The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

10 Years Ago Marvel Took a Bold Risk That Reshaped the Movie Industry

Avengers: Infinity War  movie poster

Avengers: Infinity War movie poster

Felix Quinonez Jr.

When Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters this Friday, 4/27, audiences will show up in droves, screenings will sell out and everyone will be talking about the movie. By the end of Sunday, we might even have a new opening weekend box office champ. But somehow none of that will surprise anyone.

By this point, we’ve all gotten used to the summer movie season being rung in by a Marvel movie. It’s more or less a tradition by now. The only thing that could be surprising at this point would be if it didn’t make an insane amount of money.

Although the fact that it was moved up one week does seem to signal the growing trend of “Summer blockbusters” taking over more and more of the calendar year.

But the bigger significance is that it marks the 10th year anniversary of what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (MCU) In 2008, Iron Man kick started what was then a bold and risky experiment. And since then it has grown beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected or even hoped for.

These days MCU movies come like clockwork. Infinity War is their 19th movie and 2nd of 3 movies for this year alone. The movies can hardly be described as risky since they are all but assured box office dominance.

Iron Man  movie poster

Iron Man movie poster

But it wasn’t always this way. Iron Man kicked things off and its success had a huge influence on the superhero genre and the movie industry at large. But the movie, directed by John Favreau, was by no means a guaranteed success. Robert Downey Jr. was no one’s first choice, or in fact anyone’s second choice for a leading man in a big budget movie. And Favreau was completely untested with this kind of movie.

So, to say that there was a lot riding on the movie’s success would be a monumental understatement. Although it’s hard to picture anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing the role, at the time, casting him was a huge gamble. Because of his history of drug abuse, he was basically uninsurable. But the gamble paid off and he became the cornerstone of the MCU. And the movie was the fruition of years of work on Marvel’s part. They had wanted to get into the movie making business for a long time. But these plans were abruptly put on hold when they filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

They were losing a lot of money and had plenty of debt. Coincidentally enough, its biggest debt of $1.7 million was to Disney, who would one day go on to buy Marvel. At one point Marvel had to fire about one third of their employees. But eventually they came up with a plan to license the movie rights of some of their most popular characters. This provided Marvel with an influx of much needed capital which they could use to pay off debt.

The first movie that came out of this arrangement was Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. People tend to leave Blade (1998) out of the conversation in regards to the current era of superhero movies but it was a decent sized hit. It grossed over $130 million worldwide on a relatively modest $45 million budget. But it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) that kicked the genre into high gear. That movie was well received by critics and fans. It was also a very big box office hit and it launched a franchise that is still going strong 18 years later.

Spider Man  movie poster

Spider Man movie poster

But if X-Men was a hit, Spider Man (2002) was an all-out box office smash. Spider Man, directed by Sam Raimi, grossed over $800 million worldwide and demonstrated just how huge these movies had the potential to be.

But the problem, for Marvel, was that these movies were making money for everyone but them. After the initial sales fee, they were only seeing a fraction of the profits. It is said that Blade only earned Marvel $25,000 in royalties. And because of a particularly unfavorable flat-fee negotiation, Marvel saw none of the profits from X-Men.

Because of this, it’s understandable that Marvel wanted to cut out the middle men and release their movies themselves. The plan was to form their own production studio to make their own movies and retain 100% of the profits. In order to do this, they struck a $525 million financing deal to launch Marvel Studios. The deal would give Marvel complete creative control. But in order to attain the financing they had to put up the rights to some of their most popular characters (Captain America, The Avengers, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye and others) as collateral. If their plans failed, the bank would own those rights and the MCU would be dead.

Although Iron Man could be, generously, described as a c-list character. There was a sense that this movie would be something special. The super bowl trailer that preceded its release was genuinely thrilling and it struck a chord with audiences. People were excited for it and waited with bated breath. And those who were paying attention to the behind the scenes action knew that this was an important release for the superhero genre.

Looking back on it now, it’s easy to imagine that writers were equally prepared to report the movie’s eventual failure or success. Had the movie flopped it would have had a very different impact. It could have signaled, if not the end at least the decline in the genre.

So, when it was a hit you could practically hear the sighs of relief from studio executives. And because it was such a success, it marked a turning point for superhero movies. It steered the genre away from the insular, self-contained nature of the most of the movies that came before it.

And it didn’t hurt that the movie was a wildly entertaining breath of fresh air. Critics and audiences loved it. There was even talks of Robert Downey Jr. getting an Oscar nomination for his performance. But he was probably overshadowed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and the academy was more than likely hesitant to give out two acting nominations for movies in the superhero genre.

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in  Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man

The movie has a freewheeling energy to it that captivated audiences. It was reported that the movie didn’t actually have a script. And that’s probably why it often feels like they are figuring things out as they went along. Robert Downey Jr’s performance has arguably grown into a shtick or at the very least lost some of its freshness. Repetition can make that happen but, in this movie, he was downright revelatory.

The movie also introduced some of the hallmarks of an MCU movie, for better or worse. The villain in this movie is very forgettable and that is something that most MCU movies tend to suffer from. More specifically they went with the “mirror” villain in this movie and repeated that several times afterwards. The movie also established the trope of killing off a mentor so that the hero could advance. But most importantly the movie established a connection to a larger universe.

By now, most people have come to expect after credit scenes from MCU movies. (It’s always shocking to see people leave a theater right after the movie ends.) But when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) showed up at the end of Iron Man to talk about an Avengers initiative, it was genuinely thrilling. But beyond the spectacle and clever quips, Iron Man had emotional resonance at its center. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow were great together and helped make the movie truly special.

And the fact that the movie was genuinely fun shouldn’t be overlooked. It captured the joy of becoming a super hero in a way that often gets overlooked in a genre that has often mistaken pessimism for realism. But at the end of the day profit is what allows movies to become franchises. And Iron Man wasn’t just successful, it was an undeniable box office smash. It grossed over $300 million domestically and almost $600 million worldwide.

But even though the movie was a gamble, its commercial potential, and that of the rest of the marvel roster, must have been evident because it didn’t take Disney long to snatch up Marvel studios in December of 2009 for $4 billion. And the fact that they moved in so quickly suggests that Disney must have already been planning the acquisition. It seems they were just waiting to see how Iron Man performed at the box office before making the move.

The movie also catapulted Robert Downey Jr. into the A-list and revived his career. And after Iron Man everyone wanted their own “shared universe.” But so far no one has really been able to replicate the success that Marvel has had.

Avengers  movie poster

Avengers movie poster

After seeing how successful The Avengers (2012) was, Sony didn’t waste one second to kick-start their own interconnected cinematic universe. The result was The Amazing Spider Man 2. Although that movie was still entertaining and had an unique sense of charm, it suffered from being stuffed to the brim. The studio’s attempts to set up more franchises were so blatant that it often forced the actual story to take a back seat. At times if felt like watching a series of interconnected commercials for the spinoffs that never came to fruition.

That movie disappointed fans and critics and was easily the lowest earning Spider Man movie at the box office. Because of this, Sony teamed up with Marvel to bring Spider Man into the MCU fold with hopes that they could bring back some of the luster the character had lost.

And to no one’s surprise it didn’t take long for DC to try to get into the Cinematic universe game. They actually had an earlier attempt in 2011 with Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell. But that movie was so reviled that they scrapped their plans altogether.

Their current cinematic universe began in earnest with 2013’s Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. Although that movie’s reputation has plummeted over the years, at the time, it was a—somewhat—promising start. It wasn’t until 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, also directed by Zack Snyder, that the wheels really fell off. Almost everything about that movie seemed to reek of desperation. There was a general consensus that Man of Steel didn’t make as much money as it should have and DC felt the need to bring their star player Batman off the bench.

And if that wasn’t enough, they also added Wonder Woman, Doomsday, and Lex Luthor. Batman fights Superman and they also crammed in the death of Superman story line. Basically, any one of those would be enough to carry a movie but instead DC chose to stuff them all into Dawn of Justice without really making something that was coherent.

It was as if they wanted to desperately achieve the kind of success Marvel had without putting in the work that was necessary. They just wanted to jump to the point that took Marvel years to reach. And their next movie Suicide Squad was a mishmash of tones and it was almost completely nonsensical. Its only accomplishment seemed to be that it wasn’t as bad as Dawn of Justice (Although to be fair there were a couple of pretty good performances in there.)

So far, their only real bright spot has been Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. It got great reviews and was a huge box office hit. And Gal Gadot’s star making performance was so good that most audiences could forgive its formulaic last act.

But even that wasn’t enough to correct the ship. By the time Justice League, directed by Zack Snyder, (with help from Joss Whedon) came out it seemed that they had already burned through too much audience goodwill and the movie was mostly overlooked. Justice League was supposed to be the payoff where all the heroes finally come together for a rousing event. And it was supposed to be a huge box office success. (Avengers grossed over $600 million domestically and $1.5 billion worldwide) But instead Justice League became the lowest grossing DC movie. And now the DC cinematic universe is, to be generous, on shaky ground. And the less said about Universal’s dark universe, the better.

These days comic book characters are perhaps as popular as they’ve ever been. (Even if comic books themselves haven’t gained much in popularity.) The comic book movies started influencing the comics. And the characters have made their way to the small screen and even Netflix.

MCU movies have become very trusted by fans have garnered unprecedented amount of audience goodwill. Because of this, audiences are willing to follow the studio wherever they lead them. And that success and loyalty allows the studio to bring more and more of their characters to the big screen, no matter how obscure they might be.

Guardians of the Galaxy  movie poster

Guardians of the Galaxy movie poster

Before 2014, very few people knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were but their first movie was one of the biggest hits of the year. Like Robert Downey Jr. before him, Chris Pratt was turned into an A-List star after his MCU role. All of their success allows them to take chances and because of that we got the first African American big budget superhero movie with Black Panther. And the gamble paid off once again. That movie is one of the biggest hits of all time. It’s already the #3 movie domestically and has grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide.

But like with anything else, the MCU has had its ups and downs. When Ant Man and the Wasp hits theaters in July, it will be the 20th MCU movie. (In 10 years) Because of this, it’d be unrealistic to think that they would all be cinematic masterpieces.

They have their share of home runs that are genuinely fun, exciting movies with emotional resonance: Iron Man, The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Black Panther.

Then they have their second-tier movies that are still genuinely great even if they don’t hold up as well after repeated viewings: Civil War, Avengers, Spider Man: Homecoming.

Below that level are the movies that are entertaining and have genuinely moving moments but don’t quite reach the level of greatness: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.

After that come the movies that are superficially fun and sometimes genuinely exciting but ultimately forgettable: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor Ragnarok

They also have movies that are basically well-done retreads of the first Iron Man: Ant Man and Dr. Strange

 And of course, even the MCU has their share of duds: Iron Man 2 and 3, Incredible Hulk and Thor the Dark World

 Age of Ultron seems to fall under its own category. Although the movie didn’t quite come together it does have its moments of greatness. The movie was unfairly written off by most audiences but at least part of that has to do with the unrealistic high expectations it had to meet.

And although its climactic finale is yet another case of the heroes battling a faceless army it does have a lot of genuinely thrilling action along the way. But more importantly it is a movie that raises interesting philosophical themes that audiences forgot over time.

The movie ponders humanity, the beauty that comes from its frailty, our place, as humans in the world and the nature of war. And the vision/Ultron meeting at the end is one of the most heartfelt, moving scenes in any MCU movies. The movie also ponders the nature of heroism and it makes an intriguing point that every triumphant victory is a devastating loss when seen from the other side.

But even their duds aren’t all out terrible movies. And fans are able to overlook them or at least forgive them because they are part of a larger universe that they have become invested in.

Although Infinity War is being advertised as a conclusion of sorts, the MCU will not be ending any time soon. Instead it seems that it's about to evolve into something different than what came before it. What that means exactly is still a mystery. But one thing is for sure, whatever form the MCU takes next, fans will be lining up to see it.