30/04/2019

A universe of fans

Disney's executive boardroom may be the happiest place on Earth right now. Three days after its release, "Avengers: Endgame" was already the highest-grossing film of 2019. It has broken the record for best-ever opening weekend, thanks in no small part to its phenomenal box-office takings in China. But the latest Avengers blockbuster is no one-off. Of the ten most lucrative opening weekends in the United States and Canada, five were for Disney-owned Marvel superhero movies, and two for episodes of the "Star Wars" series, which is also owned by Disney.

In some respects, the list vindicates time-honoured Hollywood wisdom: sequels have a ready-made audience; viewers want slick, action-packed escapism and retina-burning visual effects. But a more salient point is the genius of Marvel’s "shared universe" concept. Beginning with “Iron Man” (2008), every one of the studio’s superhero films has been set in the same fictional world, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, so that characters from one story can drop into other ones. What this means is that even if a film such as "Black Panther" is not a direct sequel to any film in particular, it is connected to numerous others. Thus, every Marvel release is an advertisement for the ones which came before and the ones which are coming afterwards—and “Avengers: Endgame” is the climactic 22nd entry in the franchise. Don’t expect other studios to copy this winning formula easily. Some have already tried. Warner launched DC’s superhero universe; Universal launched a shared universe populated by its classic monsters. Neither was exactly marvellous.

Another lesson taught by the top-ten list is that we now pay to see characters rather than movie stars. Cinema-goers may love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, but they won’t necessarily queue to catch him in any other role. None of the actors in the recently revived "Star Wars" saga is an A-lister. It is the intellectual property that counts. And that is another reason for Disney executives to be cheerful. Actors may come and go, but if you have the rights to Captain America and Black Panther, you can always make another hit film, and another. The “Endgame” need not be the end.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.