Marvel Movie Analytics: Which Marvel Film is the Most Successful?

Reading Time: 9 Minutes

So I finally got out to see the latest Marvel flick, Captain America: Civil War. I know I know, it’s been out for ages. But what can I say, it's not easy getting out to the movies with this little rascal running around.

Anyways, the movie's great and everything but with this being the 13th instalment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in just 8 years I couldn’t help but wonder how much money the studio has made, and continues to make on the franchise. Since MCU’s debut with Iron Man in 2008 we’ve averaged 2 Marvel movies a year. And if you’re appetite for superhero comic book awesomeness is still going strong, not to worry. The studio has committed to 2 new films every year until 2019, which includes a Guardians sequel, a third instalment to The Avengers, and the debut of Dr Strange (which I'm pretty excited about).

Back in December I wrote a post about the Star Wars franchise and how profitable each of its films had been. So I thought I’d do the same for Marvel, but this time rather than just look at box office performance I'm going to shake it up a bit and also look at critical reception and reviews.

Before we get started, let’s set some boundaries. First, I’m only going to look at films included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has actually released more than 40 live action films to date of varying budget, scale and quality. And MCU gives us a small but comparable collection of movies to focus on. That, and it means I can avoid acknowledging Howard the Duck is actually a thing (seriously, what was Marvel thinking!?).

Since 2008 Marvel has released 13 films within MCU, which includes:

  1. Iron Man (2008)
  2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
  4. Thor (2011)
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  6. The Avengers (2012)
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013)
  8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  12. Ant-Man (2015)
  13. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

In terms of data sources I've pulled all of the box office and ticket sales data from Box Office Mojo.

As for the movie review data I’m only going to use Rotten Tomatoes (RT) critic and audience scores. Why? Personal preference really. I tend to agree with RT ratings more often than IMDB, and Meta Critic just dilutes movie ratings through its aggregation. So RT it is.

Ok, let’s get started!

Marvel Movie Reviews

Figure 1 below shows RT critic and audience scores for all 13 movies in order of release. Just to be clear, critic scores are based on reviews from “publications or individual critics that have been selected by the Rotten Tomatoes staff”, while audience reviews are based on users casting votes directly on RT’s website. The average number of reviews that have contributed to the critic scores for Marvel movies is 271, while the average audience votes for each movie is 395,304.

Iron Man (2008) tops the chart for highest critic score at 94% (average 81%), while Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) has the highest audience score at 92% (average 83%).  

Both The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) tied for lowest critics score at 67%

So now that we know the best and worst performers by individual film, what about average ratings for collections of movies centred around a core character, or characters?

Figure 2 shows the critic and audience score for movies categorised by the core character(s) the film is based on. Worth noting that Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Ant-Man (2015) only have one movie each, whereas Iron Man and Captain America have 3, so these rankings aren’t perfect. That said, it’s interesting to see that the Iron Man movies collectively only rank 4th for critic scores and 5th for audience scores despite the fact that the original Iron Man is the highest rated film in the franchise. Seems like it all went downhill after the first Iron Man.

On this list Guardians has the highest rating for both critic and audience scores (though keep in mind this is only based on 1 film), and Captain America is ranked #2 for critic scores and tied for #3 in terms of audience scores. 

Marvel Movie Box Office Performance

Figure 3 below shows total revenue for each movie, broken down by domestic (USA) and foreign sales. To date, The Avengers (2012) has generated by far the most revenue with a global pull of $1,519,557,910 (average $786,041,239), making it the 5th highest grossing film of all time. This was followed by Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) with a global pull of $1,405,413,868. Notably, Iron Man 3 (2013) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) also both broke the billion dollar mark in terms of global revenue.

Fun fact, to date the MCU franchise has collectively generated $7,878,536,108 in ticket sales, and has landed 4 movies in the top 12 highest grossing films of all time. Whoa!

Figure 4 below shows the total number of theaters each movie ran in within the US as well as the average revenue per theater. The Incredible Hulk (2008) ran in the fewest number of theaters with just 3,508 (average 4,044) and generated the lowest revenue per theater at $38,428 (average $74,357). Somewhat surprisingly, Iron Man 2 (the one that starred Mickey Rourke's worst interpretation of a Russian accent) actually had the biggest theatrical release with 4,390 theaters in the US. Although the film also generated the 7th lowest revenue per theater ($71,169) and 10th lowest ROI.

And unsurprisingly, The Avengers (2012) generated the highest total revenue per theater at $143,334.

Figure 5 below shows the total budget for each of the films, ranked by most expensive to least. Another fun fact, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides holds the record for the most expensive movie of all time with a production budget of $378.5 million. Seriously, where did all that money go?

And finally, figure 6 shows the movies ranked by their total return on investment (ROI). This figure is calculated based on each films' global revenue, not domestic. It's also important to note that this data only looks at profit as it relates to box office ticket sales. Marvel can and is generating revenue through other means, such as merchandise, clothing and apparel, toys, TV shows, video games, etc. So true ROI for Marvel based on their broader range of business activities could be much different than what's listed below. 

Overall Marvel Movie Score

So far we’ve looked at both box office performance and movie review scores from a few different angles. But what if we wanted to evaluate and rank all of the MCU films based on both critical reception and box office sales?

There's certainly more than one way to do this, and one approach would be to apply a weighted scoring framework to produce an aggregate score. If you're not familiar with this, weighted scoring is "is a form of multi-attribute or multi-criterion analysis". Put simply, weighted scoring allows you to evaluate something based on weighted criteria you define. For our case, we're using weighted scoring to evaluate Marvel movies based on 2 main criteria; box office performance and movie review scores.

Weighted Scoring Model

If you're not familiar with weighted scoring here's a helpful article to get you started. 

Step 1 - Define your evaluation criteria

The first thing we'll need to do is define the criteria that will contribute to the overall score. I’ve decided to give equal weighting to movie reviews (50%) and movie profitability (50%). However, the 50% for the movie review score breaks down into 30% weighting for critics and 20% weighting for audiences scores.

Marvel Movie Weighted Scoring Model

It's important to note that the weighting you assign is subjective. If you were creating your own scoring framework you will need decide what weightings are suitable based on your needs. For example, you might decide that profitability should have a higher weighting, or that critics and audience scores should be equal.

Step 2 - Normalize your data

So, now that we have the weighting, how do we make the inputs compatible? The output of the scoring framework will be a numerical value on a 100 point scale. Since the RT review scores are already on the same scale I simply need to drop them into my equation and VOILA.

However, the ROI value does present a problem. Since ROI can (and often does) exceed 100%, and can also drop below 0, I can't just drop this into the model. Which means I need to normalize the data to make it compatible. There's more than one way to do this, and one way would be to convert the ROI data into ordinal values. Using an 11 point scale I've assigned the following values based on the maximum range of the Marvel movie box office performance. Broadly speaking you can think of this as 0 equals very unprofitable, 5 equals break-even and 10 equals very profitable.

MCU Profitability Score Conversion

This approach isn’t perfect. For one, not all of the intervals have an equal distance between them. Most of the new values cover a 149 point range, however value 0, 5 and 10 do not. Another issue is that the ranges used to determine the new value don’t really work as an absolute standard, as they were established relative to the Marvel movie box office performance. This wouldn't work well if you applied it to a different set of movies that performed far above 600% profitability or below -600%. If you did want to determine the ROI score based on a broader standard you would need to look at the ROI data for a much larger sample of movies and determine the average, minimum and maximum ROI to develop a more meaningful scale.

Simply put, the scale I’ve used above applies a relative standard of ROI in relation to the the 13 MCU films. Like I said, it’s not perfect, but more than adequate for a quick and dirty way to calculate the overall movie score.

Step 3 - Create your equation

So based on the assumptions above, the final equation looks like this:

Marvel Movie Score Equation

And you can see the overall movie scores below, keep in mind this uses a 100 point scale.

Some interesting things stood out to me here. First, The Avengers (2012) ranks #1 as the most ‘successful’ movie overall, followed by Iron Man (2008). The Avengers isn’t all that surprising, but it was interesting to see Iron Man come in at #2 as it was the highest rated film in the franchise in terms of critics reviews yet it only ranked 7th in terms of profitability. On the other hand, Iron Man 3 (2013) was the 2nd most profitable movie, but it’s relatively lower reviews dragged it down to #6 on our overall ranking. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), which also generated the 2nd most revenue and was the third most profitable suffered from relatively lower reviews, which dragged it down to 7th on the overall ranking.

So there you have it. Marvel movie success by the numbers. Hope you enjoyed this post, and let me know if you agree with the overall scores/ranks in the comments below.