With the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have cemented itself as arguably one of the biggest entertainment phenomenons in history and it almost didn’t happen.
Marvel Comics has been in the comic book industry since the 1930s, back when they were known as Timely Comics. They took on the name “Marvel Comics” in the 1960s and quickly gained notoriety with their uniquely flawed heroes. Up until that point, comic book heroes were traditionally illustrated as perfect, chiseled beings. They were strong, brave, and always knew what needed to be done. However, Marvel ushered in a new era of heroes. With the creation of such characters as The Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, comic book fans now had heroes who argued with each other, didn’t get along with people, looked more like monsters than heroes, and sometimes actually resented being heroes.
Nearly two decades later, the first superhero major motion picture was born. DC Comics, Marvel’s elder and rival in the comic book industry, sold the film rights to Superman in the mid-1970s and by 1978, Superman the Movie was released in theaters and was a major success. Marvel soon began selling options to movie studios to make films for their characters. The mid-80s to mid-90s saw most of Marvel’s character library optioned off for studios to make films for. Unfortunately, most never saw a feature film release. Even Spiderman, the quintessential Marvel character, couldn’t get a film made. The rights to his character sat at a movie studio for 15 years before they reverted back to Marvel’s hands with nothing to show for it. The one exception, Howard the Duck (1986), was a critical and commercial flop. As Marvel failed to find footing for their characters, DC continued to produce extremely popular movies from their Superman and Batman properties.
Throughout, Marvel comic books remained extremely popular, even more popular than DC comics. By the mid-1990s, just a few years after taking the company public, Marvel took some control back over their film properties. In 1996, Marvel Studios was created. Their focus was to act as liaison to film studios that were stagnant. Marvel Studios was responsible for completing pre-production duties on films based on their properties. They commissioned scripts, hired directors, and cast actors in order to try to jump start some of these films that had been sitting in production limbo for years. While Marvel agreed to take care of some of the initial production work, the movie studios would still have full creative license, shoot the film, and distribute it. Movies previously in perpetual limbo were now moving forward and would soon see the light of day.
However, the comic book bubble was about to burst.
Collectors who had held onto extremely rare comics from the 1930s and 40s were finding that they were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and began cashing in. More people started buying up comics in the hopes that in time they would be worth a lot of money too. Seeing the increased popularity, comic distributors decided to use that to their advantage. They started creating limited edition variants of their comics, marking up the prices, and flooding the market with mediocre stories. The perceived increase in demand for comics turned out to be a mirage.
Just 5 years after Marvel had become a publicly traded company and just a few months after Marvel Studios was created, they filed for bankruptcy. Marvel Studios was done before it even began.
It took Marvel 2 years to come out of bankruptcy, but in the meantime, pieces were coming together that would take Marvel back to the top. There were several Marvel properties still optioned to movie studios. One of them, Blade, began filming just two months after Marvel filed for bankruptcy. The film went on to make more than $130 million and was the first Marvel feature film success.
A few years later, X-Men was released and made almost $300 million in the box office. Another two years after that, Spider-Man made $820 million and broke box office records. It seemed that DC and Warner Brothers weren’t the only successful comic book movie producers in town anymore.
Moviegoers saw numerous Marvel properties get their own feature films released including Daredevil, The Fantastic Four, Elektra, The Hulk, and The Punisher. It seemed that Marvel Studios’ plan had worked and was taking the company to the next level. But unlike DC, who is owned by Warner Brothers Pictures, Marvel didn’t have much control over the creative choices being made with their own properties and wasn’t making much money from these films. Marvel had made $25,000 from the first Blade movie and a measly $62 million from the $3 billion the first two Spider-Man films grossed. Without the capital to finance their own films, Marvel would have to continue to take a backseat in regards to their film properties.
In came David Maisel, the new COO of Marvel in 2004. With the recent popularity of Marvel films, David wanted to find a way to enable Marvel to make their own films. As easy as it would have been to stay away from the risks inherent in the film industry, especially after just escaping bankruptcy, David knew that Marvel was poised to make a lot of money with their rich library of properties. Merrill Lynch thought enough of David’s plan to agree to provide $525 million to finance 10 films based on B and C-tier Marvel characters: Ant-Man, the Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack, and, Shang-Chi. The deal was even more favorable for Marvel because they weren’t liable to pay back the capital raised if the films flopped. Instead, the characters themselves were used as collateral. If the first 4 films flopped, the rights to the other 6 characters would be given to Merrill Lynch. Marvel now had a direct way into the movie business.
There was still the issue of the properties that they had available to them. Then, as if fate herself had a hand in it, the movie rights for Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and the Hulk, which were at the time tied up in other movie studios, reverted back to Marvel soon after the deal with Merrill Lynch. Marvel had their plan, their money, and now, their popular Avengers lineup. All they needed now were moviegoers to reward their risk. And they did.
Starting with the success of 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel revolutionized the blockbuster franchise formula by building a shared universe between all of their Marvel Studios properties. Numerous studios are now trying to implement a shared universe with the hopes that they can mimic the success and acclaim that Marvel Studios has earned.
A focused vision and daring risks not only allowed Marvel to recover, but attracted an entirely new fanbase to the world of comic lore and reinvigorated a limping comic book industry. Marvel, like so many of their own comic book characters, came face-to-face with certain death and won.