end of an era for Marvel and, in this game, they won big.
In roughly fourteen months, Marvel changed the movie industry forever. Black Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame grossed over six billion at the global box office.((https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3059975681/)) Marvel’s hold on popular culture was tighter than Thanos’ grip on the infinity gauntlet. The historical-cultural achievement of Black Panther changed the game in terms of who could star in superhero films.
This representation has ushered in a new era for more diverse cast in Marvel films. The shocking twist at the heart of Infinity War showed that risky and creative choices in terms of Thanos’ victory would be rewarded by filmgoers. Finally, the gargantuan triumph of Avengers: Endgame culminated a decade-plus of filmmaking and ended the era of Iron Man and Captain America in style.
One of these achievements in two years is impressive, two is astounding and three is a feat that will never be topped. Endgame ended at the funeral of Tony Stark. Due to unforeseen circumstances surrounding film distribution as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, the funeral could have easily served as a metaphor for the end of an era in film. Has Marvel set in motion the endgame of the movie industry in general? To be continued…
This is the second installment of Dan Levin’s Assembling the Avengers series.
Enjoy part one here!