Before the release of Avengers: Endgame, the biggest opening weekend of all time for the U.S. box office was April 27–29, 2018, when the previous entry in the Avengers series, Infinity War, debuted in theaters. That film made a staggering $257 million, and theaters sold $314 million worth of tickets to all movies in total that weekend, the most money ever made in a three-day span at the time. That $314 million figure seemed like a ceiling—there’s only a finite amount of cinema seats available in the country, so if you’re selling out every show, would it even be possible to eclipse a number like that?
Last weekend, Avengers: Endgame did just that, making $356 million over just three days, with theaters selling a total of $392 million worth of tickets for all 45 movies playing that weekend. The owners of the major theater chains sent out triumphant press releases, touting the value of the cinema experience and explaining how they managed to pack in screenings for a movie with an extra-long running time of 182 minutes. Mostly, they pulled it off by sucking all the air out of the room: Recent releases such as Us, Hellboy, and Pet Sematary were largely pushed out of theaters, dropping from more than 1,000 screens apiece, and the weekend’s second-biggest film turned out to be another Marvel movie, the March release Captain Marvel, which offered a superhero alternative if Endgame showtimes were sold out.
So while Endgame is certainly a cause worth celebrating for exhibitors, a big-selling rebuke to the idea that traditional filmgoers are largely content to stay home these days, it’s also a sign that the future of the cinema experience lies largely with colossal event movies. Ticket sales have mostly been down in 2019, as studios rolled out winter offerings such as Alita: Battle Angel and The Lego Movie 2, which failed to connect on a major level with audiences. Big Marvel movies will help buoy the box office, and there are other franchise films on the horizon, mostly produced by Disney, that should be similar smash hits, such as Star Wars: Episode IX, Frozen 2, and remakes such as Aladdin and The Lion King.
Disney has charted an indisputably successful course in offering crowd-pleasing, family-friendly blockbusters that demand to be seen on opening weekend, not just for the epic visuals but also to avoid being spoiled on plot details. But this means that other big studios have scrambled to echo that approach rather than find their own. Sony teamed with Disney to release a new series of Spider-Man movies, and has launched Venom and other planned spin-offs within the partnership. Warner Bros. has pushed out films based on the DC Comics world to mixed reception, with new heroes such as Wonder Woman and Aquaman being hits, but expected slam-dunk team-ups such as Justice League falling flat. Universal is trying to turn its Fast & Furious movies into a universe of their own, with the awkwardly titled Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw coming this August.
All these efforts are designed to tap into the unique cultural appeal of the Marvel movies, which over 11 years have built up unprecedented audience goodwill around the world. The global total for Endgame’s opening week was more than $1.2 billion, another record, mostly thanks to a colossal $330 million take in China, where Marvel has found a foothold that other brands such as Star Wars have not. For box-office watchers, the next question is whether Endgame can eclipse the all-time domestic and worldwide sales records currently held by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which made $936 million domestically) and Avatar (which made $2.7 billion globally). Both of those were Christmas films, which tend to have longer shelf lives in theaters because of the dearth of big studio offerings in January and February; Endgame will face bigger competition over the summer. But it might still beat all comers.
Every prior box-office-record holder has succeeded as a cultural milestone of sorts. Avatar pioneered new 3-D technology in cinemas; Titanic was a word-of-mouth sensation that drew teenagers in for multiple viewings; Jurassic Park marked the dawn of the CGI era; and Star Wars and Jaws were the dawn of the blockbuster itself. If Endgame bests them all, it’ll be thanks to overwhelming audience loyalty to an entire brand, a 22-film series reaching a satisfyingly undeniable conclusion (though there’s still room for plenty more Marvel movies in the future). For Disney, that’s a vindication of a decade-long strategy. For the rest of the film industry, it could sound a death knell for any other theatrical approach.