Why Didn’t Age of Ultron Outgross the First Avengers?

Photo: Marvel

We expect our movie superheroes to accomplish unimaginable feats, but this past weekend, one mighty task proved to be a bit too impossible. Most box-office pundits predicted that Avengers: Age of Ultron would set an all-time box-office record in its opening weekend; instead, it earned $191 million domestically, falling short of the $207 million that the first Avengers made during its opening frame. A chunk of change that enormous is nothing to sneeze at, but Marvel executives surely hoped for more; after all, each Marvel Studios sequel has opened to a bigger number than its predecessor, and if Age of Ultron holds like most previous movies in the Marvel universe, it will ultimately end its theatrical run earning around $100 million less than than the first Avengers. What kept Age of Ultron from hitting the stratospheric heights that had been expected of it? Here are a few theories.

The marketing was oddly grim.
More than most makers of comic-book movies, the people at Marvel Studios know that audiences want to have a fun time at the multiplex. Films set in the Marvel cinematic universe are usually bursting with bright color and good humor, a potent combination that lifted Guardians of the Galaxy to fizzy box-office highs last summer and powered enough repeat business to drive the first, delightful Avengers to the third-highest domestic gross of all time.

Knowing that, I had to scratch my head at the first few trailers for Age of Ultron. The first teaser, released in October of last year, was a decidedly downbeat montage set to an eerie cover of “I’ve Got No Strings”; the second, which came in January, was 100 seconds' worth of the Avengers frowning while civilians ducked and cowered in a war-torn foreign city. It wasn’t until the third trailer, released only two months ago, that we got even our first instance of an Avenger cracking a joke. Age of Ultron is every bit as punch-line-filled as its predecessor, and audiences have amply demonstrated how much they respond to that sense of humor; why, then, did the trailers choose to play things oh so serious, dampening the film’s wanna-see factor?

The reaction was more mixed.
The first Avengers wasn’t simply a box-office hit. It also impressed critics and earned a stellar 92 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, a better score than most of the Best Picture nominees that came out the same year. Age of Ultron, by contrast, topped out at 75 percent fresh, and many of the critics who gave the film positive reviews still sounded a mite exhausted by it. Our own David Edelstein called Age of Ultron a “mess by all conventional narrative standards,” deemed Robert Downey Jr.’s performance “borderline unpleasant,” and confessed that during the film’s first 15 minutes, “I didn’t have a clue what was going on.” His review was positive on the whole — and rated fresh by Rotten Tomatoes — but you’d be forgiven for wondering whether he actually enjoyed it.

Even on social media, where you’d expect audience members to be more forgiving, the Age of Ultron response felt muted and sometimes outright hostile. When I checked Facebook on Saturday, there were far more people talking about the Mayweather-Pacquaio fight than Hulk’s tussle with Iron Man, and that pay-per-view event surely cut into Age of Ultron’s Saturday-night grosses — and its hype. (More on that below.) Meanwhile, a vocal segment of comic-book fans started taking writer-director Joss Whedon to task on Twitter; as their campaign against him intensified, an already-tired Whedon began blocking his critics and then, hours ago, deleted his Twitter account entirely. Suffice it to say, this wasn't the sort of easy-win Monday morning that Whedon and Marvel must have been expecting.

The Mayweather-Pacquaio fight got in the way.
The most stunning financial gross this weekend didn't come from Age of Ultron. Instead, industry observers were wowed by the Mayweather-Pacquaio fight, a pay-per-view event estimated to have brought in a massive $400 million. More than 3 million viewers purchased the boxing match (at a hefty $100 cost), but countless more friends and relatives crowded around those TV sets to watch the communal event, which may explain why Age of Ultron's Saturday grosses couldn't even surpass Iron Man 3's second-day total, let alone match the first Avengers movie. Other films got out of Ultron's way, but sporting schedules couldn't be bothered. 

The movie lacked a fresh hook.
Whedon’s first crack at the Avengers franchise came loaded with novel appeal: For the first time, audiences could see all these famous comic-book heroes fighting together (and sometimes, fighting each other). Age of Ultron couldn’t hope to match that fresh feeling, and didn't really try to. This time around, no new heroes from other movies have been welcomed into the fold: It’s all the same people from the first movie, plus a few minor characters you haven’t gotten to know yet. If the Avengers had spent this installment joining forces with blockbuster heroes like Spider-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy, the ante would have felt upped; instead, they met up with the lesser-known Scarlet Witch and her brother, while the movie’s primary villain, Ultron, provided no special enticement for comic-agnostic audiences.

These days, you don’t even have to wait for an Avengers movie if you want to see all your favorite heroes popping up in each others’ films: Bruce Banner hung out with Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, Captain America fought alongside Black Widow and Nick Fury in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and nearly the entire Age of Ultron cast will reunite for next year’s Captain America: Civil War, which also fits in future heroes like Spider-Man and Black Panther. These cameos may boost the cachet of the heroes’ individual movies, but does it weaken the Avengers brand if a film like Civil War can boast more characters than even Marvel’s phase-capping team-ups?

Superhero fatigue may be setting in.
I talked to a friend this weekend who’d made plans to see Age of Ultron the next day, and he told me he was already dreading it. “It’s gonna be tiring, I can tell,” he said. I asked him why he’d buy tickets to a movie he was dreading, much less one he was fairly certain he’d dislike. “Because I want to see it!” he said, almost surprised by the question. For him, the Marvel movies earn his attendance but feel obligatory; for others, who feel similarly compelled to see Age of Ultron despite a waning knowledge of which Marvel character did what to whom, they may even feel like homework.

The shared cinematic universe that once felt so novel to Marvel has now become a commonplace goal for studios seeking to maximize their licensed properties: Over the last two weeks, audiences got a glimpse of another superhero team-up in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while photos of Jared Leto as the Joker in the supervillain-packed Suicide Squad just about broke the internet. (Meanwhile, Sony proved that cinematic universes aren’t just for comic-book characters, proceeding with plans to spin off a femme-fronted 21 Jump Street sequel while plopping the movie’s original characters, played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, into the same universe as Men in Black.) With famous superheroes colliding all over the place over the last month, on-the-fence moviegoers may have decided that they’d had their fill.

I have no doubt that comic-book movies will continue to make bank, including the looming, two-part Avengers: Infinity War — I just think they’ll be hard-pressed to reach the massive totals that superhero movies made when this shtick all felt a little fresher. The peril to the shared cinematic universe is that they can get awfully packed with stray story lines as time goes on, and all the comic-book minutiae that Age of Ultron expects you to know will be doubled and quadrupled in the years to come, keeping the casual moviegoer at arm's length. Geeks may cheer as the Avengers add more recruits, but as the Marvel universe grows more populated, the domestic box office for this top-heavy franchise may have topped out.