Marvel Movies Saw Dynamite Success from 'Effective Cast Sizes,' Say Scientists

Marvel movies profitability correlates to "effective cast sizes," and the way each character added to the larger MCU.
Brad Bergan

There's a reason Marvel movies ruled the box office for the last ten years — or so it's argued — a distinct correlation between what's called "effective cast sizes" and how well each movie performed. This is why Marvel movies are and have been so popular, says a new study published in the journal PLOS One.


Marvel movies use strength in numbers

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS) decided to quantify why the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is so irreversibly popular. They used statistical methods and even borrowed some approaches used in ecology to bring their research to a close.

The results show a distinct correlation between "effective cast sizes" and how well each movie performed in the box office.

"There is a clear correlation between cast sizes and profitability. A bigger cast is better. We also looked at IMBd ratings, and again, we saw this correlation," said ACEMS Chief Investigator Professor Matt Roughan of The University of Adelaide.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Roughan was quick to remind his readers that just because his team found a correlation between cast size, profitability, and ratings, doesn't necessarily imply that cast size causes box-office success. But the team's findings and methods may help explain primary factors behind the MCU movies' success.

While this mostly has to do with cast size, it's not easy to quantify the size of a movie cast, especially MCU movies (that final epic battle in Endgame, for example). The onscreen characters often go beyond what one could find scrolling through end credits or the IMDb website.

A lecturer at ACEMS, Dr. Lewis Mitchell, says the list of names in the end credits stretches from main actors to anyone who had even the most trifle involvement in the making of the movies.

"You even see 'production babies' listed in film credits, but they have presumably hindered rather than helped in the making of the film! The point is that there is a huge variation, even within the MCU, so we found it surprisingly difficult to determine the 'cast' of each film consistently," Mitchell said.

For one, the ACEMS researchers had an MCU marathon, which wasn't as painful for them as it is for others (they love MCU movies). However, they had to do more than count the characters — they looked at the way each character actively contributed to the narrative structure of each film as a whole.

"We looked at how many lines of dialog a character had in the script, and more importantly, how they contributed to conflict," said Roughan.

Entropy in the MCU

They also used a method from ecology — called entropy — to deepen their understanding of the cast size.

"When ecologists are looking at the biodiversity of a region, they don't just want to count the number of species. Two regions might have the same number of species but be very different. For example, one region may be dominated by one or two species, while the other is much more diverse," Roughan said.

This is how Roughan's team was able to quantify an "effective" cast size. The effect was dynamic, and changed with the evolution of the franchise. Many of the Marvel movies featured singular protagonists, like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. Then came the sequels, and finally the "team" movies, where protagonists from disparate franchises were brought together in the Avengers team. Then Marvel repeated the process like algorithmic clockwork, releasing origin films for new characters who eventually added to the Avengers team, and so on.

Once they plotted each film according to the "effective number of characters," the researchers found that sequels to each storyline boosted the number of characters in subsequent movies. With few exceptions, the profitability of the movies also trended upward.

While Roughan admits a sense of a larger superstructure surrounding (or perhaps, underlying) the Marvel phenomenon, he hopes to extend and apply the methods used in this project on other phenomena, beyond the Marvel universe.

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