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‘Avengers Assemble:’ Five years after ‘Endgame,’ the box office needs more than just a blip

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Almost a year after the April 26, 2019 premiere of “Avengers: Endgame,” a viral clip made the rounds via social media, capturing the wild audience reaction to Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer and the blipped-away heroes returning during the “Portals” sequence. For many it felt like a soothing balm, underscoring the kind of communal experience people were missing as the still-new coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters.

In the movie, five years had passed since Thanos won the battle in “Infinity War.” In reality, five years have now passed since “Endgame” laid siege to box-office records, representing the culmination of everything Marvel Studios had built toward over more than a decade. While the movie business has rebounded somewhat, studios in general, Marvel in particular, and the moviegoing audience still haven’t fully recovered, and at this point, there are no assurances that they ever will.

Indeed, the “Endgame” anniversary finds Marvel at a bit of a crossroads, victimized by a series of factors that include the pandemic, the advent of streaming, the departure of beloved signature characters, and its own greed (a common sin at the height of Hollywood success) in saturating the market with movies and TV shows that likely diluted their overall clout and impact.

Even allowing for that, the operatic heights achieved by “Endgame,” which grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide, would have been difficult to replicate. Still, Marvel’s recent commercial misfires, punctuated by “The Marvels,” and similar disappointments from rival DC (like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery) have brought the question of “superhero fatigue” front and center for Hollywood.

Such a concept would have sounded particularly foreign in the run-up to “Endgame,” when Marvel and its leader, Kevin Feige, appeared to possess a Midas touch. During the early throes of Covid, even someone unmoved by that spandex-clad brigade could appreciate the collective enthusiasm created by the Marvel and “Star Wars” fanbases, in much the way it’s easy to be moved by a city of strangers rallying around a championship sports team.

Simply put, some of our pastimes still benefit from being shared, as opposed to retreating to individual electronic devices and the solitary confines of our homes. While it’s hard to quantify the value of such things, it feels like society would be considerably poorer without them.

Back in 2020, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed the last two “Avengers” movies after a pair of “Captain America” sequels, hosted an online program titled “Russo Bros. Pizza Film School,” encouraging fans to watch and analyze classic films “while movie lovers are stuck at home,” supporting their local pizzerias in the process.

In an interview with CNN that summer, Joe Russo noted that seeing the viral “Avengers” clip was “very emotional for us,” providing a reminder, as it did for fans, of how audiences had responded.

The emotional aspect of that resonated differently during the height of the pandemic, but even with the world reopening – and the occasional theatrical hit emerging, like “Barbie” or “Avatar: The Way of Water” – the infectious nature of shared cultural experiences has taken a profound hit. Much of that has to do with changes that have fueled the shift toward at-home consumption, from larger TV screens to the rapid availability of content to devices that personalize viewing, making even the notion of the family gathering to watch together seem quaintly old fashioned.

Unlike “Endgame,” the challenges that face the movie business can’t be undone with a snap of the fingers. But for those who clearly recall the whoops and hollers in theaters when Captain America caught that hammer, the Black Panther stepped out of that portal and the Avengers assembled, one needn’t be nostalgic, unduly sentimental or a stockholder in Marvel parent Disney to miss such moments or wish that they could.

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