(Warning - the following could theoretically contain SPOILERS for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - assuming that the box-office-related speculation it rests upon is correct. Proceed with whatever level of caution that might suggest...)
With three movies in the all-time international box office top ten, and a combined worldwide gross of close to $10 billion, it's not too surprising that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set to rapidly expand over the next few years. After all, while the relative (a worldwide gross of 'only' $361.9 million and counting off a budget of $130 million) financial disappointment of Ant-Man might suggest a limit to the franchise's potential scope, there remains a sense that making a movie within the MCU is as close as it's possible to get to having a license to print money without being an actual bank.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this unprecedented success within a continuing cinematic universe has itself had an impact on the sort of movies that Marvel has made - with certain movies seeming like safer financial bets than others, and less obvious entries to the MCU falling by the wayside. The increasing box office returns brought by sequels (Avengers: Age of Ultron was a rare, still $1.4 billion grossing, exception) for instance, have meant that much of the MCU thus far has been a continuation of the adventures of already established heroes.
With that sequel-centric approach seemingly set to change over the next few years, however - what with Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Inhumans on the horizon - is it still possible for us to work out what we can expect to see from Marvel Studios in the near future, simply from the box office returns of the past?
Well, as it happens, it just might be. Y'see:
Marvel's Box Office Past Might Just Tell Us a Whole Lot About Its Future
Specifically, by taking a closer look at the box office grosses of past Marvel movies - both domestically and internationally - it might just be possible to work out a surprisingly large amount about what we'll be seeing over the next decade or so of Marvel movies.
Here are five of the most intriguing potential revelations:
5. Origin Stories Are Always Going to Be US-Centric
One of the most intriguing elements of the MCU's box office success has been the rising percentage of each movie's total gross that comes from overseas.
Where The Avengers made 'only' 59% of its box office total in foreign markets, and the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man and and Iron Man only 52%, 54% and 45% respectively, those figures jump substantially in the film's sequels.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3's overseas totals all managed well over 60% (64%, 67% and 66% respectively) upon release, with even the out-lying Thor series seeing an increase from a solid 59% with the first film, to a whopping 68% with Thor: The Dark World.
Now, on the one hand, that might suggest that Marvel needs to change up its origin stories in order to tap into that sweet, sweet overseas income - but with the domestic box office still being seen by many industry figures as the most readily predictable market (unlike, say, China, where you never know when a movie'll be spontaneously banned), that's perhaps not all that likely.
Instead, the most obvious suggestion that those high domestic percentages for origin stories are making? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Which, in this case, suggests a continuation of those movies' most obvious shared feature - a distinctly USA-themed focus, with even Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy having a solid narrative toe-hold in the US. Then, once the origin movie has established the character, the sequel can then spread its geographical wings (Thor: The Dark World's UK-set climax, Avengers: Age of Ultron's Sokovian and South Korean adventures) and bring in the big bucks.
Which, in turn, means we're likely set to see a whole lot more US-centric origin stories; something which could have a huge bearing on the creative direction of the likes of Black Panther and Doctor Strange...
4. We'll Eventually See Crossover Movies Pretty Much Every Year
Y'see, those three Marvel movies that made the top ten all-time list? Two of them - currently in the 4th and 6th spots - are Avengers movies.
With the two team-up adventures making a combined total of close to $3 billion dollars, it's clear that there's a whole lot of audience interest in major crossover adventures, which is why next year's Captain America: Civil War is set to feature pretty much every Marvel superhero that's ever existed.
That trend towards both major crossover events like Avengers: Infinity War, and (comparatively) smaller scale ones like Captain America: Civil War are likely to become increasingly common.
Or, in other words, expect the likes of Ant-Man, Black Widow and The Hulk to turn up in major supporting roles in a whole bunch of movies you wouldn't necessarily expect to see them in.
Captain Marvel vs The Hulk, perhaps, or Black Widow helping Black Panther to acclimatize to the US?
3. We'll See a Whole Lot More Asian (and British) Actors
Y'know how Avengers: Age of Ultron featured the South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the largely extraneous-to-the-plot Dr. Helen Cho (as well an extensive South Korea-set sequence)?
Well, there's a reason for that, and it wasn't that Joss Whedon really wanted to visit South Korea.
Instead, it has a whole lot to do with the growing importance of the Chinese and South Korean markets to a film's box office success. Age of Ultron, for instance, ultimately made an enormous $240 million in China, and $78 million in South Korea. With audiences in East Asia seemingly the biggest growth market worldwide, the casting of actors from the region is becoming increasingly commonplace throughout the film industry, and the MCU is unlikely to do anything short of embrace that trend.
Similarly, Age of Ultron's $76 million gross over in the UK suggests that there's more to the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Paul Bettany than initially meets the eye. After all, with the best part of $100 million to be made in the territory, it's not just acting ability that the actors bring to the table - it's the potential to bring in far more money than they earn, too.
Which might just be good news for the likes of Emily Blunt or Natalie Dormer when it comes to finalizing that Captain Marvel casting...
2. There'll Be More Thor Where That Came From
Going beyond the already announced Phase 3, though, the MCU's box office figures thus far might also tell us a surprising amount about what we can expect to see in the early 2020s.
Like, for instance, a return of everybody's favorite Asgardian Thunder God, Thor.
That's right, the Thor movies may well have received more of a critical kicking than any other entries in the MCU, but as it turned out, that didn't do their performance at the international box office the slightest bit of harm.
As mentioned earlier, Thor: The Dark World made an enormous 68% of its gross overseas, with particularly high totals in Europe, and especially Russia (where it out-grossed Avengers: Age of Ultron, $35 million to $34 million).
Should Thor: Ragnarok reach the same kinds of numbers in 2017 (Thor: The Dark World covered its initial budget domestically with a $206 million haul, but then added $438 million abroad) then chances are that Marvel will throw whatever amount of money Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston ask for in order to bring Thor 4 to the screen in 2021 or so...
1. We Can Expect Robert Downey Jr. to Sign Another Contract Extension
While the presence of 'Thor' in a Marvel movie's title seems to provide a huge box office bump abroad, irrespective of lukewarm reviews, there's a pretty solid argument that Robert Downey Jr.'s presence on a movie's poster encourages cinema goers the world over to simply throw their money at the screen while quoting a well-worn meme:
Remember those three box office top-ten-featuring Marvel movies we talked about above?
Well, the most notably shared element of all three is actually pretty simple, it's this guy:
All three Marvel movies that Robert Downey Jr. has starred in since 2012 (The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron) have made more than a billion dollars each worldwide, with a combined total of a little over $4 billion.
Which is why Marvel pretty much just backed up an entire truckload of cash and backend percentage points to RDJ's mansion, in order to persuade him to sign on for Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers: Infinity War twins.
If those do as well as expected, then...well, the chances of Downey Jr. departing the MCU are going to go down to the tune of 'whatever the hell amount of money he wants.' After all, if Iron Man 4 could make $1.5 billion at the box office (and Iron Man 3's $1.2 billion haul suggests that it very much can), then paying RDJ upwards of $100 million to star in it would be less a ridiculous extravagance, and more the most obvious business decision ever made.
Or, in other words, if Captain America: Civil War does well, we WILL see an Iron Man 4...