One of the skewed box office narratives being played out over 2022 is the notion that the MCU is on the ropes because its two big films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, aren’t shattering any and all relevant box office records. Doctor Strange 2 “only” grossed $955 million worldwide, more than any non-Iron Man/Spider-Man MCU flick save for Captain Marvel and Black Panther. Thor: Love and Thunder crossed $700 million worldwide yesterday, including a bigger-than-Ragnarok $316 million domestic cume, but has been dogged by accusations of underperformance because Thor: Ragnarok earned $854 million in 2017. However, neither of these films played in China or Russia. So we’re missing around $150 million in likely global earnings.
If Doctor Strange 2 had, under pre-Covid expectations, played in those two key territories, it would have likely topped the $1.13 billion totals of Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far from Home. Black Panther’s $1.346 billion gross, including $700 million domestic and $105 million in China, is no more a fair point of comparison for any random MCU sequel than would be Top Gun: Maverick for Mission: Impossible 7 next summer. Likewise, Thor: Love and Thunder would surely have earned a global gross on par with the last Thor and the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($869 million) and Spider-Man: Homecoming ($881 million). So, yes, much of Marvel’s #CanThisFranchiseBeSaved? chatter is down to China and Russia’s situational exclusion.
Thor: Love and Thunder is not my favorite MCU movie, but audiences eventually showed up after an expected massive second-weekend drop. The mid-July Marvel titles (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ant-Man and the Wasp, etc.) always drop off a cliff in weekend two. It will be leggier than Doctor Strange 2 ($411 million from a $187 million debut), Eternals ($164 million/$70 million) and Black Widow ($183 million/$80 million plus whatever they got from Disney+ Premier Access). If we argue that Taiki Waititi went full-Batman & Robin on the fourth go-around, A) the grosses don’t reflect that opinion among general audiences, and B) it’s not like Marvel needs a darker, grittier Thor: Triumphant to keep its train running. What we do need is a recalculation of what success looks like.
Marvel movies from that last decade are expected to both earn best-case scenario box office and tower over the competition. Avengers: Age of Ultron began the whole “superhero fatigue” narrative in May of 2015 both because it failed to open as high as The Avengers ($191 million versus $208 million) and because other tentpoles, like Furious 7 ($1.515 billion) and Jurassic World ($1.671 billion) earned more in the first half of the year. Disney was untouchable in 2016, thanks to Captain America: Civil War ($1.155 billion), Zootopia ($1 billion), Finding Dory ($1 billion) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($1 billion), so it was less of an issue that Doctor Strange earned less ($677 million) than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ($814 million).
None of the big 2017 MCU movies (Guardians 2, Spider-Man 1 version 3 and Thor 3) cracked even $900 million. Nor did most of the summer’s big releases save for Despicable Me 3 ($1 billion). Yes, Wonder Woman ($412 million domestic) stole some of Marvel’s thunder. However, the failure of Justice League ($659 million amid lousy reviews and a $300 million budget) overshadowed both WB’s triumphs with It and Dunkirk and the notion that there was an apparent ceiling on non-Tony Stark MCU flicks. Black Panther and Captain Marvel changed that in 2018 and 2019. The overperformance of both films, especially the former, along with the $2 billion and $2.8 billion grosses of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame also skewed the average to an unrealistic degree.
Spider-Man: Far from Home soaring to $200 million in China and thus $1.28 billion global didn’t help. Meanwhile, right in the middle of that sky-high streak, Ant-Man and the Wasp earned ‘just’ $620 million worldwide in the summer of 2018, including a then-huge (for a non-Avengers superhero flick) $125 million in China. That delightful sequel showed that the MCU brand would lift all boats but not equally so. So just because Black Panther earned $1.346 billion and Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed $1.91 billion (without China) doesn’t mean every upcoming MCU movie is ‘$1 billion or bust.’ Moreover, and this is key, just because Top Gun: Maverick earned $1.352 billion-and-counting doesn’t automatically make Doctor Strange 2’s $955 million global gross inferior or cause for concern.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ($312 million domestic and $785 million worldwide) wasn’t a flop just because Iron Man earned slightly more domestically ($318 million) and The Dark Knight trounced it worldwide ($533 million/$1 billion). The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t a flop at $449 million/$1 billion just because The Avengers grossed $623 million/$1.5 billion. And now, shoe on the other foot, Doctor Strange 2’s global cume, an Avengers: Endgame-worthy 70% jump from Doctor Strange not including China, isn’t a de-facto disappointment because Jurassic World 3 and Top Gun 2 grossed more. The global box office isn’t poker. It’s blackjack. Every movie is merely competing against itself. A good gross is good no matter what the competition pulls.
If Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 are both poorly received and earn closer to $600 million worldwide than $900 million worldwide, then we can panic. Otherwise, the 2022 Marvel movies are still pulling in strong grosses by the standards of non-Avengers Marvel movies. That Black Panther exceeded those standards and Spider-Man: No Way Home became a multigenerational nostalgic event (think The Force Awakens) doesn’t mean Thor 4 isn’t a success because it only barely passed Thor 3 domestically and (sans China and Russia) worldwide. The grosses are the grosses and the last thing we want is a Disney that expects every Marvel movie to pull at least Captain America: Civil War grosses. That’s how you get straight-to-Disney+ MCU movies.