Avengers: Endgame arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K HD and “priced-to-rent” VOD this morning. This, of course, follows a record-crushing theatrical run that saw it become the second-biggest movie ever in North America (behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the third-biggest ever in China (behind The Wandering Earth and Wolf Warrior 2), the second-biggest internationally (behind Avatar) and the biggest overall global grosser of all time. Oh, and with $2.795.5 billion worldwide for Avengers 4, $1.128 billion for Captain Marvel and (thus far) $1.097 billion worldwide for Spider-Man: Far From Home, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has earned $5.02 billion in 2019.
In a related note, once Far From Home passes Skyfall ($1.108 billion in 2012, sans 3-D), the MCU will have the highest-grossing movies in two separate studios. Moreover, only the last three Mission: Impossible movies (Ghost Protocol in 2011, Rogue Nation in 2015 and Fallout in 2018) and the third/fourth Transformers movies (Dark of the Moon in 2011 and Age of Extinction in 2014) have exceeded Iron Man 2‘s global gross ($624 million in 2010) among live-action Paramount flicks. Yes, Interstellar earned $677 million in late 2014, but it was distributed overseas by Warner Bros.
In a matter of weeks, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be responsible for the biggest Disney movie of all time (among many big Disney earners since 2012), the biggest Sony flick and one of Paramount’s last live-action mega-hits. But 2010, or even 2014 (when Marvel arguably became MARVEL), was a long time ago. Two things happened five years ago that put the MCU where it is today. First, Captain America: The Winter Soldier began the brand’s gimmick of explicitly approximating specific genres within their superhero movies. Second, Guardians of the Galaxy offered a summer flick bigger in scope compared to their blockbuster brethren.
Iron Man wasn’t the biggest movie of the year back in 2008, either in terms of grosses (it earned less worldwide than Mamma Mia and Hancock) or scale (it stretched every dollar of that $140 million budget). None of the pre-Avengers MCU movies explicitly “ruled” the box office. Iron Man 2 ($624 million) got bested by Inception ($792 million) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($697 million) that summer while both Thor ($449 million) and Captain America ($371 million) were out-grossed in 2011 by the likes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($480 million), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ($545 million) and The Smurfs ($564 million).
While the MCU movies grew in scale after The Avengers ($1.519 billion in 2012), it wasn’t until The Winter Soldier ($714 million, just above Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million, just above Maleficent) in 2014 when you could argue that MCU blockbusters were among the biggest of the big. Those films arguably came in second in terms of size and scale only to Michael Bay’s ridiculously massive Transformers: Age of Extinction ($1 billion) and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($950 million). But genre approximation was their secret weapon.
You can debate to what extent The Winter Soldier is actually a Tom Clancy-meets-Sydney Pollack spy thriller in tights, but the narrative about Marvel’s superhero movies being genre flicks in disguise stuck. Marvel wasn’t the first studio to play this game. Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight was clearly a Michael Mann/Sydney Lumet crime epic with Batman and the Joker thrown in. Fox’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a 1990′s Cannon actioner, while X-Men: First Class was a 1960′s spy caper. But the explicit pitch worked as a way to make sure audiences didn’t mind getting more than one (or two) Marvel movies in any given year.
As such, we got Ant-Man (a heist movie), Captain America: Civil War (a political thriller), Doctor Strange (a fantasy freak out/kung fu melodrama) and so on. In these last few years, the superhero movie has become more and more popular for three specific reasons. First, on par, they tend to be better movies than other related blockbuster/franchise flicks. All due respect, but Wonder Woman > King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword, Black Panther > Solo: A Star Wars Story and Spider-Man: Far From Home > Men in Black: International. That’s partially because they are no longer “just” superhero movies.
Second, the whole “superheroes+genre” gimmick gives them a leg up on the competition. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a teen coming of age story in tights, King Arthur is trying to turn King Arthur into a conventional superhero franchise character, and thus the film comes off as a painfully generic superhero origin story. Ditto Solo, Robin Hood and Tomb Raider. Merely being a superhero movie is no longer special, so the ones that score use that as a jumping-off point to play in different genres and take their already-established (and crowd-pleasing) characters in new directions. Or, in the case of DC’s Aquaman, every direction and every genre.
The superhero movies that rest on their “I’m a superhero movie!” laurels, like Dark Phoenix and Justice League, are usually the ones that stumble. The third big reason why superhero cinema, and especially Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, have taken such a foothold in Hollywood since 2014 is that audiences are now (generally) flocking to the theaters only when there is a specific character/protagonist whom they want to see in a grand adventure. Audiences show up for an appropriately sci-fi/body horror weird Venom movie because it’s a Venom movie, and as long as the film contains Tom Hardy going full-Tom Hardy as Venom, it’s a winner.
Audiences show up to Mission: Impossible because they want to see Ethan Hunt, they show up to Bohemian Rhapsody to see Freddie Mercury and they show up to Halloween to see Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode square off against Michael Myers. This notion isn’t limited to superhero movies, but the character has supplanted the actor/actress as the primary draw, and comic book superhero movies tend to offer established/popular characters as their primary focus. The MCU has a huge advantage since audiences like the specific cinematic incarnations of these superhero characters. It’s not just “Hey, it’s Thor!” It’s “Hey, it’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor!”
Imagine a brand/franchise so popular and trusted that every new character+casting announcement is greeted with the same excitement and presumption-of-quality that greeted the epilogue of Batman Begins when Batman turned over that Joker card as the crowd went wild. That reveal was exciting precisely because audiences had just sat through Chris Nolan’s top-notch Batman origin story/action drama, and the notion of The Joker appearing within that world was incredibly exciting to fans. That’s where Kevin Feige’s MCU is now. At least since 2014, the biggest marketing hook for an MCU movie is that it’s an MCU movie.
Here’s the proverbial endgame of all of this. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has made itself, through a series of relatively (whether I like each one or not) good/well-made character-driven action fantasies that offer a diversity of genre appropriation and spectacle on par with the biggest of the big blockbusters of any given year, a one-stop-shop for tentpole action fantasy audiences. Marvel movies are among the biggest-scaled blockbusters in any given year, and they have so successfully approximated genre and other potential franchises that they threaten to put their competition out of business by offering loose examples of almost every other potential fantasy franchise.
Paramount wants to reboot G.I. Joe? That’s nice, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War are already there. Sony wants to give us another Masters of the Universe movie? Sorry, Noah Centineo, but Thor: Ragnarok is probably the best He-Man movie we’re ever going to get, and Thor: Love and Thunder (featuring Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as “Mighty Thor”) is going to take a crack at being the best She-Ra movie too. If Doctor Strange: The Multiverse Of Madness lives up to its pitch as Marvel’s first horror movie, then it will succeed where Brightburn and Hellboy (2019) failed.
As long as audiences like the lead heroes and their heroic supporting casts, the MCU movies can pluck those characters and throw them into any genre they so choose. Universal’s Fast & Furious scored (almost accidentally) for much the same reason, with the first eight flicks offering different genres (a cars-and-heists flick, an 80′s drug actioner, a Karate Kid riff, a revenge thriller, a heist caper, a superhero movie, a Mission: Impossible movie and a spy thriller) for Dom and his family. With audiences choosing superhero+genre movies like Logan over genuine genre flicks, well, that’s why the superhero movie is so dominant right now.
This isn’t to say that MCU movies are all better than their respective competition. Heck, it’s no secret that I prefer Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to Black Panther, Shazam! to Captain Marvel and Aquaman to Avengers: Endgame. Marvel has used its genre appropriation (a teen comedy, a Godfather-meets-007 action melodrama, a romantic comedy, etc.) to justify two-to-three movies per year and to potentially displace not just genuine genre films (why see The Edge of Seventeen when you can see Spider-Man: Homecoming?) but other IP/franchises from rival studios. Yes, this accounts for many of the Fox films whose development Disney just killed.
Who needs a He-Man movie when you’ve got Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok? Who needs King Arthur when you’ve got Aquaman? Who needs, and this breaks my heart, Alita: Battle Angel when you’ve got DC’s Wonder Woman? Let’s see how this plays out, who needs Dune when you’ve got Eternals? We saw Paramount’s Star Trek franchise, itself somewhat remolded to resemble Star Wars, crash and burn once Star Wars came back to theaters. What we may see now is a reverse scenario, where rival studios’ rebooted IP gets whacked because Marvel (and, to a lesser extent, DC Films) have offered approximations that audiences prefer over the genuine article.
And that’s the endgame. Marvel won’t just dominate the superhero landscape (presumably alongside DC Films) but will offer so many different movies in so many different genres that it’ll render much of its competition, even outside the superhero sphere, redundant and comparatively irrelevant.