Is it Wrong That People Think a Major Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Has to Make a Billion Dollars to Be a Success?
One film critic of which I know, addressing the question of whether this or that big-budget superhero film was a success, tells his readers that not every such movie has to make a billion dollars — and as the Marvel Cinematic Universe amassed its recent track record, told them this so many times that it almost seems a ritual with him.
In fairness there is a sense in which he is right. In spite of falling short of the billion dollar mark such films have actually been among their year’s most profitable releases (at least, to go by Deadline’s calculations), as if a $250 million epic making a “mere” $800 million in theaters will not break even on ticket sales alone, there is the considerable revenue to be had from home entertainment, streaming, TV to fill in the gap, and even put it over the top.
Still, is the expectation of a billion dollar gross — and the sense that a movie pulling in less than that is less than a success — so illegitimate?
I would say that it is not — that, in fact, it is quite natural given the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with the success of The Avengers in 2012, a $1.5 billion smash that summer (which would be more like a $2 billion gross in today’s terms), and what it seemed to do for the associated franchises. The next summer Iron Man 3, following up two films that had had grosses in the $600 million range, pulled in as much as the two movies combined, taking in a near-Avengers-level gross of $1.2 billion (almost $1.6 billion in 2023 terms). From that point on billion dollar grosses actually did become routine for the franchise, with, alongside the Avengers sequels that hit new heights (Avengers 3 and 4 together taking in almost $5 billion in 2018–2019, more like $6 billion today), Captain America 3, Black Panther and Captain Marvel — and Spider-Man: Far From Home — were all bona fide billion-dollar hits.
The result is that a billion dollar gross became routine for the Marvel films in the wake of their Phase 2/Phase 3 performance, and yes, whether or not those grosses continued mattered. going even beyond the immediate contribution to the bottom line (lest it need saying, yes, a difference of billions matters), such expectations conditioned what others were prepared to pay for the distribution and merchandising rights to the associated content — and what the backers of those movies were prepared to put into them — and accordingly what they had to make back in order to stay viable at the same level, even before one considered the implications of inflation for the meaning of film grosses in real terms. The result was that not only did the falling grosses pointedly evident from Thor 4 on bespeak the decline of the MCU as a box office draw, but they meant a significant contraction in profitability insofar as anyone can discern it, and that for a beleaguered studio in a beleaguered industry that can hardly afford to see any of its profit centers suffer, with all that implies for the MCU, for Marvel, for Disney, and for all those whose livelihoods are bound up with them.