Featured image credit to ComingSoon.net
It’s an unbelievable scenario for moviegoers to grasp, but exactly two decades ago, after a series of business mishandlings, Marvel Comics had to file for bankruptcy. Desperate throughout the ’90s to earn profits back, Marvel sold the film adaptation rights of many of their most popular comic book properties to major movie studios. As a result, New Line Cinema ended up with the rights to Blade and Iron Man, while Sony Pictures attained the rights to Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, and Thor. Eager to capitalize on Marvel’s fire sale, 20th Century FOX acquired the most rights by purchasing the X-Men (including characters like Deadpool and the term “mutant”), the Fantastic Four (including many cosmic Marvel characters like the Silver Surfer, Galactus, The Watcher, etc.), Daredevil (including characters like Elektra and Kingpin/Wilson Fisk), and the Punisher/Frank Castle. Within a decade or so, each of these companies would adapt many of these properties to varying degrees of critical and commercial success:
1998: Blade 54% (<100 reviews), 5.7/10 RT Critics; $131M worldwide gross on a $40M budget
2000: X-Men 81%, 7.1/10; $296M on $75M
2002: Spider-Man 89%, 7.7/10; $821M on $139M
2003: Daredevil 44%, 5.2/10; $179M on $78M
2004: The Punisher 29%, 4.5/10; $54.7M on $33M
2005: Elektra 10% 3.8/10; $56.7M on $43M
2005: Fantastic Four 27%, 4.5/10; $330M on $100M
2007: Ghost Rider 26%, 4.2/10; $228M on $110M
Though Marvel Entertainment slowly found its financial footing in the ’00s, they would see very little profit from these commercially successful adaptations. From Blade’s surprise $131M WW gross, Marvel only made a mere $25,000. From Spider-Man 1 and 2, which made a combined $3 billion, Marvel made $62M. In both examples, Marvel got roughly 0.02% of the total gross from these projects. Appealing to the unacceptable profit margin of 2 cents for every $100 of the major studios’ comic book adaptations, a soft-spoken businessman named David Maisel made an ambitious pitch to Marvel Entertainment in 2003:
- Marvel could make 100% of the profit if they produced the movies themselves
- the Marvel films could build off of each other by existing in a shared universe (like comic book serialization)
- the heroes of each Marvel film could crossover in an Avengers film
Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, despite reservations, appointed David Maisel as Chief Operating Officer of Marvel Studios. He, along with Marvel Chief Creative Officer Avi Arad, would be responsible for finding funding for the dream project.
It was a risky venture in trying to build towards a mega-crossover film featuring Marvel’s C-list leftover heroes. Most contemporary crossover movies such as Freddy vs. Jason or AVP: Alien vs. Predator were not seen as particularly fine art. On top of that, the idea of a lighthearted Marvel comic crossover movie sounded more in line with a direct-to-cable Nickelodeon movie like Rugrats Go Wild or The Timmy Jimmy Power Hour than a big-budget blockbuster film set for release in theaters. In short, it seemed like a pipe dream. What if the stand-alone movies weren’t any good? How would you sell a crossover movie to an audience that might have missed 2 or 3 of the interconnected movies? How could you fit a relatively grounded character like a ’60s era spy in the same world as a goofy-looking magic-practicing surgeon without creating a clash of tones?
In spite of such a hard sell, a connection with former Marvel employee Jeff Kaplan, who had now worked for Merrill Lynch, opened the door for Marvel Studio’s funding. A deal was secured between Marvel Studios and Merrill Lynch in 2005. In exchange for $525 million over an eight-year period, Marvel risked the film rights to the remaining characters that they had: Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack, Shang-Chi, and “The Avengers” (an intentionally vague term that would only include ultra-obscure Avengers members like Jack of Hearts, Two-Gun Kid, Tigra, and D-Man). If this plan failed, Marvel Entertainment would be out of the film adaptation rights for most of their remaining characters.
Fortunately, by the time Marvel Studios was ready for their first film production, Marvel had gotten the film rights of Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk back from New Line, Sony, and Universal. Over the course of the next few years, Marvel would see many of their characters returned back to them due to expired rights (Black Widow returned from Lionsgate, Daredevil and Punisher from FOX, Ghost Rider from Sony, Namor the Sub-Mariner from Who-Knows-Where?, etc.) In 2005, access to slightly more recognizable names to comic book readers encouraged Marvel Studios moving forward. David Maisel & Avi Arad agreed to build this Marvel Cinematic Universe on the foundation of a shared childhood favorite, Iron Man.
In the production of their first feature film, Marvel made two unconventional choices for Iron Man. One was handing the director reigns over to Jon Favreau, whose only directing credits were the whimsical Christmas comedy Elf, mobster comedy Made, and the mid-budget sci-fi box office flop Zathura. The second and most unconventional choice was casting middle-aged Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. coming off of a messy history with alcohol and substance abuse. Marvel was building an entire franchise out of a B-list hero played by a former drug addict and directed by a man whose most commercially successful film was a Christmas comedy. It was like trying to jumpstart a video game movie franchise using Luigi’s Mansion starring Charlie Sheen with director Terry Zwigoff. However, Marvel had faith in Jon Favreau as somebody who understood the subgenre’s success and his choice in Downey Jr.
I think it’s no coincidence that since September 11th, people have gravitated towards these simple good against evil stories. Here’s this guy who can come in and thoughtfully get rid of the bad guys, save the good guys, and solve all of our problems. People are looking for escapism… Downey Jr. wasn’t the most obvious choice but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experience in Tony Stark.
If there was something to be said about how Marvel handled their offbeat choices, it would be how committed they were to them. They trusted Jon Favreau’s vision in bringing Iron Man to life on the big screen. In a 2009 interview with InContention.com, actor Jeff Bridges admitted that Iron Man began shooting without a script. He described the set as an improvisational shoot and recalls rehearsals with Downey Jr. and Favreau moments before filming. While he describes initial anxiety about the production, he eventually came around to the shoot-from-the-hip environment.
What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just f***in’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!’ That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”
Iron Man would be released to American audiences on May 2, 2008. It was an overwhelming critical and commercial hit (94%, 7.7/10; $585M on a $140M budget). Overnight, the character of Tony Stark, who only had about 2-3 relevant moments in ~50 years of comic book history, became a rockstar. He was redefined as a cocky yet likable rogue in the vein of Han Solo or James Bond. Iron Man became a launchpad and template for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The humorous rapid-fire dialogue, comic book Easter eggs, lack of regard for secret identities, modern sociopolitical commentary, and post-credit sequence set the tone for all other MCU films to follow.
One year following Iron Man, The Walt Disney Corporation announced that it had purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. The move was met with skepticism. Fears grew among moviegoing audiences that the famed family-friendly corporation wouldn’t let the MCU films tackle any of the characters’ darker stories concerning alcoholism, murder, sex, daddy issues, etc. By 2010’s release of Iron Man 2, fears were settled. Tony Stark’s struggles included references to a famed Iron Man story arc Demon in a Bottle as well as exploring paternal resentment for his father, Howard Stark. Furthermore, there was a sequence showcasing an intoxicated Tony Stark battling his best friend, destroying his house in the process, to Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock“. The Walt Disney Corporation proved to allow Marvel Studios lean into their characters’ complex and not-so-family-friendly backstories. By the end of Phase One (Marvel’s nickname for their slate of solo superhero films building up to The Avengers), Marvel Studios had turned out a series of solid profit margins and modest critical success:
2008: Iron Man 94%, 7.7/10 RT Critics; $585M on a $140M budget
2008: The Incredible Hulk 67%, 6.2/10; $263M on $150M
2010: Iron Man 2 72%, 6.5/10; $624M on $200M
2011: Thor 77%, 6.7/10; $450M on $150M
2011: Captain America: The First Avenger 80%, 6.9/10; $370M on $140M
En route to The Avengers, there were obstacles to overcome. Apart from growing amount of expectations, problems arose between Marvel and Incredible Hulk actor, Edward Norton. Marvel Studio’s President of Production, Kevin Feige, released a statement on the decision to recast Norton alluding to collaboration and passion:
We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back… Our decision is… rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members… We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.
Edward Norton’s history of fighting for creative control of his projects as well as his apparent insistence to Marvel that he receive final cut over The Incredible Hulk likely played a major role in this decision. This wasn’t the first time a role had to be recast in the MCU either. Terrence Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 over a contract dispute. However, this wasn’t Tony Stark’s sidekick being recast. This was the second superhero introduced in Phase One and probably the most iconic one in The Avengers roster. Eventually, Norton’s role would go to Zodiac and Shutter Island actor, Mark Ruffalo, but this did little to settle doubts. What looked like an ensemble dream project looked like an exercise in ego management and a nightmare in funding. The production budget of The Avengers grew to $220 million, making it the 10th most expensive film ever at the time of release (17th when adjusting for inflation). The Avengers needed to be a hit at the box office (more like the Iron Man films and less like Captain America: The First Avenger) to break even.
However, The Avengers didn’t only become a success at the box office; it became a phenomenon. On its opening weekend, The Avengers made $200 million: the most amount of money a film had made on its first weekend ever. Overall, it made $1.52 billion worldwide. People from all age groups and cultures gravitated towards this movie and its characters. Director Joss Whedon turned out to be an excellent choice to showcase the various Avengers. While Whedon was a known figure in geek culture through TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, it was his experience on ensemble comedy show Roseanne that helped form the foundation of The Avengers. Whedon’s sensibilities for balancing characters (and playing them off each other) allowed everybody’s favorite heroes to get shining moments of their own (as opposed to allowing a character like Iron Man to overshadow the other Avengers). Mark Ruffalo captured Bruce Banner & the Hulk so well that audiences forgot The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton had even existed. The screenplay managed to juggle as many as 9 major characters, 3-4 action set pieces, introduce a few new peripheral characters, tie them all around a mystical/multidimensional alien story, and managed to make it all perfectly coherent. While I can imagine The Avengers being slightly better, I can much more easily imagine The Avengers being significantly worse.
Since The Avengers‘ staggering success, Marvel Studios is widely believed to be the frontrunner when it comes to the production of superhero movies. Over the last 4 years since The Avengers was released, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lead the pack in both critical and commercial success in an overwhelming way:
Marvel Cinematic Universe: 82%, 7/10; $6.42B on a $1.3B budget over 7 films
20th Century FOX (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, etc.): 60%, 6/10; $2.65B on $676M over 5 films
Warner Bros. (Batman, Superman, etc.): 56%, 6.3/10; $2.63B on $705M over 3 films
Sony Pictures (Amazing Spider-Man): 63%, 6.3/10; $1.47B on ~$476.5M over 2 films
Furthermore, they’ve turned no-name properties like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man into household names while other studios have struggled with rebooting iconic characters just so they could feel fresh again. They’ve done this by both understanding their own source material and understanding what works well with it. They didn’t try to overexplain a giant talking tree or force a dark and gritty tone onto Ant-Man; Marvel just used what worked for those characters. When Captain America and Iron Man met face to face in the airport in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel didn’t worry about the credibility between two men in uniform. When introducing Peter Parker/Spider-Man into the same film, there was no need to make him a mud-running hot yoga-practicing vegan to appeal to Millenials. Marvel Studios is the result of a comic book company that transitioned into producing films and because of this, they trust that their own source material is good enough to reach an audience (no matter how outlandish or esoteric it may seem). They never betray the spirit of their own heroes for the sake of broad appeal or profitability. The stories of executive meddling from Marvel are far and few between (especially when compared to other major studios producing superhero films) and I believe that is why they’ve made $10 billion worldwide over 8 years while other studios have not. Marvel’s films feel genuine.
There is no end in sight for Marvel’s success story. Online streaming pioneer Netflix helped Marvel put the newly reacquired Daredevil, Elektra, and Punisher to good use for two seasons of a Daredevil TV show (as well as an upcoming Avengers-esque crossover The Defenders). Like Kevin Durant, Sony has adopted the attitude of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and is now sharing the film rights to Spider-Man with Marvel. 20th Century FOX is currently developing an X-Men TV series Legion with Marvel (since Marvel still owns the television rights to the X-Men). Marvel Studios has not only risen to the top of the superhero movie genre, but its drawn collaboration from its biggest competitors. Over the last 8 years, be it Hollywood or its own moviegoing audiences, Marvel Studios has made true believers out of everyone.