Avengers: Endgame is poised to rake in $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales within its first week in theaters, breaking records left and right as the largest wide release in U.S. history. But the question remains as to whether Marvel Studios can keep audiences coming back, especially if, as rumored, it kills off or phases out a bunch of beloved characters by the end of the three-hour epic.
It’s the 22nd film in the 23-movie, three-phase saga that started with Iron Man in 2008 (July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home is technically the final film in the third phase) and it certainly appears that star Robert Downey Jr. is finished playing the superhero, at least in any major, non-cameo way. Captain America himself, Chris Evans, also appears likely to hang up his shield, saying, “You want to get off the train before they push you off.” Like those two actors, Chris Hemsworth is also no longer under contract to appear in Marvel’s films, though he has expressed interest in returning as Thor. There are currently no plans for another film in that series, outside of rumors that Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi has pitched a story for another sequel.
So if those stars are out, will Marvel be able to continue its box-office domination? The answer is a resounding “probably.”
It won’t be easy, of course, but the franchise already has three movies in production that are direct sequels to films that are in the top 10 Marvel successes in terms of the number of tickets sold, not just the amount of money they’ve raked in: Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The first Black Panther and Captain Marvel films both earned over $1 billion worldwide, while the first two Guardians movies have a combined $1.6 billion gross. The upcoming third film is already getting a good amount of buzz after Disney announced it was bringing back director James Gunn following a firing over controversial tweets he made between 2008 and 2012.
Marvel, as usual, is coy about what films are coming next, but we do know there are nine movies with tentative release dates, beginning May 1, 2020. In addition to the aforementioned sequels, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has revealed plans for a sequel to Dr. Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch and a feature for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, which they hope can build upon the female-led success of Captain Marvel.
Then there are two potential blockbusters featuring new superheroes that have yet to appear in the Marvel movies. The Eternals, which is set to start filming this summer, focuses on an ensemble of superhuman beings and will star Angelina Jolie as Sersi and be helmed by Chinese director Chloe Zhao, whose credits include the upcoming Frances McDormand drama Nomadland. It’s unclear how it will tie in with the other MCU characters, but Thanos, the antagonist of Endgame, is an Eternal villain.
The other major announcement is that of Shang-Chi, a Chinese-American martial arts expert, which will mark the first time an actor of Asian descent is cast as the lead in a superhero movie. It’s already drawing comparisons to Black Panther for its focus on an underrepresented American community in the genre and is surely going to be a hit in China, the second-largest movie film territory in the world. There, Endgame has already topped $100 million at the box office on its first day alone.
“Speaking broadly, diversity in superhero movies is incredibly important,” says Phil Contrino, the National Association of Theater Owners’ director of media & research and former chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “You look at the success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, they showed the industry as a whole that demographics that they thought couldn’t open a movie to the level that they expect actually can. To the point of Asian superheroes and Latino audiences, another segment that hasn’t had really a major superhero yet. I think they’re going to keep going down the list and crossing off these groups have been underrepresented in the genre and finding success there.”
Two other things also work in Marvel’s favor. First, audiences are clearly receptive to change, as evidenced by the fact that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man can draw over $800 million worldwide after taking the reins from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Chris Evans might be A-list now, but he certainly wasn’t when he took on the role of Captain America, while characters such as Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy weren’t tentpole figures in the comic book world. The draw, as Contrino notes, is in the diversity of the storytelling.
“The modern era basically began with X-Men in 2000, so at almost 20 years, the genre continues to go strong there,” he says. “There had been some disappointments along the way but for the most part it’s a huge success and that points to something broader than any specific characters. It’s a mishmash, a combination of a bunch of elements and other genres that work really well: You see Westerns, obviously sci-fi, drama, comedy. You have R-rated versions like Logan and Deadpool, and the … more family friendly, like [DC’s] Shazam. Audiences are sending a clear message that they want to see some experimentation and painting outside the traditional lines.”
It’s a tack Contrino says will continue to pay off for Marvel, with Phase Four likely breaking more records and selling out theaters well in advance—as long as the quality of the films remains high.
“Consumers are more educated than they ever have been. They don’t just go to something out of a reflex anymore,” he says. “They do, they do their homework on it and if the trailer doesn’t look good and the reviews aren’t good, it doesn’t matter what genre it’s in, it’s not going to work at the box office. You have to pay attention to what the fans are telling you. The fact that Marvel has taken characters that aren’t as well known and turned them into popular characters is a validation of their strategy. I don’t think there is really any end in sight.”