Marvel’s Cultural Conquest: A Star Wars geek turned the debt-ridden comic studio into a cinematic juggernaut

Nobody knows anything, as William Goldman famously stated. Hollywood has found out what works after a century of experimentation: superhero stories set in fantasy worlds with returning characters, cross-movie plots, and visual fireworks. The global box office, as well as spin-offs, merchandising, video games, and theme parks, generate money for these films. Almost every member of the top 10 most earning films from 2017 to 2019 was part of a blockbuster franchise (the sole exception was the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody).

These lists are dominated by one name in particular. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the world’s most successful film series. Since 2017, it has had three top-ten entries every year, including two of the top three (Black Panther in 2018 and Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the second highest-grossing movie of all time). Black Widow, the most recent Marvel picture, is projected to be the greatest success of 2021.

Few would have predicted Marvel’s present dominance twenty years ago when it was a tiny company recovering from bankruptcy and heavily in debt. Its improbable success owes a lot to an unassuming visionary. Kevin Feige, the CEO of Marvel Studios and the most influential guy in Hollywood, was infatuated with Star Wars as a youngster in the late 1980s. Not only by the movie but also by the books and games that continued the story and expanded on the imaginary universe.

If Avengers: Endgame doesn’t find a place in the top five then it will be regarded as a disappointment. This is like being Pete Sampras in his prime

Every minor character had a name and a background in this subculture, no matter how brief their appearance on screen and entire new adventures unfolded. These meta-stories were devoured by Feige. George Lucas’ films were more than just films to him; they were gateways to a vast and exotically inhabited universe.

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They also served as a springboard for his creativity. In his garden, Feige used to play with a box of Star Wars toys and make up his own adventures. His initial passion was Star Wars, but he used the same philosophy to other blockbusters like Star Trek and Back to the Future. He could come up with his own Superman V after seeing Superman IV. Every film, in his opinion, was a precursor, and every character was a part of a world that spanned beyond the confines of the screen. Feige has decided to pursue a career in filmmaking. He received a scholarship to the same film school as Lucas (after being rejected five times). He was recruited as a junior executive at Marvel Studios in 2000, five years after graduation.

Marvel did not create its own films at the time, instead of licensing its characters to Hollywood studios and making the majority of its money through product sales. Studios performed a decent job on occasion, such as with Sony Columbia’s Spider-Man in 2002, but they frequently failed to capitalize on a character’s potential.

Marvel’s bosses, impressed by Feige’s ­knowledge, made him a creative ambassador to the ­studios, a role in which he dispensed advice on how to present the characters; in effect, Marvel’s chief geek. Feige got frustrated when ­directors failed to respect the origins of the stories. The answers, he believed, were always in the comics.

Mid-budget movie

Of course, every movie producer will tell you that the mid-budget film has been forced out of mainstream distribution, with the exception of a few lucky awards-season favourites. Rain Man was the highest-grossing film of 1988, which seems hard to believe now. No personal drama about two guys in a vehicle could compete with the contemporary Marvel or Star Wars monster thirty years later. However, the depletion might have occurred anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 did a number on moderately rated film finance, and the industry has never fully recovered. We should be thankful for the Avengers’ ability to keep the big screens occupied.

A year after the success of Iron Man, Marvel Entertainment, the parent company of Marvel Studios, was purchased by Disney for a stunning $4 billion. Many in the business thought this was a huge overpayment, and Disney’s stock dropped after the news. However, Disney CEO Bob Iger shared Feige’s belief in the MCU’s potential and Marvel’s extensive back catalogue of over 5,000 characters.


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