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Money at the Movies: Which Avenger Gives Marvel the Most Bang for Its Buck?

Written by
Alex Huntsberger
Alex Huntsberger is a personal finance writer who covered online lending, credit scores, and employment for OppU. His work has been cited by, Business Insider, and The Motley Fool.
Read time: 13 min
Updated on July 31, 2023
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Some financial lessons for Marvel Studios as they move into a new phase following Avengers: Infinity War.

Over the past ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has completely rewritten the rules for how Hollywood makes movies. Heck, remember when the phrase “cinematic universe” wasn’t even a thing?

All of that comes to a head this weekend with the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the first of two Avengers team-up movies that will bring the current incarnation of the MCU to a close—with a pretty big bang.

This got us thinking: As the MCU moves into a new phase, what can Marvel Studios learn from their past successes. We took a look at every single superhero in the Avengers that headlined their own film(s), and we tried to figure out which ones made for the most profitable investment.

We looked at how much each hero’s movie(s) cost to produce, and how much they grossed worldwide. This way, we can truly find out which hero delivered the most bang for Marvel’s buck, and what lessons Marvel can learn as they move into their post-Infinity War life.

We’ve laid out the results below from least profitable to most profitable. Some of the answers were pretty surprising …

(All dollar figures via The Numbers)

9. The Hulk

  • Movies: The Incredible Hulk
  • Budget: Hulk: $137 million
  • Box Office Gross: $265 million
  • Return on Investment: 193%

The Hulk has had a big come-up in recent years, especially with his scene-stealing turn in Thor: Ragnarok. But the fact remains that the only time The Hulk starred in his own film, it didn’t even make back twice its production budget. He is Marvel’s least profitable Avenger by a country mile.

Then again, that movie was only Marvel’s second film after Iron Man, before they had perfected their successful (if formulaic) combination of pithy dialogue, punch-em-up action, and anonymous Atlanta office park locales. Also, The Incredible Hulk starred Edward Norton as the titular giant green rage monster—not Mark Ruffalo, who assumed the character from the first Avengers film onward.

Maybe a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk film would do gangbusters? Or maybe the big guy only really works when he’s part of a larger ensemble? No one knows for sure, but another Hulk solo film would be a pretty risky bet (or one heck of a heat check) from a studio that wants to keep those money presses rolling.

The Lesson. Some characters don’t need—or can’t support—their own movies. Don’t be afraid to recast when absolutely necessary. Don’t cast Edward Norton in the first place.

8. Ant-Man

  • Movies: Ant-Man
  • Total Budget: $130 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $519 million
  • Return on Investment: 396%

Speaking of heat checks, people at the time thought that Marvel was crazy for making a film based around this less-than-well-known character, especially once visionary director Edgar Wright, who’d been with the film since the very beginning, departed from the project over “creative differences.”

Turns out that they needn’t have worried. While Ant-Man didn’t do huge business compared to some of his more well-known teammates, the film still did very well, making almost $520 million worldwide against a $130 million budget—a return on investment (ROI) of 396%!

Casting Paul Rudd helped (casting Paul Rudd always helps), as did the film’s breezy, heist movie tone and inventive action sequences. A sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp, is scheduled for later this summer. And if the trailers are anything to go by, audiences can expect more of the same plus approximately 500 percent more butt-kicking Evangeline Lilly. Sounds like a hit to us!

The Lesson: More obscure characters can succeed, just make sure that you cast a ludicrously likable actor and maybe don’t break the bank budget-wise. Giving non-white dudes top billing for new and future movies is a plus.

7. Captain America

  • Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War
  • Total Budget: $560 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $2.238 billion
  • Return on Investment: 399%

Ok wow. This is our first big shocker on the list. How could Captain America, one of the two main linchpins of the Avengers franchise, be ranked third to last? People love the Captain America movies! They love Captain America! Or at the very least, they love looking at Chris Evans in form-fitting t-shirts. What gives?!

So, a couple things give. First of all: People do love Captain America, which is why these movies have made a ton of money. A $2.238 billion box office for three films is not too shabby! Second of all: these numbers are dragged down slightly by the first Cap movie, which made only (only!) $370 million worldwide relative to its $140 million budget.

Lastly, the third Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War, was basically a stealth Avengers movie—possibly to make up for the relative low point that was Avengers: Age of Ultron—and it had the budget to match: $250 million, more than the first Avengers movie cost to make.

Still, the fact remains that Captain America, considering how beloved he is, doesn’t have quite the return on investment that some might think. You could even argue that Civil War, the highest-grossing film of the trilogy by far, barely counts as a Captain America movie, given its full roster of heroes.

While it might tempting for Marvel to continue the Captain America mantle in its next phase, possibly by having Falcon or Bucky Barnes pick it up from Steve Rogers, they might want to go in another direction. Cap might be all about the red, white, and blue. But he ain’t so much about that green—at least not as much as previously thought.

The Lesson: Don’t feel so much pressure to keep Captain America going past Infinity War. If you screw up a film, don’t be afraid to shoehorn in a stealth re-do.

6. Thor

Movies: Thor, Thor: Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok

Total Budget: $480 million

Total Box Office Gross: $1.943 billion

Return on Investment: 404%

Look Chris Hemsworth is truly great as Thor. But if you had told us that Thor’s movies were more profitable for Marvel than Captain America’s, we would have thought you were out of your Infinity Stone-addled mind. Because while Hemsworth might be fantastic as Thor, his movies have been, well, something of a mixed bag. It wasn’t until the third movie in the trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok, that Marvel made an honest-to-goodness great film about the Asgardian prince.

And yet here we are. So what gives?

It’s a couple of things. Thor’s first film did quite a bit better than Cap’s, making almost $80 million more worldwide—though it also cost $10 million more to produce. And while that’s the last time that a Thor movie would outgross a Captain America flick, Thor’s budgets haven’t grown nearly as much either. Thor: Dark World cost $20 million less than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while Ragnarok cost $70 million less than Civil War.

Ragnarok did very well, grossing $850 million worldwide, which feels generally in line with the film’s positive reception. But Dark World? That movie is widely seen as one of the worst Marvel films and yet still grossed well over $640 million. If you want to look for a culprit to explain Thor’s surprise victory over Captain America, look no further.

The profitability of Thor really goes to show how Marvel’s big hits can really help carry buoy some of its misses. So much so, in fact, that they don’t end up being misses. They’re just slightly smaller hits!

The Lesson: Casting the right actor is super important. So long as you make movies that are pretty good, you’ll make a lot of money. Don’t give up on a franchise too early.

5. Doctor Strange

  • Movies: Doctor Strange
  • Total Budget: Doctor Strange: $165 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $677 million
  • Return on Investment: 410%

The most interesting thing about Doctor Strange’s placement on this list is what it says about the MCU’s present and it’s future. The film’s massive box office haul can be chalked up, in large part, to the trust that Marvel has built up over the past decade. When the studio launched Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, both films did reasonably well. But now, after so many hits—and after building an audience that knows they need to see every film to fully grasp the larger picture—they can launch Doctor Strange and have it gross over four times its original budget.

The film also marks an interesting step forward stylistically for the company. Doctor Strange’s trippy, reality-splintering action scenes and trips to the astral plane are unlike anything we’ve seen in other MCU films. And this is a good thing! After years of consistently solid but unimpressive filmmaking, Marvel is now broadening its palate before audiences get bored. Between Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok, audiences can have three fairly unique experiences within the MCU at large.

Anyway, while Marvel hasn’t announced a date for Doctor Strange 2 yet, it seems like a pretty safe bet. Given how heavily the character is being featured in the marketing for Infinity War, we are confident in predicting that he’ll be a major—and majorly profitable—part of the MCU for years to come.

The Lesson: 10 years in, you can get away with things you couldn’t do before. Use that to your advantage. Elements like not-so-famous characters and weird, psychedelic effects aren’t risky anymore—they’re a welcome change of pace.

4. Iron Man

  • Movies: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3
  • Total Budget: $556 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $2.421 billion
  • Return on Investment: 435%

Look. Without Robert Downey Jr. and his instantly iconic performance as billionaire genius playboy Tony Stark, there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe. Full stop. There would have been two movies—Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk—after which all of Marvel’s rights would have been sold off to other studios for relative pennies on the dollar. Edward Norton wasn’t getting the job done, we can tell you that much!

The only thing that is keeping Iron Man from ranking higher on this list is the relatively blah performance of Iron Man 2. Why didn’t Iron Man 2 perform better, you ask? Because it wasn’t very good! It’s the kind of movie that is fine for a lazy, half-attentive re-watch on a Saturday afternoon, but it was a huge letdown in theatres and only grossed $36 million more than the original.

Luckily, all was forgiven by Iron Man 3, which was a massive success—not to mention a much better film. On a $200 million budget, Iron Man 3 grossed over 1.2 billion dollars. It is the second highest-grossing solo Marvel movie, beating out even Captain America: Civil War. What was the first highest-grossing? It hasn’t appeared on this list yet, but we’re pretty sure you can guess what it is.

The odds that they make more Iron Man movies is slim, as RDJ is getting a bit long in the tooth to play Tony Stark—and his paychecks are getting a bit long in the number of zeroes they contain. Downey’s combined salary for both Infinity War movies is a whopping $200 million. For reference, the first Iron Man movie cost $186 million total. Downey’s definitely earned it, but the odds of him staying on are indeed slim.

The Lesson: You can spend all the money you want on fancy special effects, but it takes a great performance to make a movie successful. Even at $100 million per film, Downey is a steal.

3. The Guardians of the Galaxy

  • Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Total Budget: $370 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $1.634 billion
  • Return on Investment: 441%

Okay, so we talked about Ant-Man as a major heat check for Marvel, but the riskiness of that film pales in comparison to the Guardians of the Galaxy. These characters were so obscure that they couldn't even be called a deep cut. They were more like a secret song.

That's why the success of the first Guardians of the Galaxy proved once and for all that characters didn’t need to be popular for their movie to succeed. Just by letting audiences know that this was film was a part of the MCU, Marvel could guarantee millions of butts in seats come opening weekend. From there, the only tricky part was making a good movie.

Still, lots of studios have failed to follow through on that second part. Luckily, for Marvel, they knew that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie might have to clear a slightly higher bar in order to enjoy widespread success. So they turned to indie filmmaker James Gunn, who turned around and produced a summer popcorn flick that was the perfect combination of brash, funny, rocking, and more than a little weird.

The lesson Marvel can draw from Guardians of the Galaxy is to choose filmmakers who will bring a more distinctive voice and style to their individual films. The consistency of the early MCU movies have helped set a baseline for audience expectations, but Guardians was one the first movies that felt a little bit different. And it turns out that audiences like different! Or at least, they do after they’ve watched a bunch of movies that feel kind of the same. Without James Gunn and the work he did on Guardians, who knows where the MCU would be.

The Lesson: Don’t be afraid to let unique voices shine. Famous characters are overrated. Even super obscure titles can be turned into massively successful franchises.

2. Spider-Man

  • Movies: Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Total Budget: $175 million
  • Total Box Office Gross:  $880 million
  • Return on Investment: 502%

Considering that he is the best-selling star in Marvel Comics history and has a proven record of box office success. it’s not surprising that Spider-Man ranks so high on this list. But that doesn’t mean that Spidey did all the work himself. This 2017 film marked the 6th Spider-Man movie in 15 years—so why did it feel so fresh?

Once again, Marvel cast the role of Peter Parker perfectly. Not only does Tom Holland have charm, acting chops, and comedic timing to spare, but he was also only 21 when he filmed Spider-Man: Homecoming. For comparison: Tobey Maguire was 26 when he played the high school-aged web slinger, while Andrew Garfield was 28. Maybe, just maybe, casting someone who can actually pass as teenager is important to portraying a character who is, wait for this, a teenager.

Furthermore, let’s not sleep on Marvel introducing Peter Parker in Civil War, which meant skipping over his origin story. Next to Batman, no superhero has had their tragic origins rehashed as many times as poor Peter Parker. We get it. Uncle Ben was, like, pretty great. By introducing Peter in Civil War, Marvel set up Homecoming for success. It was an entirely new story, not the same old retread audiences had come to expect.

A Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel is already confirmed for 2019. Marvel knows what’s up.

The Lesson: Origin stories are overrated, especially for more famous characters. Spider-Man is good, Tom Holland as Spider-Man is better. A good villain (shouts to Michael Keaton) goes a long way.

1. Black Panther

  • Movies: Black Panther
  • Total Budget: $200 million
  • Total Box Office Gross: $1.323 billion
  • Return on Investment: 650%

Could it ever have been anyone else? With only one movie under his belt (plus his introduction in Civil War), King T’Challa of Wakanda has already made over $1.3 billion dollars at the box office. Even with a much larger budget ($200 million) than most Marvel get for their first movie, that still gives Black Panther a profit margin of 650%. Holy wow.

Black Panther is not only a great film—quite possibly Marvel’s best—but it also came at the perfect time. After 10 years of headlining heroes who were all white dudes, audiences were clamoring for something different. The fact that director Ryan Coogler delivered a stone-cold classic took a film that was likely to succeed and sent it to the stratosphere—and buried any and all ideas that movies with non-white leads wouldn’t perform as well overseas.

When everybody goes and sees a movie, that translates to a lot of money. When everybody goes and sees a movie and then goes back and sees it again (and again and again), that translates to a “Scrooge McDuck’s gold-filled swimming pool” amounts of money. One way Marvel can make more of the latter is to continue hiring great filmmakers and then getting out of their way.

Marvel has famously controlled a large part of the filmmaking process, which is why TV vets like Joss Whedon and the Russo brothers (who are helming Infinity War) proved such great fits for their system—though even Whedon crashed out after disagreements during Age of Ultron. But with Coogler, Marvel gave him a great deal more leeway to make the film his own way. And the result was a movie that felt both epic and deeply personal.

Black Panther sets a bar for success that pretty much any other Marvel superhero will have trouble clearing. You know what could do it though? That’s right. Black Panther 2.

The Lesson: Don’t only make movies starring white dudes. Trust talented filmmakers to bring it home. Make more Black Panther movies.

For the past 10 years, the MCU has been Hollywood’s standard-bearer for financial and franchise-based success. They’ve done so by being consistent and conservative, but by taking small, calculated risks when they needed too and by always trying to stay one step ahead. Those are lessons we could all use.

Enjoy Avengers: Infinity War!

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