Great Expectations: Box Office and Marvel Cinematic Universe

The final price tag for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, per the NYT, is estimated at approximately $350M (production + marketing), with an opening domestic weekend gross of $145M. This does not represent a loss–we have the entire summer ahead of us, and then the secondary market (DVD and digital sales) will more than compensate any (unlikely) shortcoming in ticket sales. Still, this is considered an underperformance for a Marvel film by some prognosticators, and almost guarantees a few think-pieces by the end of June about how perhaps the Marvel screen realm has expanded to its natural limits and now only contraction remains. The unexpected overperformance of the first Guardians installment–a whopping $773M worldwide in tickets alone–will be cited as proof of franchise attrition and “superhero fatigue” three years out, and there will be smug nodding.

There’s a problem with this view however, and it’s one Marvel seems to be banking on heavily–those box-office numbers for Vol. 1 were the result of highly unusual sustain for the initial theatrical engagement, as I’ve discussed before in this space, with high repeat attendance. Only the full theatrical run of Vol. 2 will tell the real financial story, and that appears to be part of the plan. Not only did the pre-release availability of limited-edition unlimited passes like the one offered by Regal cinemas assume a certain percentage of the audience was willing to commit, pre-reviews, to attending sufficiently numerous screenings of the film that a $100 investment would even make financial sense to them, but less than a week into release, I’ve already encountered two other telling factors regarding long-term strategy.

1.) As I’ve discussed recently, Marvel seems to have arranged a very uniform rollout in theaters for the opening, with all the major multiplexes offering an afternoon double feature the day before the official date of May 5. I attended one of those at a Regal Cinemas in a large local mall (I live in a state capital but not a large city), and as I stumbled out into the light after the end of Vol. 2, my filmgoing companion and I were eagerly greeted by a young man thrusting small tablets at us for a survey. I’ve taken Nielsen-style surveys before, and I’m always fascinated by what a naked window they are into the wants of the commissioner. I was happy on this occasion to exchange my personal data for a peek at Marvel’s goals, and sure enough, they wanted to know when I thought I would be coming back to the film again, as well as my social media plans regarding it.

2.) It struck me intensely, partway through the third act of Vol. 2, that of all the Marvel films I’ve yet seen, the pacing of this film’s arc felt very familiar to me–which is to say, it felt like a thirteen-issue print story arc, in terms of scope, number of characters, degree of character and world-building development, and placement of action, etc. Last fall, though not as markedly, I was struck by the same feeling with Dr. Strange. This might seem to imply that Marvel is becoming increasingly confident in the overlap of their print and screen audiences, and a dual literacy in these mediums entering the theaters with them. As Rae observed last month, Marvel’s print side of things is having trouble retaining all the ready converts that the screen side is sending their way, through some truly fail calculations on their part, but I am one of the–and know many more–loyal readers who came into the fold via Marvel Cinematic Universe. I would love to know what the hard data on that looks like. Regardless, this shift into increasingly print-inflected narrative styles suggests a confidence that they can be deeply profitable from their core audience alone, and don’t have to rely on casting the widest possible nets, to fill out their summer blockbuster attendance.

Finally, and this is a personal irritation, but I have “superhero fatigue” fatigue. Media coverage of Marvel Studios has been cheering on the “inevitable” collapse of the Cinematic edifice for five years now, and while I get that feeling left out is no fun, gosh, kids, you could I don’t know, try enjoying yourself at the movies? This deep-seated critical suspicion of anything that brings mass audiences joy is pretty embarrassing, and I’m tired of reading gratuitous lines like “Since then, Disney has thrown its full weight behind the once-minor Marvel characters, even foisting them on Disneyland Resort guests.” in what are supposed to be dry quick-and-dirty factual box-office stats writeups. What precisely is so serious and holy about Disneyland again, that the presence of the Guardians is such a sacrilege against public mores? Critical relevancy entails writing detailed analysis about the movies that are being made, not just bemoaning the ones you think should be.

Did you take a survey after seeing Guardians? Any of the questions particularly get your notice? Will you be a return viewer?

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