Everybody loves a good old-fashioned superhero fight. Right now, the Marvel characters are split amongst three film studios, Marvel/Disney, 20th Century Fox and Sony, and I thought it would be interesting to see who’s really winning the box office battle between the three property holders. Fans may want to see all of the Marvel heroes at home in the Marvel cinematic universe, but there’s too much money on the line with franchises like X-Men and Spider-Man for their respective studios to consider giving up their rights. The numbers we’re using are from Box Office Mojo, and only reflect the U.S. grosses, adjusted for inflation.
20th Century Fox
X-Men: The Last Stand -- $288 million
X2: X-Men United -- $286 million
X-Men -- $234 million
Fantastic Four -- $194 million
X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- $194 million
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- $154 million
X-Men: First Class -- $146 million
Daredevil -- $136 million
The Wolverine -- $136 million *(still in second-run theaters)
Elektra -- $30 million
Average: $179 million per film
Fox is done with the Daredevil franchise (that includes Elektra), handing the cinematic rights back to Marvel in 2012. Marvel will be getting ol’ hornhead Matt Murdock hooked up with his own Netflix-exclusive TV series in 2014. Meanwhile, Fox is still building on the X-Men franchise it launched in 2000, while looking to reboot the Fantastic Four film series in 2015. To accomplish the kind of shared universe Marvel Studios enjoys, the powers that be hired comic writer Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Wanted) to oversee a shared universe of Fox’s Marvel properties and find ways to spin off future X-Men films, including a planned X-Force movie.
The X-Men films are obviously still a draw for Fox, though any 13-year-old franchise is going to need a dusting off to stay box office fresh. Fox looks to do this with X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, by bringing back X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer for what looks like a “Greatest Hits” version of X-Men, combining mutants from across all films. I enjoy the X movies, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder what would happen if Fox reevaluated the entire franchise, letting Hugh Jackman hang up his claws, and starting from scratch (even First Class was built on the back of the previous films). It might be sitting on an Avengers-sized money maker with the X-Men license, but throttling it itself by playing to expectations.
As a film series, Fantastic Four never hit the highest heights nor sank to the lowest lows, but the Tim Story films were not exactly indicative of the property’s appeal. Fox is rightfully rebooting the whole thing, but the rumored casting is skewing so young, it makes this Fantastic Four fan wonder what the heck the filmmakers have in mind. I’m not entirely convinced Fox is a big enough risk taker to make this the kind of film it should be (more like Star Trek, less like Spider-Man). Time will tell. The first Fantastic Four outing may have hit its own glass ceiling in regards to public interest in the property, leaving it difficult to see how a future FF film could break through the $200 million mark.
Avengers -- $617 million
Iron Man 3 -- $392 million
Iron Man -- $356 million
Iron Man 2 -- $316 million
Thor -- $180 million
Captain America: The First Avenger -- $179 million
Thor: The Dark World -- $172 million *(still in first-run theaters)
The Incredible Hulk -- $151 million
Average: $295 million per film
Marvel pinpoints Iron Man as the first film on the road to Avengers and the first to be released under the Marvel Studios label. This causes one exclusion, 2003’s Hulk, which was released as a stand-alone film by Universal. The year 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was distributed by Universal with the Marvel Studios banner and Marvel intended it as part of its “Phase One” Avengers plans.
The films have been fairly conservative so far by spotlighting characters who’ve been ubiquitous on all manner of Marvel licensing for the past 50 years (though Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man will look to challenge that). Thor looked like its biggest risk at the time, but the studio still managed a huge hit, making it seem as if Marvel has a Midas touch for all of its properties.
There are people who are waiting for Marvel to fail, counting bombs before they happen (the Thor: The Dark World naysayers have moved on to Guardians now, skipping Winter Solider so they don’t look like idiots). It’s going to happen sometime, but it’s difficult to predict when. The market is hungry for these films because of their wide demographic appeal, so I don’t think, as some do, that we’ll reach a saturation point where audiences just stop going. If Marvel stumbles, it will be due to either a stinker of a film (which doesn’t seem likely right now) or an inability to make some second-tier character connect as a must-see.
Spider-Man -- $559 million
Spider-Man 2 -- $484 million
Spider-Man 3 -- $393 million
The Amazing Spider-Man -- $271 million
Ghost Rider -- $135 million
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance -- $52 million
Average: $315 million per film
The surprise winner of this box office battle is Sony, which is sitting on a gold mine with the Spider-Man franchise. Every time you hear someone involved with these films talk about making movies from a shared Spidey universe, this is exactly the reason why. It has one thing (since Ghost Rider reverted to Marvel), and it's going to milk that one thing until it’s out of web fluid.
Unlike solo hero Batman who has recognizable partners and Gotham City allies, Spider-Man doesn’t come custom loaded with his own franchise starters. There’s the antihero Venom and maybe Black Cat if you’re reaching, but beyond that, Spider-Man’s cinematic appeal lies solely in the strength of the central character. You’re not guaranteed a Spider-sized hit without him; there’s no way a Venom movie comes close to earning the $271 million that Amazing Spider-Man, the lowest-grossing of Sony’s Spideys, earned.
This is also why the Sony folks decided to make the new Spider-Man films into a four parter instead of a trilogy. It’s the Hobbit/Harry Potter/Twilight plan of getting at least one more installment out with the same cast while they can. Fans can wish for Spider-Man to appear in Marvel’s cinematic universe, but from a box office standpoint, Sony has the upper hand. It has got no need to wheel and deal.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: