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The Magic Behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has master-minded the apparently unstoppable behemoth which we all know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but exactly how he has done it, or how he was even able to do it, rests very much with the fact that he was in harmony with the original spirit of Marvel as generated by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the other founding members of Marvel Comics.

Yes, he had the courage and foresight to put that creative spirit ahead of what others might have chosen, the commercial concerns that come with such immense projects. But to understand the reason why it worked on a couple of levels, we have to take a brief look at what had happened to the key intellectual properties of Marvel a few years ago.

Marvel Comics as it had been known was dismantled in the 1990s as the comics world failed to make a comfortable transition into the 21st century. By the time Marvel Studios was rescued by the entertainment giant Disney, it ended up owning only the film rights to all of the Avengers characters, while Fox Studios owned X-Men and Sony owned Spider-Man. Marvel as a cohesive film universe had literally disintegrated and been broken up in an attempt to salvage the company financially.

Feige developed the concept of the MCU, whereby the studio would introduce the Avengers characters in their own respective films and then have them merge into an epic Avengers film. This was a high-risk strategy: these characters weren't as popular at that time as Batman or Superman, who were virtually world-wide icons. Though it might be hard to imagine it now, Iron Man wasn't that widely known outside of comic fans. Same for Thor, the Black Widow, Nick Fury, and even Captain America. Only the Hulk, who had had his own TV series in the ‘70s and had featured in two films (with different lead actors) was famous outside the world of comics, but even he was no match for Batman and Superman in terms of commercial profile.

But this was Feige’s gamble: that, though these characters were not as iconic, they had a dedicated hardcore group of followers who had been introduced to them back in the 60s and who had grown up into their 50s yearning for film versions of their favourite heroes. If Marvel could tap into that following, and do so repeatedly with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, he would be able to develop a juggernaut (no, not the Marvel villain of the same name, but a business juggernaut) which would mount in numbers and pace until it became a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s a well-known business strategy -develop and market individual products one by one, but build into each connections that lead to the others. Then, per the 80/20 rule, a small proportion of those who are interested in one product will become interested in the other, and so on. If these interconnect beyond a critical point, the effect is like an acoustic build-up: it eventually echoes more powerfully and develops its own momentum.

Rather than make one big film featuring all the intellectual property available to Marvel, and then spin off a series of individual films, (as it looks like Warner Brothers is trying to do with Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, or as Fox did with the X-Men) the trick was to make individual films that were part of one story, Thor connected to Captain America connected to Iron Man, all part of the same universe. If one film didn’t do as well, it was partially propped up by the success of another; if that film got a strong box office response, it might be enough to carry the next, and so on. Then, if enough momentum was built up, bringing these characters together was the pulling factor. The ‘big film first’ strategy was riskier, when you think about it: if an initial Avengers film had not done well, all the individual properties were tainted by it -this way, everyone had their bite of the apple, and the apple grew bigger with each bite.

Of course, it could all have gone horribly wrong, but Feige and his team pulled off key successes along the way. Casting genius was central to this. Signing Samuel L. Jackson was a masterstroke. Having Nick Fury and SHIELD straddle the films gave a support network to all the major characters. Focusing television efforts on the background fabric that held all this together fictively, through Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, was another right move. They could so easily have decided to make something else into a TV series, there was plenty of scope. Strengthening SHIELD kept the muscles of the MCU warm and working while the major films were being made.

Then there was Robert Downey Junior, himself a risk at that time, having been in trouble with the law and with drugs. But just as Tony Stark says ‘I am Iron Man’ at the end of the first film, Downey said ‘I am Tony Stark’ to the world and they totally accepted it. The excitement amongst the hardcore Marvel fans who stayed to watch Iron Man’s post-credits sequence -itself almost invented by Marvel and part of this networking of films- was tangible. The ‘Avengers Initiative’ might as well have been called the ‘Feige Initiative’: we knew that something big, something different, was brewing.

Chris Evans as Captain America? Would the audience accept the Human Torch from the earlier Fantastic Four films as the World War II hero? It’s not as though the first Captain America film was that great in itself -but what it did do was cement Evans in place with some brilliant special effects which actually made it look like there really was a super-soldier formula. And again, there was SHIELD in the background.

Then Thor: an obscure Norse god, not at all like the all-American Stark or Star-Spangled Avenger -that was another big risk that paid off thanks to a relatively simple storyline which was dramatically uncluttered and powerful. Thor could have been the make-break point of this whole operation, halting the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its tracks. But, banking it all on British theatrical wizard Kenneth Branagh, Feige pulled it off again. After Thor’s success, the landscape was clear: three movie franchises, based around their own powerful and well-cast characters, all converging towards a team-up to beat all team-ups. Couple that with the reasonable success of the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk movie, and even the loss of Norton wasn’t going to throw a spanner into this machine.

What was happening here? Feige and perhaps those around him had realised one key thing: the biggest audience pull would come from all these separate properties converging, not the other way around. Don’t hype up the big team film and then try to make the individual franchises work -get enough franchises ticking over and the audience would gag for a get-together.

It must have taken some courage, but then Feige repeated the approach by deciding to make Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, based on properties known only to a dedicated few and whose premises were outside what had already been accomplished. It’s the opposite of the safe bet. Why not go for making films closely connected to what had already worked, like something about War Machine? No, Feige decreed: let’s trust to the pattern. Choose a franchise that is outside the perimeter of what has already been done and dangle the prospects before the audience of an even bigger team-up, linked by the Infinity War storyline.

It could be called the Mall Strategy: get a whole host of very different shops, but bring them under the same roof, and throw in a couple of comfortable cafes while you’re at it (the TV shows being the equivalent of ‘resting stops’ between the major films).

Because Feige had the backing of world superpower Disney, he also knew that this could all be mirrored in merchandising terms too. But Feige kept thinking outside the box. Instead of introverting and playing it safe, he negotiated with Sony -about as far off any predictable map as he could have gone at the time- and brought Spider-Man into the Bigger Picture. He played it right: let Sony keep the rights to the character, but have him make a guest appearance in the ‘mall’. Marvel wins, Sony wins, audiences win.

There were some other things going on which the film-watchers might not have been aware of. Because Fox, with their rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men, didn’t want to play Feige’s game, we see subtleties like the discontination of the Fantastic Four comic book and the death of the leading X-man Wolverine in the comics. Is that spite on Marvel’s part? Possibly, but the effects will be slow to be felt at Fox. It just means that the characters that Fox have rights to are being faded out of other media, especially when you consider that Marvel still has the merchandising rights for X-Men and Fantastic Four, possessing a stranglehold on Fox’s expansion in that field.

Marvel’s 75th Anniversary magazine doesn’t even feature the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, which seems a shame but is part of this wider war that is being fought at corporate level. Under this kind of pressure, expect to see capitulation on Fox’s part and a deal for a new Avengers vs the X-Men film in the relatively near future.

Even underneath all this manipulation and planning, though, something else has been at work. And that is the original Lee/Kirby Marvel magic which brought these properties to life, along with the input from all those other creators, so long ago. Lee’s method of outlining a tale, drawing as he did from his own wide reading of literature of all kinds, then giving the artist the freedom to detail the story before returning to write in dialogue, which was born from overload on Lee’s part, turned out to be the creative dynamo which launched these characters into their own interlinked, cohesive universe decades before the MCU popped up. What happened in the ‘90s when Marvel Comics exploded and almost went under, was the reverse of this; what Feige has done, by putting in place the lines, channels and correctly casted people to restore all this, is to resurrect that original spirit. The interconnected world of the Marvel heroes has sprung back to life much like Captain America himself did after being frozen in the ice for years.

The genius of the MCU, then, is not only the cleverness of the commercial machinations and strategies that occurred, capitalising on the idea of the ‘mall’, bringing valuable properties together attractively, but also the revitalisation of something that was real in the first place and that just needed to be rediscovered. None of it would have worked had the Marvel universe not originally possessed the life and energy to breathe again: Feige may have got a lot of things right, but the ‘rightness’ was mainly in things like capturing the soul of Tony Stark with Robert Downey Junior, or the heart of Captain America with the convincing story arc portrayed by Chris Evans, or the power of Thor using the theatrical strengths of Kenneth Branagh.

Expect to see other risks taken and other, unconnected characters being brought into the light from the shadows of hinterland Marvel: we already see this with the planned Doctor Strange and Black Panther movies. Drawing on the rich history of strong Marvel properties in this way, always aware that the biggest pull is towards the promised centre, the MCU should continue to grow until there is no greater centre to pull it together. By then, each Marvel franchise will have made new fans and made so much money that just about everyone will be content.



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