The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
When my kids woke up the Friday morning after Avengers: Infinity War opened, before they said good morning or asked anything about breakfast, they wanted to know something: Who died? My kids weren’t old enough to go see Infinity War in the theater, and contract negotiations between studios and franchise stars aren’t necessarily the stuff of elementary-school playground gossip, but my kids had definitely absorbed the idea that somebody was supposed to die. This was the big question heading into Infinity War. All the marketing around the movie implied gravity and finality, and some of those stars had been kicking around the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the better part of a decade. So somebody had to die. General consensus said that it would be Iron Man or Captain America or maybe even both.
Instead, Infinity War ended with the numbing, near-silent spectacle of half the universe crumbling into dust. Characters who’d been Halloween costumes and Lego sets and elementary-school backpacks just dissolved into ash. This was a hell of a thing to describe to two kids while getting them ready for school in the morning.
In the opening scene of Infinity War, after his minion Ebony Maw gives a flowery speech about what an honor it is to be killed by this glorious messianic figure, Josh Brolin’s Thanos looks on a flaming wreckage of a spaceship full of Asgardian deities and rumbles, “I know what it’s like to lose—to feel so desperately that you’re right, but to fail nevertheless.” Two hours later, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, whose crucial act of crunch-time idiocy has doomed trillions of sentient beings, looks around wildly and asks, “Did we just lose?” He did. They all did. In Infinity War, the Avengers learn what it’s like to lose. That’s the point of Infinity War, a cosmic-scale hymn to helplessness.
More than a year before the release of Infinity War, Kevin Feige, the producer who somehow turned the vast and ridiculous Marvel Universe into a globally dominant box-office force, described Thanos as the film’s “main character.” In a mega-budget crossover film with dozens of movie stars, Thanos is the character with the most screen time, and he’s also the animating force behind every action. Thanos had existed on screen, in some form or another, since the end-credits stinger scene of 2012’s The Avengers, but he’d mostly worked as a vague and shadowy threat, an undefined promise of a future adventure. In the opening scene of Infinity War, Thanos becomes inescapably present. He stabs Heimdall to death, casually gorilla press slams the Hulk, and breaks Loki’s neck, looking vaguely bored the whole time. That moment establishes Thanos as a character who exists on a scale beyond anything in any previous Marvel film. Thanos is too much for the Marvel superheroes to handle, and by the time the dust settles at the end of Infinity War, he’s the winner.
There are a lot of great things about Avengers: Infinity War, the second-highest earner at the 2018 box office, but the greatest is Thanos. A couple of decades earlier, the villain had been the psychedelic vision of bugged-out Marvel weirdo Jim Starlin. Starlin had conjured a space-opera nihilist in love with the physical manifestation of Death. Thanos was a great character, but his entire saga was deep nerd shit. With Infinity War, the various creative problem-solvers behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe transformed Thanos into a universally recognized force of movie malevolence, a pop-culture presence on the level of Darth Vader or Don Corleone. That’s a magic trick.
The entire existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a magic trick, too. Infinity War was the 19th entry in a vast and sweeping blockbuster-film experiment, one that started a decade before Thanos snapped his fingers and temporarily erased half of it. With Infinity War, Disney was able to pull in $2 billion of global movie-theater tickets with a cinematic spectacle that must’ve looked like absolute gibberish to anyone who hadn’t seen most of the previous 18 pictures. Marvel had already gotten the entire moviegoing public into its deep nerd shit. Kevin Feige and his braintrust had conditioned everyone to cheer at the entrance of a sullen teenage tree-man playing a portable video game and only ever saying his own name, a sight that would’ve confounded anyone from any previous generation of cinema. In the wake of Marvel’s success, a half-dozen other franchises tried to equal it. Nobody came close.
In 2018, the greatest testament to Marvel’s mythmaking power wasn’t Infinity War; it was the only movie that out-earned Infinity War at the domestic box office. Two months earlier, Black Panther caught the cultural zeitgeist, showing a fantastical Afro-futuristic utopia at a moment when that was what the world really needed to see. Black Panther was such a cultural event that it must’ve even shocked Disney itself; the superhero vehicle, partially intended to prop up the Infinity War opening, became a societal rallying point unto itself. A year later, it became the first comic-book movie ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. If Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of Infinity War, had any inkling of what Black Panther would mean to people, then they almost certainly would’ve given the Wakandan characters a whole lot more to do. (This column is about the box office champions of every year, but I wrote a Black Panther column pretty recently. Infinity War finished just behind Black Panther in North America, and it won the year at the global box office.)
Infinity War weaponizes any and all audience affection for those previous 18 Marvel movies. Its heroes all get limited screen time, but they do the things that people pay to see them do. They soar and banter and strike dramatic poses. In quick little glimpses, we see everything that the movie needs to tell us about these people. Iron Man snarks at the invading alien super-beings while bragging about his new nanotech suit. Spider-Man sneaks off of a moving school bus to go fight the giant donut that’s suddenly appeared above the Manhattan skyline. The Guardians of the Galaxy sing along with the Spinners while responding to an SOS call and considering maybe stealing the ship of the people they’ll rescue. We know all these people, and we’re used to seeing them win. We are not used to seeing them fail. That’s not what happens in Marvel movies.
Amidst all the rapid-fire charisma of all these personalities, though, Thanos is a figure of swaggering, stoic certainty. The principle animating him—that the universe is too big and populous, and it will collapse on itself if something isn’t done—almost works as a criticism of the vast and unwieldy Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Thanos looks out at a landscape teeming with characters all scrambling for finite screen time, and he sees that it’s too much, so he sets off on a mythical quest to reduce this chaos to something more sustainable. When he succeeds, it’s shocking, not least because the Russos have spent the previous two and a half hours reminding us of why we liked all these characters in the first place.
Leading up to the aria of futility that temporarily ends things, there’s a whole lot of fun stuff in Infinity War. Spider-Man gets a bunch of new Iron Man tech and steps up as a kid who can willingly take on interstellar menaces. Doctor Strange grumpily rolls his eyes at Tony Stark’s self-aggrandizement and convincingly does cool magical hand-spells. The Guardians “Ooh” and “Ahh” over Thor and then get into a brief, entertaining punch-up with a trio of Avengers before realizing that they’re all on the same side. Benicio Del Toro, granted about one minute of screen time, does memorably weird shit with it. At the cultural peak of Game Of Thrones, Peter Dinklage shows up as a giant with metal hands. Hugo Weaving does not show up, but we get a space-ghost version of the Red Skull spouting exposition anyway.
Amidst this juggling act, the Russo Brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also keep the emotional stuff in play. After getting badly beaten down in the opening minutes, the Hulk refuses to come out and smash, forcing Bruce Banner to go into battle in Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor instead. Captain America emerges from fugitive life because he knows the world needs him. Doctor Strange goes into a mental trance and comes to understand just how tenuous the universe is. Thanos tearfully murders his own child while Alan Silvestri’s operatic score booms and a whole colorful space tableau spins around him. Even amidst the nonstop wisecracks, which can wear a little thin on repeated viewings, the Russos keep a building sense of doom.
The superheroes of Infinity War act in the ways that Marvel-movie superheroes are supposed to act. They bicker and bust each other’s chops. They acknowledge the absurdity of their own situations by pointing out that absurdity: “He’s from space. He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.” They make dramatic last-second saves. When Thor, off on his own quest for most of the movie, returns with blazing eyes and a brand-new magical axe, it’s a triumphant goosebump moment. But all the blood-pounding pomp of that arrival amounts to nothing.
Before Thanos, a lot of Marvel movies had bland-villain problems. There were memorable exceptions: Loki, Vulture, Killmonger. But most of the heavies were walking plot-advancement machines, there to help the heroes realize their own destinies or simply to give them something to do. Thanos is the first Marvel villain convinced of his own righteousness, the only one who knows he’s going to win. His motivations are a little muddy; his assertions that there are “too many mouths, not enough to go around” read like a cartoonish misrepresentation of various environmental movements. (Everyone knows that there are plenty of resources to go around; we just have to stop the rich people from hoarding them.) But Thanos’ response to the heroes’ theatricality is to sigh deeply and to explain his motivations again. He remains resolute that he will soon “see the sun rise on a grateful universe.” At the end, he gets to enjoy his quiet moment of triumph while all the superheroes begin to process just how badly they’ve failed.
The silence following the Thanos snap still resonates, even if Marvel has effectively erased the effects of that snap. That ending demands a certain willing suspension of disbelief. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with comic books knows that comic-book death is simply an abstraction, a vague formality. Any character who dies will come back whenever another writer decides that they’ve got a new take. As soon as Black Panther dissolved into nothingness, I knew that what I was seeing wasn’t permanent, that all these characters would be back. But I still got emotionally caught up in Spider-Man’s shattering quasi-death and in the quiet of that moment. (There’s no score over the end credits; it’s as though Alan Silvestri, too, has crumbled into nothingness.) After the final stinger, when Nick Fury blows away in the breeze, the phrase “Thanos will return” rolls up on screen. At my opening-night screening, someone yelled “fuck you” at those words.
Even if you knew that you were being manipulated, even if you knew that all these characters would find a way to return triumphantly to the screen a year later, Infinity War stung. (Part of the joy in Avengers: Endgame is seeing how the writers and directors find their way to that inevitable crowd-pleasing return, probably the most viscerally satisfying movie-theater moment I’ve had this decade.) And even as Marvel has moved on from that snap, the final Infinity War moment was so resonant that virtually every Marvel product since 2018 has worked as some attempt to reckon with it.
Ant-Man And The Wasp opened a couple of months after Infinity War, and the question of how the movie would address Thanos, unanswered until the final second of the credits stinger, hung over everything. Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier have all been stories about their heroes reconciling with trauma and loss. To avoid that heaviness, Loki had to break the concept of time itself into tiny pieces. Black Widow, the first new Marvel movie in two years, had to jump way back in the timeline to tell a story, and the shadow of its hero’s death hangs heavy over the whole film.
Infinity War represented Marvel at its imperial peak, and it may have broken the studio’s machinery to the point where this all-crushing cinematic saga might not recover. The pandemic fucked up a whole lot of things, and one of those things was an intricately planned-out years-long product rollout. Marvel was able to get Endgame off before everything shut down, and in retrospect, it plays like an ending of a grand endeavor. Everything since has felt like Marvel sweeping up the pieces.
The endeavor won’t really end for a very long time. We’ve got a flood of new Marvel movies coming in the months ahead, and maybe some of it will connect on a mass level the way Black Panther and Infinity War did. But Black Widow hasn’t performed up to box office expectations thus far, even though it’s the year’s highest-grossing movie at the time of this writing. A few weeks after its release, Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for putting Black Widow up for streaming and thus messing up her share of the profits. For the whole Marvel machine to work, everyone involved needs to be making crazy amounts of money. Time will tell, but that era may be ending.
But if Infinity War was the beginning of the end for Marvel, then it was a glorious flame-out: a massive global entertainment machine humming at peak capacity and still coming up with jarring surprises. My kids hadn’t really seen Marvel movies when Infinity War opened, and they still wanted to know who died right away. It’ll be a long time before we see any sort of product reach that level of omnipresence. As that moment recedes into the past, the fact that it happened at all seems more and more miraculous.
The contender: Six of 2018’s highest-grossing films were superhero epics: the gleefully puerile filth of Deadpool 2, the stoner grandeur of Aquaman, the self-aware family-comedy zippiness of Incredibles 2. Given all that, the halo jumps and helicopter stunts of Mission: Impossible—Fallout feel grounded and realistic.
Fallout is a finely-tuned big-budget roller-coaster, but its hard-splat punches and dangling bodies felt old-school and analog in a changing movie environment. And for that type of Hollywood action cinema, it’s a landmark, a shining example of how much lizard-brain fun all that stuff can be when it’s done to perfection.
Next time: 2019’s highest-grossing film, by far, was Avengers: Endgame, but I wrote about that one recently, too. Instead, then, we’ll look at Jon Favreau’s photorealistic and flavorless Lion King remake, the other vastly lucrative Disney CGI spectacle that came out that summer.