Before 2008, Marvel was a dying company. Comic sales were way down, bankruptcy was filed. The Marvel Comics group sold off film rights to some of their most beloved characters just to stay afloat.
When things were going steady, Marvel decided to start their own movie studio after seeing the success of Fox’s X-Men movie series, which is still going today depending on who you ask, and on the success of of Sony’s Spider-man trilogy. Marvel wanted in on the money, which they eventually would get.
The issue Marvel was facing is that they sold off most of the “A-List” superheroes in their arsenal. They didn’t have their Batman or Superman like DC did. The only heroes that were considered “A-List” that they still retained rights to were the Hulk and Captain America.
So, they had to put all their eggs into lesser known heroes, like Iron Man.
Iron Man is the first installment in the franchise that we all know and love, and by all means this franchise never should have worked. Marvel took a washed up actor that was 2008’s Robert Downey Jr. and made him Tony Stark, a “B-List” hero that was made purely because comic writer Stan Lee wanted to make a character that no one should like and forced people to like him.
Now it is 2018 and in ten short years, this franchise has grossed almost $17.5 billion. The MCU franchise is more similar in style to the James Bond franchise. The MCU, much like James Bond, is the umbrella franchise that covers all the self contained franchises that coincide with it. For comparison, in the seven different James Bond franchises, the movies have only grossed around $7.1 billion.
Whether you take that umbrella franchise idea into account is irrelevant. Marvel and the MCU have completely dominated cinema and pop culture for the better part of a decade and there’s no sign of any other shared universe taking its place. Characters that no one has ever heard of before the movies, like Star Lord, are consistently destroying movies featuring Batman, one of the most popular superheroes and the dominant movie superhero throughout the 80’s and 90’s, and even the the late 2000’s.
The MCU’s model was clear. The movies need to have clear references to the greater universe that was being created, but make them subtle enough that if the universe failed, the movie could be self contained and stand on its own. In the early MCU, this came by having Nick Fury appear in the now famous post credit scene of Iron Man and then have Tony Stark appear at the end of The Incredible Hulk. This gave the audience the feeling that something was going to happen, but they could not be too sure.
So what happens next? Well, like everything else in the world, Disney bought the entirety of Marvel for over $4 billion.
The idea of the shared universe that Marvel were the pioneers of was unheard of before the MCU. There was the occasional cross-over between characters like Alien and Predator as well as the Freddy and Jason cross-over, but nothing like what Marvel did and is still doing. Those movies were not set in the same continuity like the Marvel movies.
There was also the old school Universal monster movies that came out in the 1930’s and ran up until the 1950’s, but even then that universe was not as connected as Marvel’s is. There were only two movies in that universe that have direct continuity with each other and that is Frankenstein and the direct sequel to that movie. Even the major cross-over events were an after thought and not planned out as Marvel’s are. So even if you consider that universe the first shared film universe, Marvel’s creation of the MCU is so far beyond that, Marvel should be (and is given) the credit for creating the shared film universe idea as we know it today.
The major thing that makes the MCU so attractive to filmgoers is that everything is interconnected. The events of a solo Captain America film can have enormous ramifications on a solo Ant-Man film. Where characters can move over from one franchise to another with narrative ease and purpose. Where each film has some reason for being and setting up major events. The obvious master key to unlocking Marvel’s success is their idea of building up stories and characters over a long period of time and across multiple movies, not just one.
It’s the patience that Marvel has when developing the universe that really shines when the movies finally hit the theatres. This patience works. Six of the top ten domestic box office openings of all time go to Marvel movies. And that number will only grow.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and DC are trying to play catch up in the worst way possible. Where Marvel has patience, DC is running at full sprint.
DC’s shared universe is flawed at best and doomed at worst. Warner Bros. kickstarted the universe by releasing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as a direct sequel to Man of Steel. So both entries in the DC movie universe were critically panned and divisive among fans. They introduced too much too fast, unlike Marvel where we discovered Tony Stark, Captain America, Thor and the rest of the crew over the course of 19 movies and 10 years.
Then, Universal tried to launch the Dark Universe. Their shared universe of monster movies beginning with the reboot of the mummy franchise was doomed to fail from the beginning for not including Brendan Fraser at all. Universal also tried to reference too much too fast instead of slowly introducing elements to some larger shared universe.
At the end of the day, Marvel is dominating the shared universe game and they will for a awhile. This universe has horror, political thriller, action, teen comedy, and all out blockbuster movies all interwoven and meaningful. No other franchise can say that or even attempt to pull it off. For that and so much more, Marvel will reign supreme for at least another decade.