As Marvel Studios makes all sorts of hay about this week’s big release of Avengers: Infinity War, one of the common themes of the campaign has been that this is the culmination of a decade’s worth of storytelling. The studio and its producers and creative guides have told anyone standing still long enough that this is a remarkable achievement, unparalleled in cinematic history.
They’re right, of course. It’s unprecedented for a studio to put out 19 interconnected films, each building on the last and building toward what’s to come. And while these films have certainly been in production for a decade or more, it’s also worth noting that the last 10 years have not seen an uninterrupted string of Marvel Cinematic Universe releases.
As hard as it is to believe now, when each year brings at least two if not three MCU movies, 2009 saw none. That’s right, none. After 2008 saw Iron Man kick things off and The Incredible Hulk start to explore the interconnectedness of the universe, things went dark until Iron Man 2 in 2010. That gap speaks to how Marvel Studios doesn’t seem to have been as sure as they make themselves out to be now about how successful this venture was going to be.
It’s interesting, then, to look at what *was* released in 2009 because the year now seems to be a kind of aberration, a moment before we all fell in line and accepted our fate living in The Matrix because even though we knew it wasn’t steak we were eating, the illusion was enough.
The Top 10 Films of 2009
- Avatar – The only thing more incredible than how successful this movie was in 2009 is how kind of inessential it seems to the sci-fi canon or film history in general almost 10 years later. While director James Cameron endlessly plans anywhere from two to seven sequels without releasing a single one he continues to do more harm than good to his reputation by finding the wrong takes on the movies that *are* coming out.
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Talk about taking a leap of faith, Warner Bros. committed itself in spirit to making seven movies when it released the first Harry Potter movie. If this franchise had fallen apart at any point it could have potentially left the cinematic series incomplete, which would have been tremendously embarrassing. That the fifth film was still this successful says a lot about both filmmaking and movie marketing.
- Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs – Sure. OK.
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Which one was this one again? Was it the one where Optimus Prime died and was reborn? Or the one where Optimus Prime died and was reborn? I can never keep them straight. Whatever the case, it featured a bunch of giant robots I could never really tell apart destroying a handful of buildings.
- 2012 – The paranoia around the end of the Mayan calendar was the philosophical equivalent of the Y2K panic over a decade earlier. This also seemed to mark the moment where we switched from a Hollywood philosophy of “Let’s cast a John Cusack type to bring some chops to our mindless action drama” to “Does The Rock have an open week? Cool, bring him in.” I’m still not convinced Woody Harrelson knew he was in a movie and that they didn’t just film him in the middle of what he calls “Thursday.”
- Up – Yes, just the thought of the opening 10 minutes of this movie will make me feel very emotional. I’m constantly surprised a full 48% of YouTube isn’t just analyses of how incredible that whole sequence is.
- The Twilight Saga: New Moon – I’ve never seen a Twilight movie so I’m legitimately curious how fans of the franchise might think the films hold up. Do they hold up a decade later or does the sparkle fade quickly?
- Sherlock Holmes – Robert Downey Jr. was quick to ride the wave offered to him by his Iron Man resurgence, which we sometimes forget was a big deal at the time since part of the risk of that movie was his casting. This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that, importantly, allows Rachel McAdams to be an “interesting character,” a sadly infrequent occurrence.
- Angels & Demons – Given how badly the latest Da Vinci Code sequel tanked, it’s surprising successful this one was. Maybe the one that jumps out most clearly as one that wouldn’t make the cut in a Marvel year.
- The Hangover – Despite not really liking this movie I think about it often. That’s because the subsequent careers of the three leads seems so interesting. Bradley Cooper went on to do a bunch of dramas before his three year hiatus leading up to this year’s A Star is Born. Zach Galifianakis has been following his own muse in various projects, occasionally doing a mainstream comedy to pay the bills but otherwise continuing to make everyone vaguely uncomfortable. Ed Helms keeps hanging around ensemble projects but has never emerged as a leading comedic actor. Meanwhile the movie itself has become the point of reference for any female-led raunchy comedy, which is hugely unfair and sexist but whatever.
Looking at the list in total not only is the lack of a Marvel Studios film notable but so is the fact that otherwise this seems perfectly representative of the modern box-office. Half the list are franchise entries. There are a couple animated features, though I refuse to acknowledge that Ice Age was more successful than Up, a testament to the power of playing to the cheap seats. Unless I’m blocking it out the release of Sherlock Holmes was the last time we saw a movie featuring an established character hit without the phrase “…launching a shared universe” being used.
Over the next eight years – between 2010 and 2017 – some interesting trends emerge that show Marvel solidifying an incredible amount of control over the box-office:
- When it comes to solo films it’s a mixed and inconsistent bag. All three Iron Man movies have appeared in the Top 10, but only the second and third Captain America and Thor movies, both of which saw their 2011 debuts fall short of the list.
- Both Avengers team movies to date have easily made the list, but the first one in 2012 is the big winner. Age of Ultron in 2015 fell behind a few movies, most notably the return of Star Wars to theaters with The Force Awakens. In fact Captain America: Civil War is the only MCU movie to beat out a Star Wars entry, edging out 2016’s Rogue One. While both franchises are owned by Disney, it will be interesting to see if Solo is able to present a viable challenge to Infinity War.
- 2010 saw half the Top 10 list be made up of animated family fare, including the first Despicable Me movie and Toy Story 3.
- 2011, 2012 and 2017 are completely made up of franchise entries and adaptations of existing IP. Each other year in this period contains at least one original film, but in two of those years the sole non-franchise movie is from Christopher Nolan with Inception in 2010 and Interstellar in 2014.
It’s virtually guaranteed, practically on Fandango pre-orders alone, that Infinity War will place in the Top 10 of 2018, an honor it will likely share with fellow MCU entry Black Panther. It’s not a question of whether it will be big, just how big it winds up being.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.