When Iron Man simultaneously revived Robert Downey Jr’s career and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) back in 2008, no one could have predicted the phenomenal success (nearly $15 billion and counting) of the game-changing franchise. But on its tenth anniversary those superheroes are still smashing box-office records, with billion dollar blockbuster Black Panther now the most lucrative solo film to date – and it was only released in February. About to top that is Avengers: Infinity War, unleashed in the UK on 26th April.
Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, describes this 19th instalment as “the culmination of the entire MCU”. Even by the standards of Hollywood event movies, it’s ambitious: a roll call of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and many more, uniting against formidable foe Thanos. The Avengers films remain the company’s cash cows, so a bulging box office is assured, especially with the sheer star power on screen – the prospect of Downey Jr mixing it up with the likes of Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt and Benedict Cumberbatch is a mouthwatering one.
It’s manna from heaven for someone like me, a reader and collector of comics since Marvel’s hip, all-too-human heroes (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men) challenged the supremacy of DC Comics icons Superman and Batman in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, you tuned in to prime-time TV shows Batman, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk to get your live-action superhero fix. The big screen offered thin gruel until, in 1978, Christopher Reeve’s Superman made you believe a man could fly. Then, a decade later, Tim Burton’s Batman had audiences queuing around the block. Comic books were cool, and specialist collector shops thrived in the 80s and 90s.
But when both franchises suffered financial and critical fatigue, the studios lost interest. Even in the noughties, the X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series began to pall after a brace of slick adventures, while Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) was more art house than kick-ass. Christopher Nolan’s ground-breaking Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) earned billions, critical credibility and even an acting Oscar for Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as the Joker. But Nolan moved on in 2012, and that same year Marvel’s big guns – Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor – graduated from starring in their own adventures to teaming up for Marvel Avengers Assemble. The rest is history.
Of course, you don’t have to be an avid fan to enjoy the Marvel films. The 18 releases so far are well-made, state-of-the-art entertainments – a cavalcade of comic-book heroes and villains patiently developed into a cohesive movie universe with quality casts and talented directors. But where does this constant level of success leave Hollywood? Todd VanDerWerff, of news website Vox, wrote that, though Marvel’s output was enjoyable, “it might take over the film industry”. Even Steven Spielberg has bemoaned the glut of comic-book movies, predicting they would go the way of the western. Feige’s response: the western remained popular for 50 years or more.
But rival studios rushing to imitate the MCU model is more of a concern. Warner Bros has its own DC Extended Universe but, of the five releases to date, only last year’s Wonder Woman earned plaudits. The studio is also two films in to a Kong/Godzilla MonsterVerse. Meanwhile, Universal has unearthed its own classic roster of monsters for a Dark Universe saga, although the muted response to last year’s Mummy movie has resulted in silence over proposed future flicks featuring Frankenstein’s Monster and a Johnny Depp-led Invisible Man.
The competition pales against the Marvel hit factory, which since 2009 has been part of Disney’s lucrative stable of properties (Pixar, Star Wars). That’s some corporate clout, though there have been qualms from purists over much-loved characters being “Disneyfied”. Still, the Marvel films go from strength to strength, with Ant-Man and the Wasp due to open in the summer and Brie Larson (an Oscar winner for 2015’s Room) to star in Captain Marvel in 2019. With Disney’s competitors splashing the cash to keep up, is this battle of the box-office giants squeezing out other more humble productions?
Recent movies The Cloverfield Paradox, Duncan Jones’s Mute and Alex Garland’s Annihilation caused rumbles of concern as they bypassed the big screen and went straight to Netflix. Feige has declared that next year’s fourth Avengers film will be “a definitive end to the trajectory of the previous films”. It’s true to say some Marvel actors and their characters may be moving on, so could that expose a chink in the studio’s armour of success?
With the monetary might of Disney currently eyeing up the 20th Century Fox-owned Marvel characters (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Deadpool) for purchase, it’s academic whether these heroes dominating our screens is a good or bad thing. Movie trends come and go, but certainly for the foreseeable future the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here to stay. And maybe for even longer than the western.