How the Marvel superheroes took over Hollywood

Marvel Studios' newest film, 'Captain America: Civil War,' opens Friday, kicking off the summer blockbuster season. How the studio achieved massive success with a unique strategy.

'Captain America: Civil War' stars Chris Evans (center), Elizabeth Olsen (l.), and Sebastian Stan (r.).

In the new movie “Captain America: Civil War,” Marvel superheroes fight what could be their most powerful enemy: each other.

But whoever emerges victorious, the studio behind the films is already the ultimate winner.

Over the past decade or so, Marvel Studios, which makes movies about superheroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, has emerged as a massive force at the multiplex. Films about Marvel characters are the most bankable in Hollywood today, as the studio produces one box-office success after another. Marvel films perform well not just in the US but around the world, a crucial component in today’s marketplace.

Marvel has released 12 movies in its “cinematic universe” – each grossing more than $100 million domestically and most being fairly well-received by film critics.  

“We've never seen anything like this in terms of a brand like this dominating the movie industry the way Marvel has,” Thomas Schatz, author and media professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says. 

Mark Evan Schwartz, associate professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University, agrees. “This level of success, of there being such a hugely populated universe that continues both to surprise and to raise curiosity toward, is phenomenal. I think it's quite extraordinary,” Mr. Schwartz says. 

Hollywood has seen many successful franchises before. What makes Marvel different? 

First, a bit of history. Marvel Studios is of course named after Marvel Comics, the company at which such now-globally recognized characters as Iron Man and Captain America were created.

In decades past, Marvel allowed studios such as Twentieth Century Fox and Sony to make movies based on their characters. (It’s a complicated story and those studios still have the rights to some of them.) But in 2008, Marvel released the first self-financed of its movies, the Robert Downey Jr. film “Iron Man.”

The movie became a smash hit, with critics praising Mr. Downey’s performance and fans enjoying his take on the character. The film became the second-highest-grossing movie of the year. 

“An awful lot of this is the fact that 'Iron Man' was such a good movie,” Mr. Schatz says. “…I think ‘Iron Man’ is the foundation in many ways of this entire thing.”

After "Iron Man" (and 2008's "The Incredible Hulk"), Marvel began to differ in its strategy from most other Hollywood franchises. The studio didn’t just produce the “Iron Man” series – it began to create movies based on the various other characters living in Tony Stark’s world.

While the James Bond movies, for example, center on the British spy and the “Harry Potter” films follow the adventures of the boy wizard, Marvel Studios released an “Iron Man” sequel, but then made movies about other people living in the same fictional universe. Following the "Iron Man" sequel, Marvel's next releases centered on Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a 2011 movie of the same name and a World War II soldier named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) with 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” It would be like Warner Bros. releasing the first two movies about Harry Potter and then following it with a film centering only on Ron Weasley.

In a sense, Marvel was just being true to its roots. Comic book stories often work like this, with, say, Ant-Man aiding Iron Man. And so the movies are designed with this thinking, too, with a character perhaps popping up in one hero’s movie before appearing in their own. Almost every Avenger got their own movie and was introduced to audiences before all the characters came together onscreen for 2012’s “The Avengers,” for example. 

Schatz says this approach has been seen before – for example, Universal horror films would include their characters encountering one another, as with 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.”

“But no one has done it with anywhere near the efficiency of Marvel,” he says.

The Marvel empire also extends into TV, where, among others, ABC’s programs “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Agent Carter” and Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” are based on Marvel characters.

And plenty more is on the way for both mediums. In addition to Friday’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which will center on multiple heroes, Marvel has announced release dates for films through 2019, with some apparently telling the story of characters moviegoers know (2018’s “The Avengers: Infinity War”) as well as new ones (2019’s “Captain Marvel”).

What does the success of films about superheroes fighting off villains tell us about audiences today?

 “One of the really interesting things about all of this stuff is the post-9/11 dimension and the extent to which we've increasingly decided to see the world in these very strict, reductive moral terms in terms of good and evil,” Schatz says. “…At some level, this is connecting and it's beyond just these young boys that want to see things blow up. There's something more complicated than that in terms of the moral universe Marvel is creating. Like all great myths, these are dealing with the most fundamental impulses, both individual and, I think, communal, of human existence.” 

In the latest Captain America movie (which has already made more than $200 million overseas), the characters wrestle with moral issues that resonate today: accountability when the Avengers's acts lead to collateral damage. And what role should government play in these cases?

Part of Marvel's success, Mr. Schwartz says, lies in that the moviemakers make it easy for viewers to keep track of the many characters through visual cues (different-colored uniforms) and good screenwriting. 

“As with any well-developed character in a cinematic story, it's a combination of being visually unique and distinctive in manner of speech and in manner of attitude,” he says. Moviegoers know Iron Man, in his red-and-gold suit and with his wisecracking banter, will respond differently from Captain America in his mostly-blue-and-silver outfit and who wears his 1940s good-guy morality on his sleeve. 

Meanwhile, Schatz notes that films released by Marvel Studios all have a distinct – tongue-in-cheek – tone.

“Even in the comic books, [Marvel] began to create an ethos and what has become for the studio a house style,” he says. “Very much of that is about self-conscious comedy. The best movies – and 'Iron Man' is a great example – are fun and they're funny.”

Has Marvel's success been without problems? Schatz says some of the movies have evident flaws.

“The gender thing at Marvel in those movies ... there are some real problems for me with these films,” he says.

Marvel has come under fire for its portrayal of female characters, and about a lack of female superheroes. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, for example, who appeared in the 2015 film "Avengers: Age of Ultron," among others, was panned by some. Sara Stewart of the website IndieWire wrote of the movie, "Did we really need Natasha to have a mini-breakdown over the fact that she can't have children? Haven't we gotten to a point where the one lonely female superhero in our current landscape can just pursue the business of avenging without having to bemoan not being a mother?"

And the release of "Ultron" also included stars Jeremy Renner and Mr. Evans using pejorative terms to describe Black Widow's moral character during an interview. Both later apologized, though Mr. Renner later repeated one of the terms during another press appearance.

Meanwhile, "Avengers" star Mark Ruffalo also tweeted about a lack of items for sale based on Ms. Johansson's character.

The first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe with a female character getting top billing is set to be 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” but it will be preceded by more than 10 years of male-led films. Evangeline Lilly's Wasp character will reportedly star in a 2018 movie, but her character's name will be alongside Paul Rudd's Ant-Man for the movie "Ant-Man and the Wasp."

But even with such flaws, Schatz says, "Marvel has figured out how to systematically reproduce this stuff. And they're going to keep doing it as long as it holds up.” 

Other studios seem to be trying to use this formula to achieve success. Some saw Warner Bros.’ “Batman v Superman,” which was released earlier this year, as Warner Bros.’ attempt to use the “cinematic universe” formula with the characters created by DC Comics, which has long been Marvel’s chief rival in the comics game. Warner Bros. has announced a movie about Wonder Woman, who appeared in “Batman v Superman,” as well as films about the superheroes the Flash and Aquaman, among others. 

“Batman v Superman” became a financial hit but was panned by critics. Schwartz says he’s doubtful whether Warner Bros. can became as mammoth as Marvel.

“I think the bar was raised so high,” Schwartz says. “…It's much easier to relate to a character, I believe, like, say, Iron Man or Captain America, who is in fact one of us, as opposed to Superman, who's a seemingly invincible alien. Can other companies rise to [the] occasion and do this? Possibly. Will they? I'd be amazed.” 

Movie fans can see the evidence of Marvel's “cinematic universe” approach in the plans for the “Star Wars” films, which will include a movie about all-new characters (not, say, Luke or Leia) titled “Rogue One” this December, and the “Harry Potter” movies. A new film set in the “Potter” universe but centering on a different character, titled “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” will come out this November. 

“We're watching the movie and television industries along with comic books and other cultural forms rethink the way popular storytelling is constructed,” Schatz says.

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