Tom Jolliffe looks back at Avengers: Endgame, the last mega event movie. Will anything ever come close again?
The simplicity of a finger snap. It was an act that brought to a close Avengers: Infinity War, where Thanos’ grand plan had come to pass. There’s no spoiler here, virtually every one with a passing interest in movies has likely watched it now. The clinical way beloved characters were culled was initially striking as the likes of Spider-Man fragmented into nothingness. Of course this never particularly felt finite with the prospect of Avengers: Endgame looming the following year. The first film grossed a gargantuan amount of money that almost clipped the heels of James Cameron and Avatar. By the time Avengers: Endgame came and went, Jim had been surpassed – albeit temporarily – as the all time box office king.
Even in 2019, where a further number of billion dollar grossing films would follow Endgame, nothing seemed to come remotely close. This had been the kind of event movie that magnetised everyone to the multiplexes as if it were by law. Even someone like myself, who by that point was well and truly feeling Marvel fatigue, felt almost obligated to attend. What was once the wide, iconic appeal limited to something like a Star Wars main event, had now been overtaken by Marvel. Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Spidey et. al. were the gang to see, and in a hodgepodge gumbo mix which brought them all together and promised the ‘end game.’ No one could miss out, not even the few who missed out on prior Avengers royal rumble events.
The cinema as a cultural event was big. Oddly though, despite the regularity of Disney backed billion dollar grosses (and those from outside of Disney’s grasp), there was an overriding feeling that these few behemoths were papering over cracks in the theatrical distribution model. These were masking big budget failures that seemed to be on the increase in the big game gamble. There had also been a distinct lack in greenlights for moderate budget pictures or space for independent and world cinema in mainstream outlets. As far as those latter, that choice was beginning to slowly increase. A lot of lower budget successes like John Wick or Get Out, or world cinema success with the likes of Parasite, saw a market to be tapped into with more realistic outlay and payoff. Not everything can be the next Star Wars/Jurassic Park/Avengers. Not everything can be all consuming for half a year.
In the age of streaming and ever rising quality in home entertainment set ups, cinema had been in danger of losing a lot of its appeal, particularly for the on the fence punter. What happened in 2020 was entirely unpredictable. A pandemic spread the world like something out of a blockbuster (as if by finger snap). Industries were irrevocably damaged and business landscapes changed. One particular area to be hit was the cinema itself. The humble multiplex, down to the indie chain were forced to limit entrants, and further to close temporarily in some cases. Big budget release slates were postponed or defied the pandemic and opened, such as Tenet. The disappointing returns for Tenet (though in more considered thinking, the numbers had some degree of optimism given circumstances) essentially guaranteed that other huge films would either stick by their postponements or opt for a dual release on the big screen and home entertainment PPV (Wonder Woman 1984).
With some signs that the pandemic may be past its worst, now we look ahead to how the industry recovers. Will some things be retained as new normals? Will the big screen experience ever have the kind of mega event it has in the past? Where does the next billion dollar grosser come from? Is there going to the kind of spectacular event that Avengers: Endgame was? Even for some of its faults and excessive runtime, it still had that sense of being a gargantuan, communal event that transcended borders. Whether you watched it in America, Europe, Asia or wherever, it seemed like every nation with a penchant for cinema, had big returns. Across the two final Avengers films too, two parts of an overall whole, it also felt bigger than anything we’d previously seen. Some of that might have been excess weight of course, but a mega event doesn’t tend to be a film with small scale sensibility or intimate character focus, they tend to be spectacle and (these days) CGI heavy effects movies.
Much of Endgame’s success was also built on momentum. This wasn’t just part two of a big two hander. This was drawing a close on a decade of first phases for Marvel’s near perfect money making formula. Whether it was the big boys like Iron Man or Captain America, or the more cult comic adaptations like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, every pitch Kevin Feige swung at, seemed to be a home run. Big budgets, massive returns and the crowd pleasing, box ticking formula was safe as houses. Endgame harvested that decade of goodwill and success and the result was almost inevitable. Will the audience still come out for something akin to this again? As studios may need to reappraise what to spend on their bigger properties, they also have to readjust their expectations on what their returns will be and from where. It used to be all about the domestic gross, then it became about the worldwide gross. Now, how much more of a consideration will it be in deeming success/failure, to look at the combination of theatrical and home release?
This year, in what has been marked as the first huge event movie, we’ve seen Godzilla vs. Kong offer a glimmer of positivity for a cinema distribution industry under threat. Whilst under more normal circumstances, a $48 million domestic weekend might feel somewhat underwhelming for a film of this size (its budget not even near the higher end of the blockbuster arena either), the worldwide numbers thus far point to the shoots of recovery. How far that point rises, and whether we get close to the billion plus grosses that would appear regularly each year the previous decade, remains to be seen. A lot depends on the changing tastes of the audience and just whether the comfort of ones own home is too much to tempt people out to the big screen, even for the next mega Marvel. Interestingly, such was the power of these films, April itself had shifted from being something of a quiet period before the summer kick off, to housing two Avengers films, and other recent monster hits like Furious 7, Fate of the Furious and The Jungle Book. It may also just be that the more confined blockbuster seasons of May-August, and Christmas might also return (and still, only to a limit).
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/