'The Avengers': 7 lessons of Marvel's box-office success

By Steven Zeitchik

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2012 12:37 p.m. MDT

In this film image released by Disney, Chris Evans, portraying Captain America, left, and Robert Downey Jr., portraying Tony Stark, are shown in a scene from "Marvel's The Avengers" (AP Photo/Disney, Zade Rosethal)

Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES — With a huge opening overseas, Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" was poised for a smashing weekend in the U.S. But no one knew just how big the Marvel film would be. Distributor Disney's estimate of $200.3 million (even taking into account potential slight revisions when official figures hit Monday) shatters the previous opening-weekend record of $169.2 million, held by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" last summer.

What are some inferences to be made from the massive haul of the film starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth? Here's our handy rundown.

The branding/superhero era isn't ending anytime soon. In the last year or two, a drumbeat has slowly started that maybe moviedom's comic-book era was winding down. Look at the critical and even commercial sag of several of last summer's movies, said skeptics. "The Avengers" may be sui generis, but expect a reversal of that trend now. Every studio with a superhero license is, as of Monday morning, doubtless checking into how they can wring more out of it — or, if they have several such licenses, perhaps even rolling several characters into one movie.

Television creators can rock too. Coming into this weekend, Whedon had hardly been a force in the movie world, having helmed just one tepidly received film ("Serenity"), spun off a canceled television series. In fact, as a breed, few TV creators have made a quick, successful leap to the big screen. But "Avengers" changes that. If you have the fan base (Whedon was of course a geek god after cultural events like "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" and the Internet sensation "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along") you can have a massive blockbuster at the multiplex too.

Geek-speak isn't a turn-off. "The Avengers" didn't shy away from the geek. In fact, the movie embraced it, filling the screen with in-references and dense language about comic book items like the Tesseract. And the Marvel movie was directed by Whedon, the ultimate insider. Yet that didn't put a cap on its numbers — in fact, it only seemed to inflate them. Which may be connected to ...

Critics do matter. Fan sites often like to say that the critics don't have much to say about whether a film will succeed. That may be true for a certain kind of generic action movie. But the strong critical support for "The Avengers" (there were some voices of dissent, like the New York Times' A.O. Scott, but they were few and far between) helped extend the movie far beyond the base. Telling stat: The two superhero movies with the biggest opening weekends, "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight," are also, with Rotten Tomatoes scores hovering around 93 percent, also far and away the best-reviewed.

The villain isn't necessarily the thing. Every great movie needs a memorable villain, a bravura performance by a known actor, like Jack Nicholson's Joker — or Heath Ledger's Joker, for that matter. Except perhaps to his most ardent supporters, Tom Hiddleston's Loki won't, it's safe to say, go down as one of the iconic villain performances of all time. Yet that was hardly a hindrance to the movie's runaway success.

Art house stars can cross over. Just two years ago, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner were collecting Oscar nominations for small, independently-made movies ("The Kids Are All Right" and "The Hurt Locker," respectively). Cut to 2012, where the actors were linchpins of "The Avengers" (as the Hulk and Hawkeye, respectively).

Sometimes Hollywood logic is actually logical. It's easy to laugh at the unwritten rules of Hollywood, which say things like "an unlikable character never works" or "pre-awareness works every time." But sometimes the saws are saws for a reason. Like, say, "The Avengers," which is based on the supposition that if you combine more than six known characters from a bundle of previous comics and films, you'll get pretty much six times the box office.

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