We live in an age of maximum superheroics. Costume-clad comic book champions are dominating the multiplex now with a constancy and — more often than not — success rate never before seen in Hollywood. Case in point: Thor: The Dark World just opened in the U.S. with an estimated $86.1 million weekend, a 31% increase from the first Thor’s debut in 2011. Even more impressive: In two weeks, the film has already pulled in an estimated $240.9 million overseas, which is nearly 90% of the total international gross for the first Thor. With no major competition next weekend, Thor: The Dark World should easily join Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 as one of the top 10 grossing films of this year. Next year, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Guardians of the Galaxy will vie for the box office crown, and in 2015, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Batman and Superman, and Ant-Man will do the same.
With so many superheroes competing for our eyeballs at the movie theater, it is worth taking stock of which heroes have most proven their box office mettle. Using figures from Box Office Mojo, BuzzFeed has crunched the numbers to come up with as objective a breakdown as possible for the most, and least, successful superheroes of the last 35 years.
Before we get to the list, however, a few words on our methodology — this gets pretty deep-dish nerdy, so feel free to skip ahead to the rankings if you prefer.
To be considered, a character had to be a classically defined superhero initially derived from a comic book or graphic novel — so Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, superheroic though they may be, don’t count. They also had to be the leading characters in their own film with their name in the title, meaning that Marvel Studios stars Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki can’t be considered. And that film also had to be released in the United States, which kept curiosities like 1990’s Captain America — which went straight to video in the U.S. — from factoring into Cap’s overall box office numbers.
As for the numbers themselves, we took into account five different metrics:
First, the total number of films the character starred in — studios generally won’t make a sequel unless there is some money to be made.
Next, both the average total domestic box office for those films, and the average opening domestic box office, both adjusted for inflation. (For movies that opened during a long holiday week and weekend, like 2004’s Spider-Man 2, we only included the first three days of release as the fairest point of comparison with other films.) Why separate opening weekend from the total gross? Studios can take home as much as 90% of the opening weekend gross for a major blockbuster film, ceding more of the box office to exhibitors as the weeks progress — so both figures matter in different ways.
Then we included a figure called the average domestic box office multiplier. The number reflects how many times over a movie increased its debut numbers — the higher that number, the better the word-of-mouth and repeat business for a film. (For example, a movie that opens with $20 million and goes on to gross $200 million would have a multiplier of 10.)
And finally, we included the average global total gross for each character. In the last 10 years, global figures have become Hollywood’s top barometer for overall success, so we felt it was necessary to use the global figures in our final analysis. But since there is no reliable way to track ticket price inflation across the entire planet, we reflected the fact that the numbers are not adjusted for inflation in our final calculation.
Which brings us to the final weighted rating. We weighted each metric (from 0-1) according to how that hero faired in comparison to all the other heroes (i.e., for number of movies, those with the most movies got a 1, the least got 0, and everyone else fell in between proportionally). We then added all those figures together, weighting the average global total gross less than all the other figures, and used the final number to rank all the characters.
One last note on The Avengers: Figuring out how to include the third-highest-grossing movie of all time in the overall numbers for Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk proved to be no easy task. The movie was a true ensemble film, and it did so astronomically well in comparison to every other Marvel Studios film that to treat it as a starring vehicle for the characters was unfairly skewing their numbers — but not including The Avengers at all also wasn’t fair. So using screen-time figures derived by Vulture, we created weighted averages for all four characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close to an objective measure of the film’s box office impact for those characters as we could get.
19. The Punisher
Final weighted rating: 0.27
An out-and-out vigilante with no compunction about killing, it’s probably no surprise that this character comes in dead last. What is perhaps surprising is that the Punisher even warranted a second film, with Ray Stevenson replacing Thomas Jane as titular anti-hero Frank Castle. Grossing just $10.1 million worldwide, it is by far the worst box office for a superhero character on this list. Marvel must have felt bad for Stevenson, though — they cast him as Thor’s trusty Asgardian warrior Volstagg.
Films: Punisher: War Zone (2008), The Punisher (2004)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $26,427,250
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $11,361,300
Average domestic multiplier: 2.326
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $32,400,071
Final weighted rating: 0.30
Halle Berry famously accepted a Razzie award for worst actress for this movie — which has nothing to do with the Batman franchise, so Anne Hathaway and Michelle Pfeiffer’s incarnations of the character don’t factor in here.
Film: Catwoman (2004)
Total domestic gross (adjusted): $52,114,200
Opening domestic weekend gross (adjusted): $21,685,000
Average domestic multiplier: 2.403
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $82,102,379
Final weighted rating: 0.36
The first Kick-Ass packed in enough subversive thrills to push its global gross near $100 million — and convince Universal Pictures, which distributed the first film overseas, to green-light a sequel. Bad call: The second film tanked with critics, fans, and audiences, pulling in just over half the first film’s numbers.
Films: Kick-Ass 2 (2013), Kick-Ass (2010)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $38,735,993
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $16,794,728
Average domestic multiplier: 2.306
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $77,872,504
Final weighted rating: 0.65
This one stings the most. The sequel may have pulled in more than the first, but this is a low-scoring franchise across all the metrics, no matter how passionate its fans may feel about the adorable red reformed demon.
Films: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Hellboy (2004)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $81,242,050
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $34,381,250
Average domestic multiplier: 2.363
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $129,853,525
15. Daredevil and Elektra
Final weighted rating: 0.66
This is maybe cheating, but since Elektra was an unabashed Daredevil spin-off — and the former’s utter box office failure was likely exacerbated by the latter’s piss-poor reputation with fans — it made sense to keep these two crazy kids together. At least these movies spawned one of Hollywood’s more stable couples.
Films: Elektra (2005), Daredevil (2003)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $83,774,900
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $34,947,500
Average domestic multiplier: 2.397
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $117,930,642
Final weighted rating: 0.69
The fact that anyone managed to adapt Alan Moore’s seminal deconstruction of comic book superheroes for the big screen is a feat unto itself. Unfortunately, this movie only seemed to resonate with the hardcore faithful — the Watchmen have the lowest multiplier of anyone on this list.
Film: Watchmen (2009)
Total domestic gross (adjusted): $120,536,700
Opening domestic weekend gross (adjusted): $59,581,200
Average domestic multiplier: 2.023
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $185,258,983
13. Green Lantern
Final weighted rating: 0.71
With a reported $200 million budget, Warner Bros.’ failed attempt to make a DC Comics superhero movie not starring Batman or Superman is likely the biggest box office belly flop on this countdown. (That multiplier is especially pathetic.) But Hal Jordan’s first cinematic foray still made enough money to rate higher than characters who starred in better films, probably on the strength of Ryan Reynolds’ abs alone. And with Warner Bros. still determined to make a Justice League movie work, this is probably not the last we’ll see of this character, either.
Film: Green Lantern (2011)
Total domestic gross (adjusted): $116,601,172
Opening domestic weekend gross (adjusted): $53,174,303
Average domestic multiplier: 2.193
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $219,851,172
12. Ghost Rider
Final weighted rating: 0.77
The first major surprise on this list. The 2012 sequel was a junky bomb, but Nicolas Cage’s first outing as the Devil’s bounty hunter was a true (if modest) success, pulling in more in the U.S. and worldwide than Green Lantern.
Films: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), Ghost Rider (2007)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $93,634,901
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $37,611,467
Average domestic multiplier: 2.490
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $180,651,162
Final weighted rating: 1.11
He’s one of the most senior superheroes on this list — Wesley Snipes’ first outing as the titular half-human-half-vampire came out during the Clinton administration, and the last film in the series is nearly a decade old. But the character has an outstanding multiplier, and the franchise is responsible for jumpstarting Blade II director Guillermo Del Toro’s career in Hollywood, and proving to the world that heretofore comedic actor Ryan Reynolds did, in fact, have action hero abs.
Films: Blade: Trinity (2004), Blade II (2002), Blade (1998)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $100,680,567
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $31,731,667
Average domestic multiplier: 3.173
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $138,366,309
10. Fantastic Four
Final weighted rating: 1.30
Neither a runaway success nor anything close to a failure. Let’s just hope that the upcoming reboot from Chronicle director Josh Trank finds pants for the Thing that don’t make us want to hide under the seat.
Films: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Fantastic Four (2005)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $174,315,600
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $69,164,350
Average domestic multiplier: 2.520
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $309,813,741
Final weighted rating: 1.55
Neither film that bears Hulk’s name did the character justice — nor were they anything close to box office bonanzas. Which is probably why Marvel Studios has been trigger shy on another Hulk film, even though Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo finally seemed to crack the big green guy’s code in The Avengers.
Films: The Avengers (2012), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Hulk (2003)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted and weighted): $207,655,097
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted and weighted): $85,408,895
Average domestic multiplier: 2.431
Average global total gross (unadjusted and weighted): $375,039,148
8. Captain America
Final weighted rating: 1.94
With only two films to his name — well, based on our weighting system, really it’s one film and 28.4% of The Avengers — Captain America still has a lot of potential to grow into a true box office heavyweight. Next year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is looking like it could be the film to take him there.
Films: The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted and weighted): $275,349,648
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted and weighted): $96,516,159
Average domestic multiplier: 2.853
Average global total gross (unadjusted and weighted): $624,215,714
Final weighted rating: 1.96
Thor just squeaks past Cap largely because he has one more movie to his name. And Thor better hope his brother Loki never gets his own film, or he’s likely box office toast.
Films: Thor: The Dark World (2013), The Avengers (2012), Thor (2011)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted and weighted): $253,085,613
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted and weighted): $87,578,561
Average domestic multiplier: 2.850
Average global total gross (unadjusted and weighted): $623,510,119
6. The X-Men
Final weighted rating: 2.03
Bryan Singer’s original 2000 film ushered in the modern age of superhero movies, but the most recent prequel outing with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender came in considerably lower than the previous three X-Men movies. As it happens, Singer is returning to the franchise with next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, featuring all the old X-Men and the new X-Men together in the same movie. But will that translate into double the box office grosses?
Films: X-Men: First Class (2011), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men (2000)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $239,081,476
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $94,239,176
Average domestic multiplier: 2.537
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $379,258,689
Final weighted rating: 2.13
Already the outright male lead in the X-Men movies, Wolverine struck out on his own in two solo projects with tellingly different results: The much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine did far better in the U.S. than last summer’s The Wolverine, but the latter performed much better overseas thanks in large part to its Japanese setting. In any event, Wolverine’s box office prowess overall pulls him ahead of his mutant brethren.
Films: The Wolverine (2013), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men (2000)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $227,276,902
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $93,350,790
Average domestic multiplier: 2.435
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $390,006,121
Final weighted rating: 2.93
The original cinematic superhero, Superman harkens back to a bygone era of moviegoing radically different from today’s multiplex economy. In the 1970s and ’80s, films often played in theaters for years — the most popular films even enjoyed regular revival runs — which is why Superman’s multiplier is so much bigger than every other hero on this list. But the Man of Steel’s longevity also means his global average is likely much lower than it rightfully should be, one of the main reasons why that metric is weighted less than all the others.
Films: Man of Steel (2013), Superman Returns (2006), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Superman III (1983), Superman II (1981), Superman (1978)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $249,573,820
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $48,920,227
Average domestic multiplier: 5.102
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $451,381,576
3. Iron Man
Final weighted rating: 2.98
Yup: Tony Stark is (just slightly) bigger than Clark Kent at the box office. Thanks to an unbroken string of blockbuster hits — and back-to-back billion-dollar global grossers — Iron Man has been vaulted from a second-string comic book hero to a true A-list character on par with the most iconic comic book characters of the last century. But with Robert Downey Jr. sitting out solo Iron Man films for the foreseeable future, it is unclear whether the character can maintain his high box office perch.
Films: Iron Man 3 (2013), The Avengers (2012), Iron Man 2 (2010), Iron Man (2008)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted and weighted): $383,091,588
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted and weighted): $144,386,477
Average domestic multiplier: 2.653
Average global total gross (unadjusted and weighted): $868,530,190
Final weighted rating: 3.26
With so many superhero movies arriving each year, it’s perhaps easy to forget how largely Spider-Man loomed at the box office at the start of the last decade. In 2013 dollars, 2002’s Spider-Man made a whopping $559.4 million in the U.S. — still one of the very best box office returns for a superhero ever. Last year’s reboot with Andrew Garfield has more modest box office receipts to its name, but the buzz is good for next summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Films: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man (2002)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $424,855,191
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $134,079,043
Average domestic multiplier: 3.169
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $812,140,769
Final weighted rating: 3.40
Try not to look surprised. No comic book superhero has had more cinematic outings than Batman, and so it follows that no comic book superhero has had better luck at the box office than him either. It helps that the caped crusader is unusually open to interpretation, allowing for everything from Tim Burton’s florid and brooding Batman, to Joel Schumacher’s cartoon-y and nipple-y Batman, to Christopher Nolan’s gritty and naturalistic Batman. In 2015, we’ll get Zack Snyder’s version, with Ben Affleck putting on the cowl for what will reportedly be a more seasoned and grizzled take on the character. And chances are, we will show up in droves to see how it turns out.
Films: The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Dark Knight (2008), Batman Begins (2005), Batman and Robin (1997), Batman Forever (1995), Batman Returns (1992), Batman (1989)
Average domestic total gross (adjusted): $379,330,900
Average domestic opening weekend gross (adjusted): $106,186,728
Average domestic multiplier: 3.572
Average global total gross (unadjusted): $530,874,823
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Thor: The Dark World* — $86.1 million
2. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa — $11.3 million
3. Free Birds — $11.2 million
4. Last Vegas — $11.1 million
5. Ender’s Game — $10.3 million
6. Gravity — $8.4 million
7. 12 Years a Slave — $6.6 million
8. Captain Phillips — $5.8 million
9. About Time — $5.2 million
10. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 — $2.8 million
Photo credits for top image, from left to right: Warner Bros.; Columbia Pictures; Warner Bros.; Marvel Studios; Warner Bros.; Warner Bros.; 20th Century Fox; Universal Pictures; Marvel Studios; Warner Bros.; Warner Bros.
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