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The strange, destructive fan obsession with Avengers: Endgame beating Avatar at the box office

The fans are identifying with a meaningless milestone, but why? We dig into the data behind box office magic

Marvel Studios

Avengers: Endgame is not the highest-grossing film of all time. It still sits somewhere behind 2009’s Avatar, by around $6 million at the time of this article’s publication.

If you watch or read the propaganda, this race is a bid to unseat an undeserving film with something proper. It would put the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its rightful place at the pinnacle of a monetary hierarchy. In the sport of box office earnings, the top spot establishes a clear winner, and certain fans have decided the MCU must be that winner. Following along, you might think that there’s some kind of justice at stake here.

But the only thing that focusing on blockbuster profits does for fans is suck up their money like a mega-corporate vacuum. This record doesn’t mean that artistic goals were met, that performances were excellent, or that a film was even enjoyable to watch. Box office, in fact, has almost nothing to do with a film proper, and everything to do with the context around it. The top spot didn’t make Avatar a better film, and falling to No. 2 doesn’t mean it’s a slightly worse film. For better or worse, Avatar has had a marginal cultural footprint since its release.

Despite that, though, there’s still an intense focus on the raw truth of monetary charts that has completely overwhelmed any discussion of whether people actually enjoy the films competing with one another. There are livestreams dedicated to tracking moment-to-moment profits of Endgame against Avatar via methods that are, to me at least, extremely opaque.

The top comment on a Reddit thread about how close Endgame is to the top rank notes that if everyone in r/MarvelStudios watched the film again it would already be #1. These are calls to action: You need to give Disney a bit more of your money to make things right and put Endgame at the top of the charts.

Focusing on numbers going up, and asking fans to identify with that number like they’re at a local sports game, only achieves the goal of getting fans to pump more money into a franchise. Highlighting that race to the top just pulls more people into the cycle. It’s a method of pumping fans for more cash, and it should be resisted for the cynicism that it is.

Who benefits from the race?

Julia Alexander’s excellent write-up about this phenomenon at The Verge has all the details of this most recent race between Endgame and Avatar. Despite a lackluster re-release of Endgame with an additional anemic scene, Avatar is still at the top of the list, and Alexander and fans “riling each other up to continue spending money at the box office” may not be able to unseat Avatar in the near future. The film might catch up, especially due to a heavy push coinciding with Comic-Con, but that doesn’t make the fans’ ire or determination any less strange or worthy of criticism.

She hits a certain cultural nail on the head when she says that contemporary fandom exerts pressure for this specific form of success. As she notes, people paid $15 to see an additional 18 seconds of film, and that was supposed to mean something: “The success of a film,” she explains, “at its core, mirrors the success of that community.”

The push for the top of the box office is simply marketing, even if it’s often fan-driven marketing. Like a trailer or solid key art, it’s part of a formula to get us to associate a product with quality. Entertainment companies are pushing a paradox that works despite being nonsensical: it made money because it is good, and it is good because it makes money.

It’s worth remembering that while the community provides initial power for films, there is a place where that plateaus out in predictable performance. How much money Endgame makes has no bearing on any upcoming Marvel films. This isn’t a scrappy company fighting cancellation with fan donations and petitions. This is one of the most profitable media companies on the planet, running up the scoreboard.

The top spot is not about making people happier or improving their experience of these films in any way. The re-release arguably made that experience worse, or at least soured it with a disappointing addition. It is simply money for money’s sake, the kind of thing that Disney CEO Bob Iger can mention in his investor report to instill shareholder confidence or for the re-release marketing to fold into their advertising push.

But monetary success for a film can sometimes be reliably predicted without any of this. Movie studios do everything they can to make blockbusters a sure bet. In a piece published in the Journal of Marketing in 2003, three academics determined that movie stars and a big budget could reliably temper negative reviews.

“In some sense,” the authors conclude, “big budgets and stars serve as an insurance policy.” In a study published in Applied Economics in 2011, another group of researchers found that a 1 percent increase to a film’s budget equates to a 0.375 percent increase in how much money it makes. Agreeing with previous research, they explain that “the production budget has the ability to raise the minimum revenue that a movie might earn, but has a relatively small influence on its potential maximum.” What both of these studies suggest is that you can always guarantee a number of butts in seats with a budget of, say, something in the range of $350 million.

A big-budget film can help secure a floor, but what about a ceiling? In a 2015 article in the Journal of Advertising Research, scholars determined that there are three primary ways of determining pre-release enthusiasm for a film: the size of the budget, whether or not it’s a sequel, and if it’s an action film. Endgame ticks all of those boxes, and it’s a double sequel of sorts in that it inherits both the momentum of the entire MCU broadly and Infinity War directly.

This is all to say that there’s some backing behind the idea that Endgame was destined to make a significant chunk of change regardless of its quality. It is the definition of a safe, money-making venture, the film equivalent of a savings account with a guaranteed return. It doesn’t need you to buy a second, or third, ticket. Its cultural dominance is already ensured, and it was ensured long before it was released.

What does that leave us with? We’re talking about accruing money. Full stop.

The only real case I have found for caring about these numbers as a fan, for really getting into how much a film makes, is a piece by Simon Brew from 2010 where he argues that fans have to care about box office because it allows them to predict the future of their favorite things. For him, the box office is what lets certain creators live or die. But that doesn’t factor into the top slot for all-time gross. Endgame’s creative team, its company, and its intellectual property will enjoy blue skies for the foreseeable future regardless of whether the movie makes another $6 million or so.

And as Edward Jay Epstein claimed in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2012, the finances of Hollywood are so bizarre that journalists (and by extension, fans) who engage in the rat race of the charts are doing themselves a disservice because they’re missing the “real story” by focusing on the unreality of dollar signs. The real money, Epstein claims, is in licensing and the long tail of content.

Following Epstein, we should recognize that the value Endgame has as a product — to drive subscribers to the streaming service Disney Plus for the next few decades — vastly outstrips the still-significant value it has as a product in theaters. The race to the top is a partial picture in a great game of money, and that’s something for fans and journalists alike to grapple with: is your coverage now just an implicit part of a marketing strategy that will outlive you? Will the banner “Top Grossing Film Of All Time” plastered on every info box work longer than you’re able to provide for yourself?

The Marvel fans’ desire to unseat Avatar as the top grossing film of all time is ultimately an attempt to help one of the largest corporations on this planet squeeze more money from fans and provide more value for stockholders. It is an endeavor to strengthen a titan of entertainment that is already so swollen and dominant that some are calling for it to be broken up.

It is a false race to the top that has no value other than bragging rights, and they’re bragging rights for a company that’s going to do well regardless. This is a fight to make companies more profitable, and we shouldn’t pretend it is anything else.