Box Office Rewind: A History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (So Far)

Photo Credits: Disney / Paramount / Marvel Studios

In 2009, The Walt Disney Co. purchased Marvel Entertainment for the hefty sum of $4 billion. More than a decade later, their superhero cinematic continuity — curated by Marvel Studios mostly under Disney, but with some assistance from Paramount and Universal in the early days — has earned over $22.5 billion at the global box office.

As we hit the midpoint of what would have been 2020’s summer movie season, we also come upon an unexpected anniversary: it’s been one full year since the most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, was released. This is now the longest stretch fans have endured between theatrical MCU chapters since the one-year gap between 2012’s The Avengers and 2013’s Iron Man 3.

With that in mind, and as theaters plan their to re-openings and recoveries from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re taking a look back at the franchise which has consistently defied expectations over the past decade-plus to become a cornerstone of the entertainment industry.

Phase One (2008 – 2012)

By the mid-2000s, the Marvel brand had already enjoyed stellar success on the big screen thanks to the likes of the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises under Sony and Fox, respectively. Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige had a vision, though, of one cohesive franchise uniting many characters to form an episodic story that would play out on the big screen for both long-time comic book readers and a new generation of fans.

The groundwork was laid by hiring director Jon Favreau and casting Robert Downey, Jr. in the comeback role to top all comeback roles for the studio’s first venture, Iron Man. The origin of Tony Stark’s place in the universe propelled to a $102 million opening at the domestic box office, the second best of 2008 behind The Dark Knight, and legged out to $318.6 million — part of a $585 million global haul.

It was a runaway success that had die hard comic lovers and general audiences buzzing and awaiting what the future might hold for a potential franchise, especially after the iconic (and trend-setting) post-credit tease featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.

Later that summer, The Incredible Hulk arrived as the second attempt to bring Bruce Banner’s story to the screen following mixed results with 2003’s Hulk. Edward Norton stepped in for Eric Bana, and while fan reactions were generally positive, it was hard to follow in the shadow of Iron Man just weeks prior. Incredible Hulk bowed to $55.4 million on its way to $134.8 million domestically and $266 million globally.

The latter represents the lowest global total of any MCU film, and the title role would again be recast with Mark Ruffalo four years later, but the film’s contributions remain canon thanks to the inclusion of Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark in a post-credit cameo (as well as William Hurt’s General Ross, whom reappears later in the franchise).

Nearly two years later, Iron Man 2 arrived with big expectations after the success of the first film and ultimately delivered similar results. Downey, Jr. remained a key draw, while the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and a supporting role from Jackson’s Fury helped round out the continuing ensemble build. After a $128.1 million opening — the highest among all 2010 releases — the sequel finished with $312.4 million stateside and a slight increase to $621 million globally.

It would be another full year before the next origin story arrived in the form of Thor. Viewed as a higher risk to adapt for the big screen compared to more nameable Marvel characters, this was the next major test for the brand — one that it handily passed. The Son of Odin’s first adventure debuted to $65.7 million in May 2011, capping off with $181 million domestically and $449 million worldwide.

That same summer, more key components of the MCU were introduced. Captain America: The First Avenger took audiences back in time to the era of World War II as it introduced Steve Rogers and a number of story threads that would come to hold significant importance (namely, the first Infinity Stone) throughout the first three phases of the franchise. First Avenger banked $65.1 million on opening weekend, ultimately cashing out with $176.7 million domestically and nearly $371 million around the world.

With the first batch of characters in place, Marvel Studios was ready to assemble its — and the world’s — first A-list ensemble superhero movie, The Avengers. Thanks to the goodwill of the preceding solo films and a wave of massive buzz leading up to release, the first film crushed box office records in May 2012 and became the first movie to ever clear the $200 million opening weekend threshold ($207.4 million).

Word of mouth was just as hot as the pre-release hype, too, as it legged out to $623.4 million in North America and more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Avengers was easily the biggest film of the year in box office figures, and back then, trailed only Titanic and Avatar on the all-time charts.

Naturally, the film’s post-credit scene marked a major turning point for the MCU as it teased the long game of Kevin Feige and the studio: an eventual showdown with Thanos, one of the most complex and popular villains in comic lore, and the promise of a full-blown storytelling arc that would eventually come to be known as The Infinity Saga.

Phase Two (2013 – 2015)

Even though Marvel had firmly established itself as a mega-franchise with an eye extending far out into the future, they didn’t turn away from their solo superhero movies. As distribution deals with Paramount and Universal had expired, Disney was also now in full control.

Iron Man 3 kicked off the second phase of the MCU with another deep dive into the psyche, and Avengers-related aftermath, of Tony Stark. The goodwill of both the Iron Man films and Avengers itself helped this third solo outing explode with $174.1 million on opening weekend in May 2013 before topping out at $409 million domestically and a stunning $1.2 billion worldwide. As what would become the final film in Iron Man‘s solo trilogy, those figures helped the sub-franchise go out on high marks across the board, landing just behind Frozen ($1.28 billion) as the second highest-grossing film of the year in global terms.

Later that year, in November, Thor: The Dark World continued the travails of the Asgardian with box office figures that exceeded his own origin film. The sequel bowed to $85.7 million before finishing its run with $206.4 million domestically and $645 million globally. It was the first MCU flick to release outside the summer window and proved the franchise could be viable any time of the year.

Jump ahead six months later for further evidence of that. In April 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier similarly blew past its direct predecessor’s box office run with $95 million on opening weekend, leading to a $259.8 million stateside haul and $714 million global finish.

As the third consecutive MCU entry to significantly improve upon the comparable box office performance of its Phase One counterpart, the “Avengers bump” was proven to be no fluke. To this date, Winter Soldier is widely regarded as not just one of the favorite MCU films, but a high point of comic book-inspired films in general.

For those that still doubted that, August 2014 would silence such claims. Following one of the more memorable marketing campaigns of the franchise (shout out to Blue Swede), Marvel introduced its next ensemble team of heroes — but this time, without any solo films or general familiarity outside fans to help build awareness. Guardians of the Galaxy delivered a fresh voice to the comic book canvas via writer/director James Gunn, backed by a cast of rising and established stars like Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel (among more).

That film’s $94.3 million debut remains one of the most impressive feats of the franchise given that the Guardians were unknown characters to anyone who wasn’t an avid comic reader. With a leggy run to $333.2 million domestically and $773 million worldwide, the risk more than paid off and further established the MCU’s name itself as a major selling point for moviegoers from all walks of life.

The following year would present the end of Phase Two, starting with Avengers: Age of Ultron. The sequel powered up a $191.3 million debut in May 2015, the second highest ever at the time behind its 2012 predecessor. Reception may not have been as catchy as the first Avengers films, but Ultron still delivered a $459 million domestic finish and $1.4 billion global take — all while continuing to set up more plot and McGuffin dominos for future MCU chapters to knock down.

In July of that same year, focus shifted back to the small scale — literally — with the introduction of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. The film had been in development limbo for years (at one point planned to be helmed by Edgar Wright of Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead fame), but Marvel was dedicated to making Scott Lang and his family a central part of their build-up to the climax of the Infinity Saga.

This origin film bowed to a respectable $57.2 million, drawing positive reception for its lighthearted tone as it legged out to $180.2 million stateside and $519 million globally.

Phase Three (2016 – 2019)

The beginning of the end of the Infinity Saga arrived ten months later in May 2016.

Although Captain America: Civil War‘s story had little to do with the actual development of the Infinity Stone plot line furthered by multiple MCU films before it, the film represented a watershed moment for the franchise. Civil War adapted one of the most popular story lines from comic lore as it pitted Steve Rogers and Tony Stark on opposite sides of a crucial idealogical pinpoint as fallout from the end of Phase Two and Ultron.

The promise of their oft-foreshadowed showdown helped drive a massive $179.1 million opening weekend, onward to $408.1 million domestically and $1.15 billion worldwide. Although it technically rounded out the trilogy of Cap’s films, Civil War performed more like an Avengers flick thanks to its high-stakes storytelling and ensemble aspects — winning the global box office crown for its year.

The introduction parade continued later in 2016 with Doctor Strange, who would go onto become another crucial piece in the Infinity Saga puzzle. Casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a major assist in helping the unknown-outside-fans character generate instant appeal, although the success of the Marvel brand was certainly a factor as well.

The Doc’s origin story banked $85.1 million on opening weekend in November that year, tapping out with $232.6 million domestically and over $676 million globally. To that point, it was the highest global box office take for any of Marvel’s origin stories that focused on one primary character.

Marvel’s output was noticeably increasing by this point, and 2017 would come to mark the first of three consecutive years with three new releases under their banner.

In May, the Guardians made a highly anticipated return with James Gunn again driving the creative ship in tow with Marvel mastermind Feige. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 bowed to $146.5 million and ultimately earned $389.8 million domestically and $869 million globally, further cementing the popularity of the ragtag group of heroes.

Later that summer, Spider-Man: Homecoming made its long-awaited debut in July with a $117 million opening. After his introduction in Civil War, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker instantly became a favorite among young crowds and Marvel fans, which proved to be a major asset considering the Spider-Man brand itself had been flailing in recent years thanks to creative and financial missteps of three straight films under Sony. The 2015 announcement that Sony and Disney reached a deal to allow the character a presence in the MCU was met with great applause, though. Homecoming ultimately earned $334.2 million domestic as part of an $880 million global box office run.

Completing the first of the three yearly trifectas, Thor: Ragnarok arrived in November 2017 with the best results of the Thor branch thus far. Writer/director Taika Waititi infused his unique comedic style into the universe much in the same way Gunn previously had with the Guardians films, all while still meeting the necessities of the Marvel storytelling sandbox. Ragnarok bowed to $122.7 million before hammering out finishes at $315.1 million domestically and $854 million globally. Like the Iron Man and Captain America “trilogies” before it, Thor has continued to flex bigger box office muscle with each outing.

Phase Three was fully into its internal second act by early 2018 with the monumental release of Black Panther that February, and it took down every preconception of an origin story with it. The film was an instant event because of its impact on Black representation in cinema, and writer/director Ryan Coogler infused the character’s first modern big screen appearance with the kind of storytelling that helped it transcend genre expectations and draw audiences from all backgrounds.

Black Panther crushed every February and Presidents Day record with a towering $202 million opening weekend, the highest ever for an origin film. Once again, Marvel goodwill and the film’s own merits helped it stick with moviegoers long after those early records, earning $700.1 million domestically and $1.35 billion around the globe. It became the third highest grossing film in domestic history at the time, and upset another Marvel film as 2018’s highest earner in North America.

The film that was upset? May’s Avengers: Infinity War — although no one would say it disappointed by any measure. Whereas Ultron played more like a continuation of the core Avengers’s stories, Infinity War upped the ante and shifted the focus to the largest collection of characters ever attempted in a comic book adaptation.

Intense hype surrounding the first appearance of characters like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians in a bona fide Avengers film — combined with the synergy of Marvel Studios’ tenth anniversary — helped power a new opening weekend record of $257.7 million, topping the 2-years-and-4-months reign of Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($248 million).

Moreover, the shocking cliffhanger made Infinity War stand apart from everything Marvel had ever done up to that point, leaving fans in shock and disbelief at the enormous loss the fictional universe suffered in the film’s final moments.

Infinity War ultimately earned $678.8 million at the domestic box office, while winning the yearly crown with $2.05 billion globally — the fourth film to ever reach that mark, and the first comic book or superhero film to ever do so. Par for the course, its post-credit scene offered one glimmer of hope for the future of the Marvel universe.

Later that summer, realizing fans would be in dire need of some levity after the tragedy endured earlier in the season, Marvel delivered Ant-Man and the Wasp to save the day. Like the sequels to solo titles before it, this one similarly improved upon its predecessor’s performance with a $75.8 million July bow, onward to $216.7 million domestically and $623 million worldwide.

Taking place before the events of Infinity War, avid viewers knew the sequel wouldn’t significantly advance the overall franchise’s story line, but it had its fair share of introductory elements and another post-credit tease that further connected the dots in the setup for a looming finale.

The final missing piece before that finale, however, was another milestone in Marvel’s first female-led film: Captain Marvel. While marking another jump back in time for the MCU — its early 1990s setting makes it second chronologically after The First Avenger — it was Infinity War‘s post-credit scene featuring a mysterious pager that set this film up to break out in a big way.

Debuting to $153.4 million in March 2019, Captain Marvel fell shy of only Black Panther among all-time superhero origin box office launches. The film played well with audiences as it rang in $426.8 million stateside and $1.13 billion globally, and introduced one final integral character before the conclusion of Marvel’s Infinity Saga.

Just weeks later, the denouement arrived. After 21 films, Avengers: Endgame concluded the unprecedented big screen arc that began with Iron Man eleven years earlier.

Anticipation was feverish to the degree that pre-sales crashed movie ticketing websites for hours. The result was an opening weekend that exceeded even the wildest and most optimistic of expectations: $357.1 million domestically (besting Infinity War‘s previous record by a full $100 million) and $1.2 billion worldwide. It was the first film to ever achieve a $1 billion-plus global debut.

Endgame united fans and general audiences in a way few films before it ever have as the intense curiosity surrounding the cliffhanger of Infinity War elevated the must-see nature of the highly touted climax in this part of the MCU’s life cycle. Everyone knew there would be more Marvel films, but no one knew who would make it out alive and how Thanos’s victory one year earlier would be answered — nor at what cost.

If there was any doubt that the MCU, and the Avengers films in particular, had joined the highest ranking echelon of pop culture impacts previously championed by only a handful of franchises, those doubts were laid to rest with the single biggest communal movie-going weekend in history. The zeitgeist couldn’t have been more tapped.

Endgame burned off so much demand early on that it would prove challenging to unseat Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ domestic crown ($936.7 million), but Phase Three’s third act did topple Avatar‘s global record. With $2.798 billion to its name in the end, Avengers: Endgame officially became the king of the worldwide box office chart on July 21, 2019.

Ultimately, with the film’s big climax and tragic goodbye, the emotional anchor of Tony Stark and Peter Parker’s relationship validated the importance of having the latter character become part of the grand MCU plan.

Of course, just over two months later, the story continued. Serving as an epilogue to the events of Endgame, Marvel positioned Spider-Man: Far From Home as another necessary emotional comedown with a story that directly — and often literally — picked up the pieces for Peter. Its $92.6 million first weekend was deflated by an atypical mid-week launch for a Marvel film, but the rest was the same story on a different day: the first Spidey sequel within the MCU bested its predecessor’s run with a $390.5 million domestic take and $1.13 billion global haul.

Phase Four (2020 – 2022 … Tentatively)

Since that film, as well as its own major post-credit reveal, the MCU has been dormant. Much of that was planned since there was never another film on the slate before May 2020. The gap was supposed to end with the release of Black Widow, but it was one of many release casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time Widow opens (presuming its November 2020 opening isn’t delayed again), there will have been a 16-month wait for a new Marvel film — the longest span between any two MCU releases outside the 23-month gap between The Incredible Hulk in June 2008 and Iron Man 2 in May 2010.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, though, and fans will have plenty of new MCU material to look forward to even after Widow. 2021 is currently scheduled to host three more films with The Eternals (February 12), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (May 7), and another Spider-Man sequel (November 5).

Likewise, 2022 is currently slated to see the release of Thor: Love and Thunder (February 11), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (March 25), Black Panther II (May 6), and a Captain Marvel sequel (July 8).

Most of those titles have already shifted from their originally planned release dates due to COVID-19, and it’s possible more changes could occur as Marvel re-aligns its theatrical plans and soon-to-launch Disney+ series featuring key MCU characters. Production delays could also be a factor as the world continues to fight the virus and push toward a vaccine and fully recovery.

Still, even after the triumphant success of Endgame and the franchise as a whole, promising new horizons await — especially in the wake of Disney’s Fox purchase, which sends franchises like X-Men, Fantastic Four, Blade, and many others into the capable hands of Marvel Studios.

Clearly, it’s a safe bet that Kevin Feige still has more cards up his sleeve as fans around the world wait to share the next rousing Marvel moments in a movie theater, together.

The MCU: By the Numbers (as of June 2020)

  • 23 Films
  • 3 All-Time Opening Weekend Records (Domestic)
  • 3 Domestic #1 Yearly Finishes (Total Gross)
  • 4 Global #1 Yearly Finishes (Total Gross)
  • 12 Domestic Top 5 Yearly Finishes (Total Gross)
  • 18 Domestic Top 10 Yearly Finishes (Total Gross)
  • 6.6% (Share of Domestic Market Box Office, 2008 – 2019)
  • 84.7% (Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score – Average)
  • 84.2%* (Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score – Average)
  • $197 Million (Production Budget – Average)
  • $135.3 Million (Domestic Opening Weekend – Average)
  • $3.11 Billion (Domestic Opening Weekends – Total)
  • $371.5 Million (Domestic Gross – Average)
  • $8.55 Billion (Domestic Gross – Total)
  • $981.6 Million (Global Gross – Average)
  • $22.6 Billion (Global Gross – Total)

* excludes Black Panther and Captain Marvel audience scores due to targeted review bombing

News Stories