Ready for 'War'? Marvel set for big returns with superhero slugfest

Marvel Avengers art 1

Marvel is betting audiences will pack theaters for another massive team-up movie just one year after the Avengers last assembled on screen.

Movie-goers rewarded Warner Brothers handsomely for delivering a superhero slugfest in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — to the tune of more than $860 million in worldwide receipts despite near-brutal reviews.

Now, as "Captain America: Civil War" hits theaters this weekend, all signs indicate fans are ready for more.

Marvel Cinematic Universe and its parent, Walt Disney , have arguably set the gold standard for the genre. With the latest sequel, box office analysts expect Marvel to prove its earnings power and creative mettle by packing theaters for another massive team-up movie just one year after the Avengers last assembled on screen.

The early numbers are promising. The movie earned $25 million on Thursday night, the second highest on record for a Marvel movie, and is tracking for a roughly $180 million to $190 million U.S. opening, which would eclipse the $166 million debut for "Batman v Superman."

Last weekend, "Civil War" took in more than $200 million when it opened in nine major countries and more than two dozen smaller markets. projects the movie will earn $214 million when it hits U.S. theaters this weekend. That would make it the No. 2 U.S. debut of all time, behind "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens."

Every film carries risk, but "Civil War" looks like the surest bet since "The Force Awakens," said Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at

"It's firing on all cylinders. Social media has been through the roof," he said. "I think word of mouth is going to spread pretty quickly."

In some respects, Marvel is breaking its own model with "Civil War." It took four years and five films to build the foundation for 2012's massively successful "Avengers," the first on-screen installment of Marvel Comics' premier superhero squad. The studio kept fans waiting another three years for the reunion, whetting appetites with a series of solo adventures featuring Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor in the interim.

But going big again is not without risk. The "Avengers" sequel, "Avengers: Age of Ultron," earned enough to take the No. 7 spot at the all-time global box office. Meanwhile, some critics and moviegoers were underwhelmed, saying the movie sacrificed a coherent story in order to trot out a parade of new characters.

Nonetheless, there isn't much evidence audiences won't turn out for "Civil War," especially given the strong reviews and massive online conversation underpinning the release, said comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergerabedian.

Burnout is a concern "with movies that don't deliver," he said. "The only time that is problematic is if the movie is not a complete knockout. This movie is a knockout."

"Civil War" currently boasts a 93 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates movie reviews. In the social media sphere, the film was generating more than 2.9 million mentions, according to data provided by comScore.

The movie is also a pivot point of sorts for Marvel. On the one hand, it leans on the cast of characters Marvel has spent eight years developing. On the other, it is leveraging the Avengers' brand to give a head start to characters who will have to stand on their own in future movies. These include newcomer Black Panther, the leader of the fictional nation Wakanda, and Spider-Man, one of the most iconic of comic book heroes. Sony currently owns the rights to Spider-Man, but Marvel will co-produce future Spidey movies under a deal reached last year .

Dergerabedian said the strategy is a testament to Marvel's marketing savvy.

"You get in your mind that you'd like to see more of these characters that aren't necessarily the main event," he said. "They're creating a relationship with the audience that they're hoping will pay forward dividends when their own movie hits the theaters."

And it's hard to argue an ensemble movie will not drum up more money than the more intimate film the screenwriters say they envisioned, before Marvel movie czar Kevin Feige proposed adapting "Civil War."

In recent years, Disney appears to have made more when it spends more. With a reported production budget of $250 million, "Avengers" produced the studio's biggest return on investment, based on a simple budget-versus-box office calculation, excluding marketing costs. "Iron Man 3," made $200 million, and "Avengers: Age of Ultron," with a $250 million price tag, would rank next for ROI by that measure.

In building its universe over eight years, Marvel has also gotten audiences prepared to see superhero movies that are not just about good versus evil, but also ideological battles, said Alisha Grauso, editor-at-large at MovePilot.

The source material for "Civil War" is a 2006 comic book mega-event that followed a schism over legislation that requires superheroes to register their identities with the government.

"It's a complex, very adult theme you wouldn't have seen in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe," Grauso told CNBC. "Now, the public is on board with that, and now you can start doing these bigger, broader stories."