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28 July 2021

How Marvel conquered culture

A Star Wars geek turned the debt-ridden comic studio into a cinematic juggernaut – and became the most powerful man in Hollywood in the process.

By Ian Leslie

William Goldman’s famous maxim “nobody knows anything” is obsolete. After a century of experimentation, Hollywood has figured out what works: superhero stories set in fantastical worlds, with returning characters, cross-movie storylines, and visual pyrotechnics. These titles generate revenue from the global box office but also from spin-offs, merchandise, video games and theme parks. From 2017 to 2019 nearly every member of the top ten highest grossing hits was part of a blockbuster franchise (the sole exception was the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody).

One name in particular dominates these lists. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the highest grossing film franchise in the world. It has scored three top-ten entries every year from 2017, including two out of the three number ones (Black Panther in 2018 and Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the second highest grossing movie of all time). The latest Marvel film, Black Widow, is expected to be the biggest hit of 2021.

Twenty years ago, when ­Marvel was a relatively small studio, emerging from bankruptcy and loaded with debt, few would have bet on its current supremacy. Its unlikely success owes a lot to a rather unprepossessing visionary. As a teenager in the late 1980s, Kevin Feige, who is now head of Marvel Studios and the most powerful person in Hollywood, was obsessed with Star Wars. Not only by the films, but by the books and the games that took up where the films left off, elaborating on its fictional universe. In this sub-culture, every minor character, no matter how fleeting their appearance on screen, had a name and a backstory, and whole new adventures unfolded. Feige gulped down these meta-stories. For him, George Lucas’s movies were more than movies; they were portals to a vast and exotically populated world.

They were also a launch-pad for his imagination. Feige used to play with a box of Star Wars toys in his garden and create his own stories. Star Wars was his first love, but he took the same approach to other blockbusters, such as Star Trek and Back to the Future. After watching Superman IV, he could come up with his own Superman V. In his mind, every movie was a ­prequel, every ­character part of a universe that stretched off the edges of the screen. Feige set his heart on making movies. He won a place at the same film school as Lucas (after being rejected five times). In 2000, five years after graduating, he was hired as a junior executive at Marvel Studios. At the time, Marvel did not make its own films but licensed its characters to Hollywood studios, earning most of its money from merchandise sales. Sometimes the studios did a good job, as with Sony Columbia’s 2002 film Spider-Man, but often they failed to exploit a character’s potential.

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Marvel had only recently accepted that its future lay in movies. For much of the 1990s, the comic book industry underwent an unprecedented boom. ­Marvel’s 1993 annual report (published in comic book form) showed annual revenues of $415m, up from $224m the year before and $115m the year before that. But the boom was driven largely by collectors buying comics as commodities rather than by organic demand for new stories.

The writer Neil Gaiman was among the first to identify the problem. In a speech to retailers, he likened the industry’s current success to the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century: “You can sell lots of ­comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you’re selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse.” Gaiman was right.

In the mid-Nineties, the bubble burst, nearly taking Marvel down with it. Comic book sales dropped by 70 per cent and Marvel’s stock price collapsed. Under the leadership of Ronald Perelman, a buccaneering businessman who had made fortunes across several industries, Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996, partly so it could reorganise around the movie business without having to win the consent of shareholders.

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Until joining the company Feige had not been a comic fan but he quickly became a Marvel obsessive, immersing himself in a universe even richer in stories than Star Wars. He soon knew Marvel’s characters in intimate detail: their appearances, formative traumas and defining entanglements. He admired the way that Stan Lee, the ­creative visionary behind Marvel comics, had built separate worlds but then allowed characters to crash into each other’s storylines: Spider-Man swinging into the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Incredible Hulk rampaging through an Iron Man story.

[see also: Despite its unexpected director, Black Widow is predictable Marvel fare]

Marvel’s bosses, impressed by Feige’s ­knowledge, made him creative ambassador to the ­studios, a role in which he dispensed advice on how to present the characters; in effect, Marvel’s chief geek. Feige got frustrated when ­directors failed to respect the origins of the stories. The answers, he believed, were always in the comics.

Feige helped to convince the bosses of Marvel’s film division that the company could take control of its own intellectual property and produce its own films. Despite Marvel no longer possessing the rights to some of its most famous superheroes, Feige believed it owned enough to recreate the Marvel universe in film. He proposed that individual superheroes, such as Captain America, have their own franchises, but that each franchise could be linked to the others, via elements of plot, setting, cast and character, forming one giant franchise. The links could be subtle at first, but within a few years the heroes could be brought together under the aegis of The Avengers, another property Marvel still owned. Feige wanted every Marvel movie to become an advert for every other Marvel movie, creating unstoppable momentum across its entire slate. This master-plan, which became known as the MCU, was part of Marvel’s pitch for ­financing its independence.

In 2005 Marvel became an independent studio, after borrowing $525m from Merrill Lynch. It would now be competing with the likes of Sony and Fox, except that it was a minnow in comparison. The new studio made a big and potentially ruinous gamble on the first MCU movie, Iron Man. It recruited Jon Favreau to direct and Robert Downey Jr to star. Favreau, an indie star who made knockabout comedies, had never directed a blockbuster. Downey Jr, a talented actor with a famously chequered past, was nobody’s idea of dependable. In 2007, amid corporate upheaval, the studio’s CEO stepped down and Feige, still a relative unknown in the industry, took his place. He was 33. In 2008 Iron Man launched to critical acclaim and box office success. Marvel Studios was viable, the MCU was under way, and Feige was in charge of the toy box.

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A year after the success of Iron Man, the parent company of Marvel Studios, Marvel Entertainment, was acquired by Disney for a staggering $4bn. Many in the industry considered this a wild over-payment and Disney’s stock fell on the announcement. But Disney’s boss, Bob Iger, shared Feige’s faith in the potential of the MCU and Marvel’s back catalogue of more than 5,000 characters.

Nobody questions the decision now. Marvel Studios has been on a hot streak unprecedented in the history of Hollywood. Marvel’s 23 movies since 2008 have taken, on average, nearly a billion dollars each at the box office. Twelve of the 23 movies have been sequels, and almost every one of Marvel’s sequels has done much better than its predecessor. Valuable new sub-franchises have been built around Marvel characters, including Captain America, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man. The MCU encompasses TV shows too, such as WandaVision and, most recently, Loki.

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What are the features of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Superheroes, most obviously, but also: a sense of looming existential threats to planet Earth or to the entire universe; spectacular effects; large casts of characters played by familiar faces, some of whom were already global stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson), others of whom have been made so by the MCU (Chris Hemsworth, Tom ­Hiddleston); sharp, ironic dialogue; a sense that even if the stories are set in alternative worlds they have something to say about our own, albeit in a hazy and allusive fashion. Marvel’s blockbusters are not profound but they are intelligent, and win critical acclaim.

Black Panther, which is based on one of the lesser-known characters in Marvel’s comic library, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, as well as being the fourth highest grossing movie in history. It was the first blockbuster to have a predominantly African-American cast, a significant cultural innovation.

Characters, and the actors who play them, roll through the different sub-franchises. Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark (Downey Jr) has appeared in 11 MCU movies, including Avengers and Captain America films. Nick Fury, a character played by Jackson who appeared briefly in the first Iron Man, has also appeared in 11 MCU films, without being central to any of them. Characters such as Fury are part of the MCU’s connective tissue, reminders to the audience that they are watching a Marvel film.

The MCU also has its own space and time, with recurring locations at the planetary and cosmological levels, and an assiduously managed chronology. Winter Soldier, a Captain America film, includes a scene that presages the events of Black Panther, which begin a week after Winter Soldier ends. WandaVision is set three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Feige is responsible for the planning of this densely intertwined, endlessly unfolding story world, as well as for making each individual film explode on impact with the audience.

Feige has never accepted the traditional Hollywood distinction between artistic ­talent on the one hand and blockbuster ­specialists on the other. His choice of Mark Ruffalo, the archetypal indie star, to play the Hulk is typical. He pulled in the Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh to make Thor. Later, after Feige decided a different approach was required, he tapped Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who made kooky comedies, to reinvent one of Marvel’s most important characters. Thor: Ragnarok was quirky, funny and a commercial hit.

Feige’s approach puts a necessary emphasis on system over individual. When directors sign up to do a Marvel movie, they agree to incorporate the MCU infrastructure of plot, setting and character into the story they want to tell. Similarly, actors have to commit to multi-film deals that last years and allow little time for other projects. They are compensated handsomely, but Marvel’s movies are primarily vehicles for its ­intellectual property – for the characters, not the talent. There is no one actor on whom the franchise depends. When Ed Norton, who played the Hulk in the ­character’s first MCU incarnation, proved difficult to work with, Feige replaced him with Ruffalo. Actors can shoot guest appearances in multiple films over the course of a day. Paltrow, asked by an interviewer about her cameo in Spider-Man: Homecoming, was not aware that she had featured in the film.

Everyone who works with Feige describes him as a passionate fan of stories, and uninterested in the theatrics of status. He wears hoodies and a baseball cap. He lives with his wife, who is a nurse, and their two children in a home that is modest by Hollywood standards. Feige does not fit conventional Hollywood job descriptions. On the one hand, he is a mogul who makes multimillion-dollar business decisions every week; on the other, chief storyteller. In recent decades a new role has emerged in TV that blends executive and creative functions – the showrunner. Feige has effectively invented his own role: the worldrunner.

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Increasingly, Hollywood thinks about films in the same way that the 18-year-old Kevin Feige did: as the primary building blocks of multi-story, multimedia universes. The aim isn’t merely to produce the next The Godfather or Die Hard – blockbusters that spawned sequels – but to develop hydra-headed fantasy worlds similar to those created in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and, of course, Star Wars. While there is a powerful commercial logic for this, none of it would work if audiences didn’t love this form of storytelling.

As the media analyst Matthew Ball has observed, the concept of a cinematic universe has deep roots. For most of human history, the predominant narrative form in every culture has been the oral epic: a saga of gods, demigods and humans that takes place across generations and spans different realms above and below the earth. Versions include the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Norse mythology, the Mahabharata and even Hebrew scripture. Each includes a multitude of stories within an overarching master-narrative, often a war or a quest. Within an epic, no story exists in isolation, and every character is connected to every other character in a complex network of connections formed via blood, battle and love. The epics were open-access, authored by multiple storytellers. Their stories were always being added to and annotated, with only the most resonant passed on and, later, written down.

The Star Wars trilogy drew from these ancient forms, as well as from modern cinematic ones such as science fiction and the Western. At first, Lucas merely tolerated the fan fiction universe of stories that grew up around the trilogy (there are six levels of Star Wars “canon”). Later, he used it as the basis for prequels and spin-offs. Feige worked out, or intuited, that the Marvel comic book universe was ripe for cinematic re-creation. Its first worldrunner, Stan Lee, had already ensured that all the Marvel comics were integrated with each other through plot and character. Each of Marvel’s thousands of stories have been audience-tested on millions of readers and improved on by multiple storytellers; Feige is drawing on eight decades of creative development and 5,000 years of human culture.

[see also: Covid-19 and the decline of the cinema blockbuster]

Everyone would like to emulate the Marvel model but nobody has done so on the same scale. Marvel’s long-time rival DC Comics, owner of Wonder Woman and Batman, tried and failed to create an integrated universe around its characters, before reverting to standalone movies. Elsewhere there have been failed attempts to build universes around Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Power Rangers. How has Marvel succeeded? Partly by succeeding. As Ball puts it, “a culture will embrace only a few epics at any one time, and maybe only one”. Audiences just don’t have the time to get into another universe now, which will make Marvel’s ascendancy very hard for competitors to overcome. The MCU is like Google’s search data: a defensive wall that is forever being built higher by the company’s own users.

Marvel Comics gave the MCU a head start, but the MCU would not be so dominant had it not been for an extraordinary consistency of execution – from its narrative planning and internal coherency to good choices in casting, costume, directing and writing. Such consistency comes from having a worldrunner for whom Marvel’s characters are not just intellectual property, but living, breathing legends. The business of global entertainment may be cynical, but the secret of success is to find yourself a geek as pure as Kevin Feige. 

Ian Leslie is the author of “Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together” (Faber)

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special