The Avengers' $200 Million Opening Weekend and the State of the Superhero Genre Cycle

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So imposing! #Sarcasm

Currently dominating my Twitter feed are headlines like this: “The Avengers Has Biggest Opening Weekend Ever with $200 Million.” This (estimated) box-office count apparently bests Hollywood’s previous domestic opening-weekend record of $169.2 million held by last year’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II (David Yates, 2011). Moreover, if we tack on The Avengers’ overseas box-office take this weekend, $151.5 million, we’re looking at totals nearing $400 million.

But that’s not all. Since the movie opened internationally a week earlier, its (estimated) current global haul is around $640 million, which, as the New York Post reports, is more than Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), and Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011) took in during their entire runs.

Broadly, these numbers are supposed to be impressive, generating from me and other moviegoers a wow or daaaayum. And why shouldn’t they? Ultimately, it’s SIX-HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS over the course of ONE WEEK. (Sorry for yelling, but it’s IMPRESSIVE, right?!) The figures are potentially also supposed to make me excited for the movie’s director Joss Whedon, who has now apparently successfully crossed over from TV (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Angel) to the big screen. Finally, these numbers, floating up and down my Twitter and Facebook streams, are perhaps supposed to make me want to close this laptop, grab the car keys, and drive ten minutes to see The Avengers and then do the same with the other rehashed, fantasy-based, machismo-driven, action-based fare coming soon to a cineplex near me. For example,

  • Battleship (May 18)
  • Men in Black III (May 25)
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 29)
  • The Amazing Spiderman (July 3)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)
  • Total Recall (August 3)
  • The Expendables II (August 17)

But instead, here’s what all this press about The Avengers‘ weekend-take actually makes me do:

Say “Meh”

While people are going on and on about these figures, they’re not totally unexpected, are they? After all, The Avengers is the first major summer megapic. It features A-list stars who’ve had some success in similar roles. It is directed by someone whose former projects, while garnering a sort of cult-following, are known for interesting characters and unique storytelling. It has a built-in audience (comic-book readers/fans). It’s been promoted widely (exhaustively?) for several weeks now. It’s received strong reviews from combined critics and viewers on Rotten Tomatoes and decent reviews from critics on MetaCritic. And like most megapics, The Avengers was given a saturated booking (i.e., it opened virtually everywhere in the U.S. this weekend, IMAX included).

Certainly other movies based on this formula have failed, but from what I’ve pieced together over the last few weeks, it seems that most critics, producers, Hollywood insiders, etc. expected this one to hit. Bigtime. So, let’s simmer down a little bit about this first-weekend box-office draw, shall we?

Cringe a L’il Bit

These figures also kinda make me cringe because if The Avengers does well — like “The Dark Knight well” — we can possibly expect more superhero mashups/installments in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc. Look at the video mash-up below; honestly, how much more of this can we take? One Twitter user sums up my feelings nicely: “The Avengers‘ smashing box office records is like the groundhog seeing its shadow — it’ll mean six more years of the same damn thing” (@railoftomorrow). This could be true, to an extent. Keep reading.

Question the Cycle’s (and Our Country’s) Status

Related to the above and perhaps most significantly, these initial box-office sums also makes me, like Andrew O’Hehir earlier this week, ask the question When will this genre cycle die, or at least subside?

As a film instructor, I’m well aware that Hollywood won’t be doing away with big-budget, high-concept, CGI-laden, action-adventure megapics any time soon. Hell, since Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) swam onto the scene, this has been the industry’s bread and butter. Gee thanks, Spielberg! (Kidding — I love me some Jaws.) As well, I understand that movie moguls won’t be backing away from any sequels, remakes, revisions, reimaginings, or reworkings in the near future. After all, such pictures are (supposedly) tried and true; they’ve succeeded in the past, so why shouldn’t they succeed now and in the future? To echo Matthew Vaughn, director of X-Men: First Class (2011), yay, way to latch on and run things into the ground, Hollywood!

Consequently, no, no one’s likely putting a proverbial nail in the megapic coffin anytime soon. But the superhero cycle? Could I at least keep my hammer and a box of nails nearby? You see, apart from Hollywood’s “tried-and-true” recipes, past/present box-office stats, foreign investors/partners, and major greed, there are actually other reasons genre cycles like this one wax and wane, surface and resurface — reasons founded within our culture, the zeitgest. Moving pictures, after all, aren’t created in a vacuum.

Again, earlier this week, columnist Andrew O’Hehir posed the question Will superhero movies never end? To which I respond: they will likely end, at least in part, when our culture no longer “requires” them. As my film students and I discussed in class just this week, the output of superhero movies has nearly doubled (from the 1990s) since 9/11, a time when our country and the world at large was vulnerable, confused about its identity, and arguably lacking in leadership (the Bush administration). To the rescue: movies that offer (among other things) stability, certainty, and leaders who (usually) can successfully understand and fight enemies. [Related: “How Hollywood Was Changed by 9/11,” and “Where Would Superheroes Be Without 9/11?” as well as academic essays like “American Exceptionalism, Visual Effects, and the Post-9/11 Cinematic Superhero Boom” and “How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Cynically ENJOY! The Post-9/11 Superhero Zeitgeist.”]

We’ve, of course, seen similar cultural influences with the rise and fall of other genres, subgenres, and genre cycles. Two examples: film noir (1941-58), itself a response to shifts in postwar traditional gender roles, McCarthyism, and the influx of existentialist thought; and “gangsta films” (i.e., 1990s coming-of-age pictures like Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City set in volatile black neighborhoods), cinematic reactions to real-life violence/riots and the crack epidemic in the U.S.

So back to The Avengers’ $200 million opening weekend…

Obviously, these numbers don’t impress me much; rather, they just make me wonder, as I do at the beginning of virtually every recent summer season, how long this superhero cycle will last. (No worries, comic-book film fans; I wonder the same about the bromance, that other current Hollywood mainstay.) Maybe it will die down when the economy straightens out and we don’t need “saving”? When our troops are removed from the Middle East? When the country’s global reputation has been mended? When our disparate and hard-headed branches of government are able to work together? Geez, if the latter is a requirement, then Iron Man, the Green Lantern, and all 356 reincarnations of Spiderman are going to be with us for a freakin’ long, long time.

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PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture. Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. DePaul University.
  • edmahoney

    Popular culture is just that…POPULAR. And for this reason, The Avengers succeeded. It was what audiences wanted. I have a degree in Film and Media Arts from Temple University. In class, I watched films that were “artistic” and as a film geek, the only one I enjoyed was Casablanca. People are not Annie Hall geeks. They remember Star Wars. It’s the visceral shared experience of living through these characters and the spectacle of extravagance surrounding them. The Avengers is a MOVIE. A film is different. It’s a social commentary, a reflection on emotion, and critical. That’s why critics like them so much. I gave up on the Oscars when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Which one are people still talking about today? THAT’S what is important.

    • Marc

      I suppose it comes down to personal taste, in the end. I enjoy the shared experience that a blockbuster can bestow upon an audience, but I would argue that the experience is memorable or has any real worth. I had a blast watching ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Men in Black’ and the like in the cinema; however, I can remember very little of any of them… but I can quote you a plethora of unforgettable lines from ‘Annie Hall.’ It is the films that deal with the gamut of human experience and emotion that one remembers, not the immediately satisfying, but ultimately disposable, effects spectacles – it’s the characters from the former who we live through, with all their complexities, vulnerabilities and failings, not the one-dimensional, emotional husks of the latter. I can’t remember the audience reaction to ‘Star Wars,’ but I remember distinctly the whoops and hollers of delight at a Woody Allen double bill (‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’) in the late 80s.

      And if you’re still talking about ‘Saving Private Ryan’ rather than ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ you’re hanging out with the wrong people.

      An ‘Annie Hall’ geek.

      • Kelli

        Hey, Marc — I hope it doesn’t seem that I’m dissing blockbusters overall and the communal experience they offer. You know I could watch Back to the Future on a loop, right?! 😉

        • Marc

          As could I, but there is a considerable investment in character development here and we respond as much to that as we do to a time travelling DeLorean. Edmahoney’s basic contention is that extravagant movie ‘events’ are more memorable than ‘artistic’ films and I would argue that supposition to the death. It is not enough to say that large amounts of people flock to these films; so they did to bear-baiting and public hangings, both of which were probably considerably more enjoyable than ‘The Fantastic Four.’

          The public want what the public get.

    • Kelli

      Hi, Ed. First, thanks for reading and commenting. Second, there are so many things I could respond to in your comment, but I’ll stick with three, if that’s okay:

      — Just as there are superhero fans/geeks, there are actually several Annie Hall geeks out there. See Marc above, for instance (I am one too, FWIW). :)

      — I dunno. In certain circles, Shakespeare in Love is more discussed and praised than the other.

      — Finally, The Avengers isn’t succeeding solely because it’s “popular culture” or “popular,” as you suggest above. There are several other factors involved here that are enabling the movie’s success, some of which I cover above and this one, which I didn’t: we have to remember that Hollywood produces and distributes films it thinks/hopes audiences want to see and which have stable track records. In turn, the industry saturates the cineplexes with these movies, allowing us only those 10-12 choices to choose from. Since we want to see movies and long for entertainment and/or escape, we go to the theatres and watch what Hollywood offers. In essence, via our need for entertainment/escape and our subsequent ticket sales, we’re telling Hollywood what we “want,” even if we’d prefer something else that we’re not getting. It’s actually a rather vicious and manipulative circle, which (as I alluded to above) can sometimes, thankfully, be broken when audiences have had enough.

      I hope that makes sense, and thanks again for stopping by.

  • Greeney28

    While not disagreeing with your suggestion that a climate of fear lends support to a superhero craze, I’d also give the web a lot of credit for the superhero cycle. The anti-niching of comics culture has been reinforced by broader discussions of Comic-Con due to sites like Ain’t It Cool News. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a fan-driven phenomenon (after all, the industry has to recognize the culture as financially worthwhile for any Hollywood action), I would periodize by starting with the mid 1990s for a confluence of reasons, including AICN and others like it. The industry is responding to a conversation, adopting and adapting a minority subculture to appeal to wider cultural trends.

    • Kelli

      Thanks for the comment, Karen!

      Yes, the Web and Comic-Con are certainly also reinforcing this trend at the moment; thanks for pointing that out. At the same time, I also wonder how many mainstream moviegoers and/or movie execs were/are familiar with a site like Ain’t It Cool News — something, honestly, I hadn’t heard of until you just mentioned it? And hasn’t Comic-Con only recently received worldwide/mainstream acclaim? Was it this popular or well thought-of in the mid-1990s?

      Re: your last statement, ah, now I’m trying to think of other “minority subcultures” that Hollywood has latched onto and exploited in a manner as it has this one. Film noir (via pulp-fiction novels)? Blaxploitation films?

      Thanks again for stopping by!