‘Captain Marvel’ could rescue the box office, after the worst February in years

Captain Marvel is many things to different people — an intergalactic protector, a feminist icon and, likely, for the local multiplex, a box office savior.

Walt Disney Co.’s take on the comic book hero, “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson in the title role, is expected to have a stellar debut at theaters this weekend, probably giving a big boost to what has been a sluggish box office so far this year. Movies have grossed a lackluster $1.5 billion in the U.S. and Canada in 2019 through March 3, down a steep 26% from the same period a year ago, according to measurement firm Comscore.

The sobering slump comes after analysts predicted 2019 would set another annual record for Hollywood following last year’s high-water mark of $11.9 billion. But box-office disappointments, including “Alita: Battle Angel” and “The Lego Movie 2,” made last month the worst February for theatrical revenue since 2002.


The expectation is that this weekend’s release of “Captain Marvel,” the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, should help ease worries among cinema owners.

“We’ve been stuck in neutral for two months,” said Paul Dergarabedian, chief analyst at Comscore. “Presumably, this is the movie that’s going to bring us out of the box office doldrums.”

The more than $175-million production by Disney’s Marvel Studios is expected to gross $125 million Thursday evening through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. That would easily make “Captain Marvel” the biggest box office hit of the year so far, kicking off what analysts expect to be an unprecedented period of dominance by Disney, which will release “Avengers: Endgame,” “Toy Story 4,” a “Lion King” remake and a “Star Wars” movie this year.

Anticipation for “Captain Marvel,” set in the 1990s, is remarkably high for a movie based on a character that few moviegoers know much about, other than the fact that she’s a Marvel hero. Nonetheless, “Captain Marvel” will probably top the openings of most of Marvel Studios’ previous character debuts, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” ($94 million) and “Doctor Strange” ($85 million).

“The hype for ‘Captain Marvel’ is very real,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You’re talking about a superhero people have never heard of opening to more than $100 million. That’s nuts.”

Larson’s protagonist, Carol Danvers, debuted in Marvel Comics pages in 1968, but has never received the big-screen treatment. The film draws from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Marvel Comics series that launched in 2012, which revived the character as an Air Force fighter pilot who gains powers and becomes Captain Marvel.

Analysts said much of “Captain Marvel’s” business will be driven by people’s desire to find out how the character ties in with the hugely popular “Avengers” films. “Captain Marvel” comes after last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” left fans with a bruising cliffhanger that is set to be resolved when “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters April 26. “Infinity War” collected more than $2 billion.

The interweaving plots of Marvel’s films create a sense among fans that they have to see each new installment to get the most out of the franchise.

“It’s a pretty good insurance policy against people maybe sitting out one or two of these movies,” Dergarabedian said.

Some of the interest in the movie stems from the fact that “Captain Marvel” is the first Marvel Studios picture to feature a solo female lead.

Female superheroes are hardly a new phenomenon. Rival Warner Bros. and DC broke ground for representation and commercial success in 2017 with Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” which grossed more than $820 million in worldwide receipts. But while Marvel has included female heroes Scarlet Witch, Black Widow and the Wasp in movies alongside male counterparts, the studio has been criticized for taking so long to put women in the spotlight.

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige acknowledged that female leads in his films have been overdue after entire trilogies focusing on white male characters Iron Man and Thor. But the studio’s lineup has become more inclusive in recent years.

“[A]s diverse as the comics have always been, and for as progressive as I really believe Stan Lee and the entire Marvel bullpen was in the ’60s, when you go back and look at the characters they created, there were a lot of white guys,” Feige told The Times. “But now, 21 movies in, we get to pull in the deeper bench, and it does seem like perfect timing.”

“Captain Marvel” will be, by far, the biggest theatrical debut for Larson, who made a name for herself in such indie dramas as “Room” and “Short Term 12” — both roles in which she played a strong female lead character.

But rather than solely focus on the films’ feminist overtones, Disney’s marketing campaign has tapped into the retro vibe of the movie, which is peppered with references to bygone fixtures, including Blockbuster Video and the search engine AltaVista.

The studio on Monday re-created the defunct Tower Records on the Sunset Strip for an event featuring performances by alt-rockers Bush and female-fronted group L7, and a Q&A session with Larson and costars Samuel L. Jackson and Lashana Lynch that was streamed live on Twitter. The film’s official promotional website featured a purposefully dated design resembling an old GeoCities page. Marvel social media pages posted Magic Eye optical illusion posters for the film.

Critics’ reviews have been mostly positive, though not as effusive as for “Black Panther,” which earned a best picture Oscar nomination. A vocal subset of superhero movie enthusiasts has spewed social media vitriol at the movie, flooding sites like Rotten Tomatoes with comments dismissing it as an exercise in social justice, despite the fact that it is likely to be a commercial boon for the studio.

Fandango-owned Rotten Tomatoes last week stopped allowing users to post audience reviews prior to a film’s release, in part to thwart such trolling.

Some groups have embraced the movie’s girl-power themes for social causes. Nonprofit organizations Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles and We Have Stories, for example, launched a #CaptainMarvelChallenge crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $60,000 for programs supporting underprivileged girls across Los Angeles.

To support the effort, theater chain Cinepolis USA donated 570 tickets to enable local girls to see the movie for free at its Pico Rivera location. Buses will take Los Angeles girls ranging from third grade through high school to the theater for Friday evening screenings, said Diamond Moseley, development manager for Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles.

“For me, the hope is they get to see a film that highlights their strength and highlights their capacity to be whatever they want to be,” Moseley said.

Times staff writer Jen Yamato contributed to this article.