"But wait!" you might say. "I would not want to impugn The Avengers, because it is a rollicking thrill ride featuring Earth's mightiest heroes and the ever-sharp writing of Joss Whedon of Buffy fame, but is really it a cultural phenomenon on the order of Titanic? Have thirteen-year-old girls and forty-year-old women alike flocked to see it five, six, ten times in the theater? How could this quintessential piece of summer fluff, no matter how well-constructed, compare to James Cameron's magnum opus, which won basically every Academy Award in existence and forced its principals' careers down ludicrous paths as they tried to escape its shadow or build on their success, no one more ludicrously than Cameron himself, a blockbuster filmmaker turned deep-sea explorer?"
Well, it can't. For reasons that continue to boggle my mind, movie grosses are always reported mechanically, with one absolute sum stacked up against the next, no matter what span of years separates the two. You couldn't do this in any other economic arena, no matter how serious or unserious, because, like, inflation is a thing, guys. It's a practice often leading to absurd results, most namely the way in which genre-defining, culture-altering hits such as Star Wars are regularly bested at the box office by cinematic gems like, oh, I don't know, Pirate of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man's Chest, or, god forbid, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. What's bizarre, though, is the sheer determination with which the industry and news outlets alike ignore this incredibly important detail. Nobody today looks at wages and says "Well, they're easily the highest they've ever been!" Nobody looks at car prices circa 1950 and says "A new Ford for $8000? What a bargain!" In all other realms of life there is acknowledgement that things just used to be a lot cheaper and money worth a lot more. And yet barely anyone ever stops for a second to consider that this universally recognized reality makes all box office records you've ever heard next to worthless. Even bringing it up triggers bored eye-rolls from just about everyone, because, inflation, you egghead? What do you think this is, macroeconomic theory class?
I'd say that the movie industry has a vested interest in shilling its Next Biggest Thing, and ignoring inflation virtually ensures that its Next Biggest Thing will also be One of the Biggest Things of All Time. But surely, after a while, this just hurts the industry too. After all, if a movie grosses the same as Star Wars, Gone With the Wind, or (okay, even adjusting for inflation, this next one made a lot of money) Avatar, you'd expect it to be pretty darn good. But when you say "I heard the new Shrek movie made the fifth-most money of all time, putting it ahead of the last Shrek movie!" ...well, the whole thing starts to lose a little bit of its luster, doesn't it?
Anyway, turns out that if you adjust for inflation, order is restored to the universe. Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon drops 103 places, barely edging out Meet the Fockers. Tell me that doesn't seem more right to you.