Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on April 30, 2018 @ 4:55 pm CT
It turns out that if you’re a comics fan, an American or a human being on planet Earth, you are more likely to have spent money seeing Avengers: Infinity War than anyone has on any other movie.
OK, don’t think too hard about that particular claim, but look at the numbers. According to Box Office Mojo, Infinity War racked up a record-setting $258 million domestic and $630 million worldwide in its first weekend – and that’s before it’s sold a single ticket in the world’s largest market, China. $630 million worldwide is just about half of what Marvel’s previous record-setting blockbuster, Black Panther, has made in ten weeks. So, yeah. That’s a good opening.
Marvel’s ten year victory march. The financial success of Avengers: Infinity War seems inevitable, even over-determined, but let’s step back a minute and think about this. Try giving an elevator pitch of this movie to a fan in 1998, or even 2008. They’d think you were nuts.
You know who didn’t think this was nuts? Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger. The $4 billion that Disney spent to acquire Marvel in 2009 is starting to look like a pretty good deal, wouldn’t you say? Remember, though, at the time, it was anything but a no-brainer. Marvel Studios had one surefire hit (Iron Man) with a sequel in the works; one two-time loser (The Hulk), and plans for Thor and Captain America. They didn’t control the rights to their most household-name properties Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Warner Bros was already off to the races with a Batman franchise that was a critical and box-office hit.
And yet, here we are. Marvel is setting records with a movie that – I say this with affection – makes just about no sense if you haven’t seen at least 10 other Marvel movies, and preferably all 18, plus a couple of seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for good measure. And it’s a movie that it’s fair to say will have fans coming back for a second helping about a year from now.
Top of the food chain. Amazingly, Marvel’s multi-billion dollar box office haul is just the tip of the iceberg. The real money comes from product licensing. According to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association (LIMA), about 45% of the $262 billion racked up by global licensing worldwide in 2016 came from entertainment characters. That’s $118 billion worth of apparel, toys and games and other merchandise, divvied up among all the popular brands. Disney is believed to command the Lion King’s share of that figure based on its own brand plus subsidiaries Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel. However you want to slice that particular pie, the licensing revenue looks to be a magnitude higher than box office revenue, which is itself a magnitude higher than publishing revenue from the same stable of characters.
What’s the story? We can lament all day why the dollar flow bears an inverse relationship to story content – that is, why Iron Man coffee cups and Black Panther hoodies bring in more bucks than comic books that actually create the mythology around those characters month by month, but that’s where the business is right now.
Warren Ellis issued an instant-classic critique of the film over the weekend, saying "It is not a movie. It is a brand manifestation that wants to have prolonged, eager and reasonably skilled cultural sex with you. It wants your experience with its content™ to be satisfying and it hopes you are pleased enough to return for further interaction with the Brand. This is a very 21C thing. I like it for that alone, to be honest. "
I’d add that the Brand, in this case, isn’t just about logos and cultural tropes. It’s about a huge cast of characters that Marvel has systematically gotten us to pay attention to and care about. It’s about a plot that’s been brewing for at least half a decade, with breadcrumbs scattered across post-credit scenes that millions of fans have waited for, cross-legged and suffering after 2.5 hours and a half-liter of Coke. It’s about that shared experience of waiting for a payoff and then… well, maybe waiting some more.
Manufacturing that kind of success isn’t easy for any brand, much less a brand with such a narrow cultural footprint as Marvel Studios had in the 00s, denuded of its top properties and competing for mindshare not just with DC, but with Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Jason Bourne, Mission: Impossible, The Lord of the Rings, and a half-dozen other viable action-fantasy franchises.
Marvel Studios managed to pull it off, even in the face of expectations that would have seen an opening of less than $500 million worldwide as a disappointment. As we gape in either awe or disgust as Disney counts its money, let’s keep in mind that this was neither easy nor inevitable.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
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