Smith: The Magic of Marvel

by Andres Smith | 9/30/14 6:31pm

Since its reinvention with the 2008 release of “Iron Man,” it seems that Marvel Studios can do no wrong. It has released nine more live action movies, every single one of which has earned more than $250 million dollars. “The Avengers” (2012) and “Iron Man 3” (2013) each earned over $1 billion worldwide. In the comic book world, Marvel Studios blows DC Comics, its main competition, out of the water. Since 2008, under the auspices of either Warner Brothers, Legendary Pictures or Syncopy Inc., only five films based on DC characters have been made — one of which, “The Green Lantern” (2011), was a critical and financial disaster. With many of these Marvel Studios films making more money in a weekend than India needed to put a probe on Mars, many inside and outside of Hollywood are left wondering — what is Marvel’s secret?

Some would argue that Marvel’s success stems from the popularity of the characters and comics on which these movies are based. Upon closer examination, this cannot be the only reason. Spider-Man is arguably the most popular and recognizable Marvel character, with a fanbase that spans the entire globe. But when Sony (the owner of Spidey’s film rights) tried to reinvent the character in 2012, the movie barely broke $250 million domestically — “Iron Man,” a film about a character virtually unknown to casual moviegoers before 2008, made almost $320 million in America. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” fared even worse this past spring. It grossed $200 million dollars domestically and faced harsh reviews from critics, at least relative to the gleaming reviews of most Marvel films.

Marvel has continued to prove that even their least-known characters can turn into cinematic gold. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) is based on a very obscure Marvel comic about a strange team of intergalactic heroes (it features a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphized tree). By all accounts, this movie should not have worked. However, it is the highest grossing film of 2014 to date, and the dollars are still rolling in. The success of Marvel movies lies not in the popularity of the characters, but rather in the vision of Marvel’s studio executives and the expansive universe they have created.

Beginning with “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios accomplished something never attempted before, though many franchises have tried to emulate it since: the studio created a cinematic universe. Sequels and spinoffs are nothing new in Hollywood. What the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done is create films that work as both their own franchise and as a part of a larger, inter-franchise narrative. Although someone can watch “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) without having seen “Iron Man 3,” the events and plots are interrelated, and the characters know and affect each other.

These separate threads within the same universe run parallel to each other until they finally intertwine in ways that gratify the fans and are lucrative for the studio. If Marvel had simply rolled out “The Avengers” without the five films that laid the groundwork for its arrival, it would have been amusing and entertaining — but it would not have brought in a $1 billion haul.

The creative department at Marvel Studios seems less concerned with each film being a large success than with creating a world of distinct characters that audiences can continue to follow and invest themselves in emotionally. Through their cinematic universe, Marvel has essentially captured what so many people love about comic books. Like their comics, Marvel’s films tell continuous-but-separate stories that all relate to each other and lead up to massive cross-over events that drive fans and critics into a frenzy.

Marvel Studios is playing a cinematic long game that is largely unprecedented, and the rest of Hollywood is taking notice. DC is attempting to set up something similar with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), which is supposed to lead up to “The Justice League” in 2017. In a similar way, the newly reinvented “Star Wars” franchise is planning stand-alone movies and television series to go alongside the newest installments in the “Star Wars” universe. Fortunately for studios and fan across the world, this new form of long-form cinematic storytelling is here to stay.