Avengers: Endgame feels like an incredible exclamation point to the last 11 years of films, a total joyride that feels like the payoff to the previous 21 films’ worth of world-building and narrative-driving. And perhaps it’s because of that euphoric feeling that right now seems like the best time to pause, take a moment, and ask, simply: how did we get here?
Not “how did we get here” simply in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s overarching storyline, but “how did we get here” in terms of how the heck did the MCU even get started?
Before they were Marvel Studios, they were Marvel Films, and they had actually been founded 15 years before the inaugural MCU entry, back in 1993. At that time, they also founded Marvel Films Animation, which produced the Spider-Man animated television series; MFA coordinated with other studios to produce other animated shows based on popular Marvel properties. These included working with New World Animation for The Incredible Hulk, and with Saban on the X-Men series.
Marvel Studios was formally incorporated in 1996, with the goal of working primarily in preproduction and then selling a completed package to a major studio for the actual filming and distribution. A deal was struck with 20th Century Fox, leading to the development of Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four, and X-Men film productions.
However, the first film packaged and licensed by Marvel Studios would be 1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes and distributed by New Line Cinema. The film was a commercial success, grossing $131 million, and this success led to further licensing deals with other partners. This most notably would include the licensing of Spider-Man to Sony.
Avi Arad was the head of Marvel Studios at this point in time, and he negotiated further deals with other companies in order to get a wider variety of the company’s key characters into the mainstream consciousness. The huge success of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film in 2002 (which grossed more than $821 million worldwide) would allow Arad to negotiate for sequels – and, most importantly, helped Marvel regain its financial footing after some serious troubles.
But by the mid-aughts, there was some internal conflict with regards to how Marvel Studios was handling things. Many were unhappy with how a lot of the Marvel properties were being handled on film, and just as unhappy with how relatively little money was being funneled back into Marvel despite many of these films’ profits. A dispute between Arad and some of the other leadership regarding how Marvel’s films should be handled would lead to Arad’s resignation, in May 2006. David Maisel replaced him as Chairman and Kevin Feige was named President of Production as Iron Man entered production in early 2007.
Marvel Studios formed a committee around Feige in order to help preserve the artistic integrity of the original comic stories as they moved forward with their plans. This included Marvel Studios co-president Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Comics President of Publishing Dan Buckley, Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, Marvel Entertainment President Alan Fine, and comic creator and writer Brian Michael Bendis. The creative goal was to release a series of solo films based on individual characters and then merge them in a crossover film.
Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as the titular character, premiered in the spring of 2008, marking the debut of Marvel Studios’ fist self-financed film. It grossed more than $585 million at the global box office, received universal critical acclaim, and was nominated for two Academy Awards (for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects), all of which set the wheels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in motion. It was followed up by The Incredible Hulk later that year.
On December 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel for $4 billion; the deal recognized that Marvel Studios had preexisting deals with other distributors for a number of projects (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were all distributed by Paramount, with The Incredible Hulk distributed by Universal), but that Disney would take over distribution after the expiration of these deals. Following Disney’s purchase of Marvel, the MCU rapidly began to expand, with more sequels to both existing solo films and Avengers crossovers, and the introduction of more characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man.
The MCU also began to bleed into network television0, with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Inhumans series all airing on ABC, and Cloak and Dagger hitting Freeform. It also hit multiple streaming services: Netflix got Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders, while Hulu got Runaways. More are still planned in this arena, with Ghost Rider and Helstrom set to arrive on Hulu, and Disney+ getting more direct MCU tie-ins with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki, and What If?, among others.
The success of the MCU at large would eventually allow for Marvel and Disney to strike a deal with Sony in order to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, after the character had previously starred in five different solo outings at Sony (to varying degrees of success). With Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox, the entirety of Marvel’s backlog of characters is now available for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explore.
With 22 films in the MCU having been released at this point (and another on the way this summer, with Spider-Man: Far From Home hitting theaters this July), it’s fairly safe to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a pop culture phenomenon unlike anything ever seen before. It’s turned little known actors and those not known for action movies into certified A-list stars, and done essentially the same thing for the characters they’re portraying.
The MCU inaugurated the idea of a shared cinematic universe, in which various solo character films could be used to build up to a larger, momentous crossover event. We’ve seen various other studios attempt to take this on, though none have come close to the success Marvel has enjoyed with it.
As of the publication of this piece, the MCU has grossed $20.8 billion over the course of 11 years, with an overall positive critical and viewer reception (with an average of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes). It managed to take the superhero genre, which, by the time Iron Man debuted, had begun to feel somewhat stale and overwrought, and make it into something far more than just superpowered action. Not only have comic readers and action movie fans embraced the films, everyone from wide-eyed children to excitable grandmothers line up for the MCU.
Of course, the success of the films has also led to a significant uptick in the comic books that they’ve been based on, as well. The comic industry has enjoyed sales of new books, but the interest in the film-centric characters has led to big sales on the secondary market as well.
“As the popularity of a character rises, often so do the prices for their key comics and original art. Even the mere mention of the possibility of a character’s use in film can spark an instant uptick in values,” Hake’s Auctions President Alex Winter said. “The reception of a film certainly has some impact on values. If a hit, you will see a sustained interest in all related things, especially a first appearance issue. By the same token, if not a hit or if the popularity wanes, prices will drop.”
For some in the collector’s end of the industry, the impact of the MCU was immediate.
“When the trailer for the first Iron Man movie hit at [Comic-Con International: San Diego], I heard such a positive reaction that I went around the next big con and bought every copy of Tales of Suspense #39 I could,” Metropolis Comics’ Vincent Zurolo said. “I sold them out within 30 days for a healthy profit.”
The MCU and all aspects of its media on film, television and beyond have helped bring awareness to characters that haven’t always spent much time in the spotlight. This had led to essentially an entire new generation of collectors, Winter said.
“As more start to branch out from just going to the movies and begin to collect, and at the same time established collectors join in on the hype, you see an increased interest in not only the current comic issues, but the back issue market as well, in addition to original art and vintage merchandise for all things Marvel,” he said. “This is especially true for the characters that are the most popular, such as Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man – as well as those that become ‘breakout stars’ that were previously not in the spotlight or thought of as major characters such as Groot, Star-Lord, Black Widow, and though he was already popular, Black Panther has become mega popular since the MCU.”
To take Groot as an example of how the MCU has made lesser-known characters into certifiable stars, let’s look at his first appearance, Tales to Astonish #13. There wasn’t even a note on the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide listing in the 2012-2013 edition of the book (#42) regarding Groot, and a mint copy of Groot’s debut was listed at $850. In the most recent edition of the Guide, that same Tales to Astonish #13 now lists for $10,000 thanks to the widespread popularity of the character as proliferated by the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Black Panther already had a strong following before his film debut in Captain America: Civil War and before his 2018 solo film broke a number of box office records. But in Overstreet #42, his debut issue – Fantastic Four #52 – listed for just $700 at mint. Today that same book lists for $4,000 in the same condition.
“Some of these Marvel movies have done wonders for the comic characters in terms of increased demand for origin and first appearance issues and thus new record prices. I have seen this with minor characters as well as major ones,” Pedigree Comics President and CEO, Doug Schmell, said. “It's hard to pinpoint an exact time period but it has been going on now for several years, definitely since 2012 or so.”
For some in the collecting industry, the impact of a new film can be felt before it even enters full production.
“As soon as a movie is greenlit, the values on the comics of characters featured in that movie skyrocket,” Zurolo said. “Most recently, Shang Chi’s first appearance jumped up in value when the movie was announced.”
Schmell agreed, saying that sometimes just the hype of a potential upcoming film and the ensuing renewed interest in a character can cause prices on certain books to jump.
“It’s the anticipation of the upcoming movie, when it is first announced, that sparks the renewed interest in the character and demand for their first appearance and origin issue,” he said. “A critic’s review, or even the audience reception once the movie is released, is somewhat anticlimactic. It’s the announcement and speculation of the character that drives the prices.”
In addition to just the comic books, the success of the MCU has infiltrated all sorts of collectibles. At this point it’s almost impossible to walk into really any store without seeing something branded with a Marvel character. There’s affordable action figures in several sizes and prop toys (so that everyone can own an Infinity Gauntlet or two, if they so want), plus Funko’s Pop line of vinyl figures can now be found at virtually any store. There’s also been plenty of higher-end collectibles as well, of course, with sculpts of many of the actors from the franchise used to create some truly impressive showpiece statues. The films themselves have been released on Blu-ray and DVD in an assortment of special packaging that have included a briefcase with a Tesseract cube for Phase One, followed by a Morag orb and Infinity Stone for Phase Two.
Though Marvel’s Infinity Saga may be over, it’s clear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its impact on pop culture has only really just begun. As the $2 billion mark for Endgame is now in the rearview mirror after a little more than a week in theaters, the heights to which this franchise may reach could be truly astronomical.
The Gemstone Publishing staff wanted to share our personal reflections on the MCU including our favorite films. Those reflections by J.C. Vaughn, Mark Huesman, Amanda Sheriff, Carrie Wood, and Braelynn Bowersox can be found in our In the Limelight section of Scoop.