The first theatrical release based on a Marvel superhero comic didn’t feature an A-lister like Spider-Man or Captain America. Instead, it was 1986's Howard the Duck, the critical disaster that grossed only $16 million at the U.S. box office. Adjusted for inflation, that $16 million figure comes out to $35 million in 2017 currency, still ranking among the weakest of all Marvel movies to date.
Of course, matters have since improved for Marvel, as its roster of superheroes has dominated ticket sales for nearly two decades now. While each new year brings yet another handful of Marvel movies to help rewrite the box office books, it’s a slightly different picture when the grosses of older films are adjusted accordingly to compensate for inflation in the form of rising ticket prices.
Various websites (Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, etc.) have diligently kept track of not only actual grosses but also adjusted ones — albeit only on the domestic side in the case of the latter. As there have been different rates of inflation in different countries over the years, tracking adjusted grosses for the entire international community would be extremely difficult, which is why sites offering such totals only focus on domestic (i.e. the U.S. and Canada).
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming will doubtless be shaking up this list before long. For now, though, here are The 16 Highest Grossing Marvel Superhero Movies, Adjusted For Inflation.
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $257 million (actual domestic gross: $157 million)
The 1998 Marvel property Blade was successful enough to set the stage for future cinematic adaptations of comic books, but it was 2000’s X-Men that really encouraged studios to fling open the doors and start making super-flicks left and right.
Following a period when most genre films (Spawn and Judge Dredd, among them) were being written by folks who presumably didn’t know the difference between Archie and The Incredible Hulk, X-Men was a godsend, with director Bryan Singer punching across a meaty screenplay dealing with the twin horrors of prejudice and fear.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen excelled in their iconic roles as, respectively, Professor Charles Xavier, who believes humans and mutants can peacefully coexist; and Magneto, who believes the inferior humans should be conquered before they can eradicate mutantkind. And even with the likes of Superman’s Christopher Reeve, Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr. and Spider-Man’s Tobey Maguire in the mix, the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine might remain the best of the bunch.
15 CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $275 million (actual domestic gross: $259 million)
In the grand scheme of all things Marvel, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t exactly a box office behemoth, and it ranks only #27 on the adjusted list – even below less acclaimed titles like 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the 2014 follow-up, is a different story.
Certainly, The Winter Soldier is a far knottier movie than its relatively straightforward predecessor, what with shifting allegiances among its characters and questions of morality in a decidedly amoral world. With so many heroes on hand (including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon), the movie feels crowded but not cluttered, as almost every character is allowed opportunities to shine. This is most obvious with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who's given enough time to milk a personality rather than just sporadically pop up to bark at superheroes (generally his function in MCU films).
14 THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $297 million (actual domestic gross: $262 million)
Given the general dismissal of director Marc Webb’s two Spider-flicks starring Andrew Garfield, 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man arguably registers as the most surprising inclusion on this list. Then again, it is Spider-Man, and in the wake of Sam Raimi’s smash trilogy, audiences were curious to see what the future held for the webslinger.
Not much, it turned out. What's most surprising — and frustrating — about The Amazing Spider-Man (and its 2014 sequel) is that there's little human dimension to it. Raimi took time out to examine the everyday lives of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but Garfield's Peter and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy are given little time for such introspection, with the script busily racing from one crisis or conspiracy to the next.
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $315 million (actual domestic gross: $214 million)
While not quite matching the sense of wonder that accompanied X-Men, 2003’s X2 (often subtitled X-Men United) boasts a more polished script, vastly improved special effects, and a longer running time (135 minutes, a full half-hour over its predecessor) that gives more players more time to strut their stuff.
This time, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his band of do-gooders find themselves teaming up with arch-villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) in an effort to bring down William Stryker (Brian Cox), a ruthless military man hell-bent on destroying every mutant on the planet. Hugh Jackman again excels as Wolverine, Alan Cumming is a welcome cast addition as the sweet-natured Nightcrawler, and Famke Janssen carves out many of the best moments as the tortured telepath Jean Grey.
Even those who skipped the first X-Men film will be able to glean the relevant subtext often found in superhero adventures: a just and civilized society has no room for prejudice against those who are born different.
12 X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $316 million (actual domestic gross: $234 million)
After two great X-Men movies, audiences were ready to be blown out of the multiplex by a terrific end to the trilogy. Unfortunately, Bryan Singer, responsible for the previous two pictures, left the series to helm Superman Returns, and Brett Ratner was a shaky replacement when he grabbed the reins on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Nevertheless, a gargantuan opening weekend – still the best of any X-Men film to date (unless one includes Deadpool) – allowed the cash to pour in before the mixed word of mouth got out, resulting in its impressive total.
It's a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that X-Men: The Last Stand somehow survives a new creative team’s messy takeover, even if just barely. Yet there are clearly plenty of boneheaded decisions plaguing this action-packed chapter, from too many players clamoring for attention (Ben Foster’s Angel, Vinnie Jones’ Juggernaut) to stagnant characterizations infecting some of the cast regulars (particularly James Marsden’s Cyclops, a great hero absolutely wasted in this series).
11 IRON MAN 2
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $347 million (actual domestic gross: $312 million)
Whereas 2008’s Iron Man kept its eye on the narrative ball, 2010’s Iron Man 2 ends up all over the place, impatiently cramming in extraneous subplots and supporting characters at Mach speed. There’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his skirmishes with the government; the appearance of a Russian villain known as Whiplash (Mickey Rourke); the maneuverings of rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell); Tony’s relationships with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard); the introduction of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson); more screen time for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); — about the only thing missing is a partridge in a pear tree.
Yet many attributes can be found amidst the overkill, particularly in the performances. Rourke makes for a spectacular villain, while Rockwell adds some salty humor as Hammer. Mainly, though, there's Downey. Not afraid to embrace Stark's less appealing qualities, the actor repeatedly tests the limits of how much bad behavior audiences will accept from their heroes. Downey takes Tony to the edge before snapping him back into place, a high-wire act that's thrilling to behold.
10 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $364 million (actual domestic gross: $333 million)
Even before the Guardians came along, the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly wasn’t lacking for humor. With Robert Downey Jr. leading the pack with his interpretation of Tony Stark/Iron Man as the class clown, Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/Hulk and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow offering sly asides, and Chris Evans' Steve Rogers/Captain America and Chris Hemsworth's Thor/just Thor milking culture-clash jokes, the MCU often felt like an extravagant party filled with funny, good-looking people.
But it was with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy that the titular misfits showed the other heroes how to really loosen up. Indeed, it was the movie's rollicking good cheer that helped endear it to folks who otherwise wouldn't have known the Guardians' Rocket Raccoon from The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon. Minor quibbles aside, Guardians of the Galaxy is winning entertainment, boasting a sleek visual style that befits its carefully contained universe and unique characters.
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $373 million (actual domestic gross: $363 million)
And just when it seemed as if the Guardians would remain the coolest kids on the Marvel block, along came the joker at the center of 2016’s Deadpool.
A superhero romp that threatened to be smug, smarmy and self-satisfied is — well, yes, Deadpool is occasionally all those things. But it’s also fresh, funny and absolutely kick-ass. With apologies to the other performers, this is The Ryan Reynolds Show from beginning to end; the actor clearly relishes rescuing this character from "worst adaptations" lists following his guest-starring role in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The relationship between Deadpool/Wade Wilson and the tough and beautiful Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is unexpectedly touching, which allows a break from the otherwise nonstop snark. The visual effects are serviceable rather than sizzling, but they get the job done. As for the requisite Stan Lee cameo, it’s a keeper. ‘Nuff said.
8 IRON MAN
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $392 million (actual domestic gross: $318 million)
The importance of 2008’s Iron Man cannot be overstated. As the opening film in what was to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it set a winning tone with its mix of large-scale action, ingratiating humor, finely-etched characterizations, and, most crucially, perfectly cast actors. It’s a formula that Marvel has attempted to emulate with practically every picture – sometimes falling short, but more often soaring as high as Iron Man's first outing.
While Pixar has been celebrated for choosing the best voice actors regardless of clout, Marvel deserves some cred too. For a quarter-century, Robert Downey Jr. had been trapped on a roller-coaster career, and he was hardly a box-office draw when chosen to play Tony Stark. Now, it’s impossible to envision anyone else in the role, and the film owes much of its substantial success to him.
With a career resurgence triggered by Iron Man — one which has since allowed him to earn as much as $50 million per movie — Downey has successfully pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in Hollywood history.
7 CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $413 million (actual domestic gross: $408 million)
In an era in which Marvel movies are released with the same frequency as bugs hitting windshields, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War still manages to rise above the fray and declare itself one of the genre's finest. With no less than 12 superheroes on display, this clearly isn't a one-man show; at the same time, it's apparent that Captain America (Chris Evans) is the principal character in this chapter of the ongoing saga.
Avoiding the bloat that sometimes affects these ensemble efforts, this one establishes a beautiful balance between quieter character-driven sequences and splashy action set-pieces. Tom Holland is introduced as the new Spider-Man, and he's simply divine — ditto Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther.
As for the series vets, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) continues to register as perhaps the most fascinating and complex character in this Marvel world order: smart, brave, witty, troubled, and able to read people and situations better than most of the others. She's a dynamic figure — gee, you think somebody would have given her a movie of her own by now.
6 IRON MAN 3
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $431 million (actual domestic gross: $409 million)
It’s full speed ahead for 2013’s Iron Man 3, which proved to be the most financially successful of all three Iron Man efforts (both in adjusted and actual dollars). Like Iron Man 2, this third entry is occasionally arid and frequently overstuffed, yet it does just enough right to drag it into the win column. The disappointment isn't pronounced enough to elicit rage against the machine, but many discerning viewers might still feel a twinge of remorse aimed at the man in the iron mask.
Robert Downey Jr. still delivers the one-liners with gusto ("I loved you in A Christmas Story," he tells one bespectacled kid), and Stark's scenes opposite a helpful young boy (Ty Simpkins) provide the movie with most of its heart and humor. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley’s turn as the Mandarin is exemplary, although the particulars of the role — specifically that final twist (no spoilers here) — infuriated many viewers while delighting the rest.
5 SPIDER-MAN 3
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $432 million (actual domestic gross: $336 million)
As was the case with the third X-Men film (X-Men: The Last Stand), 2007’s Spider-Man 3 is regarded by just about everyone as the distant third-place finisher in the trilogy overseen by director Sam Raimi. That still didn’t stop it from becoming a box office bonanza.
With a script by Raimi, his brother Ivan, and Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), Spider-Man 3 is packed to the rafters with activity and excitement. Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst) find themselves struggling with relationship woes, while on the battlefields of NYC, Spider-Man must face off against the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Venom (Topher Grace), a new Green Goblin (James Franco), and his own dark impulses.
The plot points involving Venom, "dark Spidey" and “emo Parker” are particularly convoluted and underwhelming, but Church delivers a fine performance as a conflicted villain, and the effects employed to turn him into the Sandman are phenomenal.
4 AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $473 million (actual domestic gross: $459 million)
The marvel that was 2012's The Avengers received a letdown of a sequel in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a hype-driven CGI effort that mainly emerged as a blown opportunity. The meat of the story finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) going the Dr. Frankenstein route and attempting to create an AI he hopes will serve as a global peacekeeper. Instead of a Gandhi/RoboCop hybrid, Stark ends up with Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a malicious being with the goal of wiping out the human race. The heroes all suit up to tackle this menace, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes along to deliver his standard rallying speech.
The best moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron are those in which the characters are allowed to relate to one another, whether in casual conversation, via jokey exchanges, or through verbal assaults. These choice bits are unfortunately offset by woefully truncated subplots as well as sloppily filmed battle sequences that turn out to be more exhausting than exhilarating.
3 SPIDER-MAN 2
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $531 million (actual domestic gross: $373 million)
The 2004 blockbuster Spider-Man 2 was even more ambitious than its 2002 predecessor, and a couple of missteps didn’t overshadow the overall sense that audiences were watching a film franchise grow up right before their eyes.
In this outing, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) experiences a crisis of conscience. How can he lead a normal, happy life when his role as the masked crime fighter seems to ruin everything? He contemplates giving up his swinging lifestyle to make more time for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), but the presence of a new villain in town — the multi-tentacled Doctor Octopus (an excellent Alfred Molina) — alters his plans.
Our hero’s exaggerated powers often make him seem more like Superman than Spider-Man, but the Oscar-winning visual effects pack a punch, and the human element that defines the comic series again lives through Maguire's utterly appealing performance.
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $614 million (actual domestic gross: $403 million)
It was a given that the long-awaited Spider-Man movie, released in 2002 after a 39-year gestation period on the comic book page, would make a fortune, even if its hero had been played by John Travolta sporting his Battlefield Earth dreadlocks. But while Sam Raimi's sure-footed adaptation takes a few liberties with its source material, it mostly gets everything right. The result was a high-flying film that shattered several box office records and landed on the list of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time (since bumped off by a number of newer titles).
Beyond the inspired casting — for starters, Tobey Maguire as Spidey and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin — Spider-Man also works because Raimi and scripter David Koepp manage to turn it into a successful tightrope act between soap opera and spectacle, staying focused on the more personal aspects while still providing the requisite big-bang action and effects that never overwhelm the story.
1 THE AVENGERS
Adjusted Domestic Gross: $679 million (actual domestic gross: $623 million)
Whether it’s the adjusted domestic gross or the actual domestic gross, it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s the domestic total or the international total, it likewise makes no difference. In all financial facets of the game, 2012’s The Avengers comes out on top no matter how the box office pie is sliced. That’s hardly unexpected, given its standing as a brainy and brawny blast. The Avengers was a culmination of the numerous super-sagas that had been building toward it, and it delivered on every count.
As expected, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man provides the bulk of the humor, Chris Evans’ Captain America and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor provide the bulk of the beef, and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow provides some softer moments to go along with the expected athleticism. Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Tom Hiddleston (the villainous Loki) are also on hand, yet the surprising scene-stealer is Mark Ruffalo, who provides Bruce Banner with a stirring soulfulness. What's more, by employing the motion-capture technique rather than straight-up CGI, this is the first film to absolutely nail the Hulk.
Do any of these grosses surprise you? Let us know in the comments!