This Weekend in Box Office History: Marvel’s Avengers Rewrite Record Books with Infinity War and Endgame; Fast Five Gets the Jump on Thor

Photo Credits: Disney and Universal

Amid preliminary news of theaters targeting a late summer re-opening (tentatively, of course), our temporary mid-week column marches onward with a look back at a trio of influential releases that hit theaters on the 17th weekend of their given years as we continue celebrating some of the great moviegoing and box office moments of yore..

Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame
April 27 – 29, 2018 and April 26 – 28, 2019

One need only to look back at the past two years for what are the most notable films to ever open on this weekend. They’re also the reigning weekend champions to date, and it’s nigh impossible to discuss one without the other.

Two years ago, Marvel Studios was celebrating its tenth anniversary since the release of 2008’s Iron Man. As we all know by now, that film ran away to become of the year’s biggest hits, rekindled Robert Downey, Jr.’s star status, and launched one of the most successful film franchises in history.

The celebration of that anniversary was already set up for major fireworks leading into 2018 after the Marvel Cinematic Universe spent 18 films building up a massive story arc that would meet its denouement in the third and fourth Avengers films. Following Thor: Ragnarok‘s success in November 2017, the following February’s Black Panther blew away origin story, Presidents Day, and February records (not to mention all expectations) with a $202 million debut weekend. It became the third highest grossing film ever released in North America at the time.

The stage was perfectly set for Avengers: Infinity War when it opened just two-and-a-half months later.

While the first Avengers film was a massive blockbuster in its own right back in 2012, and 2015’s Age of Ultron sequel drew respectable event numbers around the world, Infinity War was the first MCU chapter that promised to unite virtually every major character that had ever appeared (and were still alive) in a single film. It was a herculean task for Marvel, Kevin Feige, directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — but one which they lived up to.

Infinity War smashed box office records on opening weekend, dethroning Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ $248 million domestic bow with a new record of $257.7 million in late April 2018, part of an overall $641 million global debut (which topped The Fate of the Furious‘ previous record of $541 million). It did that without China, too, which didn’t see Infinity open until early May.

Ultimately, Infinity War finished its event-level run with $678.8 million domestically and nearly $2.05 billion worldwide. Beyond the numbers, though, the film captivated die hard fans and casual audiences alike not just with its massive scope and high-stakes storytelling, but also with a tragic ending like none Marvel had ever left viewers with at the end of previous films.

“The Snap” devastated fans and became a frequently referenced event throughout pop culture for the next year-plus, becoming a cinematic moment that seemed to instantly claim its place with the likes of The Empire Strikes Back as one of the most memorable and unexpected cliffhangers to grace the silver screen.

Almost as quickly as Thanos himself could snap his fingers, Marvel established a painful, year-long wait for moviegoers of all ages and backgrounds.

That summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp offered a lighthearted reprieve with a story that (mostly) took place prior to Infinity War‘s events. In early 2019, Captain Marvel next became one of the biggest non-summer openers ever with a $153 million domestic launch, $426.8 million domestic finish, and $1.1 billion global box office haul — all while providing the introduction to a character teased by Infinity War‘s mysterious post-credit scene, and positioning the final pieces for the Infinity Saga’s imminent resolution.

But even with two releases after the third Avengers title, both looked backward in time rather than forward. The Marvel universe’s story didn’t fully continue until the night of Thursday, April 25 when the first screenings of Avengers: Endgame rolled for audiences around the globe.

With a marketing campaign shrouded in secrecy, but promising a monumental payoff to both Infinity War and every major story thread established in the previous 21 films, Endgame was a global cinematic ultra-event unlike anything before it.

After taking down online ticket pre-sellers for hours at a time in 2019, the finale took down every conceivable box office record on opening weekend: $357.1 million in North America and $866 million overseas for a global opening of approximately $1.22 billion through its first weekend. Never before had so many people from all corners of the world united to go to the movies on the same weekend. If you weren’t sitting in a movie theater one year ago this weekend, you were on the outside looking in.

Endgame was the ultimate franchise finale thanks in large part to Marvel’s unprecedented level of consistent, episodic storytelling over the course the decade prior. It proved the be the kind of must-see event that only comes along once or twice a decade, but was still wholly unique on its own terms and not something we’re likely see again anytime soon. Even one year on, the internet is still fondly remembering audience reactions during some of the film’s biggest moments — reactions, and collective emotions, that simply never could have happened anywhere but in a movie theater.

The film ultimately finished with $858.4 million domestically (the second highest ever behind The Force Awakens’ $936.7 million), and $1.94 billion overseas (again, second only to Avatar‘s $2.03 billion). But Endgame‘s crowning achievement at the box office occurred on July 21, 2019 when combined global earnings pushed the film past Avatar ($2.79 billion) to become the world’s highest grossing film of all time.

Both films of the two-part finale rank among the five highest grossing films of all time domestically and worldwide. Avengers: Endgame completed its initial, historic run with $2.798 billion.

Check out our interviews with co-director Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

Fast Five
April 29 – May 1, 2011

It’s tough to follow a story like the Avengers two-parter, but one could argue the Fast & Furious franchise was at least partly influential in Disney and Marvel’s decision to start opening their films before the first Friday in May — traditionally recognized as the summer movie season’s kick-off.

Nine years ago, the Fast franchise was back on the upswing thanks to the success of 2009’s revival, Fast & Furious. That movie, too, ended on something of a cliffhanger with Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto being hauled away to prison before — surprise — his friends show up in a rescue attempt, teasing a new chain of events and outlaw status for the franchise’s beloved characters.

Coupled with the payoff of how that rescue would unfold, plus the introduction of Dwayne Johnson to the series, Fast Five leveraged the series’ shift to higher stakes, bigger action set pieces, and full embrace of a family-driven tone with superb results in 2011. The sequel delivered a then-franchise-record $86.2 million domestic opening weekend (a 22 percent increase from its predecessor), which also stood as the best-ever April debut at the time (since surpassed by six other films).

In an example of the kind of back-to-back scheduling we’d be unlikely to see again from two such tentpole brands in today’s climate, Fast Five opened just one week before Marvel’s first Thor film — which was distributed by Paramount at the time — and, in fact, out-opened the Asgardian’s origin story ($65.7 million) by more than $20 million.

Although release calendars and seasons have shifted drastically over the past decade with the increase in non-summer and non-holiday blockbusters, this was the first true example of the perceived summer slate getting an early start before calendars officially flipped to May.

All told, Fast Five continued the series’ newfound longevity under director Justin Lin, writer Chris Morgan, and producer Neal H. Moritz as the sequel scored $416 million internationally and $626 million globally overall, representing franchise highs with 103 and 74 percent increases, respectively, from the fourth film. Domestically, it increased 35 percent to a $209.8 million haul — the first of the series to cross the $200 million threshold.

You can find previous editions of this column in our archives.

Photo Credits: Disney and Universal
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