This Weekend in Box Office History: Spider-Man Heralds the Superhero Summer Lead-Off, Avengers Assemble, & Gladiator Turns 20

Photo Credits: Sony / Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Distribution, Disney, New Line Cinema

In a continuing look back at benchmark box office runs, our attention turns to the eighteenth weekend of the year — which has typically represented the first weekend of May, and the official start to summer movie season.

This weekend in the history of moviegoing is notable for its bevy of blockbusters — particularly over the last decade-and-a-half. In the late 20th century, it was common for summer’s perceived movie season to not truly begin until around Memorial Day. That began to change in a big way as the 2000s greeted us, though.

Sure, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery became an instant comedy classic with its leggy theatrical run that began on the weekend of May 2 – 4, 1997. It wasn’t an instant event, though, opening in second place with $9.6 million (behind Breakdown‘s $12.3 million) before tapping out with a strong $53.9 million domestically, igniting two blockbuster sequels and countless pop culture references and quotable moments in the years to follow.

We also can’t forget Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning epic, Gladiator. The modern classic featuring multiple Oscar nominees (Scott himself for directing, stars Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, and composer Hans Zimmer, to name but a few of its twelve nods) opened to $34.8 million on the frame of May 5 – 7, 2000. It ultimately earned $187.7 million domestically as part of a $460.6 million worldwide run, an impressive feat for a drama releasing during popcorn movie season and before the advent of major global markets.

One year later, The Mummy Returns claimed the second best all-time opening weekend with a $68.1 million debut (behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s $72.1 million three-day haul in 1997) during the May 4 – 6, 2001 frame as it leveraged the enormous goodwill of 1999’s The Mummy.

Rise of the Summer Superheroes

The real box office fireworks, arguably, started in 2002.

After decades of anticipation, the first live-action Spider-Man film took theaters and moviegoers by storm with a $114.8 million opening weekend during the May 3 – 5, 2002 period. It established numerous records at the time, not the least of which was becoming the first film in cinema history to eclipse the $100 million mark in three days. Its debut topped Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone‘s previous record of $90.3 million, set six months earlier in November 2001.

Spider-Man was a watershed moment for the industry, and for American culture. Much like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in the months before it, Sam Raimi’s big-screen translation of one of the most iconic characters in pop literature history offered the kind of patriotic, fun sense of heroism audiences were clamoring to see in their cinematic adventures during the months after the devastation of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

A confluence of escpaism, pent-up demand, a massive marketing campaign, and appeal to all four quadrants of moviegoers translated into an historic moment for the movie universe.

Spider-Man ultimately won its box office year with $403.7 million domestically and $821.7 million worldwide. Combined with 2000’s X-Men, a slightly more modest but still highly successful and influential hit, this signaled the start of the blockbuster comic book movie era.

One year later, X2: X-Men United delivered a big $85.6 million debut of its own during the May 2 – 4 weekend in 2003, a title that remains of the best reviewed films of its franchise and the genre to date.

In the years that followed, not every one featured a summer starting with comic book heroes — not yet, anyway. Mean Girls began its cultural imprint with a $24.4 million start in 2004, followed by J.J. Abrams’ directorial debut — and his first of three major franchise revivals — with Mission: Impossible III, which bowed to $47.7 million as 2006’s summer lead-off.

In 2007, Spider-Man 3 set another all-time opening record with $151.1 million during the May 4 -6 frame — largely on the back of enormous goodwill from its two predecessors, which elevated the third entry to the kind of “must-see event” status never seen before during an opening at that time.

Since then, the beginning of May has almost entirely been dominated by a Marvel property of some kind.

Rise of the MCU

Though it wouldn’t achieve chart-busting, all-time records, 2008’s Iron Man marked the next major transition of Marvel’s growing dominance on pop entertainment as it out-performed many expectations and drew generations of viewers throughout its lengthy summer run.

Star Robert Downey, Jr. was primed and ready for a massive career comeback, and the goodwill behind him — as well as his pitch-perfect casting as Tony Stark — helped bring out fans of all ages during this origin story’s $98.6 million debut weekend, ultimately leading to a $318.6 million domestic box office run and a mega-franchise that has dominated industry headlines ever since.

Though Iron Man 2 kicked off summer 2010, it landed one week later on the calendar that year — but we can next look to 2011’s Thor (though, arguably, not the first summer movie of its year) and 2012’s The Avengers — which bested Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II‘s standing $169.2 million all-time record and became the first film in history to top $200 million in a single weekend with $207.4 million.

Essentially, what Raimi and Spider-Man began in 2002, Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, Joss Whedon, and Avengers took to the next level in 2012 as it demolished box office records in its opening days and weeks before finishing with $623.3 million stateside (the second-best ever, back then, behind only Avatar) and $1.52 billion worldwide. It was the first film in history to unite multiple, major superheroes in one film — and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first phase had ended, but the franchise’s impact was only just beginning.

Since the earth-shattering effects of Avengers‘ accomplishments, films like Iron Man 3 ($174.1 million), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($91.6 million), Avengers: Age of Ultron ($191.3 million), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($146.5 million) contributed their own footprints to this weekend in Mays of yore. Naturally, no studio wanted to contend with the second frames of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in 2018 and 2019.

All told, the first Friday in May offered up a major superhero film — MCU or otherwise — for 13 consecutive years through 2019. 2020 was set to continue that streak with Black Widow until its delay to this November in response to theater closures resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 situation.

Although that streak may technically be broken, an asterisk is surely deserved to allow it a continuance-in-spirit when Disney and Marvel plan to release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on May 7, 2021 — twenty years after Peter Parker broke the box office mold and heralded the era of superheroes christening the summer slate on an annual basis.

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

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