“They are just so much fun, these films. You don’t have to have any preconceived intellectual qualification to enjoy it. You just have to be alive to have fun and have a sense of humour and have a pair of eyes that are delighted by spectacle. These kinds of films are part of why I became an actor…I think in every grown human being is a kid, so it appeals to the kid in all of us.” – Tom Hiddleston, 2012, London, iHeartRadio Music
Considering Marvel Studios’ recent successes it is hard to believe it filed for bankruptcy twenty years ago in 1996. Since then, however, the studio has seen a complete overhaul of its corporate structure and creative strategies. To combat the decline of the comic book publishing industry, Marvel made the decision to license some of their intellectual properties to large film studios.
They were not the first company to sell the rights to their stories or characters, nor were they the first to create an entire cinematic universe in which several characters and story lines intersect. They did, however, use these constructs in a completely unique way; a formula was established and employed containing a mixture of stand-alone films, featuring just one character as the protagonist, such as Captain America, and ensemble cast films bringing together multiple characters, such as Avengers.
From the time it filed for bankruptcy until 2005, Marvel focused solely on the filmmaking operations of the firm, which proved to be the right decision. Licensing well-loved properties, like Spiderman and the X-Men, to affluent Hollywood studios created the opportunity for Marvel Studios to reform their financial policies and status. Eventually they were able to recapture creative control and box-office profits from their partners. With the release of Iron Man in 2008 — the first of the studio’s self-financed pictures — Marvel launched a unique model for cinema production in this age of media convergence. An independent company with expertise in an utterly different creative industry became a driving force in blockbuster film.
Iron Man really was a blockbuster, netting $585 million in ticket sales worldwide. Yet it was a risky venture. Not only was the Iron Man comic book series not as popular as some others still owned by Marvel, but the studio decided to hire Robert Downey Jr. to play the role of Iron Man and Jon Favreau to direct the film. Downey Jr. was not known at the time to be an action star, and he was also attempting to rebuild his poor reputation in the public eye. Favreau was more recognisable for his acting than his sparse directorial career in the comedy genre. In a manner of speaking, the film should have flopped. But by some miracle, this impossible combination created an iconic film character and jumpstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.
“The audience is kind of the other character in the movie and people have been so kind and warm and receptive to the idea of this complicated guy who ends up in an extraordinary situation. I’m incredibly grateful to tell the truth.” – Robert Downey Jr., 2012, London, iHeartRadio Music)
In July 2009, Kevin Feige, President of Production for Marvel Studios, was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter claiming, “We’re trying something that’s never been done before, a new idea of the same character appearing in multiple franchises.” While not entirely true, the studio did improve upon the idea and make it entirely its own. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been tentatively planned out ahead of film production scheduling, this allowed producers to incorporate new ways keeping their audiences loyal.
By dangling scenes and quick character teasers in their films, Marvel not only fosters the expansion of their own narratives, but extends the commercial viability of their films into markets outside movie theatre distribution.
True fans know to never leave the theatre before the end of the final credits. In every Marvel film there is a mid-credit scene that generally reveals a character or plot line in the franchise’s next film to be released. Then, at the very end, there is either another teaser for upcoming films, but more often than not, there is a short comedic scene continuing the storyline within the film just seen. Basically, Marvel’s narratives are crafted for repeated consumption on DVD, BluRay or via digital download. The cleverly forged links and clues constituting the Marvel Cinematic Universe encourage careful, even frame-by-frame viewing by those who would be in the know.
“Easter eggs”, hidden messages or inside jokes, are strategically employed in almost all of Marvel’s content. For example, in Iron Man 2, Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, mentions that he is needed in New Mexico. This piqued the excitement of die-hard fans that knew the location of the next film in the franchise, Thor, and the appreciation was palpable across the Marvel “webiverse.”
Other Easter eggs are littered throughout all of the films, some important and others just for fans to enjoy. For instance, with Hitchcock-ian flair, the creator of most of the Marvel characters, Stan Lee, makes an appearance in every movie. Such treats also point audiences to additional content offerings all over converging media platforms, which now include the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D television series, video games and comics both printed and online, amongst others.
Marvel was also sure to lock in the same actors to portray its characters over several films, and consequently, over several years. This had been done over and again by other franchises, but it was immensely important for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to maintain this actor-role continuity due to its invaluable repeatability that allows fans to harbour a deep bond with characters. Without consistency, other franchises had fallen prey to the displeasure fickle audiences and loss of a percentage of fans. Think Batman.
Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe is relatively new, shaped within the last decade, fans will continue to become attached to certain actors’ portrayals and expect to see similar performances in the future. If that promise was suddenly taken away from fans, there could be a certain amount of expected uproar. In fact, Stan Lee has stated on several occasions, “Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man” and tweeted about another Marvel family member in 2011, “If you want a cooler than cool villain who is also the nicest guy you’ll ever meet — I give you Loki’s alter ego, Tom Hiddleston.” These statements encompass much of the sentiment held by fans towards nearly all the Marvel actors.
By promoting fidelity, executives in fact present the fan-managerial Marvel brand as a cultural space in which contracted labour can feel affection, affinity and belonging. In that vein, Marvel reimagined film, television and gaming production communities with itself as a cultural touchstone and point of identification at the centre of it all.
Perhaps naturally, the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Studios for $4 billion in 2009. This acquisition, by such a formidable and successful firm, cemented Marvel Studios’ place among the Hollywood big wigs and allowed Disney to distribute all Marvel films produced in the future, save The Incredible Hulk.
It would seem Marvel’s legions of dedicated, meticulous, participative devotees minded the change little, as Disney saw a 27% increase in theatrical distribution revenues during the fiscal year 2012-2013, which can largely be attributed to Iron Man 3 being the highest grossing film of the year with over a billion dollars earned at the box office.
By emphasising its proximity to watchful viewers, Marvel was able to prove that comic book fans were not the only audience for comic book films, and began nurturing an entire new, evolving fandom that is talkative, creative and willing to spend to enjoy and share their love online. Join me in the near future, when I’ll dissect what might make the fanboys and fangirls of the Marvel army tick, and determine just how much sway their habits have in the success of the studio’s superheroic endeavours.
Sources: Caldwell, John, Production Cultures: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008
Johnson, Derek, “Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence”, Cinema Journal (vol. 52), Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 2012
The Walt Disney Company, Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Financial Report and Shareholder Letter, PDF