Last month Avengers: Endgame (2019) was officially recognised as the highest grossing film of all time. Film fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a cinematic oddity had been corrected; Avatar (2009) was no longer the biggest film in Hollywood history.
Arriving in December 2009, Avatar’s ten year reign at the top of the list was the result of fortuitous timing rather than quality filmmaking. As the first blockbuster to take advantage of ‘Real3D’ technology, Avatar was the new film you just had to see. My cinema visit its week of release will remain a memorable one; like a child I stared with open mouthed wonder at the flotsam of Pandora’s exotic fauna dancing in front of my eyes. All memories of red and blue tinted cardboard glasses were wiped away. True three-dimensional cinema was here and it was the future.
So taken was I with the unbelievable visuals I didn’t consider Avatar’s failings and started a long and loud campaign espousing the movie’s brilliance. Lots of people were doing likewise and even more people listened; Avatar quickly replaced James Cameron’s other epic Titanic (1997) atop the highest grossing chart (considered no bad thing at the time).
Stripped of its biggest asset Avatar’s shortcomings became all too clear on home “2D” viewing. Its central idea, unconscious humans using alien forms as new ‘avatars’, was a good one, but its execution was poor. The script was juvenile (unobtainium anyone?), the run time was bloated, and the plot was predictable. An accomplished cast offered solid performances despite the clunky cliché ridden dialogue, “I see you”, but the characters were one note. Sam Worthington was stupidly reckless, and Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi were utter bastards for no other reason than the story demanded it of them, no ‘Thanos might have a point’ ponderings here. Fern Gully (1992) with guns became Avatar’s new synopsis.
Cinema’s highest grossing movie will always be a blockbuster but with so many better popcorn films out there it was a slight embarrassment to moviemakers and movie fans that cinemas most successful film was so average. Thankfully Marvel Studios had a plan. A year before Avatar struck box office gold they released Iron Man (2008). It was a gamble for all concerned, a comic book hero only comic fans were aware of, played by a character actor not known for his leading man status, directed by a filmmaker with just three films on his résumé, only one of which was successful, Elf (2003).
To the surprise of many, Iron Man was a hit with fans and critics. A new cherry on the cake, the post credit scene, was created and hinted at a wider universe to come, ‘I’m here to talk about the Avengers Initiative’. But no sooner had fans celebrated, Marvel stumbled; The Incredible Hulk (2008) was a plodding, dour film with a phlegm coloured CGI splodge for a villain and a bored looking actor as its lead. Marvel applied the brakes, took 2009 off, then played it safe in 2010 with an Iron Man sequel. Most importantly they made Kevin Feige sole producer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
2011 was a make or break year; it turned out to be a good one. Feige moved forward with his Aveners masterplan, Thor (2011) and Captain America: First Avenger (2011) building on the good work of the Iron Man films, before 2012 delivered the home-run of Avengers Assemble (2012). The MCU exploded; a staggering twenty films across a ten year period, with nary a bad film in the bunch, all leading to one of the greatest blockbusters of all time.
Three things led to the monster success of Endgame; patience, great casting, and great writing. Unlike DC Films who rushed to get the Justice League in to cinemas without enough preceding movies, Marvel were happy to play the long game, not bringing their team together until all of the major characters had had a chance to shine in their own individual film or films. The pay-off was a ton of affection and goodwill for the characters on screen, so that the run time of the Avengers films could focus on the story and brilliant character interplay.
Apart from Edwards Norton and Terrance Howard’s miscasting and the occasional misused talent (Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell) the casting has been universally superb. The Marvel way has been actors over A-listers and it has paid off in spades. It helps immensely getting exposition heavy, comic mythos laden dialogue across when you have the best acting talent available delivering it. Behind it all though is the writing. It’s hard to say whether the coup de grace of Endgame was known when Iron Man (2008) was written or at what stage of the MCU saga Thanos and the Infinity Stones saga became the ultimate goal. Like a good illusion, I’m not sure I want to know the answer; peeking behind the curtain might ruin the magic.
And what magic it is. In a fast moving world of changing opinions, internet spoilers, fake news, and media led campaigns, Marvel have somehow kept together the biggest and greatest ensemble cast of all time, and written around them one of the most elaborate interwoven movie stories ever conceived. That the MCU story remains so breezily enjoyable but is still underpinned by such dramatic heft is, pun very much intended, a modern marvel. Endgame is the perfect embodiment of everything the MCU has gotten right.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the best cinematic gut punch since The Empire Strikes Back (1980). No one expected the battle against Thanos to be won; fans expected our heroes to be down, for there to be some damage, and for the fight against Thanos to be taken to the next film. But no one expected Thanos to outright win. The finger snap and resulting dust clouds were shocking (only slightly let down by the fact that all the Marvel characters who “died” already had sequels announced, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Spiderman). It was a twist so revolutionary that Endgame had to do it justice by lingering on it; it couldn’t be swiftly swept under the rug by an immediate Avengers fight back.
The lingering is indeed long and makes up the fascinating first half of Endgame. We see the short term fallout and the long term effects, the characters who cope well and the ones who fall apart. It all ensures Thanos and his universe altering plan has the dramatic weight it deserves. It could all be too depressing but the trademark MCU humour is still there, genuinely funny one liners cutting through as some of the heroes resort to dry wit to cope with their loss, “Honestly, at this exact second, I thought you were a Build-A-Bear”.
That’s another of the MCU’s biggest winning formulas, to perfectly balance comedy and drama. No one represents that in Endgame better than Thor. His Jeffery Lebowski get-up and jelly-belly weight gain gave us many of the film’s laughs, but there is genuine, heart tugging emotion underlying Thor’s failure, wonderfully portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. One of the most moving moments comes when Thor finally begs Tony to let him be the one to set things right, to make up for his perceived mistake in not killing Thanos first time round. Following one of the best comedic lines in the film, “What do you think is coursing through my veins right now? … Cheez Whiz?”, for a second Thor cracks, vulnerable, voice faltering, and desperate. It lands with the viewer not just because of Hemsworth’s and Downey Jnr’s acting (Stark looks genuinely taken aback by the sudden show of emotion, and a rare empathetic response is given) but because the relationship the viewer has with these characters has been built by brilliant filmmaking over a number of movies.
Its these character moments that really make Endgame the fantastic film it is, and make its place at the top of the highest grossing list such a pleasing cinematic factoid. Spectacular CGI battles are relatively easy to concoct these days (though it included Endgame’s only misstep, an unnecessary all-woman team-up, impossible in the chaos of battle, that was a too on-the-nose nod to female empowerment), but heartfelt, well-acted, well written character moments in a world as fanciful as Marvel’s universe, that is a much tougher task. Endgame is chock full of them though, whether its Nebula and Tony’s game of paper football, Black Widow and Cap chatting over a peanut butter sandwich, Antman reuniting with his daughter (who grew a hell of a lot in five years), Hawkeye receiving a phonecall from his wife, Hulk visiting an old friend in New Asgard, Hawkeye and Black Widow talking on a cliff top, Cap and Falcon chatting by a lake, or Tony telling us he loves us 3000. The conclusions double whammy send-off for two of its most beloved characters caused many a lumpy throat and moist eye when movie fans sat in theatres during the summer of 2019. And these are the moments that will make the film fan smile when they look at the list of big Hollywood earners and know that the movie on top of the stack, every one of its dollars was hard fought for and well deserved.
Highest-grossing Films of All Time:
1. Avengers: Endgame - $2,796,274,401 (2019)
2. Avatar - $2,789,679,794 (2009)
3. Titanic - $2,187,463,944 (1997)
4 Star Wars: The Force Awakens - $2,068,223,624 (2015)
5. Avengers: Infinity War - $2,048,359,754 (2018)
Jurassic World - $1,671,713,208 (2015)
7. The Lion King - $1,649,421,860 (2019)
8. The Avengers - $1,518,812,988 (2012)
9. Furious 7 - $1,516,045,911 (2015)
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron $1,405,403,694 (2015)
11. Black Panther $1,346,913,161 (2018)
12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 - $1,341,693,157 (2011)
13. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - $1,332,539,889 (2017)
14. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - $1,309,484,461 (2018)
15. Frozen - $1,290,000,000 (2013)
16. Beauty and the Beast - $1,263,521,126 (2017)
17. Incredibles 2 - $1,242,805,359 (2018)
18. The Fate of the Furious - $1,238,764,765 (2017)
19. Iron Man 3 - $1,214,811,252 (2013)
20. Minions - $1,159,398,397 (2015)
21. Captain America: Civil War - $1,153,304,495 (2016)
22. Aquaman - $1,147,961,807 (2018)
23. Spider-Man: Far From Home - $1,131,509,898 (2019)
24. Captain Marvel - $1,128,274,794 (2019)
25. Transformers: Dark of the Moon - $1,123,794,079 (2011)
26. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - $1,120,237,002 (2003)
27. Skyfall - $1,108,561,013 (2012)
28. Transformers: Age of Extinction $1,104,054,072 (2014)
29. The Dark Knight Rises - $1,084,939,099 (2012)
30. Toy Story 4 $1,069,438,793 (2019)
31. Toy Story 3 $1,066,969,703 (2010)
32. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - $1,066,179,725 (2006)
33. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story $1,056,057,273 (2016)
34. Aladdin - $1,050,590,521 (2019)
35. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - $1,045,713,802 (2011)
36. Despicable Me 3 - $1,034,799,409 (2017)
37. Jurassic Park - $1,029,939,903 (1993)
38. Finding Dory - $1,028,570,889 (2016)
39. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace - $1,027,044,677 (1999)
40. Alice in Wonderland - $1,025,467,110 (2010)
41. Zootopia - $1,023,784,195 (2016)
42. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - $1,021,103,568 (2012)
43. The Dark Knight - $1,004,934,033 (2008)
44. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - $975,051,288 (2001)
45. Despicable Me 2 - $970,761,885 (2013)
46. The Lion King - $968,483,777 (1994)
47. The Jungle Book - $966,550,600 (2016)
48. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End - $963,420,425 (2007)
49. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle - $962,126,927 (2017)
50. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 - $960,431,568 (2010)