In 2012, when Iron Man in The Avengers, said, “The Avengers. It’s what we call ourselves, sort of like a team. ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ type of thing,” little did anyone know what was to come. Ten years later, ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ have evolved from the core six — Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye — to over 30 with the penultimate film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 3: Avengers: Endgame, released in 2019. In the ‘real’ world, the production company, Marvel Studios, metamorphosed into the frontrunners of the ‘superhero’ genre.
As The Avengers completed its 10th anniversary on 4 May, I reflect on how Joss Whedon’s film was the turning point in the production company’s journey. Although films like Hulk and Daredevil (both from 2003) were released in association with Marvel, The Avengers helped establish Marvel Studios as a brand to reckon with. Many millennials, including non-comic readers, joined the fandom.
Economics behind Marvel Studios
Martin Goodman, a pulp magazine publisher, launched Marvel—then known as Timely Comics—in 1939. Since then, the superheroes created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and several others have satiated millions of comic readers with the tales of ‘saving the planet’. But the transition from ‘comics to films’ to shape the pop culture of the superhero genre is a fascinating story in itself, involving bankruptcy and censorship.
Up until 2005, Marvel Studios did not make its own movies. Films such as Hulk (2003) and the famous Spiderman trilogy starring Toby Maguire from 2002 to 2007 were based on characters from Marvel Comics but licensed for adaptations to different production houses. At first, the licensing model seemed viable after the company faced bankruptcy in 1996. But Marvel Studios soon realised the limitations of pocketing just the royalties as opposed to the humongous box office figures.
Despite the financial crisis of 2008, the production company managed to secure a loan from Merril Lynch, an investment firm, which led to the release of the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Iron Man (2008). The film garnered more than $585 million worldwide.
After Iron Man, the company released four origin films of other superheroes, including Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011), and Hulk (2008), but it was with The Avengers that Marvel Studios hit a jackpot in 2012. As the six ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ assembled on screen for the first time, Marvel had finally concocted the successful formula of superhero films. The film grossed over $1 billion post its theatrical release worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year. The film reached this milestone within 19 days of its release, equalling the previous record set by Avatar (2009) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2011). And, these figures are solely for the movie’s release in English. The film was also released in Russian and Hindi.
Marvel vs DC
Marvel Studios may face competition from other fantasy/superhero franchises, but, given the nature of its films, it is often compared with DC Extended Universe (DCEU), superhero films produced by Warner Bros.-led DC Films based on characters from DC Comics. While some hard-core comic readers may side with DC comics over Marvel comics, the cinematic world created by MCU has, time and again, triumphed over the DCEU.
Of the last 10 films (from 2013 to 2021) released in the DCEU (excluding Zack Snyder’s Justice League), the production company made $5.82 billion in theatrical releases worldwide. As for MCU films, a total of 23 films were released in the last decade. If we just look at the box office revenue for the last 10 MCU films (excluding the recently released Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), it stands at $12.18 billion — a little over a double of the (the last 10) DCEU films’ revenue.
What makes MCU films stand out
Twenty-eight films, 14 years, and over 20 directors — Marvel Studios is a thrilling masterclass and case study into how to create a cinematic empire unlike any other.
Most of the films released as part of the MCU are thoroughly entertaining, dominated by their comical quotient. Films like the Iron Man series, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are some of the MCU films that were acclaimed for their comic element. But if you dig deeper, there are recurring patterns that make this franchise one of the most successful ever.
Before Marvel Studios released its first-ever ensemble film in 2012, it had released four standalone superhero films. After The Avengers, it was not until 2015 that the superheroes assembled for another multi-starrer instalment — Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel Studios invested in individual stories and cultivated the audiences’ curiosity by building isolated universes for different superheroes.
The franchise moved beyond the core six ‘Avengers’ and recruited more in the form of Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The 2019 instalment of the series, Avengers: Endgame, had audiences wooing and hooting when the ‘Avengers of the universe’ came together towards the end. Each superhero has one or more dedicated films and television series under its name that allow the viewers to connect with and learn more about them.
The MCU films are spread out under different phases. It took Marvel Studios 11 years to bring the first three to their conclusion — that is the level of patience, effort, and money it invested in catapulting into the most successful franchise. And, it all began with The Avengers.
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This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)