The Rise of Marvel and How Kevin Feige Changed Cinema

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Note: I will get a review of The Nice Guys up soon.  But I wanted to post this first.

The superhero genre.  It’s the new western, the new slasher, the new mob movie.  Every once and a while there comes a genre that just speaks to people and becomes super popular for a period of time.  Today that genre is the superhero genre.  Sure, it’s been around since 1971’s Superman but what we are experiencing right now is what film historians will call the “Golden Age of Superhero films.”  We are in the middle of it.  While some people (wrongly) believe that there is superhero fatigue there is no doubt that the major money makers right now are the superhero films.  Just this year alone they have brought in over $2 billion dollars worldwide at the box office and will likely earn even more as we go along.  There are a few studios involved in the making and distribution of these films: Fox, Sony, and Warner Bros.  However, there is one that stands above the rest: Marvel Studios.  Yes, they are owned by Disney now but Disney has really let Marvel do what they want with their darker films (Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: Winter Soldier) and their TV shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones).  Think about it: Marvel stared their universe in 2008 with the release of Iron Man.  They have been on a roll; while some films have been disappointing, none have been panned by critics and fans alike.  Marvel has gone from a company with one superhero (Spider-Man) to now having kids and adults’ alike wear Captain America and Iron Man shirts everywhere.  Ten years ago you would never see someone dressed as Iron Man; now there people who will dress as Tony Stark.  Marvel’s rise to power as the blockbuster company is undeniable and how they got there from where they stared is even more fascinating.  A little wrinkle in all of this is Kevin Feige: he is the godfather of comic book films.  There has been one guy leading the way with a clear vision for these films for the past 10 years and it’s Kevin Feige.  His leadership, along with Marvel, have changed cinema.  Marvel and Feige have popularized the shared universe through their ambition, their intelligence and their risks.  Their story and how they have come to where they are, is important to understand the status of cinema today.

As most of you know, Marvel has been making films for quite a while.  There were several films based on their characters before, including Nick Fury (David Hasselhoff gives a performance of the century; it’s everything you imagined) and Captain America (probably one of the worst films ever made).  However, what Marvel was doing in the late 80s and early 90s was licensing its properties to other studios.  In fact, Marvel had a 7 year relationship with Fox to make X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Ant-Man and other films.  They already had a great working relationship with Fox, having several TV shows air on the network (X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Fantastic Four, among others).  What about Spider-Man?  Well, he was licensed out to Sony Pictures.

The X-Men was clearly the film to make; looking at the success of the TV show it would be one they could see a profit in.  Who was in charge of all this?  A guy by the name of Avi Arad, who had been with the company for several years.

Now, the 80s and early 90s was also a boom for the comic industry.  People were buying comics in record numbers.  Millions of copies would be sold every week.  However, like most booms, this ended in a major crash, one that almost led to Marvel getting bought out by rival DC.  It was a lot closer than you expect; so there is a company selling licenses to production studios to make movies for its characters.  Why?  Because Marvel did not have the capital or the name to make it themselves; they may as well allow Fox, Sony and other studios make the film then get some money back from the gross profits.

The first Marvel film was made in 1998 and was Blade.  That’s right.  The first major Marvel movie release was Blade.  Well, it was Fox that made the film but out of all the characters that we know of in Marvel, Blade was the first to get a crack.  Pretty interesting, right?  After that film, that was when Marvel licensed Sony to make Spider-Man.

Shortly after Blade we saw X-Men released in 2000.  What this film did was show that you can take a popular comic book and translate it to film in a serious manner (let’s be honest, it wasn’t like anyone knew Blade was a comic character).  People knew Wolverine, Cyclops and Storm from the TV show and this film did pretty well, making $250 million worldwide.  That’s right, kids, Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for over 15 years.  That’s like seeing Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant play for the same team for 20 years.  Also, I’m pretty sure Jackman is an alien since he looks the exact same as he did when he first started.

However, it was Spider-Man that really put comic book movies on the map.  Released in 2002, Spider-Man over $800 million worldwide and over $300 million domestically.  It was a huge, huge hit and director Sam Raimi really put comic book films on the map.

Marvel was finally starting to see that if you can stay true to the character(s) and create an intriguing story, comic book films can be profitable.  That was when, in 2003, everyone was called to a meeting wondering how Marvel can make more money.  X-2 had also just been released, earning even more money and is still seen as the best X-Men film of all time.

At the time, Marvel had a few All-Stars and if there was to be an all-star superhero team in 2003 it would probably consist of Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and Spider-Man.  We’ll compare this All-Star team to the 2016 team when we get there.

Just as a side note, a 30 year old junior executive worked at Marvel Studios.  He wasn’t really important but he would become it.  His name was Kevin Feige.  Little ol’ Kevin Feige was super young at this point.  He was a nobody.  He wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

OK, so back to the story.  Now we have comic book characters getting more films (Nolan had been pegged to direct/reboot Batman, Bryan Singer was leaving X-Men to direct Superman Returns, X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3 were in the works) because of films like Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men.  Again, though, Marvel needed to branch out if they wanted to make any money.  They were still living in their parents’ basement and while that’s fine it’ll feel much better to strike out on their own.  A big change happened when Avi Arad hired David Maisel to be Marvel’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) and he was tasked to try and get the capital needed for Marvel to create their own films.  He was able to secure the money from Merril Lynch which loaned a total of $525 million for a total of 10 films. Ant-Man, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack and Shang-Chi were the characters that Marvel gave to Lynch as collateral.   Ouch.  That’s some B- level talent right there.  I mean, they get points for creativity but the Power Pack?  Seriously?  They should have trotted Squirrel Girl and another Howard the Duck (ooooh, the hate, the internet hate for Duck and the backlash at lumping Squirrel Girl with him.  I’ll make sure to not put my address on here).  Merrill Lynch really should have asked for other characters.  But at this time I’m sure Shang-Chi was just as popular as Iron Man or Thor.

Anyway, the weird part is that no one really realized that Marvel still had the rights to the core Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.  Enter Kevin Feige, stage left, who had worked up as Avi Arad’s second in command.  Feige had the idea that the films could have a shared universe like the comics: Thor could visit Iron Man, Hulk could hang out with Captain America and they could all come together for a big film.  Needless to say, people were doubtful, like Arad.  Remember, this dude was old school; it takes time for progress to happen.  Look at the analytics movements for baseball and basketball: it takes time.  Then there’s the Catholic Church, which takes thousands of years for progress.  Old people like stuff the way it is.  I had to convince my folks to cut the cord to the cable this summer and there’s still skepticism.

Arad’s claimed that his success producing X-Men and Spider-Man helped gain them the money from Merrill Lynch.  So what does he do?  He resigns a year after they get the money, in 2006.  Because that’s what the successful people do; they get the success and run away before they get ALL THE MONEY.

OK, so I’m sure Arad had his reasons but remember that this was a huge gamble.  Imagine the faces as Feige is explaining his idea.

“So, we should make an Avengers movie.”

“Great.  Which Avengers should we have in it?”

“Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man.”

“That’s quite ambitious for our first movie out of the gate.”

“No, no, that’ll be the calmative film.”

“You mean you want a trilogy explaining how they all came together?  Great!  That worked for Lord of the Rings!”

“No, I think we should have 5 individual films introducing the characters while laying Easter eggs showing that they are all the same.  And have Samuel Jackson be Nick Fury where he and other SHIELD members make cameos in each of them.  Then we have a big crossover movie.”

“…. Get out.”

Really, it does sound crazy if you were born before 1995.  You’re going to use all $500 million on 5 movies that *might* be successful then have a crossover film 5 years after the first was released?  What?  You know how hard it is to make one good film much less 5 decent to great ones?  Any studio executive would have looked at that plan and thought it was crazy.  Of course Arad decided to leave: it could have been a sinking ship for Marvel and his career.

So, after he leaves, Feige is named president of Marvel Studios in 2007.  Feige was that late 4th round pick that everyone says can do only one thing.  Then he works his butt off and wants to show he can do more.

2007 was a year before Iron Man is supposed to come out.  This wasn’t the little engine that could, this was the little engine going up Everest.  This task had so much riding on it and it was much more ambitious than anything that had been tried previously.

Then Iron Man comes out starring Robert Downey Jr., the guy who has had such a checkered past.  Downey and Marvel each had their own roller coaster pasts in entertainment so bringing them together seemed fitting.  But who is Iron Man?  Only a handful of non-comic nerds knew of him and what Tony Stark was all about but it wasn’t based on a hit TV show nor was he a cultural icon (like a Captain America).  Marvel had to sell the idea to the public.

And did they ever. Iron Man grossed over $500 million worldwide with over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.  People loved this film.  Downey and director Jon Faverau’s direction and acting is now the quintessential Tony Stark and Iron Man.  While Stark ended the film with “I am Iron Man” Downey really is Iron Man.  He was perfect in every way for the character.

Then there was the end credits’ scene.  Where we see Nick Fury talk about the Avengers imitative and the nerds of the world lost.  Their.  Shit.  That was the brown note of their world, myself included.  I remember who I was with, where I was and what my reaction was when that scene happened.  This was the start of the “what was that?” with the nerd shaking with excitement.  This was how nerds were able get more dates: the hot men and women needed them to explain what the hell just happened.  I haven’t benefited from this personally but it must have happened.

With the success of Iron Man, there were many other films that came out including Iron Man 2 which earned more money than before.  By the time Avengers came out Marvel had already made over $2 billion worldwide at the box office.  Then the big one came out and it was Avengers.  We know what happened.  Over 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and over $1.5 billion at the box office.  No one saw that coming.  We are now 13 films into this universe and the latest has shown that Marvel is still cooking with another film making over $1 billion.  Total, Marvel has made over $10 billion worldwide at the box office and they are still cooking.

What else did people not see coming?  The cultural impact.  People are wearing Iron Man and Captain America shirts, people wield toy hammers from Thor, people now talk about their favorite Marvel character instead of saying “I know Spider-Man and… I don’t know, is Batman Marvel?”  Now we have studios everywhere wanting to have crossovers and shared universes.  DC launched their universe with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Sony wants to crossover 21 Jump Street and Men in Black, Paramount wants to create a classic monsters universe, now The Rock will have a Hobbes spinoff film from the Fast and Furious franchise and Fox wants to crossover X-Men and Fantastic Four.  Everything needs spinoff films and large franchises.  That is because of Marvel.  Through all the problems to get there executives are now seeing what happens when these universes are done well.

There are TV shows, books, comics, video games and just about everything that tailors to the MCU.  The cultural impact is enormous.  You remember the 2003 Marvel All-Stars?  Well, look at the 2016 Marvel All-Stars.

Black Widow

Iron Man

Captain America

Thor

Hulk

Guardian of the Galaxy

Hawkeye

Scarlett Witch

Vision

Ant-Man

People KNOW these characters.  If you ask people to name as many X-Men as they can they will get to Wolverine and Professor X, maybe.  If you ask people to name as many Avengers as they can they will most certainly name off the top 4 and probably more.  It’s insane.

This speaks to the genius of Kevin Feige’s genius but it’s not just about a good idea.  Feige had the faith in the material and the confidence to make this work.  Feige used his power to influence which films go where, what the overall direction is and who they take on to direct and star.  The guy has more golden touches than King Midas.  Feige is a franchise player and probably one of the best producers in Hollywood of all time.  He has brought in young, talented and up and coming directors.  He has brought in stars and unknowns.  Everyone wants to be in a superhero film.  There are so many Oscar winners in these movies.  Jeremy Irons, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch and now (supposedly) Brie Larson are just some of the names of people who are superheroes.  Being a hero is no longer a stigma but a way to enhance, revitalize or jumpstart a career.  Downey’s was saved because of Marvel.  Evans and Pratt are huge blockbusters stars thanks to Marvel.  Hemsworth is an icon because of Marvel.  There has never been a run of films like this for one studio, ever.  They have taken risks not just with Iron Man but also with Guardians of the Galaxy.  That film turned out to be great and a huge hit!  Feige is a huge piece of this, probably THE key piece.  He needs to be recognized for starting this revolution.  It was his vision his overall storytelling and his idea that helped spark all of this that we see today in Hollywood and cinema.

Marvel has truly revolutionized the business.  They had a rough history and a very interesting one but it was the rise of Kevin Feige with his vision to where we are today.  They have changed Hollywood now where great actors want to be in these films.  People know who they are: Captain America hasn’t been this popular since WWII, Iron Man has never been this popular and you can ask people who Ant-Man is and you won’t get a sideways look.  They are now etched into our brains.  Guess what?  Now all the studios want to do what Marvel did.  However those studios do, they will never be able to replicate one of the greatest stories in cinema today.

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