Graham: Latest ‘Avengers’ a watershed for Hollywood

Superheroes have taken over cineplexes. But where do they go from here?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

W hen “Avengers: Infinity War” opens on Thursday night, it will be the culmination of a 10-year, 18-movie project that has reshaped the face of Hollywood.

Many an online joke was cracked last month when Marvel execs dubbed “Infinity War” the “most ambitious crossover event in history.” (Insert your “Mr. Belvedere”/“Small Wonder” crossover episode .gif here.) But there’s no denying that “Infinity War” — because “Marvel 19” is a decidedly unsexy title — is aiming higher than any blockbuster that has come before it, seemingly encompassing as many actors, characters and crisscrossing storylines as “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and all eight “Fast and Furious” movies combined.

It also stars Black Panther, already the biggest box office star of 2018. Since its release in February, “Black Panther” has grossed $675 million at the domestic box office, making it Marvel’s No. 1 film overall (eclipsing the $623 million take of 2012’s “The Avengers”) and the third-biggest moneymaker of all-time on these shores.

The Marvel takeover of the last decade — the movies have all grossed north of $100 million, with an average take of $331 million — has made the Team Marvel the coolest table in Hollywood’s lunchroom. But with several of the stars aging out of the series — Robert Downey Jr. is 53 and is suiting up as “Iron Man” for the ninth time, and Chris Evans has said he’s ready to hang up his “Captain America” shield — where does the series, and where do superhero movies, go from here?

There was a time when superheroes couldn’t get arrested in Tinsel Town. “Superman” and its sequel were sizable hits in 1978 and 1981, but by 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” — which grossed a dismal $15 million and change — the series, and the genre, had completely fizzled out.

Tim Burton’s “Batman” was a game-changer in 1989, earning $250 million, and the series remained healthy through several installments, until Joel Schmacher drove the Batmobile into a wall with 1997’s “Batman & Robin.” Still, other superhero stories derived from comic books — including “The Shadow,” “The Phantom” and “Judge Dredd” — were non-starters. It wasn’t until “Spider-Man” came along in 2002 — and Christopher Nolan revived the “Batman” franchise in 2005 — that superhero movies started making cash registers ring with regularity.

And then “Iron Man” came along in 2008 and nothing has been the same since. The success of the Marvel films opened the door for the rival DC universe, and while not nearly as successful (commercially or critically), the DC films have grossed nearly $1.6 billion domestically and have made “Wonder Woman” a deserving box office attraction.

So what’s next? First up, more of the same. “Deadpool” reboots next month, a second “Ant Man” movie arrives in July, Tom Hardy enters the fray as “Venom” in October, Oscar-winner Brie Larson debuts as “Captain Marvel” next March, and there’s a fourth, as-yet-untitled “Avengers” film on the release docket for May 2019. (Pause and cry a silent tear for the “Black Widow” movie that never was.)

While the list of characters who haven’t gotten their time to shine is running low — an “Aquaman” movie, once an elaborate joke in the “Entourage” universe, is due out in December — there are endless ways to keep it going.

As the lead “Avengers” see retirement looming, there’s already a new crop of Avengers ready to take the lead, including Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and of course, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, whom Marvel execs would be silly not to milk for at least three more movies.

If the Marvel movies start to slow down — and eventually, they have to, it’s the law — they can always reboot and start back at one. Spider-Man did it (and then did it again), and he’s doing just fine.

How about a Marvel/DC crossover? It’s all a matter of lawyers sitting down and working through the red tape. (Freddy and Jason worked things out, so surely Batman and Thor can iron out their differences.)

Looking to this week, anticipation for “Infinity War” is mighty, with pre-sale tickets already besting the last seven Marvel movies combined — including “Black Panther” — according to online ticket seller Fandango. The landscape may be changing, but superheroes are here to stay, to “Infinity” and beyond.

(313) 222-2284