Marvel takes Hollywood: Nine years, 17 movies, $12 billion and counting

Thor, God of Thunder.
Thor, God of Thunder.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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In 2008, Iron Man debuted and began the Marvel Cinematic Universe of comic-book adaptations. Thor: Ragnarok, the latest movie, hit US theaters this weekend. It is one of the best-reviewed Marvel movies, with a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing, and marks its third trilogy for a single character.

It also helped Marvel—now owned by Walt Disney—set more than one record this year.

The third title in the Thor franchise, which scored a rare 5 out of 5 stars among US audiences who were survey by ComScore and Screen Engine’s PostTrak, opened with $121 million in the US and Canada. That makes Marvel Studios the first US production house to land three movies with $100 million openings in a single year. Distributors like Disney and Universal have released three or more films with nine-digit debuts in a year, but no production house has, SF Gate reported. (Earlier this year, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened with $146 million in the US, and Spider-Man: Homecoming garnered $117 million.)

Thor: Ragnarok also helped Marvel Studios top $2 billion in global box-office returns in a single year, marking a corporate milestone.

So far, Marvel’s 2017 roster has earned $2.17 billion. (The Disney-owned movie studio didn’t profit directly from Spider-Man: Homecoming—Marvel managed the production, but Sony paid for and distributed the film. Marvel traded its stake of the profits for the full cut of the character’s merchandising revenue and the right to feature the web-slinger in other movies like Captain America: Civil War.)

The entertainment empire has leveraged its cast of comic-book characters into a multi-billion-dollar film universe with three full trilogies, eight distinct franchises, and a decade of blockbusters and counting. In total, it has made around $11.8 billion since that very first Iron Man movie, unadjusted for inflation (and not including Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Raganarok’s $427 million in returns and counting).

Marvel’s secret formula

Rival DC—not Marvel—brought its comic-book superheroes to the big screen first. Movies have been made about DC characters like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman since the 1970s.

But Marvel was the first to apply the method of universe-building perfected in its comic books to film, beginning with Iron Man. Marvel Studios—the film arm of Marvel Entertainment, the parent of the comic-book publisher—introduced Marvel’s biggest heroes, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, one by one in solo films that all took place within one broader world.

After establishing the individual franchises, Marvel brought them together in its first crossover film, Marvel’s The Avengers, which had never been done before in Hollywood and borrowed a common tactic from comic-book publishing. The formula worked as brilliantly in film as it does in print, and allowed Marvel to create a rich world full of vibrant, developed characters and interwoven storylines (filled with easter eggs) that audiences couldn’t otherwise get from a single 90-120 minute film, or even a single franchise.

Drawing from its deep bench of heroes and villains has also helped Marvel stave off the franchise fatigue that has plagued other properties. Where audiences are growing tired of long-running franchises like Transformers —the latest installment, Transformers: The Last Knight, would have lost money this year, if not for overseas returns—Marvel keeps its films fresh by introducing new and unlikely heroes and team-ups each year, such as The Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange movies, and tapping promising young directors and talented actors to helm them.

The 2016 debut of Doctor Strange, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, was Marvel’s largest solo superhero introduction. And Marvel’s The Avengers movie is still the biggest debut for a Marvel franchise overall, unadjusted for inflation. (The Avengers will become Marvel’s fourth trilogy when The Infinity War is released in 2018.)

The initial success of Iron Man, which made the second-biggest non-sequel debut ever in 2008, caught the eye of Disney CEO Bob Iger, as well. Less than a year later, Iger said Disney would buy Marvel and its more than 5,000 characters for $4 billion—which seems a bargain now.

The film universe is born

Its success inspired a slew of other franchises to pursue film-verses. Lucasfilm, also owned by Disney, borrowed the model for Star Wars, which studio boss Kathleen Kennedy hopes to carry on for another decade. Hasbro is rolling its Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises into a broader movie-verse, based on its popular children’s toys. Warner Bros. and JK Rowling are creating a cinematic universe set in the Harry Potter author’s magical world. Universal is trying to get a Dark Universe off the ground, based on legendary Hollywood monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. And Nintendo wants to make movies around its popular video-game franchises.

Marvel also influenced a rival cinematic universe from DC—owned by Warner Bros.—which is just starting to hit its stride. After a few misfires, it had its first critical and commercial success with Wonder Woman in 2017. It’s making the character a focal point of its upcoming crossover film Justice League, which will go head-to-head with Thor: Ragnarok when it opens in the US on Nov. 17. Justice League is forecasted to make a $100-plus-million debut, following the success of Wonder Woman.

But DC’s cinematic universe is still trailing Marvel’s. Its four films have grossed $3.1 billion at the global box office since 2013, when Man of Steel kick-started the world, Box Office Mojo data showed.

Marvel movies, meanwhile, are now as much staples of the cinema calendar as Stan Lee cameos are in its films. Thor: Ragnarok is the 17th title in the almost-10-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe. At least two movies are released a year; usually one from a more established franchise like 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and another from a new or growing property like the mystical Doctor Strange.

Next year, there will be three titles from Marvel Studios: the debut of Black Panther, the third Avengers film, and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

And that’s just Marvel Studios. Marvel’s comic-book characters have starred in at least 45 live-action theatrical films over two decades that have collectively grossed more than $23 billion at the box-office. That includes franchises like 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films, Sony’s 2000s-era Spider-Man movies, and early titles like Blade.

And to think, it all started with Howard the Duck. That was the first real theatrical release based on a Marvel character, produced by Universal and Lucasfilm in 1986. It was also critically panned and only earned about $38 million worldwide, barely recouping its production budget.

As aficionados know, the character of Howard the Duck returned at the end of the 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy in a knowing wink after the credits rolled. How far Marvel has come.