In the months leading up to the release of Avengers: Endgame, box office projections varied on just how much the eagerly anticipated film would make opening weekend. Forecasting in the preceding months had it anywhere from $200 million to close to $300 million. A massive amount, to be sure, but not a guarantee to become the biggest domestic opening weekend of all time held by last year’s Avengers: Infinity War with $257.7 million.
As we got closer to the film’s release and pre-sales records were being shattered, it seemed obvious that Endgame would snag the top spot, and the fantasy of a $300 million opening seemed like it could become a reality. But even a box office Nostradamus, possessed with Captain America’s giddy optimism couldn’t have predicted what actually happened.
Avengers: Endgame was a cultural event like no other, baffling the industry by rocketing past $300 million and ultimately landing at $357.1 million. This was a feat that seemed not only improbable given previous box office records, but nearly impossible given its three-hour runtime. This was cinematic history and at least from an opening weekend standpoint, Avengers: Endgame is the biggest movie of our lifetimes.
The opening weekend for Avengers: Endgame was so big, I have to ask, can any upcoming movie possibly top it?
Avengers: Endgame is 2019’s biggest movie, but it is far from this year’s only massive tentpole. This summer has some huge releases like the long-awaited Toy Story 4. That film has mass appeal ,and last year’s Incredibles 2 showed the power of nostalgic Pixar franchises, but no animated film has ever opened to over $200 million, much less $300 million. Toy Story 4 would have to nearly double Incredibles 2’s $182.7 million opening weekend to get the job done, and it’s only tracking for $130 million at the moment.
Moving on, in July we have one of this year’s strongest contenders, the "live-action" reimagining of The Lion King. Of the films in the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King anecdotally seems to be the one with the highest nostalgia quotient, alongside Beauty and the Beast. The live-action reimagining of that film opened to an incredible $174.7 million in 2017.
I expect The Lion King to best that and actually cross the $200 million barrier in its opening weekend. However, no matter how beloved The Lion King is, it is still something we’ve seen before, so there won’t be the same kind of necessity to rush out to the theater to avoid spoilers that Avengers: Endgame had going for it. Crossing $350 million for a remake is a big ask.
In November, Disney’s dominant year continues with Frozen II. The first film had major legs at the box office as it snowballed into a phenomenon, so I expect the sequel to open bigger than the original’s $67.4 million, but over five times as much seems like a stretch.
Then we get to December, and here is where things get interesting. In 2015, the return of Star Wars in the form of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens set the $247.9 million opening weekend mark that Infinity War bested last year. Even with a decade’s worth of waiting for the franchise to return, that incredible box office is still over $100 million south of what Avengers: Endgame just did. Beyond that, Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened to less than The Force Awakens with $220 million.
Given that trajectory, the divided fanbase after Episode VIII and the disappointing performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story, what hope does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker have of besting Endgame?
If I had to guess, I don’t think it will, but The Rise of Skywalker has a lot going for it. J.J. Abrams seems to be trying to unite the fanbase and appeal to fans of the Original Trilogy, and by bringing back Emperor Palpatine, he caters to both the OT and the Prequel fans. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker also has the same special thing that Avengers: Endgame had; it’s the end of a Saga, and it’s being billed as such.
That’s a powerful thing, and disaffected or not, all fans will want to know how this trilogy and nine-film saga ends. The Rise of Skywalker will carry the same must-see quality and fear of spoilers that Avengers: Endgame did, and it will be a cinematic event that everyone is talking about. So I think it has a shot, but it’s a long one.
Looking at both the 2019 and 2020 calendars, next year looks somewhat barren by comparison. Things have yet to be announced and we still don’t know exactly what Marvel’s 2020 releases are, but there aren’t as many obvious contenders for Endgame’s crown.
The MCU films will be big, but without a team-up movie, I doubt any title, especially one with new characters, will have the juice to climb that mountain. If Black Panther 2 hits in 2020, I could see it surpassing the first film and nipping at Infinity War’s heels, but not Endgame’s.
Christopher Nolan has a big new movie coming out next summer as well, but without an established brand attached, it would be more likely to develop into a phenomenon over time versus debuting as one opening weekend. Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of great prospects. Bond 25, Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 all belong to big franchises, but aren't nearly big enough to surpass Avengers: Endgame.
Fast and Furious 9 is scheduled for next year, and although that will likely be one of the year’s biggest movies, in that franchise, only Furious 7 has cracked $100 million domestic in its opening weekend. The Fast and Furious franchise is much bigger internationally and it’s not fair to compare those opening weekends since not all films release at the same time in different markets.
Pending a delay, 2020 will finally see the release of James Cameron’s Avatar 2, which will be very interesting to watch. I’ve written before about why the Avatar sequels will not fail, but not failing and making $350+ million opening weekend are two different things entirely. I expect Avatar 2 to do well, but primarily overseas.
It just doesn’t seem like there will be the necessary kind of hype and anticipation domestically. If Avatar 2 is to be a hit here, I think a strong, but not insane opening, followed by major box office legs, similar to its predecessor, seems more likely than a record-breaking opening weekend.
As far as the known knowns are concerned, there are some intriguing contenders like The Rise of Skywalker, but there don’t look to be any films that would be favored to wrest the opening weekend record away from Avengers: Endgame. So what about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns?
Star Wars is taking a break from the cinema after The Rise of Skywalker, so depending how that film ends and is received, and how long the wait is until whatever’s next, the return of the franchise could be pretty big. That hypothetical scenario might have a real shot at Endgame’s record.
There is also Matt Reeves’ Batman movie that we’re all eager to see. But because that film will introduce a new Caped Crusader, it won’t have the established audience investment to open at Avengers: Endgame’s level.
Frankly, from our current vantage, the most likely film to unseat Avengers: Endgame will be something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Black Widow, The Eternals and Shang-Chi won’t be enough. Five of the top 10 opening weekends of all time are MCU team up movies and it will likely take another strong team to dethrone the current king. But it will take a while to do that.
Part of why Avengers: Endgame was so big was because it was, like Marvel said, the culmination of a decade’s worth of nearly two-dozen films. Audiences followed its characters for years and wanted to see how their stories ended. With the mantle being passed to new characters and new franchises, it will take time to build that same level of investment.
There will probably be another Avengers movie eventually or some other team-up that mixes characters new and old, but even without yet knowing Marvel’s Phase 4 plans, that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. Maybe in 5+ years we’ll get the X-Men introduced into the MCU and that will lead to Avengers vs. X-Men, it'll just take some time.
The difficulty of this exercise illustrates just how incredible Avengers: Endgame’s opening weekend was. The fact that even the final Star Wars film in the Skywalker Saga is an underdog against it is testament to Endgame’s nearly unfathomable achievement. So can any upcoming movie top Endgame’s opening weekend box office?
Looking at the calendar, the short answer would appear to be no, but if you would have asked people a month ago if Avengers: Endgame would make over $350 million domestically in its opening weekend, they too would have had complete confidence responding in the negative. Records are made to be broken and you can never say never.
Clichés aside, before 2012’s The Avengers, no film had made over $200 million in its opening weekend, and before Spider-Man in 2002, no film had ever made more than $100 million opening weekend. Inflation goes up, films keep getting bigger and as Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro has explained, the once unthinkable $300 million weekend was possible because of the infrastructure in place thanks to the digital cinema revolution.
If the demand is there, theaters are able to meet it by programming their screens for the hottest titles, and they aren’t limited by only having a certain number of physical prints of a film. Therefore, it stands to reason that eventually Avengers: Endgame’s record and even the $400 million opening weekend barrier will fall.
But it will take a movie with four-quadrant appeal, a favorable rating, a massive build and a powerful brand or franchise name attached to it. That perfect storm doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon, but hey, it would be great to be surprised.