The 2012 Summer movie season officially gets underway this weekend with what is easily one of the biggest releases of the year. After five movies that in many ways functioned as prequel material, some of Marvel's most-popular superheroes finally team up in The Avengers, which has the seventh-widest opening ever at 4,349 locations. Thanks to these lead-in movies and a killer marketing campaign, anticipation has reached nearly-unprecedented levels, and The Avengers is a lock to score one of the highest opening weekends of all-time.
While the notion of a superhero team-up is fairly common in comic books, it's been a difficult thing to arrange on the big screen. DC Comics has tried for many years to assemble Batman, Superman, and a handful of other characters in a Justice League movie, but that has had numerous false starts and is currently on the backburner. Considering none of the characters had ever had a very successful big-screen incarnation, the prospects for Marvel's The Avengers didn't seem much better.
That all changed in May 2008. Long thought of as a second-tier comic book character, Iron Man surprised many when it opened to $98.6 million. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth (due in no small part to Robert Downey, Jr.'s charismatic lead performance), the movie went on to earn $318.4 million, which at the time made it the highest-grossing comic book adaptation that didn't involve Spider-Man.
Iron Man's extraordinary success made The Avengers a viable option, and even after The Incredible Hulk earned an underwhelming $134.8 million, Marvel still moved ahead with bringing the other elements of the franchise to life. Though it was a bit of a creative disappointment, the sequel to Iron Man earned $312.4 million in 2010, and then last year Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger scored a fine $181 million and $176.6 million, respectively.
Aside from actually making money, these five Marvel movies have served as the most elaborate and expensive marketing campaign of all-time. That alone is enough to get fanboys all hot-and-bothered for The Avengers, and Disney's marketing team has done a fantastic job making this a must-see for general audiences as well. Previews establish the movie's high stakes and extraordinary nature by showing that a global threat has forced this dysfunctional team of superheroes together. They also pack in plenty of conflict, comedy (mostly from Downey, Jr.), and tons of outrageous action. Also, while it probably doesn't matter too much for a movie of this size, more discerning audiences may be swayed by a strong 92 percent fresh rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
The Avengers has already been winning over foreign audiences, as it opened in many markets last week and has earned a huge $281.1 million through its first eight days in theaters. That's more than any of these characters' previous movies earned in their entire run with the exception of Iron Man 2, though it will pass that movie's $311.5 million on Friday.
The first weekend of May is one of the most lucrative release dates each year, and it's proven to be a great time to open a comic book adaptation. The first Spider-Man movie kicked off this trend when it set a new opening weekend record of $114.8 million in 2002. Spider-Man 3 reclaimed that record for the series when it debuted to $151.1 million on the same weekend in 2007. If The Avengers can simply match Spider-Man 3's attendance levels, it will top Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2's current record of $169.2 million thanks to ticket price inflation and 3D premiums. Since it was accounting for an incredible 94 percent of ticket sales on Fandango as of Wednesday morning, this record definitely seems to be within reach.
While no other movie dares to open nationwide against The Avengers, there is at least one new alternative for audiences in big cities. Geriatric comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has already earned $70 million overseas, and Fox Searchlight is releasing it at 27 locations this weekend. The movie will serve as nice counterprogramming for older audiences who aren't interested in having their eardrums blown out by The Avengers, and it could wind up finding a bit of success in the long run.