I cannot overstate the significance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What Marvel has done is simply stunning. They have taken secondary characters and turned them into household names. They have created blockbuster after blockbuster within a connected universe while their competitors imitate and fail. Characters confined to comic book pages for decades have been faithfully adapted to the screen. I am a comic book nerd that grew up in the 90s. Watching the MCU is like watching my childhood dream unfold.
Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Dark Times)
Growing up, something like the MCU was only a pipe dream. I loved comics, but even as a kid I realized the limitations of comic book films. There weren’t enough people who wanted live-action comic book characters on their screens. The technological limitations made any attempt seem hokey. Remember the early live-action Spider-Man and Captain America TV shows? I was tangentially aware of them and they were goofy as hell. The best adaptations I could consume were cartoons. Batman: The Animated Series is amazing. The X-Men cartoon defined the characters for a generation. But live-action adaptations, true comic book feeling adaptations, weren’t realistic.
There are some notable exceptions, that being Superman (1978) and Batman (1989). These films showed what was possible if you had the right team, the right cast, and the right story. But each franchise trailed off into mediocrity. And the special effects market still wasn’t up to par with what you could read on the page. The market simply wasn’t there for a “comic book” movie.
And let’s not forget the state of comic books in the 90s. The comic book industry was in a bubble spurred on by a collector’s market. Publishers advertised any and everything as a collectors item. Variant covers, first appearances, new series, everything was a must have. The market became flooded, the product was substandard, and the true fan-base wasn’t enough to support it. Eventually, the bubble popped. In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. The comic book industry was in dire straits.
In the years that followed, Marvel worked to recoup funds by licensing off character rights to film companies. Spider-Man was licensed to Sony. The X-Men and Fantastic Four were licensed to Fox. A handful of other characters were spread around the industry. Marvel slowly crawled its way back to relevance, but it no longer held the film rights to its biggest names.
In the early 2000s, these licensing agreements led to some great films. Spider-Man (2002) was probably the first true “comic book” movie ever made. It captured the essence of Spider-Man and brought the comic pages to life. X-Men (2000), on the other hand, put a more realistic spin on the characters. They didn’t wear fancy costumes and they were harder around the edges. These weren’t the comic book X-Men, but modern equivalents. Even so, X-Men is still a great film. Both franchises were incredibly successful and brought comic book films back to prominence.
Just like that, every film company wanted to take a crack at a superhero film. And… there were a lot of stinkers (albeit, many would judge them harsher than I). One of the few bright spots was Batman Begins (2008), another take on the realistic superhero. The Christoper Nolan series is really the prime example of how to do “real” superheroes right. It’s follow-up, the Dark Knight, is the quintessential Batman film of our time. I love it. But is it a “comic book” film? Definitely not.
I am Iron Man (He was turned to steel in the great magnetic field)
The same year Warner Bros. released Batman Begins, Marvel Studios released Iron Man. We all know the role Iron Man played in defining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but let’s take a step back and look at what Marvel was working with. They had recovered from bankruptcy and were again leading the comic book industry. Superhero films were the new craze. Creating a superhero movie seemed like the obvious next step for the company, except one problem. They had already licensed away all of their top-tier characters. No Spider-Man, no X-Men, no Fantastic Four. So what did Marvel do? Not much, just single-handedly reinvent the superhero film industry.
It’s almost hard to imagine now, but The Avengers were not always big time players. Sure, they were always important within the confines of the Marvel Universe, but they often played second fiddle to the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, these characters were known but Marvel wasn’t printing money with them. Even looking at recent comic book history, The Avengers didn’t start to lead sales numbers until 2004 when Brian Michael Bendis rebooted the line with New Avengers. The line up to that team included the addition of Spider-Man and Wolverine.
In 2008, Marvel reached into their catalog and pulled out Iron Man for their inaugural film. Iron Man had not been featured prominently outside of comic books in over 10 years (Iron Man: The Animated Series from 1994-1996). The average movie goer could not tell you who Tony Stark was. Outside of comic book readers, Iron Man was essentially a non-entity. Marvel’s decision to use Iron Man as a launching pad for an entire universe was a gamble.
And Marvel hit it out of the park. They cast the perfect Tony Stark in Robert Downey Jr. They found the right mix of action, drama, and fun. The story was strong, self-contained, complete, but the door was left open for more. Most importantly, they were able to capture the true feeling of the comic books.
I am Nick Fury (It’s my duty, to please that
booty multi-part interconnecting film franchise)
For as good as Iron Man was, it was the appearance of Nick Fury that was the game changer. When Samuel L. Jackson showed up during the end-credit scene, every comic book fan in the audience flipped out. Because we knew what it meant. We knew who he was before he said his name. Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Then he dropped the A-word and the film industry changed forever.
The MCU end-credit scenes (in which Nick Fury featured prominently) were made for comic book fans. We forced our friends to sit through the credits and then explained to them what they just saw. “That is the Cosmic Cube, but they call it the Tesseract. Oh, it’s also an Infinity Gem, but they say Infinity Stones. Okay let me explain. Each one has a unique power and…” As fans, we knew the significance of Thanos. And there he was on the screen. We live in a world where Thanos is on our screen!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is Born
Marvel revealed a plan as each consecutive film was released. Phases were created and new films mapped out. An underlying tale was being woven. And because the films were so successful, we knew it would actually come to fruition. As a lifelong comic book fan, it’s still hard to comprehend.
Every time I watch a Marvel film, I can’t believe what I am seeing on the screen. My childhood has been put onto film. And not only is it great for me, but it seems everyone loves it. How am I explaining the Infinity Stones to more than one person? How is it possible I am discussing a talking raccoon and not sounding like a fool (maybe I am)? It’s because Marvel has finally found the formula to distill it’s characters and stories to their purest and most accessible forms, while still maintaining all the glorious nerdiness within.
People sometimes ask what is next for the MCU? How can it keep going? Robert Downey Jr. is getting old, they say. He can’t be Iron Man forever. I could theorize about new characters and the passing of mantles, but it really doesn’t matter. Marvel has already accomplished so much. Kids today don’t dress up as the X-Men anymore, they dress up as the Avengers. I grew up with Spider-Man being my favorite hero. Now they love Iron Man or the Hulk. Marvel has planted the seeds for a new generation of nerds and they did it in the most unexpected way possible. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe ended today, it would be a success.
But the films continue. The climatic story of Thanos is nearing a conclusion while new characters and new adventures are just beginning. I don’t know where it is going, but I’m loving every second of it.