Since 2008, Marvel Studios’ eight movies have grossed $5 billion in global box office, all thanks to one simple, radical invention: the mega-franchise. Can Hollywood catch up? And should they?
Photo Illustration by John Gara for BuzzFeed
SEVEN YEARS AGO, Marvel Studios barely existed at all. Today, it is poised to change Hollywood forever.
For the first half of the 2000s, the comic book publisher had only licensed its characters to other studios — Spider-Man to Sony Pictures, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox, Blade to New Line Cinema — and had to watch those companies reap the box office bounty from their intellectual property. So in 2006, Marvel decided to strike out as an independent film production company, but the heady enthusiasm that greeted the announcement was cut with an equally healthy degree of skepticism — especially after the studio’s production chief Kevin Feige hinted at San Diego Comic-Con that Marvel's characters might even come together to form superhero supergroup the Avengers. For that pie-in-the-sky dream to become a reality, this embryonic studio would have to thread together a wildly disparate assortment of characters over a series of separate films, a juggling act that no one else in Hollywood had ever seriously attempted. Besides, before any of that could happen, Marvel first had to prove it could make just one successful film. In 2008, they did just that with Iron Man, in which a second-tier comic book character unfamiliar to a mass audience starred in the second highest-grossing film of that year.
Seven years after starting out, with just eight movies released since 2008, Marvel Studios has become one of the dominant players in the world of entertainment. They've grossed over $5 billion in global box office, including the third and fifth highest grossing movies of all time worldwide; transformed Robert Downey Jr. from a classic Hollywood cautionary tale to the most valuable movie star in the world; and made itself so profitable that the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Studios' parent company Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4 billion, leading to the rapid expansion of the Marvel brand into everything from theme parks to broadcast network television.
In a Hollywood era obsessed with cultivating successful movie franchises, Marvel has done all this by inventing something brand new: the mega-franchise, or in Marvel's comic book-y parlance, the “cinematic universe.” The idea was both a simple and radical one: Launch Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk within their own franchises (or “cinematic galaxies,” one assumes), each of which has its own specific story, setting, and style. Bring those characters together as the Avengers in a mega-franchise movie that ties together their individual stories yet also works on its own terms. Spin those same characters back into their respective individual franchises once again, while launching a new franchise or two (like the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man). And then bring everyone back together for another mega-franchise movie. Work the fans into a lather. Rinse. And repeat.
Tom Hiddleston and Kevin Feige
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The endeavor has been expertly shepherded by Feige, who, as the public face of Marvel Studios’ lean executive ranks, has fashioned himself into something of a mega-franchise auteur, guiding each film to work on its own terms while still servicing the studio's grander vision. And while that vision certainly paid off with the $1.5 billion-grossing The Avengers last year, it wasn't until this year that Feige and his team proved the mega-franchise could really work. Last May, Iron Man 3 made almost as much money as The Avengers, and this month, Thor: The Dark World grossed more worldwide in three weeks than its predecessor did over three months. Not only could these characters still stand on their own, they've only grown in popularity.
Feige has been with Marvel since the very first X-Men movie in 2000, and he has overseen every Marvel Studios movie with a kind of benevolent rigor born out of frustration with how other studios were handling the Marvel characters. “[We were] very excited to have all of the blame on our shoulders,” Feige said recently on the Nerdist podcast. In the past, Feige said that when facing criticism of another studio's Marvel film, “Oftentimes I'd go, 'I know, we fought against it, but we didn't have the power.' We were very excited to say, 'Oh, if there's something you don't like, it's our fault.' If Iron Man hadn't worked because of X, Y, Z, we'd say, 'We thought X, Y, Z would work. We were wrong. Sorry.' I was completely comfortable with that and still am.”
Feige's comfort comes in large part from Marvel's biggest core advantage: its trove of source material, decades of comic books designed from the ground up to allow cross-pollination. But it was still a major leap of faith to bring that comic book universe into the multiplex. “There was a question mark whether movies could work like that,” screenwriter John August (Frankenweenie, Charlie's Angels), who did uncredited script work on 2008's Iron Man, told BuzzFeed. “And it seems they can.”
The question that is now before Hollywood: Can anyone else make movies — and television — work like that? And should they?