Let’s be clear: fans are still talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Social media and entertainment platforms alike are awash with news, comment, and opinion about the superhero movie franchise behemoth. But with fans’ expectations raised as a result of a steady diet of Marvel movie magnificence over the years yet still feeling unclear as to precisely what the MCU is journeying through and to in its latest Phase – and make no mistake, with the multiverse now blown wide open, the possibilities are literally infinite – there’s plenty of criticism that might be perceived to have grown.
Phase 4 will soon come to a close, and has arguably been the MCU’s most experimental era yet. It’s the first Phase to include TV series in the mix. It has been freer with both form and tone, exploring darker aspects such as grief in series like WandaVision. This series also made use of innovative techniques to tell its story, which in its long-format model is given space to tackle broader themes, ideas, and hitherto underexplored characters in some depth.
But the films have also taken a different turn — in Eternals, Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao was keen to study the downsides of immortality albeit amid a peppering of characteristic MCU humour; this contrasted with the knockabout farce of Thor: Love and Thunder. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this experimentation with its storytelling has been divisive. Maybe a little confusing for some. But has any of this led to a decrease in popularity in the MCU?
Perhaps – and since numbers do the talking, numbers are what we looked at. Taking account of average worldwide box office takings for MCU movies per year since 2017, to give us a solid five year sample, in this article we’ll analyse what this could mean. And since Fandom is a huge fan hub, we’ll look at our data too, which tells us whether fans have stepped up or scaled back their visits to the Fandom Marvel communities. Specifically, we looked at the overall visitor numbers, on each film’s opening weekend, to both the MCU wiki and Marvel Database wiki to get a steer on whether or not fans’ interest has gone up, down, or stayed consistent.
So what MCU properties are we including? Here’s the list of theatrical releases since 2017 that we’ve deemed eligible for our study:
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
- Black Panther (2018)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
- Captain Marvel (2019)
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
- Black Widow (2021)
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
- Eternals (2021)
- Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
- Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
You’ll notice, first of all, that Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame don’t make the list. That’s because this double-header was a different fish; two absolute monster team-up movies that absorbed elements from all of the prior MCU films and brought together tons of characters to battle the big boss and close the overarching story arc. Together, the films were the finale to the Infinity Saga and as such operated as distinct mega-events on a different level, meaning that had we included them, they would skew the stats in a way that felt unfair.
Makes sense. Although maybe you’d argue that Spider-Man: No Way Home was another “special” event movie, and yet we’ve included that. However, this one makes the cut because it wasn’t marketed in the manner those Avengers films were – it was simply billed as the new Spider-Man movie, with some exciting villains from the past (even as all the speculation about previous Spider-Man actors returning turned out to be true).
Two final notes to make. One is that none of the Marvel Studios/Disney+ TV shows are included – and that’s because they began much more recently and have less concrete numbers to go by. We can revisit these further down the line when we feel it’s time to ask the question again. Two is that Thor: Love and Thunder is still playing in some markets, so, combined with the fact that Wakanda Forever is yet to release this year, our 2022 results give us a good steer yet are inconclusive. And if the Black Panther sequel ends up impacting the way its predecessor did, it could seriously raise 2022’s game.
So, with our approach explained, let’s get on with the business at hand.
Box Office Findings
We begin with box office numbers. 2017 releases included three sequels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. All hit similar figures at the box office, resulting in an average global sum just shy of $866 million.
2018 came around, and brought with it two more MCU additions (Avengers: Infinity War aside) in a first solo outing for Black Panther and a sequel in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Black Panther proved a huge box office draw, taking more than $1.3 billion worldwide while the Ant-Man sequel performed more modestly at $622.7 million, for an average 2018 figure of close to $985 million for the two non-Avengers films.
So far, we’re climbing. So what about 2019? This year gave us Avengers: Endgame, but even without that, the MCU smashed the box office, with Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home both doing the business to secure an average upwards of $1.13 billion. No doubt both were basking in the glow of the “end of the Infinity Saga” halo effect but also Captain Marvel was an enticing new property, and Spider-Man is, well, Spider-Man. The world’s favourite superhero.
But just as the MCU was riding the crest of a wave, Covid-19 hit and in 2020 the world stopped. Movie releases and production ground to a halt. Movie theatres were closed. We all stayed indoors. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet memorably had a go theatrically, dipping a toe in for the rest of cinema, but scheduled MCU releases were stabled while the world continued to battle the pernicious virus.
It was 2021 when Disney decided on a course of action for its overdue Black Widow solo outing, which felt for some to lose relevance the more time passed since Avengers: Endgame was released to the world, in which we saw Natasha Romanoff sacrifice herself for the greater good. A simultaneous ‘day and date’ premiere on Disney+ further dented box office takings in a cautious world nervous about re-entering movie theatres.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals were both released in the same cagey post-lockdown landscape, during which some markets continued to remain unavailable. This goes some way to explaining the dents in takings here (all three of these films hit around the $400 million mark). But then along came a Spider… in the form of Spider-Man: No Way Home. The crowd-pleasing multi-dimensional spectacular shook everything up at a time when people felt ready and brave enough for a mass return to the pictures and it raked in the readies. The film made over $1.9 billion, giving 2021 a $780 million average.
The Unfinished Story of 2022
And so to 2022 and we see a healthy performance so far. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness brought Sam Raimi back into the Marvel movie-making game, delighting OG Spidey trilogy fans. Raimi’s horror-tinged Doctor Strange sequel was embraced by audiences, netting it a near $956 million payday. As we’ve already said, the fourth Thor instalment is still playing in some territories, but to date it has bagged $760 million making the average so far for the year $858 million, with Wakanda Forever still to come. All signs, of course, indicate that the film will bump up the average for the year, surpassing 2017’s $866 million, thereby suggesting that the popularity of the MCU has far from waned.
Looking at these figures in isolation, you might surmise that 2019 was the peak in terms of popularity for the MCU. And it might well turn out to be the case. The culmination of 11 years of worldbuilding and unprecedented storytelling, which began in 2008 with the inaugural Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Iron Man, 2019’s offering showed the world what was possible as it completed a never-before-seen feat and closed its Infinity Saga. It’s a phenomenon they can’t ever repeat. At the same time, the MCU began to open up possibilities for a bigger, bolder, dynamic future that left fans hungry for more but unclear exactly of what comes next. As the next three Phases construct their overarching story building towards their own mega-event climax, we’ll see in time just what effect this has.
But now, let’s look at Fandom data to give us a better idea of how fan feeling around the MCU might have changed between 2017 and 2022.
Black Panther Bonanza
First question. Which of the MCU movies released between 2017 and July 2022 caused the biggest jump in traffic to both the MCU and Marvel Database wikis on its opening weekend?
That accolade goes to a different film depending on which community’s data you mine. Looking at the Marvel Database wiki, the film that made the biggest impact was 2018’s Black Panther, a box office barnstormer. Although the character had appeared in the MCU before this release, it was Black Panther’s first solo outing – and our first introduction to a whole new land in the wondrous Wakanda. This, along with the introduction of a wealth of new characters including one of the MCU’s best-ever villains in Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, meant that fans were keen to brush up on their history of Black Panther by visiting the comic-book community to gather their info.
With the film brand new and the character’s MCU lore not yet as thoroughly mapped out as his comic-book counterpart, the MCU wiki for Black Panther was not as detail-filled – although of course we know that it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything that happens or is referenced in the comics makes it to the big screen. That said, the MCU community still experienced one of the largest spikes of all opening weekends on the release of Black Panther with 81% — close, in fact, to Avengers: Infinity War on 85% (which we’re not using as a comparison in this article because it’s event status gives it an unfair advantage. But still).
A Bona Fide Marvel
But the film which caused the biggest influx of traffic to the MCU community on its opening weekend? Captain Marvel, released in 2019, with a 131% leap. This is the film that gave us Goose, after all, leading us all to question whether Goose could, in fact, defeat Thanos singlehandedly, such is the power of a Flerken. On top of this being Captain Marvel’s induction into the MCU, therefore making her ripe for investigation, there was also mystery surrounding Jude Law’s character. This drove traffic to the wiki with fans eager to learn more, as did the introduction of the shapeshifting Skrulls and all the storylines their involvement opened up. All this against the backdrop of a not insignificant number of fans voicing their dislike of the film.
One of the most well-liked films of the entire MCU has been among those that have seen the lowest opening weekend bump in traffic, and that’s Thor: Ragnarok from 2017, the beginning of our test period. The Marvel Database wiki saw an 8% spike, while the MCU wiki tracked a 22% spike. Still spikes, sure, but a way short of Black Panther’s respective 41% and 81% boosts. Partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the film was the third Thor solo movie, by which point we already knew plenty about the characters and Asgardian lore.
Interesting, then, that Thor: Love and Thunder is up on the previous Thor instalment. Particularly considering that the fourth Thor film has attracted some heat. The Marvel Database saw a 14% boost in visitors on Love and Thunder’s release, and around 650,000 more pageviews than the 2017 film. The MCU community, meanwhile, picked up 25% more visitors on the release of Love and Thunder and around 800,000 more pageviews than its predecessor.
Thor Rises Amid Strange Magic
So, while Thor: Love and Thunder, released in 2022, beats Thor: Ragnarok, released in 2017, in terms of numbers of fans driven to explore the Marvel communities off the back of their release, it pales somewhat in comparison to 2022’s other Marvel Cinematic Universe release. And that’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
DSitMoM is the second highest performing MCU film on Fandom’s Marvel Database wiki over the entire five-year sample we’re looking at, beaten only by Black Panther. Highly anticipated and marking Sam ‘Spider-Man’ Raimi’s directorial return to Marvel superhero movies, the wacky plot saw Strange and his companions take in myriad new dimensions as they battled a threat from a powerful interdimensional force (no spoilers here). The Marvel Database recorded a 37% leap in traffic, second only to Black Panther’s 41%, and the highest number of pageviews of all films from the period.
But while the Doctor Strange sequel still performed well on the MCU wiki with a 31% bump and the second highest number of pageviews, it fell behind not only frontrunner Captain Marvel (131%) but also Black Panther (81%); 2017 releases Spider-Man: Homecoming (50%); Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (58%); and 2021’s Eternals (58%) when it came to the influx of visitors on release.
Oh, and perhaps surprisingly, 2021’s Black Widow too – which had a 39% boost in visitors on its opening weekend, as well as the highest number of pageviews of all films in the period. Of course, we should remember that this film was also available to watch at home simultaneously where entire households might have been watching it — meaning it’s possible that more people saw it than records show when it opened.
So, Has the MCU’s Popularity Waned?
There’s a lot to take in. But in summary, if you’re wondering whether the MCU has waned in popularity, while the numbers reveal peaks and troughs, the answer is no. 2022 looks set to be a bumper year for the MCU’s box office takings, with two well-performing releases to date, and another likely to knock it out of the park before the year is out (Wakanda Forever). And that’s despite the lows of 2021 – which in all probability are an aberration we can at least partially put down to Covid restrictions and concerns, even if at least two of them (Black Widow; Eternals) received mixed reactions from moviegoers and critics. Indeed, by the end of 2021 when Covid worries and protocol had further eased, audiences returned to the MCU in their droves when Spider-Man: No Way Home hit.
2022 is, however, unlikely to hit the heady heights of 2019, a pre-Covid world in which fans were reaping the cinematic rewards of the climax to the Infinity Saga. But come back when we get to the end of Phase 6 and the conclusion of the Multiverse Saga (and movies with “Avengers” in the title are once more being released), and we’ll compare then how the new arc fares against its older sibling.
If the tally of visitors to Fandom’s Marvel communities is also a good indicator, interest in and by extension the popularity of the MCU is alive and kicking with recent releases holding their own against — and even trouncing in some cases — some MCU classics. As if this article were a Marvel story arc itself, however, its ultimate outcome hinges on one final chapter: the performance of Wakanda Forever. Now there’s a cliffhanger.
Explore the future of the MCU — check out our article about The Leader below.