Zero to Hero
How did Marvel go from a bankrupt comic company to one of Hollywood's biggest franchises? With a little help from the little guys, explains Phil Hoad.
In the late '90s, when a bankrupt Marvel was holding a fire sale on its character rights, the idea that an Ant-Man movie might gross half a billion dollars was laughable. The world has changed a lot since then; it now contains the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With its films interweaving a cast of frequently minor characters like Ant-Man – who gets his second outing this month – it has become the highest grossing film franchise in history: $16.8bn and counting. How has Marvel done it?
Key was the ascension of Kevin Feige as head of production at Marvel Studios, its newly created film arm, in 2007. The self-avowed fanboy pushed for the creation of a fictional universe that featured superheroes crossing over into each other's movies. Marvel comic-book mainstay Stan Lee had been doing this regularly in print since the 1960s. "Any time that happened, I used to think it was the greatest thing ever," Feige later said. "We just wanted to have that as a unique aspect to the Marvel Studios films." Other studios that still had the rights to individual Marvel characters, like Sony and Spider-Man, didn't have this luxury.
Feige's greatest achievement has been getting the balance right between adhering to formula and thinking creatively (Marvel's stable of second-leaguers – compared to Batman and Superman, who belong to its rival DC – perhaps forced it to push itself, too). Cleaving initially to the origin-story template, Marvel kept the quality bar high enough in its first round of films to start building a consistent brand. The snowballing recognition factor allowed it to slot new, and often obscurecharacters into the ensemble – usually introducing them in what became must-see post-credits sequences – and to fuel anticipation for the next entry.
But there have been wild-card moments, too, like gambling on Robert Downey Jr., then still seen as a problematic actor, to turn up the charisma as tech billionaire Tony Stark in the MCU's first film, 2008's Iron Man. And Feige has occasionally made choices that display almost hipster-like connoisseurship – like hiring Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor's annunciation-fest. But nothing so leftfield as to upset the brand.Ant-Man's original director Edgar Wright discovered this in 2014 when he was forced out of a project he had originally started developing in 2003. Feige, who has produced every Marvel Studios film, ruthlessly keeps his eye on the bigger picture.
Which, by the way, keeps getting bigger. Before the film in 2012, The Avengers tag-team superhero concept was only known to the nerd faithful, and a far-from-certain hit. But, pumping it full of Buffy creator Joss Whedon's pop-culture fizz, Marvel made it look easy: $1.5bn worldwide, then the third most successful film ever. Since then, it hasn't looked back, successfully launching another unheard-of ensemble, Guardians of the Galaxy and an ensemble-of-ensembles, Avengers: Infinity War. The self-reinforcing nature of the Marvel brand, each film pointing the way to another, has allowed it to crack markets, like China, that previously didn't know Iron Man from IrnBru. The kind of artistic control needed to sustain a cinematic universe isn't easy: witness Star Wars, now another of Marvel's parent company Disney's diffusion lines, and its recent struggles with Solo: A Star Wars Story.
And Feige has done this all largely without Marvel's most favoured son, Spider-Man, only recently returned to the fold from Sony. Black Panther, a moment of genuine cultural significance, hinted that it was capable of more. Feige is currently promising that the MCU could soon have more female superheroes than male. That should be his next challenge: a universe as deep as it is wide.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is on general release in the US and will be released in the UK on 3rd August 2018.