Number Crunch: The Marvel Cinematic Universe at the Box Office

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe, often abbreviated as the MCU, needs little explanation by now: It’s an audacious series of 20 interconnected movies, spanning more than a decade to date, featuring overlapping characters and story lines.

Marvel’s track record speaks for itself, with box office totals of $6.86 billion domestically and $17.52 billion globally. Whether in pure dollars or adjusted for ticket price inflation, that’s the biggest movie franchise ever. And its box office prowess has grown with age. In 2018, the MCU boasted the top two highest-grossing films of the year—Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. The three installments coming in 2019 all appear likely to finish among the year’s top 10 earners. The slate debuts with March’s highly anticipated Captain Marvel, followed only a month later by Avengers: Endgame. With those two releases soon to hit theaters, let’s look back at the box office history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the beginning …

It started with a bold ambition: an overarching narrative across a series of films, with each film spotlighting a different protagonist but sharing crossover characters with the others. The seeds were planted in May 2008 with Iron Man—on paper, a highly risky bet in several respects. At the time, Iron Man was not a household name but a distant cousin to much more recognizable comic book favorites like Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman. An ingenuous marketing campaign began to change that perception, prompting a satirical headline in The Onion: “Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer to be Adapted into Full-Length Film.” The film debuted to $98.6 million on the first weekend of May, such a massive debut that Marvel would schedule a film for either the last weekend of April or the first weekend of May every single year for the next dozen years. A post-credits scene laid the groundwork for the movies to come: standalone superhero films leading to an ensemble blockbuster, Marvel’s The Avengers

Iron Man went on to earn $318.4 million domestically and $585.2 million worldwide. Iron Man 2 (2010) improved upon its predecessor: a $128.1 million debut, a $312.4 million domestic haul, and $623.9 million global total. Iron Man 3 (2013), the superhero’s last standalone title, reflected the franchise’s growing popularity: a $174.1 million bow, a $409 million domestic take, and a $1.21 billion global tally. 

Assembling a team

As other characters were introduced, Marvel increased the number of releases to as many as three separate films in certain years. While other studios might have worried about audiences getting franchise fatigue (imagine three James Bond films released per year), Marvel’s unique properties—with their distinct tones, characters, and worlds—kept audiences coming back.

Along the way, the films introduced new characters before giving them their own installments, acquainting audiences with a growing roster. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in Iron Man 3, while Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man both premiered in Captain America: Civil War.

The second franchise to emerge was 2011’s Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth. Debuting with $65.7 million, it earned $181.0 million domestically and $449.3 million globally. Just like the three Iron Man installments, the Thor trilogy improved at the box office with every subsequent release. Thor: The Dark World (2013) opened to $85.7 million, earning $206.3 million domestically and $644.6 million globally. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) started with $122.7 million, earning $315.0 million domestically and $854.0 million globally.

The third franchise to arise from the Marvel canon, 2011’s Captain America starring Chris Evans, enjoyed similar success. It started with $65.0 million, earning $176.6 million domestically and $370.6 million globally. Each ensuing Captain America installment similarly bested its predecessor in all metrics. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) opened to $95.0 million, earning $259.7 million domestically and $714.3 million globally. Two years later, Captain America: Civil War debuted to $179.1 million, taking in $408.0 million domestically and $1.15 billion globally.

Age of dominance

Marvel’s true juggernaut run arguably began with 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, which brought together six superheroes in one blockbuster. While the previous films were certainly hits, none rose to the level of The Avengers.

The ensemble film launched with $207.4 million, at the time the biggest domestic opening weekend ever. It would ultimately accrue $623.3 million and $1.51 billion globally, the top title of the year on both metrics and the first Marvel movie to be the biggest of its year. At the time, it was the second-biggest movie of the post-Titanic era, behind only Avatar.

Its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), brought back its predecessor’s cast along with several additional characters introduced in standalone installments over the subsequent three years. It posted a $191.2 million opening, $459.0 million domestically, and $1.40 billion globally.

Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War took things to yet another level, in terms of both story and box office. Combining virtually every character ever featured in any Marvel movie over the previous decade, and while its two predecessors had both cleared a billion dollars worldwide, this installment topped $2 billion—only the fourth movie in history to do so. 

It began by opening with $257.6 million, the biggest domestic opening ever (or no. 2 adjusted for ticket price inflation) and a $640.5 million global opening, also the biggest ever. Ultimately the title would take in $678.8 million domestically and $2.04 billion globally, the highest-grossing film worldwide in 2018.

Coming up

It looks like 2019 is shaping up to be another massive year for Marvel, possibly their biggest yet. Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, out March 8, follows a highly buzzed-about character teaser from Avengers: Infinity War. As for Avengers, the fourth and (supposedly) final installment, Avengers: Endgame, out April 26, is expected to be one of the year’s biggest box office hits.