Comic books have been popular since the 1930s, but it is probably safe to say that the various superheroes who have populated the pages of those books have never been more popular than they are now. And one measure of that popularity is both the number of movies that are made starring comic book characters and the amount of money moviegoers worldwide have spent on tickets to see these films.
The all-time highest grossing film worldwide was 2009’s “Avatar,” which generated ticket sales of nearly $2.8 billion for Twenty First Century Fox Inc. (NASDAQ: FOXA). The second highest grossing movie of all time was “Titanic” from Paramount Studios and Viacom Corp. (NASDAQ: VIAB), which took in $2.2 billion. While neither of the top two was based on comic book characters, number three on the all-time worldwide list of top-grossing films is “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which raked in $1.5 billion in 2012 for Buena Vista Studios and The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS).
Speaking of Disney, the Mouse House paid $4 billion in 2009 to acquire Marvel Entertainment, the owner of Marvel Studios. Disney now owns the rights to substantially all the superheroes created at Marvel since the late 1930s, with one very significant exception: Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) paid a reported $7 million to Marvel in 1999 after Cannon Films, which had purchased the rights to Spider-Man in the mid-1980s, went bankrupt and the rights reverted to Marvel.
Marvel Studios released its first title, “Iron Man,” in 2008, the year before Disney bought Marvel. That was also the first film in a grouping that the studio now calls the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Ten films have been released so far in the series, and domestic ticket sales on those 10 movies total $2.96 billion.
Worldwide, the 10 films have grossed $7.36 billion, and that total is expected to get significantly bigger with the domestic release this week of the 11th film in the series, “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The 12th film in the MCU is “Ant-Man,” which is scheduled for release on July 15. In addition to these 12 films, another 10 are either in pre-production or development to carry the MCU out to the summer of 2019.
One other studio has had blockbuster results from comic book superheroes as well: Warner Bros. and parent Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX) have rights to both Batman and Superman, and with the two characters are slated to appear together on the big screen in March 2016 in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the studio looks to be set for another big payday.
Movie data in the following list come from Box Office Mojo.