Disney's Marvel and 'Star Wars' movie franchises reach a climax this year. But only one of them has a clear future

  • Disney will release "Avengers: Endgame" and "Star Wars: Episode IX" in 2019.
  • Marvel Studios has a strong slate of films prepared for 2020 and beyond, but Lucasfilm has been mum on its big-screen plans going forward.
  • Some analysts suggest that the pair of films could generate upwards of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone.
Avengers: Infinity War
Source: Marvel Studios
Avengers: Infinity War

It's the end of an era for two of Disney's tent-pole franchises.

This year marks the conclusion to Marvel Studios' three-phase "Avengers" epic – with a movie appropriately titled "Endgame" – and the final, yet-to-be-titled film in Lucasfilm's most recent "Star Wars" trilogy. Analysts are already predicting big box-office returns for both movies. Some suggest the pair of films together could generate upwards of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in total ticket sales in the U.S. alone.

Yet while both studios are slated to release films that wrap up their respective sagas, only one seems to have a clear future: Marvel.

Marvel Studios has a detailed slate of films prepared for 2020 and beyond, including sequels to "Doctor Strange" and "Black Panther" and a solo Black Widow film. Lucasfilm, on the other hand, has been quiet about its big-screen plans going forward, aside from a few announcements about possible trilogy projects that have been light on details.

Also complicating things for the "Star Wars" movie franchise is a decision to slow down the release of Lucasfilm titles. That move came in the wake of the lackluster box-office performance of standalone film "Solo: A Star Wars Story."

"These are the two biggest box-office moneymakers in Hollywood right now, and not only are we about to witness two historic finales, but the storytelling decisions each brand makes from here on out will define the next era in moviegoing," Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango, told CNBC.

Disney had a banner box-office year in 2018, and 2019 looks to top that. The House of Mouse pulled in $2.9 billion at the domestic box office, or about 25.5 percent of the U.S. film industry's total ticket sales, according to data compiled by Comscore.

This year, analysts predict that Disney's 10-film slate, which includes "Captain Marvel," "Avengers: Endgame," "Star Wars: Episode IX," "Toy Story 4," "Frozen 2" and three live-action remakes of beloved animated classics, could bring in $3.5 billion to $4 billion in the U.S.

However, the company likely won't be able to top that growth the following year, and the uncertain status of the record-breaking "Star Wars" film franchise is a big reason to be skeptical.

"You can only stay at your peak for so long, and 2018 and 2019 for Disney really has been what they have been building up to for the last close to 15 years," said Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.

'We are in the endgame now'

Come April 26, "Avengers: Endgame" will signify the end of a 22-film mega saga first teased in a post-credit scene in "Iron Man" more than a decade ago. In a way, Marvel Studios has finally reached its own endgame.

It all started with a bet on an uninsurable actor and a director whose biggest film was the Christmas comedy "Elf."

In 2008, the studio premiered "Iron Man," a movie that is now considered the cornerstone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at the time it was a huge risk for the comic book company.

Marvel had sold off its most popular characters — Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four — to several studios during its financial troubles in the 1990s. So, when the company decided it wanted to create its own series of films, it had to reach into its lower tier of heroes.

It picked Iron Man, aka billionaire Tony Stark, a B-side Marvel hero so low in status that most non-comic book fans associated him with a Black Sabbath song of the same name.

Robert Downey Jr attends a photocall for 'Iron Man 3' at The Dorchester Hotel on April 17, 2013 in London, England.
Dave J Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Robert Downey Jr attends a photocall for 'Iron Man 3' at The Dorchester Hotel on April 17, 2013 in London, England.

At the time, Marvel had just entered into a massive financing contract with Merrill Lynch to fund a slate of films and a lot was hanging on whether the film would resonate with audiences.

In its opening weekend, "Iron Man" snared nearly $100 million at the box office, before going on to garner just under $600 million worldwide. At the time, opening weekend ticket sales of "Iron Man" were just short of the first-weekend sales for "Spider-Man," the 2002 blockbuster that held the record for the top non-sequel superhero movie opening.

"Iron Man" earned a 93 percent "fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes and would go on to lay the groundwork for more than two dozen Marvel superhero films in the next decade. A year after the movie's release, Disney acquired Marvel Studios — and its burgeoning franchise plan — for $4.24 billion.

For some perspective, the total international theatrical gross of Disney's Marvel movies is $14.3 billion, according to Comscore.

And that does not include ticket sales from "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2," "Thor" or "Captain America: The First Avenger," which were distributed by Paramount. Nor does it include "The Incredible Hulk," which was distributed by Universal, or "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which was a collaboration between Disney and Sony but was distributed by Sony.

"Avengers: Endgame" may be the final film in Marvel's three-phase "Avengers" series, and it will likely herald the departure of a number of beloved characters. But it doesn't signal the end for the franchise.

Phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Phase Two
Phase Three
Iron Man Iron Man 3 Captain America: Civil War
The Incredible Hulk Thor: The Dark World Doctor Strange
Iron Man 2 Captain America: Winter Soldier Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2
Thor Guardians fo the Galaxy Spider-Man: Homecoming
Captain America: The First Avenger Avengers: Age of Ultron Thor: Ragnorak
The Avengers Ant-Man Black Panther
    Avengers: Infinity War
    Ant-Man and the Wasp
    Captain Marvel
    Avengers: Endgame
Source: Marvel

In the comics, the Avengers team features a rotating cast of superheroes, so the exit of some familiar faces does not necessarily spell the end for Earth's mightiest heroes.

"It's the end of one era, and the beginning of the next," said BoxOffice's Robbins.

Already, Marvel has sequels planned for "Black Panther" and "Dr. Strange" and a third film with the "Guardians of the Galaxy," as well as a slate of spinoff television series on Disney's upcoming streaming platform Disney+, featuring Loki, Scarlet Witch and Vision, and Winter Soldier and Falcon.

Marvel also has a deep bench of superheroes and villains that haven't appeared in previous films, said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst. However, because of the company's strong track record with audiences and critics, it might not matter whether people beyond comic-book fandom are familiar with the characters.

"If [Marvel] keeps making good films, they'll keep doing a lot of business," Stone said.

Crucially, Disney is set to close a multimillion-dollar deal to secure a number of Marvel properties that were sold off to rival companies in the 1990s, including the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

"I think the big story for 2020 and beyond is how Marvel Studios approaches any comic properties it will acquire in the Fox deal," Fandango's Davis said. "Will they reboot the Fantastic Four? The X-Men? And will we see those characters team up with existing MCU heroes, like Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man?"

The deal also includes other notable franchises, such as "Home Alone," "Alien" and "Predator" as well as "The Simpsons."

"I never worry about Marvel," Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Comscore, said. "They always find new and exciting ways to advance the story."

Dergarabedian said that even with films such as "Thor: The Dark World," which were less successful than some of the others in the saga, Marvel has been able to pivot and keep producing solid content.

"Marvel is the great blueprint for every franchise, universe and brand of entertainment," he said. "It's the model."

'May the Force be with you'

Then there is "Star Wars." It remains a much bigger question mark.

Following the expected release in December of "Star Wars: Episode IX," which the yet-untitled film is being called, there is no announced slate of films. The film is the final in what is called the "new trilogy" and believed to be the bookend to the Skywalker Saga, which started with the original film in 1977.

The groundwork was laid by George Lucas, the filmmaker and mastermind behind the "Star Wars" universe. He created Lucasfilm, which acted as a production company and a visual effects and animation studio, in 1971. In its more than 50-year history, Lucasfilm has produced iconic films such as "Indiana Jones," "Labyrinth" and "Willow," as well as a fresh "Star Wars" trilogy in the early 2000s.

When it was time again to revisit the "Star Wars" universe, Lucas hired Kathleen Kennedy, an industry veteran who had long worked with Steven Spielberg and with Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. Kennedy would become the head of Lucasfilm after it was sold to Disney in a deal worth $4.05 billion in cash and stock in 2012.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy, C-3PO and Mark Hamill attend the 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' press conference at the Ritz Carlton Tokyo on December 7, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan.
Christopher Jue | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Producer Kathleen Kennedy, C-3PO and Mark Hamill attend the 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' press conference at the Ritz Carlton Tokyo on December 7, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan.

Three years later, the first film in the new trilogy, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," was released. The film made more than $2.06 billion at the global box office, making it the third-highest grossing movie in history, just behind "Avatar" and "Titanic."

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" brought in $1.05 billion worldwide a year later, and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" garnered more than $1.3 billion a year after that. "Solo: A Star Wars Story" was the only film that was widely panned at the box office, making under $400 million worldwide in 2018.

This was the first financial flop in the history of the "Star Wars" franchise, and it was enough to compel the studio to slow down its ambitious plan to release at least one "Star Wars" film each year. Disney CEO Bob Iger cautioned investors in September that he plans to ease back the frequency of films set in a galaxy far, far away, so as not to oversaturate the market. The company may share more details when it reports earnings on Feb. 5.

The disappointing performance of "Solo: A Star Wars Story" also prompted Disney to shelve two projects: an Obi-Wan Kenobi flick and one featuring cult-favorite character Boba Fett.

"Disney is really good at course correcting," said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.

Bock cited some developments as proof Disney is already on the right track. The company is bringing back "The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams to direct "Episode IX." It is also hiring "Game of Thrones" bosses David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who turned George R.R. Martin's gritty fantasy novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire" into a global phenomenon, to create a trilogy.

Rian Johnson, director of "The Last Jedi," is also expected to pen a trilogy of "Star Wars" movies.

Bock also noted how solid franchises such as Marvel and Pixar have been for Disney, explaining that even with missteps such as "The Good Dinosaur" or even the widely panned "Thor: The Dark World," these licenses are extremely consistent at the box office.

Also in the works is a series for Disney+ called "The Mandalorian" as well as a season seven of the animated "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." In addition, Disney will open two "Star Wars" lands at theme parks in California and Florida this year.

One of the biggest questions about "Star Wars" going forward is where and, most importantly, when will these new trilogies take place?

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm it dissolved the Expanded Universe, characters and story arcs that were not featured in the six "Star Wars" films but appeared in books, comics or games. To expand the "Star Wars" universe, Lucasfilm will have to create a lot more characters and settings to even begin to try to match the reservoir of content that Marvel currently has.

The company has approved a number of novelizations of its films as well as content that explores secondary and tertiary characters, including Captain Phasma and Grand Admiral Thrawn. There is even a novel about "Alphabet Squadron," a group of rebel pilots tasked with tracking down a deadly group of TIE fighters during the Galactic Civil War. These novels are considered canon and could be used in future films or television series.

"While the Skywalker era may be coming to an end with this final film, there are plenty of stories in its canon to pivot to with the Old Republic," Kevin Sampson, producer and host of Picture Lock Show, a movie review podcast, said in an email.

The Old Republic is based on a series of video games that explore the "Star Wars" universe more than 3,000 years before the events of the films.

Alternatively, the trilogies could be forward-looking, Bock suggested. Lucasfilm has a chance to take future "Star Wars" stories in any direction. And audiences may not have to wait too long for answers.

"Remember, Lucasfilm is quietly carving out the next chapter in its 'Star Wars' plans — they've kept much of that close to the vest," Fandango's Davis said. "With both Star Wars Celebration and D23 this year, expect Disney to start revealing more of their plans for [Star Wars and Marvel] in the coming months."

Disclosure: NBC Universal, the parent company of CNBC, owns a stake in Fandango.