Who says there’s franchise fatigue? At a time when many blockbuster franchises are sputtering — the domestic gross for this year’s “Pirates of Caribbean” sequel fell 29 percent from the last installment’s, while “Transformers: The Last Knight” fell a staggering 47 percent — the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to dominate at the box office.
This weekend, the 17th film in the series, “Thor: Ragnarok,” earned the biggest opening at the box office in two months: a $121 million domestic start and a running global total of $427 million.
With that result, the MCU has now made $5 billion in lifetime domestic grosses — and $13 billion worldwide since “Iron Man” launched the series nearly a decade ago.
Also, Disney-based Marvel Studios is now the first ever studio to produce three films with $100 million-plus openings in a single calendar year, following the $146.5 million for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in May and the $117 million bow for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” in June (the latter was distributed by Sony).
So what is it about this recent batch of films that has pushed Marvel’s success to even greater heights? Here are a few big factors:
1. Each installment feels unique
One common critical complaint of the pre-“Avengers” Marvel films is that they often felt cookie-cutter, sticking to a tried and true formula. While Marvel hasn’t completely departed from that formula, it has shown an increasing willingness to experiment with its heroes in different genres and to allow directors to show their own individual styles.
The 2017 MCU films reflected this approach: “Guardians 2” continued the irreverent, musical tone that director James Gunn introduced in the first “Guardians” three years ago and which is often credited with encouraging Marvel to take more risks.
Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming” picked up elements of teen coming-of-age films akin to the works of John Hughes. And “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” director Taika Waititi’s injected his earlier film’s playful humor into “Thor: Ragnarok.”
Starting with 2015’s “Ant-Man,” which played like a comedic heist movie, Marvel boss Kevin Feige has increasingly taken risks to expand the scope of what a comic-book movie can be — and surprising audiences with something unexpected has yielded rewards. By contrast, Paramount’s “Transformers” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” have tended to rely on the diminishing allure of giant robots and Jack Sparrow’s antics.
2. A willingness to try young directors
Before landing the “Thor” sequel, Waititi’s top-grossing film earned just $5.2 million. Jon Watts’ pre- “Spider-Man” movie, “Cop Car,” grossed just $134,552. And James Gunn was similarly unknown before bursting into the big leagues with the original “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014.
Feige’s willingness to gamble on relatively inexperienced directors has paid off big time — but the studio also has an infrastructure in place to guide them.
“It is giving them the support structure that knows how to mount the big production and knows how to do cutting edge action visual effects, but allows them to bring their vision to it, and of course, that’s what all the best of our filmmakers have done,” Feige told TheWrap earlier this year.
“So it’s basically saying you don’t have to have mounted a big car chase scene to be considered to direct here because we don’t want folks who only know car chases,” he said. “We want people to focus on characters and to focus on time.”
3. Marketing reinforces what’s new
But having those unique voices isn’t going to go as far if you don’t have a marketing campaign built around it. Each of the three 2017 Marvel films had trailers that put the focus on what made them different.
This was especially true for “Thor: Ragnarok,” which prominently featured the big fight between Thor and Hulk with a joke from Thor that Hulk was a “friend from work,” sending a clear message that this “Thor” was going to take a more comedic approach. Waititi himself had a hand in this marketing, as Marvel was inspired to use Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in the film and trailer after the director used it in a sizzle reel that he sent to the studio.
And the campaign for Marvel’s next film, “Black Panther,” due in February, takes a very different tone — suggesting intense action, political intrigue in the fictional African nation of Wakanda and a striking pan-African aesthetic unique to African-American culture. Again, the filmmaker’s voice can be seen here with the dramatic flair and hip-hop influences of “Creed” director Ryan Coogler.
4. No rush so no overexposure
Even if a particular hero — or in the case of the Guardians, set of heroes — really clicks with audiences, Marvel isn’t going to quickly put out a cash grab sequel just to capitalize on their popularity.
It’s been four years since the last “Thor” film, and aside from a short post-credit scene in “Doctor Strange,” it’s been two years since we’ve seen Thor or Hulk in any way.
“Thor: Ragnarok” was originally slated three years ago to be released in July 2017, but Marvel needed more time to develop the film, so it was pushed to November. That allowed “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the first full collaboration between Disney and Sony that brought Spidey into the MCU, to move into a prime July release slot.
With the extra time, Marvel was able to land a director with a fresh vision for Thor in Waititi. That gamble paid off.
5. “The Infinity War” is near
The anticipation for this April’s “Avengers: Infinity War” is quickly reaching a fever pitch, and that means that there’s more desire than ever among moviegoers to see each new installment in the run-up to next year’s big crossover film to see if there are any hints to what’s to come.
In the case of “Thor: Ragnarok,” that interest was piqued when Marvel released footage exclusively for people at Disney’s D23 conference and San Diego Comic-Con from “Infinity War,” in which Thor came face to face with the Guardians of the Galaxy in what is effectively the latter group’s introduction into the larger MCU storyline.
“Thor: Ragnarok” offers a small taste of how Thor got to that point by showing what he and the Hulk have been up to since the last time they were with the other Avengers, while building the cosmic side of the MCU that the Guardians aren’t involved in.