It is Marvel’s universe; we are just living in it. Against the modern backdrop of its worldwide success, the Avengers assembling was as an unlikely candidate for mainstream resonance.

Not since the Western reigned supreme in that 30 year stretch between the ’20s and ’50s, has a genre dominated popular filmmaking like superheroes. They seem to be everywhere, despite making up only a small fraction of movies released every year. This sort of reality-warping bubble speaks volume to the cultural relevance of the genre.

And when looking at the history of cape-wearing heroes on the big screen, the undisputed king of this success has been Marvel. So, let us explore how they beat the odds and changed the industry forever.

Marvel on Screen: The Early Days

The superhero film was off to a rocky start. Not counting the odd outliers like the ’70s Spiderman or the ’90s Captain America, comic book movies were in the hand of DC. Tim Burton’s Batman or the Christopher Reeve Superman movies got audiences into the cinema. However, both of them where cultural icons whose pull exceeded the fringes of comic fandom.

It was not until the year 2000 that audiences were able to see Marvel heroes in the cinema. First X-Men, and then two years later, Spider-Man, came a gold rush for comic book adaptations. What followed was an avalanche of movies, mostly produced and distributed by either Sony or Fox. Marvel itself was yet to take part in the burgeoning broadening of their properties.

The issue was, during the ’90s, the company was getting close to bankruptcy. Strapped for cash, they began to sell the movie rights to their most popular characters. Marked by inconsistent quality, partially attributed to studios afraid of leaning into the source material too much. They feared to alienate audiences who never read a comic book. So, while Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot got a rave reception from critics and audiences, the term superhero fatigue began to enter the public debate.

Phase One: An idea was born

In retrospect, it all feels rather quaint. Wanting to get back into the success of their property, Marvel Studios was able to get back the rights to one of their less favorite characters: Iron Man. Under the supervision of Kevin Feige as Head of Production, the film released in 2008 to critical acclaim. Praised for the emotional core of its lead, and its refreshing earnestness to its comic roots, it rose above the existing formula of its predecessors. Its true uniqueness, however, stayed hidden for most not versed in that style of storytelling.

Those members of the audience that sat through the credits, were rewarded with what would become a Marvel trademark: an extra movie scene, set after the story was already over. Greeting our hero was actor Samual L. Jackson, telling Tony Stark that he is not the only superhero out there. One has to remember how groundbreaking this was.

Other superheroes movies seemed to be ashamed of themselves. Common knowledge was that comics do not have cross-over appeal. So, basing an entire franchise on the concept of a shared universe was a huge risk. These days, Marvel is criticized for playing it too safe, sticking to their formula. But, we must remember the uniqueness of the vision they intended to pursue with that post-credit scene.

Movies starring other risky characters followed Iron Man. But, it all came together in 2012 when the first Avengers movie was released. The film is still one of the highest grossing pictures of all-time. More than anything though, it proved that the concept worked. People were not only buying into a shared universe but that they love it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe officially arrived in the public consciousness.

Avengers Cosplay

Avengers Assemble! Image: CC BY 2.0, by Pat Loika, via Wikimedia Commons

Phase Two: Avengers Age of Ultron and being part of a bigger Universe

After the smash hit that was Avengers, it was hard to follow up. Having just been the first cinematic superhero crossover in history, it was a smart idea to follow up with the third entry for their most popular solo franchise. Iron Man 3 was divisive for its twist, and many people seemed to have trouble going back to stand-alone films. The running joke revolved around Captain America not showing up to help the kidnapped president. Thor: The Dark World received a lukewarm reception. Captain America: The Winter Soldier reintroduced the idea that the movies are connected. It not only featured several characters, but its story about Hydra Infiltration had broader implications.

The real strength that Marvel has built up, however, was demonstrated when Guardians of the Galaxy released to the public. While none of the original line-ups had the same brand value as someone like Spider-Man, they were still somewhat known. Guardians was based on a series of comics obscure even for many comic book fans. The film starred Chris Pratt, whose claim to fame so far has been the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation. It featured an anthropomorphic raccoon and a talking tree only able to say three words. The film was a hit, making the previously unknown Guardians a household name. It also expanded the MCU far from the boundaries of the earth.

Age of Ultron showed up with huge anticipation attached. Reception, however, was not as raving as the first Avengers. “Too much of the same” was the cadence at the time, and superhero fatigue crept back into reviews and editorials across the internet. Coupled with the troubled production of Ant-Man, including Edgar Wright leaving before filming, Marvel’s ascension seemed to have reached a roadblock.

Phase Three: Diversity, competition, and Avengers: Infinity War

People liked Ant-Man, but it was comparatively underseen. Holding the lowest box-office of the MCU, Marvel needed to come back swinging and swing, they did. Captain America: Civil War was the third entry in this franchise, but felt more like the Avengers 2.5. Boasting a massive cast of characters, including Iron Man, it was determined to bank on everything they have established so far. But more than that, it was a show of force in two other ways. Firstly it introduced Black Panther to the world, but secondly, its reintroduced Spider-Man. Sony, at this point, had tried and failed to reboot Spider-Man on their own. And in an unprecedented demonstration of power, Marvel was able to license back a character they licensed off more than 20 years ago.

The movie also performed against competition in the game Marvel invented. Batman v. Superman opened shortly after Civil War, but by critics and audiences alike panned it. What looked so easy for Marvel proved more and more difficult for other studios to copy. What was a risk less than a decade before, now became the goal to reach for many imitators.

Phase 3 continued by giving us sequels to the Guardians, and a new Spider-Man movie. It introduced Marvels mystic side with Doctor Strange and gave one of its least successful Avengers a hit with Thor Ragnarok. None of the achievements, however, was comparable to the phenomenon that was Black Panther. Being the first mainstream movie featuring a mostly black cast, it celebrated a uniquely African identity. In turn, audiences praised it for it.

What the Future Holds

With Avengers: Infinity War just released and tracking to break box-office record across the globe, Marvel’s future shines brightly. The untitled Avengers 4 arrives in 2019, aiming to be a form of ending for a franchise build on continuous expansion. But while the old guard might disappear from the big screen, we have still to see the introduction of Marvels first stand-alone female superhero movie. Regardless of how many of the Avengers remain by next year’s time, Marvel is here to stay.

It is a Marvel’s Universe; we just live in it.


Featured Image: Promotional image via, Cropped