Is This a Billion-Dollar Franchise?

The final figures are in from the weekend's box office, and the new champ is red, white, and blue. And he's got really muscular legs.

That's right: Captain America: The First Avenger notched top honors with a $65 million opening weekend, just below the $66 million collected by fellow Avenger Thor back in May. Of course, neither hero could hold a candle to the blockbuster openings of the two Iron Man features, but they couldn't really be expected to.

After all, Thor is a smaller star in the Marvel universe than the eminently bankable Iron Man and Captain America, and the Captain faced heavy competition.

Out with the old
To wit, Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) final Harry Potter movie dropped precipitously from that record-breaking first week to land in second place, with a $47 million domestic take. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 now stands at a $273 million domestic gross and $834 million worldwide, after only two weeks in theaters. I don't care how much spandex you wear -- that's still a formidable nemesis to overcome. Both Harry and the Captain reach for the same pocketbooks, with equal PG-13 ratings and similar teen appeal.

Furthermore, Thor enjoyed more 3-D screens at its disposal, and also played in premium-priced IMAX (Nasdaq: IMAX  ) venues -- an advantage that Captain America lacked.

As Potter-mania fades away, Captain America looks likely to follow up a respectable first week with a strong second showing, helped by positive word of mouth. The movie strikes an entertaining balance between high-octane action and charming kitsch, and it's sure to have strong legs as the summer blockbuster season winds down. Cowboys & Aliens will snag some prospective Captain America viewers this week, but it lacks the brand to crush the category.

In with the new
So Marvel's Avengers franchise -- uniting Cap, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and other heroes featured in Marvel's recent spate of self-produced movies -- has been all set up to finally assemble in 2012. It's been a long time coming -- Marvel sowed the seeds of The Avengers way back in 2005, when it struck its audacious financing deal with Merrill Lynch. It's now poised to be the mother of all tentpole movies, combining the powers of a superhero team that has so far collected nearly $2 billion at the global box office.

And that's just theatrical earnings. Add in DVD releases, broadcast and streaming rights, toy sales, and themed lunchboxes, and you have a financial monster on your hands. Expect Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) to monetize the Avengers like only the Mouse can. Rivals like Warner would need to assemble a super-team of their own in order to match Disney's money-making powerhouse.

Nice try, guys
Dreamworks Animation SKG
(Nasdaq: DWA  ) is trying to mirror Disney's might by teaming up with Gaylord Entertainment and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to fill out the "resort" part of its Disney impersonation. And there's this Shrek 4-D film ride at some (but not all) Universal Studios parks, but that thing is nearly a decade old, and not exactly a roller coaster.

For that kind of thrill, you'd need to bring Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) or Six Flags Entertainment (NYSE: SIX  ) into the fold. That capital-intensive project would take some doing. Dreamworks has a long way to go if it wants to become a Frankenmouse, and nobody else seems to be trying.

Avengers, assemble!
I don't know exactly how Walt Disney plans to bring together the very distinct styles of its Marvel franchises into a single cohesive unit, but this studio can do no wrong, it seems. And it sure doesn't hurt to have sci-fi ace, expert ensemble assembler, and Toy Story co-writer Joss Whedon directing this witches' brew.

When the Avengers assemble, led by Captain America and his star-spangled shield, Disney will have a huge hit on its four-fingered hands. The superteam will send cash-collecting ripples throughout the House of Mouse, and numerous spinoffs (or straight-up sequels) will keep the franchise current for years -- if not decades -- to come.

Say, have you heard about the new Spider-Man movie? I think -- hey! Let go!

While the nice young men in their long, white coats are coming to take Anders away, you can stay on top of Hollywood without ever visiting Mulholland Drive. Just click here to add Disney to your Foolish watchlist, or IMAX, or Dreamworks Animation, or … oh no, not you again.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of DreamWorks Animation SKG, IMAX, and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio, follow him on Twitter or Google+, or peruse our Foolish disclosure policy. No llamas were harmed in the making of this article.


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