The Walt Disney Company’s costly acquisition strategy looks increasingly shrewd as Avengers: Age of Ultron pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to being the world’s highest grossing film franchise

The numbers are in and quite unlike the events that often assemble Earth’s mightiest heroes, they’re eminently predictable. The latest installment in the unstoppable march of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) looks set to break records all round. At home, highly aggressive estimates suggest Avengers: Age of Ultron may make up to $230million and in actual terms is likely to smash $200.3 million taken by its 2012 predecessor in the United States. Opening across 44 international territories, it’s confirmed as setting a Hulk-like record of $200.2 million, despite alleged boycotts caused by rental fee disagreements in the German market.

Under the unrelenting march of Marvel’s new heroes, the UK showed the changing of the guard more than most. Ultron’s £20.18 million debut beat the opening set by James Bond with 2012’s Skyfall.

It’s safe to say that the second Avengers film has comfortably surpassed its estimated $280 million budget and is well on track to beat the $1.518 billion grossed by its predecessor. It also continues the phenomenal performance of the Marvel movies as their structured development process reaches the end of its second phase. Phase 2 will conclude this July with a new and lesser known Marvel IP Ant-Man. Even if that film matches the lowest grossing MCU film so far (2008’s Incredible Hulk took $263.4) Phase 2 will likely exceed $5.12 billion. Not bad, when you already have Phase 3 lined up…

Until Ant-Man, Ultron culminates the MCU, so far a series of 11 interlinked films dating back to Iron Man in 2008. It’s easy to forget what a risk that film was. Escaping financial difficulties at the turn of the century, comic book colossus Marvel sold film rights to its various characters to 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures Entertainment among others, while it employed a highly successful strategy to put its comic book empire back on the map, I what is an ever-fluctuating industry.

Marvel films had performed well at other studios, with the current superhero boom kicked-off by their characters Blade and the X-Men in 1997 and 1999 respectively. Then, in a few short few months between November 2005 and February 2006, Marvel themselves regained the film rights to both Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, and what would form the start of Phase 1 under the Marvel Studios imprint was set.

Marvel Studios made their full film debut with that less-than a household name superhero in a tin suit. Even more risky was the casting of former Hollywood bad boy Robert Downey Jr in front of camera and indie director Jon Favreau calling the shots behind, a film-maker who’s highest grossing movie, the Will Ferrell star vehicle Elf, had taken $220 million. With a budget set at well over half that, Iron Man needed to perform at the box office. Thanks to smart scripting, plotting and shrewd casting, even in the year Warner Brother’s realised the true dollar potential of its Batman franchise with the $1 billion plus The Dark Knight (and featuring that other entrepreneur playboy) it over performed. Iron man Tony Stark may be the creator of many things on paper, but his greatest work was the United States’ most successful film franchise.

 With the Marvel Cinematic universe grossing over $7.2 billion to date, Disney’s acquisition of Marvel on December 31st 2009 for $4 billion, just four months before the release of Iron Man 2, is looking more than astute. The House of Mouse and the House of Ideas have made a perfect team. Disney has undertaken the significant task of incorporating Marvel’s enormous roster of characters into its universe, to sit alongside Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear in its Disney Infinity Videogame franchise and elsewhere. Marvel films play a significant part in the House of Mouse’s plans to release an incredible 24 films over the next two years.

Did Marvel need Disney? Undoubtedly the IP’s were buoyant and under shrewd management Marvel Studios would have seen a fine business. But Disney has opened up unrivalled avenues in videogames and crucially animation (Disney’s $653million grossing Big Hero Six last year was actually a Marvel property, although not run under the MCU banner). Distribution agreements were necessarily lessened by the deal, affiliation more easily sought such as the ground-breaking four series deal with Netflix that started with Daredevil this month. Disney’s also backing ensured budgets could rise with ambition, let the Studio target two releases a year, and attract big names. It’s hard to imagine Robert Redford stepping into the role he did for last year’s second Captain America Film, nor Michael Douglas for this year’s Ant-Man, quite so easily if Marvel hadn’t had the support to fill out its broad shoulders so quickly.

Crucially, despite its risky tin-pot beginnings, properties little known outside comic shops such as Guardians of the Galaxy ($774.2million gross in 2014) would have no doubt faced a harder time getting the green light. Even with a gun-toting, wise-cracking raccoon.

The MCU remains very much a work in progress, with no sign that its continued success will be taken for granted. Filming has currently started on the third Captain America Film. Based on the large cross-over comic book event last decade masterminded by Brit Mark Millar, Civil War will crucially draw Iron Man into its fold and undoubtedly enjoy a box office uplift to suit. Daredevil has earned a second series on Netflix, with the second of that TV franchise AKA Jessica Jones currently filming.

Crucially, things need to be kept fresh – as Guardians of the Galaxy has and hopefully Ant-Man will prove during the studio’s Phase 2. After all, that Phase system is more than just an act structure. It has in-built checks and balances that other studios are keen to emulate for franchises in danger of neglect. Next summer sees the third and fourth Avengers films shoot back-to-back for the culmination of Phase 3 and will no doubt bid farewell to a number of key MCU actors and their characters as they reach the end of their multi-film contracts. By that point, a number of new Marvel superheroes, including (first lead female) Captain Marvel, much anticipated Black Panther and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sorcerer Supreme Dr Strange, will have been primed to take the original Avengers places as all eyes fall on Phase 4.

One thing Marvel doesn’t look likely to forget is what every good superhero knows: it always pays to remember your origins.

Every film in Marvel’s Phase 2 features the loss of an arm, a cheeky reference to Luke Skywalker’s fate in the second act of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back. And perhaps that’s more about modesty and reverence than a sly wink. A fellow stablemate at Disney since 2012, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars has been the pre-eminent American science-fiction franchise since the late 1970s. It’s telling that before its seventh film is released this December, its total box office sits a long $3 billion behind Marvel’s.mc_red

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