‘Age of Ultron’ Opening Weekend: Insanely Huge, Quietly Disappointing, or Both?

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On Film Twitter — as, I suppose, on Twitter in general — the speed with which prevailing opinion and contrarianism appear and invert can give the casual reader whiplash, and the reactions to the opening weekend of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron were a prime case study. It opened big on Friday, as everyone expected — and then dropped off sharply, taking in less in its second day than its first, which is (to put it mildly) a rarity among giant opening weekends. It closed out the weekend with $187.7 million in the bank domestically — a giant number, and a number roughly $20 million shy of the first Avengers’ debut three years ago. Some observers pointed out that this could be perceived as a bit of a backslide (particularly since industry experts were expecting it to shatter the first film’s record by anywhere from $3-$23 million). And as soon as that opinion was out there, it was dismissed; as Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri asked, “Is anybody actually calling Ultron’s box-office a disappointment, or is this yet another hot-take-friendly straw-man?” Well, I guess this is that hot take.

Let’s not mince words: by any metric other than the gross of the first Avengers, $187.7 million in three days is mind-boggling. It’s a massive goddamn amount of money, the second-biggest domestic opening in history, more money than most movies — hell, most moviemakers — will generate in their entire lifetime.

But the trouble is, it’s second to the first film, and if box-office analysis is about seeing patterns, this bucks the pattern of “Phase Two” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every sequel up until now bested its predecessor: Iron Man 3 opened to $174 million (to IM2’s $128 million), Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened to $95 million (to The First Avenger’s $65 million), Thor: The Dark World opened to $85 million (to Thor’s $65 million). In other words, thus far, every Marvel sequel outgrossed the previous film in its series by at least $20 million; Age of Ultron did $20 million less. It barely topped Iron Man 3’s opening — and that doesn’t take into account the minor increases in ticket prices over three years.

Now, Ultron will surely make up that difference (and then some) in worldwide box office, and maybe that first film set a bar that was just too high to clear. Meanwhile, industry cheerleaders like Variety and Deadline have been quick to provide reasons for the dip — chief among them a giant Saturday in sports, with eyeballs on the Kentucky Derby, the NBA playoffs, and the Wife Beater vs. Homophobe Pay-Per-View Boxing Event rather than Ultron. Those explanations are totally valid (and I’ll even give you one more: Ultron opened on 73 fewer screens than Avengers).

But they also provide what could be the takeaway from this disappointment-or-is-it opening weekend: that ultimately, the success of these movies (and, consequently, the industry that’s relying on them) isn’t about the fanboys or the movie geeks. It’s about the general public, the regular Joe or Josephine moviegoer, and this weekend, the latest mega-budget superhero tentpole wasn’t as much a priority as the industry assumed it was.

Look, I’m not trying to manufacture that dreaded hot take, or to project my own newly discovered case of superhero fatigue upon the population at large. But it’s interesting that we’re already talking about superhero fatigue when we’re so early in the process of their Hollywood takeover. The numbers are actually pretty minimal: there were only four big superhero movies last year (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and this year, there are only three (Ultron, Ant-Man, and the Fantastic Four reboot). Next year, there are seven (Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Gambit, Suicide Squad, and X-Men: Apocalypse). Seven more are on the books for 2017, and five for 2018.

We know this because Marvel and DC have plotted out their schedules so far in advance, ostensibly to create excitement and fan fervor. But in doing so, they’ve created an atmosphere that writer Calum Marsh dubs “an anticipation machine,” where “movies are just cogs.” With the ready-made logos and release-date squatting, the Superhero-Industrial Complex is all about looking ahead, about getting past this entry to the next one. After all, as Grantland’s Mark Harris points out, we already know the Avengers will be back to fight the (two-part!) Infinity War in 2018 and 2019. “Suddenly, the stakes for Avengers 2 (which is merely called Age of Ultron) feel lower,” Harris writes. “How could they not, when we know the freaking Infinity Wars are coming?” But the building and operating of the anticipation machine also means that each film should be bigger and stronger than the previous, and last weekend, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen.

It is far too early, of course, to proclaim superhero exhaustion the prevailing mood; there are 187 million reasons not to. But box-office trends can shift quicker than the industry can keep up (ask the makers of the Narnia movies or the other Harry Potter wannabes — or, better yet, ask the studios losing fortunes on giant Sound of Music-style musicals in the late ‘60s). As comic book franchises continue to overtake the moviegoing menu, it’s not hard to imagine a point where the average moviegoer (not the comic book aficionado, not the every-weekend movie fan, but the occasional, one-every-month-or-two type) starts to feel like they’ve seen it already, and decide to pass. The question is, will that point come at the end of this summer, if we see underwhelming numbers from Ant-Man, a troubled production for a character that’s not exactly a household name, and/or Fantastic Four, a troubled production for a franchise that’s already spawned two unwatchable entries? Or will it come when we’re in the thick of the seven-movies-a-year onslaught?