Tales From The Box Office: 10 Years Ago The Avengers Redefined Blockbuster Filmmaking

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

There are moments in cinema history that, when it really comes down to it, are part of a relatively small collection of moments that helped to truly define movies as we know them. The kind of moment that both feels big in the moment and gets even bigger with some time spent reflecting upon it. 

One of those moments celebrated its tenth anniversary this week, as Marvel's "The Avengers" first hit theaters in May of 2012 and, not to overstate things, but blockbuster filmmaking has never been the same since. This remains a very definitive line in the sand — there was what blockbusters were before this movie, and what they became after this movie. Period.

In honor of the ten years since the Avengers assembled for the first time, we're going to look back on how the radical multi-franchise crossover came to be, its unprecedented levels of success, how it influenced every other studio in Hollywood to chase that same success (with poor emulation), and what lessons can be gleaned from it looking back. Let's dive in.

The movie: The Avengers

At moments, a decade removed from the summer of 2012, it can be tough to remember just how radical "The Avengers" felt at the time. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before in movies. Sure, mainstream comic books had been crossing over characters like this for decades, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "The Avengers" #1 hitting stands way back in September 1963. But in the aftermath of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" in 2002, Marvel had a window to finally bring its superheroes to the masses, and that's exactly what they did. Before Disney purchased Marvel in December of 2009, the company had struck a deal with Paramount Pictures for distribution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1 films, with the rights to the characters themselves on the line for financers if things went south financially.

Luckily, "Iron Man" kicked things off with a bang despite the fact that the character was nowhere near (and I mean nowhere near) as popular as Spider-Man at the time. The same could be said for virtually all of the Phase 1 heroes, with Hulk being the lone exception — and, ironically enough, "The Incredible Hulk" remains the lowest-grossing entry in the MCU to date. The point is, Marvel was attempting to do on the biggest stage what they had always done in the comics. The problem is, if just one domino didn't fall into place, this was going to be a tough sell. 

But Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (first played by Edward Norton, then replaced by Mark Ruffalo for "The Avengers"), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Captain America (Chris Evens), not to mention Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had all successfully been introduced in the four years leading up to this gigantic crossover. Speaking in 2010, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who had yet to assert himself as one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, explained the overall approach to making this all work:

"My only concern is that when we launch a franchise — whichever character's franchise that may be — it should stand on its own two feet ... So by the time 'The Avengers' comes in 2012, it's not just a team superhero movie with a bunch of characters with powers. It's three people — four including the Hulk; five including Nick Fury — who you've seen before in other movies, coming together for the very first time."

Interestingly enough, that is largely how comic books work at their best. You can read an issue of "Avengers" without necessarily having to follow all of the individual titles. That same theory has largely been applied to the MCU for 14 years now, and it has served Marvel and Disney well. The big question remained about the director's chair, and that seat was ultimately filled by Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly." Whedon has since become persona non grata due to numerous allegations of harassment and workplace bullying, but at the time, his public image was that of a nerd's nerd who had conquered Hollywood. Whedon getting this job felt like the kind of decision studios simply don't make. Feige, also speaking in 2010, said this of Whedon:

"I've known Joss for many years. We were looking for the right thing and he came in and met on it. As you've already heard him say on his panels, he's incredibly intelligent, he's got great things to say about it, and if you look at the directors we've worked with, we hire directors who have the potential to do great things and we want our film to be that great thing."

Whedon opted to write his own version of the film, taking over for Zek Penn ("Incredible Hulk") who had penned an earlier draft. Tom Hiddleston's Loki from "Thor" would serve as the main villain; the disgruntled adopted brother of Thor would be looking for vengeance by taking control of Earth, with a little help from a mysterious scepter that we would later discover to contain one of the Infinity Stones, right alongside the Tesseract. The stage was set. The heroes were assembled. Disney was putting up the cash for the whole venture. A director was in place. Time to make history.

The financial journey

Let's be perfectly clear, heading into the weekend of May 4, 2012, there was absolutely no guarantee that "The Avengers" was going to work on the level that it needed to work. Sure, "Iron Man" ($585 million) was a hit, but "The Incredible Hulk" ($265 million), "Thor" ($449 million), and "Captain America: The First Avenger" ($370 million) were far more modest hits in an age when home video sales and ancillary revenue streams generated enough money to call some of those hits. But "The Avengers" not only came with a massive $220 million budget; it also served as a proof of concept for the future. If this worked, Marvel Studios and Disney had untold possibilities for the future, with hundreds of characters waiting in the wings. If it didn't, the ambitions might have to cool. It worked in superheroic fashion.

Come Monday morning, May 7, "The Avengers" had collected $207 million in its opening weekend, absolutely smashing the all-time domestic record. (A record that, in the years since, has largely only been broken by other Marvel Studios films, with those records being built on the back of this movie's success.) Billions and billion of box office revenue all essentially radiates from this single weekend ten years ago. It is one of the landmark moments in cinema history from a pure dollars and cents standpoint. Keep in mind how thrilled Marvel was when "Blade" made $131 million in total back in 1998. Times had changed in a big bad way.

Whedon's superhero team-up, bolstered by very kind reviews from critics, kept chugging along, ultimately finishing with $623.3 million domestic and $895.4 million internationally for a grand total of $1.51 billion. The key here is that this wasn't just working in North America; audiences all around the world saw this as a must-see event. At the time, it trailed only a pair of James Cameron blockbusters ("Titanic" and "Avatar") at the all-time box office. Expectations were certainly high but nobody could have predicted that Marvel, a company that was dealing with bankruptcy in the late 90s, would become the comeback kid that now rules Hollywood.

The lessons contained within

Hollywood will always attempt to emulate the success of others. What Marvel and Disney accomplished with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2012 was impossible to ignore. I don't mean to beat a well-worn drum here but, as I often point out in this column, studios are great at learning the wrong lessons from something's success. However, the sheer insane success of the MCU and the attempts at emulation that followed (and are still following in many ways) is the most prominent example of people getting it wrong with utterly disastrous results.

Warner Bros. and DC Films released "Man of Steel" in 2013 and, rather than slowly build a cinematic universe just as Marvel had done, one movie at a time, they hit the panic button and decided to try and play catch up in a hurry. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" followed in 2016 and, as we all know, that did not go according to plan. Warner Bros. has kind of been chasing its tail when it comes to the DC brand ever since and, to this day, the DC cinematic landscape lacks a cohesive creative vision, even with gigantic successes such as "Aquaman," "Joker," and "The Batman" under its belt. "The Avengers" didn't just work because of the whole cinematic universe thing. It was all built on good movies and, more importantly, characters that people cared about. (RIP Snyderverse.)

Universal Pictures, similarly, s*** the bed in epic fashion with the Dark Universe that both kicked off and ended with Tom Cruise's "The Mummy" in 2017. The idea was to essentially turn the classic monsters into superhero franchises of a sort, with A-listers such as Johnny Depp (before his current, very public troubles), Javier Bardem, and Russell Crowe on board to build other films around Cruise that would lead to big team-ups. Yet, "The Mummy" tanked domestically, was met with terrible reviews and the whole thing was scrapped after just one film. A remarkable misunderstanding of Marvel's success.

Hollywood thinking now has so radically shifted to intellectual property, franchises, and interconnected universes that the mechanism behind Marvel's success is often seemingly disregarded, or at best misunderstood entirely. Focus on characters first. Focus on making a good movie first. The rest can come if that all works. Don't do what "Morbius" did with a focus on the future rather than the present. Maybe make "Man of Steel 2" and a "Batman" movie first before diving right into "BvS" and "Justice League." Don't double down on bad ideas simply because the cart that has been put in front of a horse demands it. 

Marvel remains an absolute force to be reckoned with because Feige and Disney never forgot what got them there in the first place. Poor imitations and lots of cash can't replace the art of making a crowd-pleaser that pleases in the moment, rather than being preoccupied with a future that may never come.