CATEGORIES Box Office

box office thor avengersMarvel

It's almost unheard of in Hollywood for a sequel (or a three-quel) to earn twice as much at the box office as its predecessor. But that's the sort of thing we're seeing with Disney's recent Marvel movies, first with this year's "Iron Man 3" (the biggest movie of 2013) and now, perhaps, with "Thor: The Dark World."

The second "Thor" movie opened with an estimated $86.1 million in North America, some 31 percent above the $65.7 million opening enjoyed by the first "Thor" two and a half years ago. But "The Dark World" has also been playing overseas for 10 days already, so its worldwide gross amounts to about $327 million, meaning that the movie is well on track to eclipse the $450 million earned globally by "Thor" in 2011. Such figures are almost as impressive as those for "Iron Man 3," which earned $1.21 billion around the world this summer, almost twice as much as "Iron Man 2" did in 2010 ($624 million).

Is "Thor: The Dark World" a significantly better movie than "Thor"? (Reviews from professional critics were middling for both films, but audience word-of-mouth is slightly better, according to CinemaScore, where the original movie earned a B+ and the sequel an A-.) Is "Iron Man 3" twice as good as "Iron Man 2"? (Again, mixed reviews for both, but both got the same A grade at CinemaScore.) If we assume that neither movie is a vast improvement over its predecessor, how do we account for the huge jumps in sales? There's a simple, two-word answer:

"The Avengers."

The 2012 mega-smash, which is the third highest-grossing movie of all-time worldwide ($1.52 billion; "Iron Man 3" is close behind, in fifth place) generated enormous goodwill for the entire Marvel universe of movies. Of course, the first two "Iron Man" films and the first "Thor" were part of what Marvel called "Phase 1," the introduction of the various superheroes who would gather in "The Avengers." Now, we're well into "Phase 2," another series of individual adventures featuring the same heroes, to culminate in "Avengers" sequel "Age of Ultron" in May 2015.

The genius of "The Avengers," then, wasn't just in bringing all these costumed characters together for one mega-blockbuster, but also in generating interest in their individual stories well beyond the scope of that first gathering. After all, here we are, a year and a half after "The Avengers," and viewers are still eager to see more of "Thor" (a character known to longtime Marvel Comics readers but not to the moviegoing public at large until two and a half years ago), even more eager than they were the first time, before "The Avengers."

One reason viewers are so excited is that they've been primed by hype from abroad. For "The Avengers" and the two Marvel movies that have followed, Disney has employed a release strategy that saw them opening virtually everywhere else in the world a week before they opened here. As a result, even as "Ender's Game" was debuting at the top of the chart here last week, with $28 million, "Thor: The Dark World" was stealing its thunder with news of its huge worldwide opening, at $109.4 million. Talking to Moviefone in May to explain the overseas-before-America strategy, Disney Vice President of Distribution for Motion Pictures Dave Hollis said, "There's a trickling effect as these movies move into the domestic space. It creates a wisdom-of-crowds mentality."

It also doesn't hurt that Disney-owned ABC now has a series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", airing every week in primetime. The show amounts to an hour-long, weekly infomercial for Disney's Marvel movies in general and the Avengers storyline in particular.

Just how long can Disney's Marvel movies coast on the goodwill generated by its summer 2012 hit? We'll see next April, when "Captain America: The Winter Solder" debuts. Just don't be surprised if it outgrosses 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger."