Marvel has become a brand synonymous with its cinematic universe, sending out two or three movies each year to dominate the theaters. Since 2008, the brand has released over a dozen movies that could qualify as a “who’s who” of Hollywood stars. In short, Marvel — which is owned by Disney — is making money hand-over-fist these days.
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when superhero movies weren’t the norm, and Batman was the only one that movie-goers had any true interest in. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed all that with just a few key decisions. Let’s look back on the history and how a handful of characters effectively saved the company.
Marvel was dead in the water
Back in the early 1990s, things weren’t looking good for comic book movies. Marvel had just recently seen failure in Howard the Duck, and despite pushing for a Spider-Man movie featuring Arnold Schwartzenegger as a villain, there really was no momentum toward the movie giant we know today. A merger with ToyBiz saved Marvel from bankruptcy, but that’s all.
“Everyone was considering making Marvel movies but the budgets were just too high,” says Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “Certainly before Terminator 2 there wasn’t the technology to do anything in a convincing way.”
In the meantime, DC Comics was scoring big with Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Begins. Meanwhile, Marvel screwed up big time on a cheaply made, never-released version of Fantastic Four. It was a rough time in Marvel history, and the company made some tough decisions in the coming years to keep its head above water.
Next: How Marvel held itself together
Staying alive any way possible
Without the financial ability to make movies based on its original characters, Marvel resolved to sell off the rights to several. Fox took the X-Men, Universal grabbed the Hulk and Iron Man, and Sony purchased the rights to Spider-Man. In fact, Sony actually could’ve purchased the rights to every Marvel character, but ended up not making the deal. Whoops.
Marvel attempted to hit it out of the park with Daredevil, Elektra, and Punisher, but swung and missed badly. In the meantime, Fox was pumping out X-Men movies in the early 2000s while Sony created a Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Universal tried with Hulk, starring Eric Bana in 2003, but missed the mark.
Marvel was seeing pennies on the dollar for their investment, so it refocused its efforts around a secondary character that it had re-obtained from Universal: Iron Man.
Next: The top pick for Iron Man wasn’t always Robert Downey Jr.
Tom Cruise as Iron Man?
It’s actually pretty comical to look back on, given everything we know, but Tom Cruise as Tony Stark isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Cruise could totally pull off a role that featured him as a self-absorbed billionaire. Although the actor was interested, to the point where he even was signed on to co-produce the movie, the process of development went nowhere.
When Marvel re-obtained the rights to the character in 2005, Jon Favreau was tagged to direct Iron Man. Even then, Cruise was still under consideration, but ended up passing because he didn’t really like the script. Of course, the rest was history, with Robert Downey Jr. successfully reviving his career after a series of only moderately successful movies, at best.
Next: How Iron Man kicked off the MCU.
Iron Man finally gets made
In 2008, Iron Man finally released in theaters and was a major hit. It was a traditional origin story, featuring Downey as the relatively young Stark being kidnapped and held ransom in a Middle Eastern war zone. It’s there that he learns the unfortunate truth, that his company is double-dealing under the table and supplying the enemy with weapons. From there, Stark builds the first Iron Man suit and begins his tinkering with arc reactor technology.
The total at the box office for Iron Man exceeded $585 million, which was a major success. Although the movie had killed off its villain, Obadiah Stane (played by Jeff Bridges), the rest of the story had been set up with Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, and the introduction of SHIELD. Samuel L. Jackson even made a guest appearance as Nick Fury in a post-credit scene.
Next: The misstep that followed with the Hulk
A step back with The Incredible Hulk
The next movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was The Incredible Hulk, and things did not go as well as planned. Edward Norton starred as Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, in the 2008 film. Despite a star-studded cast that included Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and William Hurt, the movie was a major dud that failed to gain any traction in the theater.
The Incredible Hulk scored just $263 million in revenue, well under half what Iron Man had brought in just months before. And Hulk even included a cameo from Tony Stark in an after-credit scene! That was the end of solo films for the big green guy, and it was also the end of Norton in the role.
Marvel recast the role with Mark Ruffalo in large part because it wanted to distance itself from The Incredible Hulk. According to Edwards, that was just fine with him.
Next: Building up to The Avengers
Iron Man 2, Captain America, and Thor
Despite the bump in the road, Marvel rebounded in a big way and got its cinematic universe back on track with Iron Man 2 in 2010. Although nowhere near as good as the original (which is common among sequels), Iron Man 2 returned Downey and Paltrow in their roles while bringing in Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, and others. It made over $623 million, well surpassing The Incredible Hulk and even beating out its predecessor.
After Iron Man 2, Thor followed in 2011 and earned $443 million. Starring Chris Hemsworth as the title character, Thor introduced us to Norse mythology mixed with the comic book universe. It also came with an all-star cast, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, and Tom Hiddleston, among others. Captain America: The First Avenger came out later in the year, earning $370 million.
Even though Captain America came in closer to The Incredible Hulk than Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an unstoppable freight train. Marvel had painstakingly introduced every important character over five movies, and was now ready to take it to the next level.
Next: The MCU’s most important movie
It wasn’t the first great movie in the MCU, and it isn’t the best movie in the MCU. But The Avengers was the first major step forward in proving that this whole thing can actually work. The movie teamed up Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk. The characters go after Thor’s brother, Loki, who is determined to rule the Earth as a king. The Avengers is the first appearance of Thanos (in a mid-credits scene), teasing the major role the Mad Titan would have later on.
The Avengers grossed $1.5 billion, blowing away all the Marvel movies that came before it. Since The Avengers, we’ve seen a sequel, a third Iron Man movie, two more Thor movies, two more Captain America movies, a Spider-Man movie, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and two Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
That’s a lot of work to get done, all in about five years. And the heavy lifting of Iron Man and the rest have made it all possible.
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