Seven lessons from ‘Thor: The Dark World’s’ box-office success

The numbers were thrown around soon after “Thor: The Dark World” premiered: fourth-best opening of the year, ninth-best November opening ever, etc.

On one level, the $86.1 million for the Chris Hemsworth thunderousness isn’t exactly surprising: Superhero sequels make bank. It’s more surprising these days when a film in this vein doesn’t work.

And the opening was lower than the $90 million-$100 million some expected (and a planet away from the $170 million-plus of “Iron Man 3" earlier this year).

Still, the film’s performance is strong (it also has taken in $240 million overseas since opening in many major territories last weekend), leading to some useful lessons. Here’s a quick breakdown:

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Don’t need Downey. Beginning in 2008, Marvel had a major renaissance thanks in large part to one actor: Robert Downey Jr. Far from an in-the-bag hit, his “Iron Man” opened to an eye-popping $98 million that spring. Since then, the four Marvel movies Downey has starred in have averaged $1 billion at the global box office. By comparison, none of the half-dozen other Marvel-based movies in that same period have even cracked $500 million. “Thor: The Dark World” shows Marvel can do it without Downey.

The Mickey Machine. Sure, Paramount, Sony and Fox have been able to get substantial international numbers with the Marvel movies they’ve produced and/or distributed under various arrangements. But since the Disney acquisition of Marvel a few years ago, the numbers have hit a new peak. The two all-time biggest global grossers for Marvel-based pics -- “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3" -- are also the two movies that have come out on Disney’s watch. “Thor: The Dark World” further validates the Disney argument -- if the film hits $900 million, it would mean the top three all-time Marvel movies have all been released by Disney.

Bridge to somewhere. Even though it has Joss Whedon and a cast that helped make it the biggest movie of 2012, the upcoming “Avengers” film could have been left twisting in the wind, what with the sequel not hitting theaters until the spring of 2015. The company needed a bridge. Thanks to “Iron Man 3" earlier in the year and “Thor” now (both characters are of course key figures in “The Avengers” series), it has one.

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Speaking of Avengers ... In the years leading up to “The Avengers” last year, Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige pursued a runway strategy: keep releasing movies focused on individual characters and it will eventually all aggregate into big business for “The Avengers.” It worked, but then what? Could new franchises be then spun out after “The Avengers”? This weekend, the performance of the “Thor” sequel suggested that they could.

Are the children leading them? “Thor: The Dark World” is the kind of movie that routinely gets put in the movies-for-young-males category. But should it be? According to figures released by Disney, 61% of the audience this past weekend was above the age of 25. And 32% of the audience was actually over 35. If that doesn’t seem like a large percentage, consider this: Without that constituency, the movie would have opened to less than $60 million, a pretty clear failure.

Game of Loans. With the exception of the occasional Joss Whedon, Marvel hasn’t been known for picking tried-and-true creators for the director’s chair, as this astute story pointed out. But often the studio’s choices were at least people with directing experience (see: Kenneth Branagh, who directed the first “Thor”). Could it go out on a limb and pick someone such as Alan Taylor, a man who had in fact never directed a feature before? “Thor: The Dark World’s” numbers validated the strategy. It also proved that a movie with the following plot description could become a hit: “In ‘Thor 2,’ Malekith, the leader of the dark elves of Svartalfheim, comes out of a long hibernation ready to rumble. Their secret weapon is the aether, pronounced “ee-ther,” an “ancient force of infinite destruction,” as Anthony Hopkins’ Odin describes it, sounding like he’s saying the words ‘blah blah blah instead.”

Fall follies? November was in fact a risky month to open this film. Yes, the tried-and-true franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” have found success, but there hasn’t been a pure live-action superhero movie to open in November since the genre’s resurgence began last decade. Yet “Thor” proved November could work. With this past summer proving a tough time for many tent poles, the release strategy indicates an alternative -- if the right weapon-wielding heroes are involved, at least.


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