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How did Marvel Studios become the most successful movie franchise in film history? It certainly didn't happen overnight.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the product of 80 years' worth of successes, failures, and ideas made by people who couldn't let go of their Marvel visions, for better or for worse.
Most people are pretty familiar with how the MCU changed after 2008's release of Iron Man, which turned Marvel Studios into a household name, but what about the deeper history of Marvel Studios that stretches over the course of several decades?
The Genesis of Marvel
The history of Marvel Studios begins long before the existence of MCU films, when televisions weren't even household staples yet.
The Marvel Universe had its big bang in Martin Goodman’s McGraw Hill office in October 1939 with the first issue of Timely Comics, titled Marvel Comics #1. The first issue of the comic debuted characters such as the Human Torch, the Angel, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Masked Raider, and Ka-Zar the Great. The first issue sold 80,000 copies, allowing Timely Comics to release Marvel Comics #2 the following month, and securing the publication’s success for years to come.
Instant Hits One After Another
Many of our favorite Marvel characters were created early in the publication’s career. We first met Captain Marvel, for example, in a 1940 issue of the comic, and Captain America Comics #1 was also released in 1940. Both of them were hits. Republic Pictures debuted The Adventures of Captain Marvel as a TV series in 1941, and released Captain America three years later.
The timing isn't a coincidence. Although the Captain America comic was released a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, readers loved seeing Hitler getting beaten up by a superhero.
I mean, what better way to reach the hearts of Americans than to show superheroes hurting real-life, wartime enemies?
Interestingly, Americans lost interest in superheroes after World War II, leading Timely Comics to rebrand as Atlas Comics in the 1950s. In doing so, they dropped a bunch of their superhero stories to focus on a wider range of genres.
The Marvel Era
What Stan Lee did for superheroes cannot be understated. Thanks to him, Marvel superheroes experienced a revival and triggered the Marvel Era in 1961. Lee was, arguably, the most influential person in Marvel's history, and for good reason. He changed the way we see and relate to superheroes by making them more appealing to adult audiences; before, superhero comics were largely for children.
Many Marvel characters made motion picture appearances throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. For example, the Spider-Man movie aired on TV in 1977, and Dr. Strange aired on CBS in 1978. Marvel Studios still didn't exist at that time though, and it didn't become a household name until 1981 when Marvel Productions set up shop in LA.
Five years later, in December 1986, New World Pictures acquired Marvel Comics Group and Marvel Productions—and that was the birth of the Marvel Entertainment Group. After that, New World Entertainment, Ltd. released The Incredible Hulk Returns in 1988.
MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Acquisition
The next year, MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings acquired Marvel Entertainment Group for $82.5 million, but allowed New World to keep Marvel Productions. According to Ronald Perelman, the man behind the acquisition, Marvel “is a mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property. Disney’s got much more highly recognized characters and softer characters, whereas our characters are termed action heroes. But at Marvel we are now in the business of the creation and marketing of characters.”
Perelman's vision of making each Marvel character into a household name took a while to come to fruition, and it ignited a lot of drama.
Marvel had a huge makeover in the 1990s. First, they offered 40 percent of its shares to the public. Perelman promised investors that the franchise would expand their branding and sell merchandise, such as stickers and action figures. In 1993, Marvel acquired 46 percent of ToyBiz, with the goal of profiting off of Marvel action figures. The acquisition transferred ToyBiz CEO, Avi Arad, to the position of CEO and President of Marvel films.
People, however, lost interest in the expensive Marvel toys, stickers, and other memorabilia. Perelman decided he wanted to buy the remaining ToyBiz shares and merge it with Marvel to create a bigger, better business. The shareholders didn’t like this idea. In turn, Perelman decided to file for bankruptcy so that he could merge with ToyBiz without the approval of the stockholders.
Meanwhile, Marvel spent much of the 90s selling the rights to many of their most iconic characters, including Iron Man, Hulk, Black Panther, and the X-Men. That’s why some Marvel characters, such as the X Men and the Avengers, never appear on screen with each other.
To be fair, it seemed like a logical thing to do—financially speaking, Marvel Studios was not doing so well, and Marvel movies were basically non-existent. They were, after all, in a lot of debt. But Perelman was still itching to get Marvel characters onto the big screen, despite the fact that none of his shareholders thought that would be a valuable decision. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios was born…
In 1996, Fox bought New World Communication, thus incorporating Marvel Studios and Marvel Films.
The next year, Stan Lee was appointed as chairman of Marvel Studios, and the production company started long term plans for movies to be released in the next 10 years, including X-Men, Daredevil, Elektra, and Fantastic Four.
Marvel Studios released Blade in 1998. The motion picture was the first one to be packaged and licensed by Marvel Studios, and it grossed $70,087,718 in the USA and $131,183,530 in Canada. Explaining the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still no easy task though.
David Maisel and Merrill Lynch
One of the most pivotal years in the history of Marvel Studios was 2004. David Maisel was hired as Chief Operating Officer of Marvel Studios, and he had a plan for the future of the franchise. Soon after, Marvel took a $525,000,000 loan from Merrill Lynch, but there was a condition: If Marvel failed to make that money back within eight years, they’d have to give up the rights to 10 Marvel characters, including Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, and Nick Fury.
Can you imagine the pressure that David Maisel and his team must have felt? Their first motion picture had to be the best thing since sliced bread, or they’d have to sacrifice part of their essence.
Marvel entered talks with Universal Pictures to no avail. Merrill Lynch wanted to pull out of the deal with Marvel, and tried to force them to provide a third of the budget. Luckily, in 2005, they struck a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures, allowing the character rights to Iron Man, Thor, and Black Widow to go back to Marvel.
In 2007, Marvel made a crucial decision: They promoted junior executive Kevin Feige to be President of Marvel Studios. This was a pivotal decision that paved Marvel’s path toward success, starting with the release of Iron Man in 2008.
Iron Man and After
After nearly 70 years in the making of the history of Marvel Studios, it was the 2008 release of Iron Man that catalyzed its success, and Marvel began delivering consistently fantastic films from that point on. In June of 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion along with the distribution rights for The Avengers and Iron Man 3.
The later success of Marvel Studios is largely attributed to Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, who says modern superhero films owe it all to Blade. Feige’s shrewd and creative decisions, such as casting Robert Downey Jr. and his vision of an inclusive Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowed Marvel Studios to emerge as one of the first film franchises ever—and definitely the most successful—in film history, now worth more than $17 billion.
Now, there is no shortage of fantastic Marvel movies and TV series to watch, or binge for that matter, and everyone loves them. Last year, Black Panther broke scores of box office records, and became the 12th highest-grossing movie in the world.
My favorite thing about Marvel Studios is that they give us so much to look forward to; they've announced plans for eight new movies, the last of which will be released in 2022.
And after that? Who knows. But the future for Marvel looks bright.