It’s no secret anymore that comic book movies are big business. Each year, they are some of the most financially successful films released and attract some of the biggest actors. The expectations for stories about superheroes have risen so high that we’re long past the point that this is just entertainment for long time comic fans. Studios have realized how huge these franchises are, and it has become the norm to expect the ticket sales to reach about a billion dollars. And to reach those huge heights, studios are investing equally large budgets into these movies.
Since superhero movies are such big business, we’re going to be looking at the ones that had the most invested in them. And to place them on an even footing, we’ll examine their budgets accounting for inflation to accurately look at which cost the most regardless of the year they were released. All of the budgets listed next to the movie’s release year are gotten from Box Office Mojo to be consistent about where we’re getting our numbers. So from the movies that used their big budgets to rake in big profits, to the ones that fell flat with so much riding on them, here are the 16 Most Expensive Superhero Movies Ever Made (Adjusted For Inflation).
16. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) $200 (2016) $203
X-Men: Days of Future Past was a big step for the mutant franchise. Ever since X-Men: The Last Stand, people had become skeptical about where the cinematic world was going, and if it could even be brought back to being fun and promising. Further missteps like X-Men Origins: Wolverine certainly did not help matters either. So a lot was riding on Days of Future Past. It received a hefty budget to try and get things back on course, but if it sunk, Fox might have wound up where Sony is at with Spider-Man.
Fortunately, Days of Future Past wasn’t only big for its budget, but also made big changes to the storyline. It effectively retconned a lot of what fans didn’t like about The Last Stand, tied off loose ends from the original X-Men trilogy, and set the stage for the characters from the well-received First Class to take center stage. And all it took was near total annihilation of all mutants.
15. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014) $200 (2016) $203
Marketing budgets are rare to hear solid numbers on from reliable sources, so that plays a large role in why we’re not accounting for them in this topic. That being said, movie marketing is definitely expensive and really raises the expectations of what studios are expecting to make back once the profits come in. Perhaps no superhero movie better exemplifies that fact than The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Reviews of the latest Spidey flick were middling, but not awful. Its budget was substantial, but also far from the biggest we had seen at the time. On paper, the movie even looked successful since it offset its $200 million production budget by making over $700 million at the box office. Still, plans for a third Spider-Man movie using the same cast were scrapped afterwards, and the franchise is set to be rebooted once again with Spider-Man: Homecoming.
14. IRON MAN 3 (2013) $200 (2016) $206
While the original Iron Man was plenty popular all on its own, this was our first movie focusing on Tony Stark after the massive success of The Avengers. For the people who loved that crossover, this was the closest thing they were going to get to another Avengers team up for a while, resulting in this getting a bit more of a budget than prior entries in the franchise. Iron Man 3 had the budget to match its billionaire, playboy, philanthropist main character.
While Iron Man 3 didn’t set the world on fire in its reviews like The Avengers had, it was still riding the wave of momentum from the all-star movie when it came time to look at the revenue. Iron Man 3 pulled in over $1.2 billion from its time in theaters, making it the most financially successful film in the trilogy by far. No doubt Robert Downey Jr. is very happy with his time in the MCU so far.
13. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) $185 (2016) $206
Batman Begins might have been a risk with Christopher Nolan’s darker, more down to Earth approach to superheroes, but by the sequel, it was clear there was a big audience for this kind of superhero movie. And sure, there was a lot of commotion about the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, but once people actually saw him in The Dark Knight, Ledger became one of the selling points of arguably the best Batman movie we’ve had.
Batman Begins had pulled in less than $400 million during its time in theaters, even with its positive reviews. The Dark Knight had a production budget only $35 million more than its predecessor, and drew in over a billion dollars in the box office. Clearly in retrospect the doubts about Ledger’s performance were misplaced since he became one of the most unanimously praised parts of the film. It’s only a shame that he passed away before he got to see the role that would become his legacy for many fans.
12. GREEN LANTERN (2011) $200 (2016) $214
Even though not every movie we’re talking about here is beloved, most of them can at least lay claim to intriguing fans enough to make a profit. That doesn’t really apply for the Green Lantern movie, though. Not only was it badly received by fans, critics, and even Ryan Reynolds in retrospect, but it was obviously not what the studio was hoping for in terms of earnings. It made just under $220 million against its $200 million budget. Even without accounting for marketing expenditures, that’s not a good return for this movie genre.
Fortunately for Ryan Reynolds, he’s since found a home in the far more popular Deadpool movie and is getting to live his dream of playing a superhero in his own franchise. But some serious damage was done to Green Lantern’s brand. The poor reception and profits for this movie could very likely be part of the reason the Green Lantern is apparently going to be sitting out on the Justice League movie.
11. THE AVENGERS (2012) $220 (2016) $230
After years of laying the groundwork with solo movies for each of the heroes, post-credits scenes, and teases about their eventual team up, the MCU finally unveiled its biggest investment up to that point when the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America joined together for The Avengers. Obviously the studio was trepidatious about bringing this one out too fast, hence the years of planning and build up. But once the time came for the heroes to shine as a team, they got the budget to show their best.
The Avengers was a huge success among fans, setting sales records not just for superhero movies, but for a movie of any kind. It wound up raking in over $1.5 billion in ticket sales from its time in theaters, making it a clear payoff for all the careful setup the MCU had put into reaching this point. The profits from The Avengers became a game changer not just for how superhero movies were perceived among critics, but for the amount of financial confidence studios would show for other superheroes.
10. MAN OF STEEL (2013) $225 (2016) $232
The official start of the DCEU came out of the gate flaunting a big budget, trying to give people a reason to be excited about Superman again. It’s probably easier to market a hero who has not had a movie before since you don’t have to worry about audience fatigue with hearing that character’s origin story for a second or third time. And Superman ranks right up there with Batman and Spider-Man with characters who probably don’t need their origins rehashed again.
Perhaps that’s why Man of Steel got the DCEU off to a rocky start. Despite the movie’s big budget and big name hero, Man of Steel barely made its production budget back domestically, and had to rely on foreign box office numbers to boost it up to over $650 million. And while by no means a bad return on a movie, perhaps it wasn’t quite as big as the studio was hoping for since the next Superman movie we saw was Batman v Superman rather than Man of Steel 2.
9. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) $230 (2016) $241
Sony knew that they had taken a wrong turn with Spider-Man 3, but remained confident that the problem was the script for that movie rather than the character. After all, people still speak highly of Spider-Man 2 years later. So Sony hit the reboot button and brought out a brand new Spider-Man for 2012 to try and get the web slinger back on track. But since we’ve already discussed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we know how those plans turned out.
Still, with the first movie in the Spider-Man reboot, things actually looked promising. People were a little tired of the retread of Spider-Man’s origins, but otherwise reception for the movie was pretty positive, the profits looked good, and everything seemed back on track to make this a cinematic franchise again. Sony wanted this to be their answer to the MCU. Well, third time’s the charm, right? So now we wait for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
8. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006) $210 (2016) $250
We talked about Days of Future Past and how the big budget attached to it served to get the franchise back on its feet, but the other X-Men movie on this list is what staggered the franchise in the first place. The Last Stand is the biggest budget any X-Men movie has had, and it’s understandable why Fox scaled back on investing so much into the movies when The Last Stand went so off course in many people’s view.
Financially, The Last Stand pulled in nearly $460 million during its time in theaters. But the thing people really remember about the movie is the way it mishandled some of its popular characters. For one, we had Cyclops get killed off screen. Then we had Professor Xavier die, only to be revived in a post-credits scene that many fans either misunderstood, or just plain did not see, leaving them extremely puzzled when he showed up in later movies like nothing happened. But the biggest mistreatment of the bunch was definitely Jean Grey’s time as the Phoenix. To comic fans, the Phoenix saga is one of the most well-known X-Men story arcs. Unfortunately, The Last Stand left Phoenix remembered as one of the most lackluster villains in the movies.
7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) $250
Even though the title calls this another Captain America movie, this was clearly a whole lot bigger than just Steve Rogers. This marked the live-action debut of several heroes, such as Black Panther, and was the long-awaited crossover induction of Spider-Man into the MCU. Captain America: Civil War was obviously going to be laying the groundwork for a lot of other standalone movies, making it essential viewing for any Marvel fan.
The $250 million budget was significant, but the MCU had proven it could deliver big results on similar budgets in the past. While the returns were not quite as huge as the Avengers movies had brought back, Civil War did still bring in over a billion dollars for the project. And while the movie being packed with superheroes no doubt contributed to that, fans and critics alike also left happy due to the movie still finding room to make the experience fun.
6. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) $250
While Civil War was business as usual for Marvel, DC had yet to truly take the plunge into a large scale crossover superhero movie. But DC played one of its strongest cards first, promising not only the first live-action battle between Batman and Superman, but also the first live-action movie to feature Wonder Woman. It was clearly an attempt to catch up with the likes of Marvel’s Avengers, so it’s pretty fitting that Batman v Superman and Civil War had the same production budgets. But the outcomes were pretty different.
Batman v Superman pulled in over $800 million while in theaters, but those involved with the project were supposedly disappointed that they didn’t crack a billion. Marvel’s Civil War proved the potential to be that lucrative was still there just months later, but the sharp contrast in tone between the two movies left them with different results. Critics were vocal about what they felt was an overly serious tone for Dawn of Justice, and fans were quite polarized by the movie. Considering this was the kick off to DC’s shared cinematic universe, and the substantial marketing budget said to be behind the movie, this likely wasn’t quite the payoff the studio was hoping for.
5. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) $250 (2016) $254
The big follow up to The Avengers got an even bigger budget now that everyone knew what a hit the MCU had on its hands. And the MCU’s other movies in the three years between The Avengers and its sequel had continued to be big money, so it looked like a pretty safe bet that Age of Ultron was going to be huge as well. The first one had brought in over $1.5 billion though, so could the sequel really match that, or even surpass it?
Not quite, no. Age of Ultron brought in $1.4 billion, which is by no means a disappointment. In fact, it is actually very promising that the characters were able keep their momentum and still generate that same level of interest from fans. Still, with the next Avengers outing looking like a two part story and bringing in the characters from Guardians of the Galaxy as well, you’ve got to imagine Infinity War is being made with the plan to break the box office records for superhero movies.
4. SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) $200 (2016) $255
We’ve already had two Spider-Man movies come up in this topic, and this won’t even be the last one. It’s actually kind of impressive that Peter Parker seems to be more expensive than billionaires like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. But unlike the previous mentions of Spider-Man, this one really seemed to have paid off. Of the five films featuring the wall crawler so far, Spider-Man 2 seems to be remembered as the best one of the bunch.
At nearly $800 million in box office revenue, the momentum was still swinging Sony’s way at this point. And with the MCU still years distant, this could be called one of the best comic book movies we had seen up to this point. So it’s probably only natural that Sony thought going for something bigger in the third movie would yield even better results. But we’ll be getting to the outcome of that idea shortly…
3. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) $250 (2016) $262
With two highly praised movies already under his belt in the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan had everyone’s attention for how his trilogy was going to conclude. Since this was already many people’s favorite cinematic version of Batman, obviously the third movie had the potential to be big and the studio was not going to hold anything back. They gave Nolan the biggest budget any Batman movie has ever had to showcase his final battle in Gotham city.
The Dark Knight Rises cracked over a billion dollars from its time in theaters, so obviously the investment was worth it. Though this is commonly considered to be the worst outing in the Nolan trilogy thanks to a combination of head scratching decisions, like the rather unusual death scene of Talia al Ghul. Still, the action was fast-paced and the devastation was widespread. It’s not cheap to make a city look likes it descending into chaos, but Gotham city really looked like a warzone for the final confrontation between Batman and the League of Shadows. And when the dust settled, fans were content with this ending to the trilogy.
2. SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) $258 (2016) $299
It’s understandable why so much would be invested in the Spider-Man franchise nearly ten years ago since the landscape for comic book movies was very different. We didn’t have the big superhero team-ups that are so common today, and darker, more serious heroes had not quite taken center stage. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, while somewhat cheesy, still seemed like the height of what superhero movies could accomplish. So a lot of money was put into Spider-Man 3, and it pulled in a lot of ticket sales, but the finished product left a pretty bad reputation for the movie.
Word is studio meddling was to blame for the movie being overstuffed with villains, resulting in a rushed inclusion of Venom that left many fans dissatisfied. But even Peter Parker was losing his edge for the third time around, creating the infamous emo Peter who showed off his dark side by dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. In the end, Spider-Man 3’s big investment paid off in the short term for this one movie, but did lasting damage to the franchise that is still trying to be fixed today.
1. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) $270 (2016) $322
And of course it’s the most iconic and well-known superhero who sits at the top of everything. Though being at the top here isn’t necessarily good, it simply means the studio invested the most into this iteration of Superman. Superman Returns was by no means comparable to the failure of something like Green Lantern, but considering how much financial stake was put into it, you would hope for incredible profits too. But domestically, Superman Returns didn’t even make its budget back, and even when the foreign box office came in, it tallied up to just over $390 million.
And to be fair, reviews for the movie were pretty decent. But the studio had supposedly been hoping to see $500 million in returns, and considered Superman Returns a disappointment. There had been plans to do a sequel before Superman Returns even hit theaters, but after the box office results evidently didn’t meet expectations, director Bryan Singer was informed he would only be able to do the sequel on a reduced budget. Obviously he eventually elected to move on to other projects where maybe expectations wouldn’t be quite so enormous.
Which movie do you think made the best of its budget? Are there any you think deserved better from the critics? Share your thoughts over in the comments!
Spider-Man: Homecoming comes out July 7, 2017, the Justice League movie is scheduled for November 16, 2017, and Avengers: Infinity War is expected on May 4, 2018.
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