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With Avengers: Endgame on track to close out its opening weekend with an estimated $310M to $345M take in ticket sales, it’s easy to forget that things were far from certain when Iron Man debuted in 2008. The ten-year, 22-movie epic arc began with a tentative first step, centered around a “B-List” hero, starring a washed-up actor with a record of substance abuse and a discount director.

Marvel’s banner celebrating 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Dark Times

Ten years before shooting began on Iron Man, Marvel had been driven to bankruptcy, laying off a third of their employees. Plans for Marvel-themed restaurants, interactive CDs and trading cards failed or were abandoned. In desperation, the company licensed its premier characters to other studios for quick cash. The first, Blade, was a modest success earning $70M, but Fox’ X-Men and Sony’s Spider-Man catapulted Marvel’s characters into realms previously the sole domain of rival DC’s heroes.

Yet, Marvel only received $25,000 from Blade and $10M from Spider-Man. This lead the company to form Marvel Studios in 2005 in order to capture more of the revenue from their intellectual properties, but they had no heroes of note left to feature … until Iron Man returned from a 10-year developmental hell that saw it bounce between three studios and even being abandoned by 20th Century Fox because “they already had too many” Marvel superhero movies in development.

Less than a year after Iron Man “came home” to Marvel, the studio chose John Favreau, a fan of the character, to helm the film and Favreau chose Robert Downey Jr. – who was also a fan of the comic – to star. Favreau explained that the actor, who had spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s battling substance addiction and serving time in prison was perfect to fill the role of the similarly-troubled Tony Stark,

“The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark.”

– John Favreau, Director of Iron Man

Hitting the theaters in the spring of 2008, Iron Man went on to gross $585.2M world-wide on a $140M budget, saving the studio which had literally leveraged its remaining stable of characters in a bet on success.

Blockbusting

Marvel’s big gamble paid off. Since Tony Stark suited up, the studio has been home to four of the 10 top-grossing blockbusters of all time. Based on ticket sales and estimates for its opening weekend, Avengers: Endgame looks to be the fifth to continue that tradition. In more than one year, Marvel’s tentpole features have been a big factor in turning around a moribund year for the cinematic industry.

Ironically, Sony had a chance to license Iron Man, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy among others, but as they were considered B- and C-List properties, they turned down the opportunity. Following the path that George Lucas laid with Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, Marvel made a comparable amount of money from sales of merchandise as it did from theatrical and home video releases.

Success bred success with the studio’s creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the characters and films are tied together in an overarching plot. Audiences who went to see one, would go to see the next. And, as the epic marathons that have come to precede the newest installment show, audiences are willing to come back to the theater to watch older movies again and again.

Enter the Mouse

When Disney bought Marvel Studios in 2009, the $4B price seemed to be a big gamble. At the time, Iron Man 2 was due for release in 2010 and while Thor had been teased in the now-traditional post-credit scene, it was still two years away along with Captain America: The First Avenger. Meanwhile Universal had released Hulk to critical and commercial failure a few months after Iron Man and it looked like Marvel’s first film might have been a mere flash in the pan.

With the benefit of 10 years of hindsight, the purchase turned out to be one of the best bargains in the history of Hollywood. Early on, Disney’s leadership stayed out of its subsidiary’s creative process. Disney CEO Bob Iger, agreed to not interfere with Marvel’s creative culture or direct how they would make the movies. Instead, legendary Disney’s marketing arm would do the heavy lifting of promoting the films and related merchandise, including consumer products, video games and rides at its theme parks.

Fighting Franchise Fatigue

As the Hulk movies showed, a superhero film is not a guarantee of success. Universal’s 2003 outing was disappointing as was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk – which marked one of the few underwhelming performances in the MCU.

But, as Marvel moved forward, other studios tried follow its path and launch superhero and other cinematic franchises.

Sony, of course, had great initial success with Spider-Man with three films helmed by Sam Raimi. But, decreasing box office takes resulted in cancellation of the fourth installment and a hard reboot in 2012. The first of the two outings of The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield was a success. However, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while a financial success, was the lowest grossing film. These fortunes seem to have been reversed following a new agreement that more closely ties its Spider-Man movies into the MCU with its offshoot Sony’s Marvel Universe (SMU).

Over at 20th Century Fox, the movies based on the X-Men did well on the whole, but multiple incarnations of The Fantastic Four crashed and burned.

Failure to launch or sustain a franchise was not limited to Marvel characters or even superheroes. Prior to Marvel Studios’ launch Paramount Studios had released the last of the Star Trek films set in what would be come known as “the Prime Universe”, Star Trek: Nemesis. Continuing the story of The Next Generation crew, it pulled in a disappointing $67M at the box office. When asked about the failure of the film, Sir Patrick Stewart who, of course, played Captain Jean-Luc Picard, stated that the audience had developed “franchise fatigue” after 11 films. As a result of the film’s failure, the “final film” that would have wrapped up the TNG story was cancelled Stewart revealed in a later interview.

And, Universal hoped to capitalize on its own deep intellectual property by building a shared universe around its classic monster/horror characters. But after Tom Cruise’s The Mummy failed, Universal went back to the drawing board for its Dark Universe.

One Man Makes the Difference?

How has Marvel succeeded where others have failed? Perhaps the biggest factor could be Kevin Feige, the producer who has lead Marvel Studios since 2007. While Hollywood has had its share of writers, directors, and even actors who have exerted such a control over the various creative aspects of a film, with perhaps the exception of George Lucas and 007’s Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, there has never been a producer who’s been so singularly identified with a series of films. But even then, it can be said that Feige has taken his executive production to “auteur” levels essentially being the author of the MCU.

Feige has overseen the Marvel movies from their early days, helping to map out the long narrative threads and arcs that run throughout. By contrast, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) operated on a “director driven” mandate with each director being allowed to implement their vision of the characters and narrative. One of the outcomes of this was the much darker takes on the core heroes under the guidance of Zack Snyder. A 2016 realignment by Warner Bros. instituted a policy of genre-responsible executives resulting in Walter Hamada being put in charge of all DCEU movies going forward in a clear nod to the success of Feige at Marvel.

For his part, Feige’s rise can best be described as meteoric. He was made an associate producer on the first X-Men film in 2000 due to his knowledge of the Marvel Universe. The seven years later, the then-33-year-old was named president of production for Marvel Studios. A 2011 article in The New York Times noted his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre in general and the Marvel heroes in particular. It cited his willingness to stick close to the source material of the comics. Feige himself notes,

“I’m not sure there is a formula or a secret. I do know that problems tend to happen when people try and re-invent the wheel. If you actually open the comics, there is a lot of depth there.”

— Kevin Feige

In the decade since he helped launch the MCU, films Feige has produced have generated a combined box office gross of over $18B, making the MCU the most successful of cinematic franchises. The other leading franchises; Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and the venerable James Bond all had longer head starts. It is worth taking a moment to note that first three of those franchises are, like the MCU, are also are under the Disney umbrella with Marvel now regaining the X-Men rights with the Fox acquisition.

In some respects, this is the triumph of the fan over the beat counters. As was noted earlier, Feige is an unabashed fan of the comic books. His success has allowed him to remain true to the characters and their stories where financial or other external concerns have served to derail other series. And, with the MCU, the “geek have inherited the earth” as the global impact far exceeds anything ever contemplated for “a mere comic book movie.”

Deep Resources

The strength of the MCU goes deeper than Feige’s singular vision. Even though the MCU has only been on screen since 2008, the content that it is built upon goes back over half a century. That gives extraordinary power to the creatives creating the movies as they can not only find stories to work from, but those same stories are already beloved by the hard-core fans as well, which adds to the excitement leading up to each film’s opening. The pent-up demand to see how a the narrative arcs that played out over the course of years in a few hours on-screen is a strong “sell” to get people into theaters.

But even a huge budget and strong marketing is only a key to success and not a guarantee. Treating the source material with the proper respect is just as vital. If the film does not respect the source material, the fans can turn on it, much as happened with Zack Snyder’s take on Superman.

Beyond the films themselves, the revenue arising from tie-ins, consumer products and related digital content can equal or exceed the money raised from ticket sales. Marvel’s owner, Disney, has had 70 years honing its skill as masters of marketing. Fans see a film and they want to buy the merch, ride the rides, stream the movie and so on. Conversely, seeing the rides, products and tie-ins in person and on-screen fuels demand to see the movies.

Lasting Impact?

Star Trek and Star Wars both had lasting impacts long after they debuted in more than commercial terms. They launched careers, strengthened others, but most of all, they inspired their fans.

Star Trek has been credited for inspiring technological breakthroughs. Letters were written to NASA resulting in the first Shuttle being named “Enterprise”. And, fans found hope in its message of an optimistic future and the representation of minorities on-screen. The 501st Legion, an international organization of Star Wars fans, has raised millions for charities and the films’ on-screen diversity has inspired new generations of fans to dream.

The careers of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, William Shatner, Levar Burton and others were launched or received significant boosts from their roles in SciFi. The MCU, building upon its deep stable of characters, has introduced an amount of diversity that’s largely unprecedented. Samuel L. Jackson looks much different than his days with the Howling Commandoes and as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. before his debut in the MCU.

Nick Fury before and after the MCU.

For the first few films, the primary heroes were universally white and male. Even with the addition of Black Widow, it was felt that she was underutilized, but by the time Black Panther rolled around, men and women of a variety of backgrounds were front and center and had depth of their own. While Captain Marvel was not first female-centric superhero movie, having come a couple of years after Wonder Woman, she too was a huge success. Even before the release, girls and women of all ages were wearing costumes and clothing themed after Carol Danvers’ alter ego. The MCU has played a huge part in moving fandom beyond the domain of the teenaged white boys. In breaking the stereotype of muscle-bound caucasian super men, it has also broken the stereotype of who a pop culture fan is.

Veterans of the MCU – in front of and behind the camera – will move on with enhanced resumes. It is impossible to tell what breakthroughs will be directly attributable to their time among the Avengers, but there will be an impact that goes beyond the 22 (and counting) movies.

Of course there is life after Endgame (that is NOT a spoiler). The movie marks the end of Phase 3 and Feige has stated that there is a plan, “The slate that we’re building over the next five years is not apples to apples. It is two very distinct things and I hope they’ll feel very distinct.”

There is more focus on the small screen following the adventures of Loki, Bucky Barnes, the Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon and Hawkey. The events of Endgame will be reflected in those shows. On the big screen, Spider-Man Far from Home comes out on July 2 of this year. A Black Widow movie starts filming in June, The Eternals also starts filming this summer with a 2020 release date and sequels to both Dr. Strange and Black Panther hit screens in 2021 along with Guardians of the Galaxy 3 (with James Gunn back at the helm).

While Marvel’s on-screen world has changed, there’s every indication that its real-world success is primed to continue.

All 20 Marvel Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Return to Theaters for the 10th Anniversary Film Festival

The Avengers are returning to movie theaters exclusively in IMAX across the United States and Canada for a special 10 Year engagement. To honor ten years of filmmaking at Marvel Studios, starting August 30 and running through September 6, all twenty films spanning the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe will be returning to theaters for the Marvel Studios – 10th Anniversary Film Festival. Marvelites can purchase tickets at Fandango.com/MarvelStudios10 now on sale.

The first five days of the Marvel Studios – 10th Anniversary Film Festival will show all twenty films in release order, followed by two theme days centering around “Origins” and “Team Ups.” The film festival will conclude on the morning of September 6 with two films chosen especially by the fans. Voting is now open and open until August 17. To vote, head over to @IMAX’s official Twitter poll.

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Wyatt D. Odd
Wyatt D. Odd
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