With Black Widow opening tonight, thus seeing the theatrical return of the MCU after a two-year sabbatical, I wanted to take a look at which Avenger is the most successful. By what measure, you ask? I’m looking at each somewhat major MCU movie star (the character, not necessarily the actor) through the raw global grosses of the films they’ve appeared in and the adjusted domestic earnings of their respective MCU appearances. And just because it’s fun, I’ve also wrangled the average global gross and average inflation-adjusted domestic earnings for each MCU superhero (the ones that get at least one solo movie, sorry, Hawkeye, Wanda and War Machine). Who is the most money-making Avenger? The answer probably won’t be a surprise. Who is the biggest-grossing Avenger on a movie-by-movie average? Well, that one may be a little more surprising. Spoiler: It’s not the Hulk.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)
$2.725 billion over two movies
(Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War)
In a non-Covid timeline, we’d have already had Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Still, for now, his starring/co-starring appearances are consigned to his solo outing ($232 million domestic and $677 million worldwide in 2016) and his co-starring role in Avengers: Infinity War ($679 million/$2.048 billion in 2018). No, I’m not counting his first-act cameo in Thor: Ragnarok or his un-dusting in Avengers: Endgame. So, this one is pretty easy. It’s a combined global gross of $2.725 billion and a combined inflation-adjusted domestic gross of $928 million for averages of $1.362 billion and $464 million, respectively.
Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)
$3.928 billion total over two movies
(Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame)
Coming in right at the end of the “Infinity Saga” with a prequel taking place 13 years before Iron Man, the first solo female MCU superhero earned a whopping $427 million domestic (more than Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and $1.128 billion (more than The Dark Knight Rises and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). She’s got just two blockbuster appearances, and yes, her supporting role in Endgame (in the first twenty minutes and last twenty minutes) “counts” to allow for her inclusion. Hence, she gets that film’s $858 million domestic/$2.8 billion worldwide cume thrown in. That makes $3.928 billion worldwide and $1.285 billion domestic for an average of $1.924 billion worldwide and $643 million domestic, respectively. So, yeah, the last newbie turns out to be the biggest-grossing in terms of per-movie averages.
T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
$4.549 billion over three movies
(Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War)
The late Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa debuted alongside Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, got his solo flick and then co-starred in Avengers: Infinity War during the Wakanda-set third act battle. He’s merely “undusted” in Endgame, so it’s only three MCU movies thus far for the King of Wakanda, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever arriving in theaters one year from today. Black Panther’s three appearances have earned $4.549 million total and an inflation-adjusted $1.818 billion domestic. That’s an average of $1.516 billion worldwide and $606 million in adjusted domestic earnings. Not only is Black Panther the second-biggest-grossing Avenger “on average,” but his solo flick performed so well that appearing in the $1.155 billion-grossing Civil War decreased his averages.
Wakanda Forever was and is the MCU franchise least likely to lose steam in Marvel’s post-Endgame aftermath. Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s Oscar-winning (and Best Picture-nominated) MCU actioner remains, in raw domestic and global grosses, the biggest solo superhero movie of all time. With $700 million domestic (well above The Avengers and The Dark Knight) and $1.346 billion worldwide (well above Iron Man 3 and Aquaman), Black Panther grabbed quite a few folks who otherwise might not have flocked to (or gorged on repeat viewings of) a given MCU flick. If T’Challa had a few extra scenes in Endgame, this would have been a near dead-heat with Captain Marvel.
Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)
$5.093 billion worldwide over four movies
(Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame)
As the only solo franchise launched during Phase Two, Ant-Man has remained, well, the smallest of the ongoing MCU franchises. Ironically, while the first film’s $519 million and the sequel’s $623 million global grosses are well below anything after The Avengers, Ant-Man and the Wasp took a whopping $125 million in China in summer 2018, a record at the time for a non-ensemble superhero movie. It was soon passed by Venom ($269 million), Aquaman ($298 million), Captain Marvel ($154 million) and Spider-Man: Far from Home ($199 million), but it was another case, like Coco, of an allegedly diverse/inclusive blockbuster overperforming not in North America but in the very territory often used as an excuse for why more tentpoles aren’t more inclusive.
The franchise is also an example of Marvel’s character-first strategy. Even though the Ant-Man movies aren’t huge grossers, the character of Scott Lang (played by genuine comic movie star Paul Rudd) was a huge added value element to Captain America: Civil War and eventually Avengers: Endgame. Lang’s four movies earned $5.093 billion (an average of $1.273 billion) and an inflated-adjusted $1.702 billion domestic for a $425 million average. Suppose we count Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her two appearances (no Civil War and barely a cameo in Endgame). In that case, she’s earned $1.142 billion ($571 million per) and an adjusted $412 million domestic cume or $206 million per movie).
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
$5.215 billion over four movies
(Civil War, Homecoming, Infinity War and No Way Home)
Again, sans Covid we’d be just about to see the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home. However, there’s a chance that the Christmas-slated film could be A) the year’s biggest global grosser and B) the first $1 billion-plus earner since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Christmas 2019. Spidey popped up in a critical supporting role in Captain America: Civil War ($408 million/$1.155 billion in 2016) and got his solo flicks in 2017 ($334 million/$881 million) and 2019 ($390 million/$1.13 billion). He had a starring role in Avengers: Infinity War but barely registered a cameo in Endgame, so that’s four “real” appearances for this comparison. That’s $5.215 billion worldwide and an adjusted-domestic cume of $1.845 billion for averages of $1.303 billion and $461 million, respectively. We’ll see if No Way Home can gross at least $785 million worldwide to push Spidey’s MCU cume past $6 billion.
The Guardians of the Galaxy
$6.49 billion over four movies
(Guardians 1-2, Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame)
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was the first non-Tony Stark MCU movie to crack even $715 million, while its sequel was the first non-Tony Stark $800 million-plus earner. Those two films, plus critical roles in both final Avengers films (at least for those who survived Infinity War, namely Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Racoon, Karen Gillan’s Nebula and Zoe Saldana’s 2014-era Gamora) give the would-be outer-space outcasts of the MCU a boffo $6.49 billion over four films, for a $1.622 billion average. In terms of inflation-adjusted grosses, it’s $2.312 billion for a $578 million average. That’s skewed due to the Avengers finale, as most of Phase Two and Phase Three heroes got dusted at the end of Infinity War. Still, a huge selling point of at least Infinity War was the notion of the Guardians of the Galaxy interacting with the previously established MCU heroes. And yeah, they (including Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista and Vin Diesel) will be an added value element for Thor: Love & Thunder in summer 2023.
Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo)
$8.891 billion over six movies
(Incredible Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers 1-4)
Again, it’s the character, not the actor. The Incredible Hulk earned $135 million domestic and $265 million worldwide on a $155 million budget in 2008. Still, Iron Man had opened so well and grossed so much the previous month that nobody cared that the second MCU flick outright bombed. That said, the average is helped by A) his appearance in all four Avengers movies and B) his co-starring role in Thor: Ragnarok ($315 million domestic and $854 million worldwide in 2017). Hulk has made just six appearances in the MCU, skipping out on Civil War and mostly being confined to a big-deal added-value element. I can see DC. using Superman for the same purpose, but I digress. The six films have earned a combined $8.891 billion, for a $1.481 billion per-movie average. In inflation-adjusted domestic earnings, Bruce Banner’s adventures have grossed $3.249 billion, or $541 million per movie.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
$9.719 billion over seven films
(Thor 1, 2, 3 and Avengers 1- 4)
Jon Favreau’s first two Iron Man movies feel like distinctly Paramount action blockbusters. They are superhero movies in the mold of Transformers for older kids, adults and folks “too cool” for superhero comics. Thus I would argue that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was the first true-blue MCU flick as we now know them. Budgetary limitations (and some of the best character beats on the cutting room floor) notwithstanding, Thor was unapologetically cosmic, laced with kid-friendly winking comic relief and anchored by winning actors who give more to the screen than what’s on the page. Oh, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was both the first “great” MCU villain (even if he only got ‘great’ during The Avengers) and the first in an eventual Disney tradition of V.I.L.F.s.
Thor’s $449 million gross in 2011 was, at the time, the biggest ever for a comic book superhero movie not starring Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man or Wolverine. Hemsworth was the great discovery of the MCU, as he was coming off a cameo as Kirk’s father in Star Trek and a supporting role in the long-delayed Cabin in the Woods. He is also the personification of franchise-over-actor, whereby audiences loved Hemsworth as Thor but didn’t care to see him in the likes of Blackhat, In the Heart of the Sea, Ghostbusters or Men in Black International. Thor’s seven appearances totaled $9.719 billion ($1.388 billion per movie). Thor’s inflation-adjusted domestic grosses total $3.519 billion for an average of $502 million per flick.
Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)
$10 billion over seven movies
(Captain America 1, 2, 3 and Avengers 1-4)
The yin to Tony Stark’s yang, Marvel’s onscreen version of Captain America began as a cinematic underdog. “Would a movie about Captain America play overseas?” It would become Marvel’s most vital and in-universe important franchise. Most solo films are primarily stand-alone, or at worst require you to have seen their respective predecessor and the last big superhero team-up movie. The Winter Soldier and Civil War were “mythology episodes” in big-picture narrative and critical continuity. Chris Evans, not counting cameos in Thor: The Dark World or Spider-Man: Homecoming, starred or co-starred in seven movies, namely his namesake trilogy and all four Avengers movies. They have earned $10 billion for an average of $1.429 billion per movie. Those films have grossed $3.683 billion for a per-movie average of $526 million in terms of inflation-adjusted domestic grosses.
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
$10.264 billion over seven movies
(Iron Man 2, Captain America 2, Captain America 3, Avengers 1-4 and eventually Black Widow)
Introduced as a glorified femme fatale in Iron Man 2 (although scenes concerning Pepper’s sexual jealousy were mercifully left on the cutting room floor), Johansson’s Russian super-spy/professional killer was essentially the only lady Avenger right up until the end. Captain Marvel was introduced in the second-to-last movie while The Wasp and Gamora were off in unrelated adventures until the big Endgame showdown. Wanda became an Avenger at the end of Age of Ultron but went rogue in her very next appearance (Civil War). Anyway, by being “the Smurfette,” Black Widow has racked up a hearty number of MCU appearances since 2010.
She had seven supporting roles in the four Avengers movies alongside Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. Black Widow, a years-overdue starring vehicle, nearly ties her with Iron Man in terms of major MCU appearances. Her first seven movies (thus far) have earned $10.264 billion worldwide, for an average global gross of $1.283 billion. Unless Black Widow pulls off a genuine miracle, we can expect the average to dip quite a bit, but that’s to be expected in a still-perilous pandemic. The average inflation-adjusted grosses amount to $3.841 billion, or $480 million per movie. She’s barely above Captain America simply because Iron Man 2 ($623 million) vastly out grossed Captain America: The First Avenger ($371 million).
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)
$12.27 billion total over nine movies
(Iron Man 1,2, 3, Captain America 3, Spider-Man and Avengers 1-4)
The one who started it all has been the consistent bedrock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How consistent? Iron Man grossed $585 million in summer 2008, while Iron Man 2 earned $623 million in 2010. The Avengers ($1.519 billion in 2012) and Iron Man 3 ($1.215 billion in 2013) essentially doubled those numbers. We didn’t get a “no Tony Stark” MCU movie to gross even $800 million until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($869 million) in summer 2017 and a $900 million-plus earner until Black Panther ($1.346 billion) in early 2018. That’s why Iron Man co-starred in Civil War ($1.15 billion in 2016), and that’s why he cameoed in Spider-Man: Homecoming ($881 million in 2017).
Hell, he was essentially haunting the entirety of Spider-Man: Far from Home ($1.13 billion in 2019), but I’m not counting murals on a wall as an appearance by Iron Man. Anyway, of the 23 films from Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame (minor non-spoiler, Tony Stark is not in Black Widow), Robert Downey Jr. had starring or supporting roles in nine of them. Those nine movies earned $12.27 billion worldwide, for an average global gross of $1.358 billion. In terms of inflation-adjusted domestic earnings (including Age of Ultron and Infinity War), his nine films have earned around $4.758 billion, for an average per-movie gross of $529 million.
As you can see, the biggest-grossing Avenger remains Iron Man, while the lowest-grosser of the bunch is Doctor Strange. The top “average-grossing” MCU hero is newbie Captain Marvel, with Black Panther right behind her. The Guardians of the Galaxy are poised to skyrocket thanks to both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and co-starring turns in Thor: Love & Thunder. In terms of total grosses and averages, the heroes who showed up in both final Avengers movies, as opposed to just Avengers: Infinity War, are at an obvious advantage compared to their fellow Phase Two and Phase Three heroes.
The Phase One folks are tops in raw earnings, for obvious reasons, but their average skew downward due to debuting when, say, $400 million worldwide was terrific for a non-Spider-Man superhero flick. We can debate the future of the MCU and wonder where the Eternals, Shang-Chi and other new-to-the-MCU heroes will perform compared to either their Phase One predecessors or their supercharged Phase Three newbies. That its last two “new” part-one franchise-starters were by far its most successful and featured the two most money-earning (on average) characters is cause for optimism.
The new Phase Four heroes are making their debuts amid a global pandemic and during an attempt to shift Disney’s fortunes toward “direct-to-consumer” (i.e., Disney+) alongside or in favor of conventional global theatrical grosses. That may be a temporary caveat, forever adding an asterisk to the fortunes of Black Widow, Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Ironically, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has become one of the biggest-grossing MCU superheroes even while previously remaining a metaphorical bridesmaid (or added-value element). So we’ll see how she fares (amid a more challenging theatrical environment) now that she finally gets to be “the bride,” something that probably should have happened in summer 2017.