Creating A Universe: How Marvel Won Over Its Fans, Its Critics, And Practically Everyone Else
Kevin Feige has to be some kind of sorcerer — that’s the only explanation. Captain America: Civil War opened up the summer movie season with $179.1 million in domestic sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide, the tentpole film has already grossed $673 million, and is expected to blow past the $1 billion mark before it bows out of theaters later this summer. And it was hardly unexpected. Over the past eight years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone from fanboy pipe dream to money-making juggernaut.
So how did Marvel get it so right? What did they do that no one had done before?
Simple. They listened.
For decades, comic book fans had wanted superhero movies that were more like the books that inspired them. Their pages were filled with action, humor, and wit. Characters had lives and motivations, and not just the ones that inspired them to put on their costumes. Stories flowed seamlessly from one chapter to the next, like daily (or monthly, in their case) life always does.
And that’s exactly what Marvel did. They turned comic book stories into film in a way that no other studio ever had.
They ramped up the action, but wisely balanced it with humor and wit to keep it from getting too dour. (Zack Snyder, take note.)
The characters in the films had belief systems and motivations that served more than just their origin stories, making them actual characters instead of three-color cardboard cutouts.
The stories flowed from one movie to the next, creating a shared universe that expanded with every new release. Iron Man didn’t exist in a bubble; he was approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of his film, who made him aware of others like him out in the world.
What followed was unprecedented. With each entry in what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, other heroes were added to the world that was unfolding. Iron Man 2 introduced Black Widow and War Machine, and, in an after-credits scene, acknowledged the existence of Thor with the impact of Mjolnir in New Mexico. Thor introduced the entire Asgardian pantheon, as well as Hawkeye in a brief cameo. Captain America: The First Avenger sowed the seeds for S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and all but confirmed Steve Rogers as the eventual leader of the forthcoming Avengers.
It was exactly what comic book fans — including me — had been wanting for decades. These were their heroes, up on the screen for the first time. Sure, some of the details in the stories had been changed, but the core of each character was note-perfect. Robert Downey, Jr. was Tony Stark. Chris Evans was Steve Rogers. The fans were willing to overlook things like Bucky being the same age as Rogers because Marvel was capturing the essence of the characters so well.
Once The Avengers hit theaters, the storm was at full strength, and the world took notice. The film was unprecedented. Headlining characters from five different films all came together and teamed up in one huge summer event film. It would either be a massive success or a massive failure; there was no middle ground. The film opened to critical and popular acclaim. It ended up making over $1.5 billion worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing films of all time. Marvel now had a license to print money.
And to this day, that’s exactly what they are doing.
With Captain America: Civil War, we are now officially in Phase Three of the MCU, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Phase Two opened with the predictable blockbuster of Iron Man 3, and closed with the surprise success of Ant-Man. It brought some of the most well-received films in Marvel’s slate (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy), as well as some of the most polarizing (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron). But the collective quality of films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been relatively unmatched, save for those by sister company Pixar for big daddy Disney. Even the most critically berated entry in the MCU, the aforementioned Thor sequel, still carries a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 66 percent.
As of this writing, Phase Three will see the releases of Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, culminating in the first entry of the two-part Avengers: Infinity War in May 2018. Scheduled to follow are Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and the second part of Infinity War in May 2019. It’s an ambitious slate, and it will see the greatest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. Phase Three will see the addition of real magic, the further exploration of the MCU’s cosmic side, the first Marvel film headlined by a female superhero, and the most superheroes in one film, well, pretty much ever.
If anyone can pull it off, it’s Marvel. After all, they discovered the secret: Listen to the fans, and the rest will follow.