When The Avengers opened in theaters in May 2012, it was a genuinely unusual offering for viewers—a film that both was and wasn’t a sequel, uniting the characters of various Marvel movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) for a new story about them functioning as a team. The novelty was such that box-office sales far outstripped previous efforts: The Avengers opened to a stunning $207 million, far above the previous Marvel Studios record ($128 million for Iron Man 2).
Since then, that’s been the sales plan for any “cinematic universe,” the comic-book storytelling template that Marvel applied to its films and that other studios have since scrambled to copy: Invest in big blockbusters that introduce your stars, then spend even more on the movie that sees them all sharing the same screen. That’s why Warner Bros. invested a reported $300 million in Justice League, making it one of the most expensive films ever shot. Here, finally, fans could see all of DC’s famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, plus new faces like The Flash and Aquaman—hanging out with one another.
But those fans didn’t materialize in droves as the studio had hoped. Justice League opened to a tepid $94 million last weekend, a figure that has set off a new round of murmurs in Hollywood. The weak ticket sales are proof that the wild success of Marvel’s grand comic-book experiment should be seen as an exception rather than the rule—that simply teaming up big-name heroes isn’t enough to ensure a financial win. In the five years since Marvel officially struck gold with The Avengers, every major studio has worked to plan scores of expensive franchise films intended to build up to a guaranteed payout, but audiences already seem to be growing tired of this scheme.