Captain America may lead the Avengers, but the character has shown to be less of a cinematic draw than his teammates Iron Man and Thor. Part of that may be because the first movie starring Cap took place in the past and had a very different look than other films from Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel cinematic universe. A larger part, though, is simply a result of the character having less appeal.

Iron Man and Captain America by the numbers

Captain America brought in $176 million domestically and $193 in foreign box office for a worldwide total of $370 million, according to Box Office Mojo. That's good -- a hit by most standards -- but not a blockbuster by any means. Let's look at how the rest of the Marvel releases in the current universe have fared.

  • Iron Man (2008): $318 million U.S. plus $266 million foreign equals $585 million
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008): $134 million U.S. plus $128 million foreign equals $263 million
  • Iron Man 2 (2010): $312 million U.S. plus $311 million foreign equals $623 million
  • Thor (2011): $181 million U.S. plus $268 million foreign equals $449 million
  • The Avengers (2012): $623 million U.S. plus $895 million foreign equals $1.5 billion 
  • Iron Man 3 (2013): $404 million U.S. plus $806 million foreign equals $1.2 billion
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013): $206 million U.S. plus $435 million foreign equals $641 million
Of all the Marvel films released since the first "Iron Man" movie, only The Incredible Hulk fared worse at the box office than Captain America. That film, largely considered a dud, is the first of the "Avengers" character movies to not earn a sequel.

The Avengers bait and switch won't work

My colleague Jake Mann argues that Marvel executives say Captain America: The Winter Soldier is "much more" important in terms of Marvel Universe story development than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. This, he explains, likely means more development of the Nick Fury/Black Widow/SHIELD story, which was absent from The Dark World.

That is likely true, but the fanboys who will be drawn in to see how Cap's story ties into the bigger Avengers picture are already coming to see this movie. If SHIELD were a big draw then the TV show "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" would draw more than the 5.46 million viewers for its March 4 episode drew. Those ratings make the show Monday night's eighth biggest draw -- not the kind of audience that makes a difference for movie box office. 

How well will Captain America: The Winter Solider do?
It seems reasonable to think that the "Captain America" sequel will outdraw the first movie based on the increased awareness of the Marvel cinematic universe since The Avengers. The closest comparison is the "Thor," films which increased box office take from $449 million for the first movie to $641 million for the sequel, a 42% increase.

Based on that logic, the "Captain America" sequel should do 142% of the first film's $370 million global box office take to bring in around $525 million. That's good, but it's from from a billion dollars and it may not even do that well. 

The Winter Soldier has a fresh feel 
My colleague Mr. Mann argues that the film will do well because it breaks the Marvel formula and is "an action flick mixed with a political/espionage thriller." That could be a positive, but it also could be a negative.

The titular "Winter Soldier" is largely an unknown quantity. Audiences don't know the villain, and most of the causal fans won't know the comic book lore the film is based around. The movie looks complicated in a way that Iron Man (rich guy in a robot suit) and Thor (good-looking god-type) weren't. 

Who is the Winter Soldier?
"It remains to be seen if the titular villain will draw audiences," Mr, Mann wrote in his piece. That's a decided understatement, and it's why The Winter Soldier may not reach the 42% growth that the second "Thor" film did. Thor: The Dark World had Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the villain from The Avengers who despite his villainy is beloved by audiences.

The "Captain America" sequel has the Winter Soldier, a character that's important in the Marvel Universe but an unknown to casual fans. The first Cap movie at least had the Red Skull (still not that well known, but Captain America's most famous villain.) 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be a hit, but not a blockbuster
If the movie is good, Captain America: The Winter Soldier will bring in more than $500 million or maybe even $600 million if the reviews are stellar. The film is facing an uphill battle to reach the heights of Thor: The Dark World, let alone the billion-dollar status of Iron Man 3 because of the movie's titular character.

Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 both did more than double their domestic box office totals overseas. The first "Captain America" film barely beat its U.S. haul in the rest of the world. It seems likely that the sequel won't massively increase its appeal in the rest of the world either because Cap is so singularly American. The rest of the Avengers may be tied to the United States, but they fight broadly for the world. Captain America is a U.S. solider, and that might not play as well in foreign markets.

Captain America: The Winter Solider will keep the Marvel universe moving merrily along, but there is a better chance it's a box office stumble than Marvel's next billion-dollar film.

To read my colleague's counter-argument, click here.

Regardless of which one of us is right, the profits are likely to keep rolling for Disney, pretty much as they have since the Fool's David Gardner recommended the stock in June 2002. Readers who followed his advice back then are enjoying returns of an incredible 4,009%!

David's shown time and time again that he can find successful, disruptive companies with stock returns like 926%, 2,239%, and 4,371%. In fact, just recently one of his favorite stocks became a 100-bagger. And he's ready to do it again. You can uncover his scientific approach to crushing the market and his carefully chosen six picks for ultimate growth instantly, because he's making this premium report free for you today. Click here now for access.

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He watches "Agents of SHIELD." The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.