'Avengers' smashes box office records with powerful social themes

Published: Monday, May 7 2012 8:16 a.m. MDT

In this film image released by Disney, Iron Man, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., left, and Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans, are shown in a scene from "The Avengers" (AP Photo/Disney)

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"The Avengers" rode a wave of positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth en route to exceeding expectations and smashing box office records during its opening weekend.

First the facts: "The Avengers" made $200.3 million in domestic box office sales over the weekend, breaking the previous record of $169.2 million set last year by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2."

"Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys indicated the 3-D film would have a massive domestic opening of at least $150 million, giving it one of the top five highest U.S. debuts ever," the Los Angeles Times' Company Town entertainment blog noted. "Instead, the movie soared beyond expectations, easily surpassing … 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2.' ('Avengers') also raked in more money in its first three days than strong performers such as 'The Dark Knight,' 'The Hunger Games' and 'Spider-Man 3,' all of which collected over $150 million upon their debuts."

Indeed, the pure dominance of "Avengers" can be distilled down to a single stat: 80.7 percent of all the money Americans spent on movies this weekend went toward a ticket for "The Avengers." (The website BoxOfficeMojo reported that every movie not named "The Avengers" combined to bank "only" $47.9 million in gross ticket sales.)

"Several factors contributed to the enormous audience interest in 'The Avengers,' starting with its quality," Brooks Barnes wrote for the New York Times on Monday. "The movie, stuffed to the brim with special effects, has been popular with most critics, with the review-aggregation site RottenTomatoes.com rating it at 94 percent on the 'fresh' scale. Audiences in exit polls gave the film a rare A-plus score, an indication that word-of-mouth was strong. The Hulk, played this time by Mark Ruffalo, has received particularly high marks."

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, observed several meaningful metaphors woven throughout "The Avengers."

"It is great escapism," Thistlethwaite blogged Sunday for the Washington Post. "‘The Avengers’ is also a snapshot of our cultural struggles as a nation. The ‘Captain America’ character, unfrozen after having successfully fought the Nazis and Nazi-wannabes, is clearly out of his time. He wants the dysfunctional superheroes — Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Black Widow — to pull together and fight for earth. They’re more interested in fighting each other. This is pretty much a perfect metaphor for our politics."

Writing for the sports and entertainment website Grantland, Zach Baron found societal significance in the interactions between two of the film's protagonists: Iron Man and Captain America.

"There is a natural animosity between Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), self-described 'genius billionaire playboy philanthropist' — also, trust-fund baby — and Captain America alter-ego Steve Rogers, who represents every rugged American value of homespun independence, fidelity and enterprise. … It's also the perfect lens through which to tease out the moral issues of power and responsibility and merit that are pretty much the only things that make the Avengers an interesting group of people rather than a mere Marvel greatest-hits reel."

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