Today, we finally arrive at the end of our journey chronicling the history of Marvel Studios. As you’ve undoubtedly read our recap of events from the 1940s to 2007 and seen their beautiful illustrations, we’ll pick up on our finale starting in 2008. Starting not so long ago in a cinematic universe not too far away.
We want to thank everyone who has helped ComicUI and Pickled Comics over the past week, as well as putting up with our crazy notions as far back as December. We may be proud of our work and want to shove it in everyone’s faces, but we really do appreciate all the support and feedback. Thank you all!
Tomorrow, head back to see the complete collection of the articles, and then Friday you can expect our review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.
History of Marvel Studios – Part 3
After Spider-Man 3’s commercial success, but critical failure, things were looking bleak as 2007 closed out. The ratio of hits to misses was starting to even out for the studios. After the strongest run of the Marvel golden era was in its infancy, those invested in the films were struggling to bring life to the dying traditions.
In the darkest hour of films based on Marvel characters, a light appeared, ushering in the new, “silver era” of comic book films. Without so much as anyone noticing, Marvel had created their own studio entity (Marvel Studios, duh) to focus on the film and television side of the industry. They have grown to be synonymous with success, popularity, and fame, but they weren’t always that way. Their first venture: Iron Man.
Before 2008, Iron Man was a B-list comic book character and nowhere near the household name we know now. Due to previous addictions and legal trouble, Robert Downey Jr. was one of the highest-risk actors in the industry, to the point where studios would not insure his casting in hardly any films. Marvel Studios had no experience in making films and had yet to establish themselves as a proven company. This was a huge risk, even for superhero films.
However, Marvel did something new and different. Their risks weren’t entirely unfounded and Iron Man had other legs to hold itself up. The first and most apparent of these hopeful assurances was the inclusion of big name actors. Upon casting RDJ as Tony Stark, who could very well be the real life incarnation of the comic book character, they also chose to include known actors with positive reputations. First and foremost, they included The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, to portray the main antagonist in the film. From Tron through The Big Lebowski, Bridges is a known actor of many ages, fit to play the transforming part of the character.
On the flip side, Marvel cast Gwyneth Paltrow as Virginia “Pepper” Potts, the unassuming, partial love interest and secretary to one Tony Stark. Her popularity from films such as Seven, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow showed the gravitas of her skill and popularity across all genres, something needed for a live action version of Iron Man to be successful.
These actors made the film seem serious and very much grounded in reality, a refreshing change of pace from the often-fantastical movies that preceded it.
The film also did something unprecedented. At the end of the film, after the credits, they placed a special scene that included Nick Fury,another character from Marvel’s comic book repertoire, and is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, the biggest-name actor in the film’s roster at the time. Lastly, less than a minute in length, Marvel set up the expectation that future films by the studio would lead to an Avengers feature. This was prior to establishing any superhero characters other than Iron Man through the studio. The tease alone was enough to entice comic book fans and the general audience to the point that should the studio not deliver, it could mean the collapse of everything so far.
Iron Man ended up being a huge success in both financial and critical terms. This silenced the naysayers of the comic book movie genre and those who frowned upon the risks that Marvel Studios took to create their first film. Millions of people who had never heard of Tony Stark or Iron Man were now introduced and craved more. Within 10 years, Marvel had gone from bankruptcy and an unknown future to one of the hottest brands around.
Marvel couldn’t sit on their laurels with one success, especially after deliberately telling us their plans to assemble the Avengers in the future. Several months later, they released their version of the Hulk into theaters. This was the second time in five years a Hulk movie was made, but this version drew more from the Incredible Hulk television show in nature and name. With Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler as his love interest, Betty Ross, Marvel was using stars with known acting abilities to bring their characters to life. The perfect mixture of action, comedy, and drama made The Incredible Hulk another success for Marvel Studios.
The Incredible Hulk existed in the same world as Iron Man, often referencing Stark Industries. It would technically be the first film to acknowledge that another movie exists in parallel that isn’t a sequel or reboot. As with its predecessor, there was a special sequence at the end of the film with a surprise actor, teasing the Avengers’ eventual creation. I’ll best describe it as “Tony Stark walks into a bar,” complete with Robert Downey Jr. as the man himself.
Marvel Studios was on a hot streak. Having released two films within several months of each other, both crafting a larger world into which more films could exist, other studios knew they had to step in and combat Marvel’s newfound success.
In 2008, another semi-sequel would be released that would sneak under the radar from Lionsgate. The Punisher: War Zone cast Ray Stevenson (later to be the jolly Volstagg in the Thor films) as Frank Castle, but ultimately failed to garner any success. The often gory and violent film does not exist in the Marvel Studios continuity, and it is not related to the first Punisher film. It is uncertain at this time if the Punisher will ever see a return to cinema, although the live action rights have reverted to Marvel Studios.
The following year would be a very sad year for superhero films and Marvel characters in general. X-Men: Origins – Wolverine would be the only release, and it would leave a mark upon the X-Men franchise, as well as a bad taste in cinema everywhere. The workprint of the film was leaked before it hit theaters, causing lawsuits for those who downloaded the movie, as well as harsh reviews from the comic book community for their portrayal of Deadpool.
Serving as a prequel to the already established X-Men films, this was the second (in a row) critical failure for the studio. However, the film was financially successful, thus ensuring more X-Men movies would be made afterwards. This was also the first superhero film to receive a prequel, as well as the first time a series had four movies. Despite the main character having a healing factor, many felt that X-Men could never recover from a cut this deep.
2010 introduced the sequel to Iron Man, with the unoriginally titled Iron Man 2. While the film didn’t exactly take Marvel Studios to new heights, it proved that they could successfully expand on roles of other characters in the film without hurting the main character. We were first introduced to the Black Widow in the sequel, and Marvel also established that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a history, dating back to Tony Stark’s father, Howard. SHIELD never felt more alive in this universe as the police force for big problems. True to form once more, Marvel gave a post-credits stinger that teased the biggest, boldest risk yet: Thor.
No other films based on Marvel characters graced the big screen that year, giving us either a second drought or what some refer to as a ‘break’ from big budget, superhero films. Since 2000, there had only been one year without Marvel character films in theaters. Without this reduced release schedule, I feel there could have been a strain on the industry that would have caused irreparable damages.
2011 was a different story, with two Marvel Studio films and another X-Men movie to bring both quality and reassurance to comic book fans everywhere. The summer season started off with Thor, the riskiest comic book translation to date. While many films before, such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, had been established in science, Thor introduced the element of magic and the unexplainable. How does one craft gods into an established universe where one man uses science to create advanced metal suits? Easily.
Marvel introduced the Asgardians as kin to aliens, rather than related to actual gods and pantheons. This worked twofold to bring about the cosmic universe to the established films while also setting up dangers beyond the Earth as we knew it. Thor also introduced the most compelling villain in superhero movies to date in the form of Loki. His grievances against Thor would later turn against Earth itself, giving us the premise behind the Avengers film. Jeremy Renner would also appear briefly as Hawkeye in the film, teasing the full roster for the upcoming Avengers, as well.
As if creating an alien race and making it successful wasn’t a challenge, Marvel wanted to attempt their own personal version of Captain America. After four failed attempts, they decided to take full control of the character and introduce him properly in the 1940s. This took place in a period piece film, which saw the rise of Steve Rogers from frail Brooklyn resident to the ultimate American soldier. Marvel would also recast an actor who previously played one of their characters in the Fantastic Four, Chris Evans. He went from Human Torch to Captain America, which demanded a different tone, which Evans nailed home. The film ended in modern times, acting as the kick-off point for Marvel’s The Avengers, which hit theaters the following summer. Now with all their pieces in play, expectations were running high for Marvel Studios.
It wouldn’t be fair to not mention another X-Men film that came out the same year as Marvel’s other powerhouses. X-Men: First Class did something different for the franchise. It introduced audiences to Xavier and Magneto as young adults in the 60s. We got to see how they met and created the first team of X-Men. Unlike the previous prequel (X-Men: Origins – Wolverine), the film was critically accepted as a success, and it invigorated the dying franchise once more.
2012 was THE year for comic book films and superhero exposure. Summer saw two blockbuster films emerge, introducing the most famous of characters to a new generation of audiences. Marvel’s The Avengers was the first film to hit the scene that year. The most ambitious project by any studio, not just Marvel, it brought together the main (and supporting) actors from five previous films and placed them into the same battle. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all took main stage as they combatted the manipulative Loki and his army of Chitauri.
Bringing together so many actors and characters while maintaining story and development was not going to be easy. Marvel hired Joss Whedon (nerds love him) to write the script and direct the film. Throughout his years on shows that featured a team of characters (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse), he had proven the ability to keep drama, humor, and character development balanced and still remain successful. This decision paid off, as The Avengers is now the third highest-grossing film of all time. Once the end credits rolled and the Thanos teaser made every fanboy in the audience squeal, the film marked the end of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe Phase 1. The bar had been set higher than before, for any series or studio’s attempts at filmmaking in the future.
Now that Marvel had their properties under control and was successful, it was time for Sony to bring back Spider-Man to theaters. This time, the web slinger would be introduced as a teenage version of the character, while also reinventing his origin. Gone were organic webshooters, and instead, a science-based Peter Parker arose. His gadgets and suits were created for purpose rather than just for design. Many prior audiences had grown used to Mary Jane Watson as the love interest, but this time we were treated to Gwen Stacey and, ultimately, her tragic story. The film proved to be a success, with a sequel releasing later this year and two more planned out over the next few years.
It can’t always be rainbows and butterflies, there’s also compromise. Later that year, Ghost Rider returned to cinemas with Nicholas Cage again as the titular anti-hero. There really isn’t much more to describe this film, other than that. The film also cast Idris Elba, who played Heimdall in Thor, as a supporting actor, bringing the overall acting quality to a new level, but it still failed to reach the audience at large.
Marvel released only The Avengers in 2012, resulting in another single-movie-year for the studio. This meant that the self-elevated bar for comic book films needed to be surpassed the following May. Serving as a quasi-sequel to The Avengers and a Christmas-based story, Iron Man 3 was the film to start Phase 2 for Marvel Studios. This was the first trilogy for the studio, as well, which, as we now know, doesn’t always bode well for superhero movies. Iron Man 3 landed with thunderous applause, resulting in the second biggest income for Marvel Studios (behind The Avengers) and ended the Tony Stark character arc in his own films. Do not fret, as Iron Man will return in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and the Avengers 3 films, as well.
If I told you another standalone Wolverine film was made, would your gut reaction be to cringe and scowl? That’s how many felt before they walked in to see 2013’s The Wolverine, but that negative connotation was quelled after the credits rolled. Starring Hugh Jackman in his sixth appearance as Wolverine (whoa), The Wolverine focused more on the character as he traveled to Japan and dealt with the aspect of mortality. The film acts as a sequel to X-Men 3 and bridges the gap to the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past to be released this year, as well. Many hold this as a second-in-a-row success for X-Men films and as a resurgence for the once-popular series.
In an unprecedented move, Marvel Studios decided to release another film that year, but in the November time frame. Many superhero films and blockbusters take advantage of the summer months to increase their audience and capitalize on free time and the desire to be indoors. However, Thor: The Dark World was released in the fall and followed the adventures of a more mature Thor after the events of New York. Taking place two years later in the timeline, The Dark World finally references back to the Thanos reference in The Avengers by acknowledging the Infinity Stones and gives viewers glimpses into the other realms/worlds in Marvel’s Cosmic Universe. At this time, Marvel has confirmed writers but no release date for the inevitable threequel in the Thor series.
After two great Marvel Studios releases, it was a wonderful way to end 2013. Now we are on the eve of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel Studios is one of the most powerful and influential studios in the world and we couldn’t be happier. The Winter Soldier is taking a page out of Thor’s book by hitting theaters in the off-season for blockbuster films, but still packing the star power needed to drive audiences to theaters. With returning characters, as well as new ones, the film looks to break down barriers and reinvent the superhero genre with a spy-thriller piece, rather than the cosmic tales of late. Early reviews are raving over the film’s success, but we’re not here to spoil the movie for you!
As we sit on the cusp of Marvel Studios’ release of the newest Captain America film, we’re happy that superhero films are capable to be appreciated without the stigmata of the previous missteps that have come along the way. From Republic Pictures’ Captain America serial, to the 1979 home video releases, the 1990 attempt at realism, and now to the picture-perfect Marvel Studios version, the journey hasn’t been easy, but Marvel has stood the test of time.