They have saved the world many times over. Now, not content with unleashing their heroics on the universe, the Avengers are flying, leaping and swinging to the rescue of Walt Disney.
The Samuel L Jackson film, with Scarlett Johansson playing the Black Widow, Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, is set to smash all box office records over its second weekend of release, putting it firmly in line to become the most successful film of all time and relegating Avatar – which made £1.7bn worldwide – to second place.
Box-office estimates suggest it will make more than £53m in the US this weekend alone, surpassing Avatar's £47m. And it will exceed the half-billion-pound mark worldwide this weekend, eclipsing the previous best-selling Marvel films Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America and Thor.
It will be a huge relief to Disney after the unmitigated disaster of its science-fiction blockbuster John Carter, which cost £156m to make and led to an embarrassing £52m loss for the company. Studio chairman Rich Ross resigned last month.
Disney's chairman and chief executive, Robert Iger, said: "People would be surprised how late in the life of some of these projects there's still so much work to be done. The uncertainty about whether it will be great or not lasts pretty late in the process." When he saw an early cut of The Avengers, Mr Iger said he had a sense that it was a "strong movie", but he had no inkling that it was going to "break all the records it has broken".
The film is the first Marvel release from Disney, since the company bought the comic book publisher for £2.6bn in 2009. "Avengers speaks volumes in terms of not only the value of Marvel, but the value that Marvel can create long-term," Mr Iger said.
Disney is already working on a sequel – officially titled Avengers Assemble in the UK – and is hurrying to restock spin-off merchandise to keep pace with the film's success.
The film includes a whole phalanx of superheroes from the Marvel Comics stable, who are charged with pulling the world back from the brink of disaster, including Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow. With such a range of merchandising opportunities, fans of the franchise can expect to encounter their favourite characters in Disney theme parks in the near future.
What distinguishes the film from similar superhero fare is that its box-office takings have been pretty much matched by critical acclaim, with the director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, who created the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who is currently working on a modern-day film of Much Ado About Nothing, singled out as the catalyst for its success.
Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker: "If you are a Marvel fan, then The Avengers will feel like Christmas. Thanks to the merry doings of the director, Joss Whedon, all your favourite characters are here, as shiny and as tempting as presents under the tree." Claudia Puig, from USA Today, was similarly upbeat in her appraisal: "Audiences have been eagerly anticipating this first all-hero extravaganza for years. The wait was worth it."
But, writing in The New York Times, AO Scott was less enamoured. "The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre," he wrote.