From the very first Iron Man back in 2008 until now we have 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with it’s 19th and biggest on the way. It’s an unprecedented achievement for a studio who sold off many of its larger properties. It’s been a long 10 year road for Marvel Studios, but why does it work? How have they continued to thrive at the box office and with critics where others have failed? I’m taking a look into it’s successes, failures and what it’s done to remain original.
“I am Iron Man”. The famous last words of the very first MCU film in which Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark reveals himself to the world’s press as his alter ego superhero. It’s from here, the universe started to take shape, creating a series of films without Marvel’s most popular characters including X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. At the time, whilst people knew about Iron Man, he wasn’t quite up there with the big guns in the comicbook world. He was pushed to the forefront, with critics and fans alike claiming it was an incredible film, something that seemingly surprised everyone. After this, it felt as if they didn’t quite hit the same stride again until the Avengers. Don’t get me wrong. Captain America, Thor and the Incredible Hulk all received respectable scores on Rotten Tomatoes, (80%, 77% and 67% respectively) however they lacked the charm and a lot of the fun from a rich guy in a metal suit. At least none of them were as bad as Iron Man 2, with it’s terrible dialogue, awful villain and it’s ludicrous final plot device coming from an old diorama.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers put the MCU on a course which lead to the spawning of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and more, they were being able to push it’s characters into more serious plot lines whilst having that streak of Marvel fun. With success come missteps such as Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (COME AT ME!), however it has been largely lucrative thanks to the ability they have to move on and learn from their mistakes. Including too much plot or throwing in characters who aren’t fully developed have caused some surprising misfires within the MCU. This includes the villain problem Marvel had up until recently, with the likes of Ronan, Red Skull and Malekith wanting mass destruction and death, they quickly became dull and repetitive. However in it’s recent bad guy renaissance introducing Killmonger and Vulture as well as developing Loki whose motivations come from something understandable, it’s finally moving forward.
Another mistake Marvel made was not keeping Edgar Wright on as director of Ant-Man. Whilst the film is good and enjoyable, it would be interesting to find out what his vision would have been. Edgar’s style of directing can’t be compared to others, there’s a flare he has which can be seen beautifully in Scott Pilgrim vs.The World and Baby Driver. Perhaps this is why for Thor: Ragnarok they changed things up with Taika Waititi who gave the rather dull set of Thor movies an injection of originality.
Part of the success comes from understanding the source material, having those on board who write, produce and direct who are fans of the comicbooks. Even after a sixth Spider-Man film (although first within the MCU) and third iteration of the wall-crawling character, Homecoming felt original and fresh. There is a clear understanding of the characterisations and how to use these stories when creating yet another huge hit. The perfect example of this is Captain America: Civil War which took elements of the famous arch of the same name. In the comicbook, the new legislation says that all superheros must be unmasked however most of their alter egos are known on the big screen. So using the Sokovia Accords, it flipped it to become an issue of where and when they can perform their duties, deepening the divide further by including the death of Tony’s parent’s. Oh yeah, spoiler alert! It was a smart move and managed to remain relevant in the modern world.
Since it began, their primary competitor DC has lagged behind trying to recreate what Marvel has done. Whilst a success financially, their critics have been less kind. Essentially what they have been criticised for, DC has desperately tried to solve. Man of Steel had too much death and property destruction, so Batman v. Superman’s final battle took place on an abandoned island. Batman v. Superman was too dark and gloomy, Justice League had reshoots to include humorous and lighter moments. And Suicide Squad was a poor man’s Guardians. Wonder Woman was is DC’s only saving grace, it really was incredible and needed. It hasn’t worked out just yet but they are pushing forward with multiple films including the upcoming solo projects for Aquaman and Cyborg.
Other cinematic universes have also tried and failed to emulate what Marvel has done, including the Dark Universe from Universal which, in a desperate bid for their own intertwined series of films, stopped after just one, The Mummy. It hinted at it’s future by including Jekyll and Hyde, an arm from Creature from the Black Lagoon and a few other references. Creating a universe (even it’s logo) before you have released a film is ambitious but it is also why it didn’t work. Universal attempted to reverse engineer Disney’s success, trying to launch a series of films instead of focusing on the first one and building upon that. It won’t fair as well if you’re forcing stories within stories without having anything to fall on.
As well as all of the above, the primary reason it’s worked for ten years is that it wasn’t forced. At the end of Iron Man the post credit scene was Nick Fury speaking about the Avenger Initiative which Jon Favreau has said was just a fun Easter egg for the fans. Throughout the film, it was Tony Stark’s story, no one else was mentioned or referenced to. Similar to this is Black Panther which felt like a standalone film although being part of a wider series. It’s films now include other characters in multiple movies, with Marvel understanding that it can no longer release typical origin stories whilst ignoring what it already has.
With more the $14 billion in the bank from the box office, Avengers: Infinity War out this month and numerous films in the planning stage, shows no signs of stopping now. Here’s to another 10 years.
Keep. It. Reel.