Recently, a friend shared with me an interesting, quick clip he found on YouTube. It showed Kevin Feige speaking at San Diego Comic-Con all the way back in 2006, two years before Iron Man even hit theaters, about their plans for a wildly ambitious cinematic universe. Hell, it was a full year before they even cast Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man:

Granted, building the sort of capital backing and the strategic planning necessary to pull something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes years, so it’s no surprise to hear Feige talking about it in 2006.

But an interconnected movie universe where all the Avengers could appear in their own movies and then come together, playing in one giant cinematic sandbox, had been a dream of Marvel’s for far longer than anyone realized. Decades, even. Just look at this answer from Stan Lee to a comic book reader who had asked about an Avengers movie all the way back in 1998:

Marvel Studios and its aim to make in-house movies based on Marvel-owned characters didn’t just come into existence in the mid-2000s, as many people believe. Most movie lovers know by now that from the late 1970s through the early 90s, Marvel sold away the movie rights to the majority of its most popular characters in order to stave off bankruptcy and stay afloat. Characters including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Hulk and Iron Man all went to various studios. Marvel tried to put out a few movies based on the characters it still held the rights to, but it didn’t go well: Howard the Duck (1986) was a flop, The Punisher (1989) was awful, Captain America (1990) was so bad it went directly to home video and The Fantastic Four (1994) wasn’t even released. Marvel grew determined to take back its character rights in the decade that followed.

The studio that later became Marvel Studios in 1996 was launched in 1993 as Marvel Films after Marvel Entertainment Group’s deal with ToyBiz. Say what you will about Avi Arad as the architect of destruction for Sony’s Spider-Man franchises, but he was the first president and CEO of Marvel Films. Without him, there would be no Marvel Studios as we know it. Even further to this credit, Arad was the first and most vocal executive at Marvel to trumpet the need for them to be controlling as much of the creative process as possible, if not outright making their own films. But it was a long road to get there.

Marvel Studios Finally Started To Gain Some Traction

Still without the rights to most of its major characters, Marvel nevertheless forged ahead with making films based on its other characters. Finally, it had its first breakthrough success in 1998 with Blade. The film was made for $45 million and grossed $131 million, even with the darker tone and R rating. Its success launched more movies and set the stage for Marvel Studios to continue making comic book movies based on its characters.

“Some motherf**kers,” said Blade in his debut movie, “are always trying to ice skate uphill.” He might as well have been talking about the studio that made him. The success of his movie didn’t mean Marvel Studios had abandoned the goal of regaining the rights to their characters. If anything, it showed them that the best hands for their comic book characters were their own. If Marvel couldn’t own their characters outright, they could at least push for as much creative control as possible. As Arad said in a NYT interview in 1996, “When you get into business with a big studio, they are developing a hundred or 500 projects; you get totally lost. That isn’t working for us. We’re just not going to do it anymore. Period.”

They soon inked a seven-year development deal with 20th Century Fox and by 1997 it was actively involved in developing projects based on its characters, which led to its second success in 2000: X-Men. It was an even bigger success than Blade, grossing just shy of $300 million on a $75 million budget. In the years that followed, Fox made a number of movies based on Marvel properties to varying success, including a few more X-Men films, two Fantastic Four films, and one film each for Daredevil and Elektra.

Another success story was created with this type of character licensing to another studio when Sony/Columbia Pictures released Spider-Man in 2002. The webhead was a monster hit, grossing $821,708,551, the equivalent of $1.2 billion today and launching a cash cow franchise.

It was time for the next phase of Marvel Studios’ plan.

The Time For Self-Financing Its Own Movies Had Arrived

In 2004, David Maisel came to Marvel and was named COO, and he brought with him a plan: He had figured out a way for Marvel to self-finance its own films but, well, his plan was kind of insane: They’d put down the movie rights to 10 of their characters as collateral, and in exchange, Merrill Lynch would give them $525 million to make their movies. But his goals aligned with Arad’s and they saw huge potential in the deal.

It was a dangerous gamble: If their movies flopped and they lost money, Ambac Financial, which had insured the deal, would get the movie rights to their characters and Marvel would be right back in the position they were before it all started. But Maisel, Arad and Marvel were certain they could pull it off now that they had the money to do what they needed and had full creative control.

That full control came with its own set of problems, however. Finding a studio distributor took time (they eventually settled on Paramount), but the bigger problem was what characters to build movies around – the rights to their most popular characters, Spider-Man and the X-Men, were still with other studios, after all. Maisel and Arad started regularly clashing over the release rate as well as the strength of the initial lineup of characters. Arad felt Maisel was pushing an unrealistic production schedule and he had doubts that B- and C-tier characters like Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor were solid foundations upon which to rest their entire risky venture. By May 2006, Arad was out, leaving Marvel and forming his own production company.

Maisel was now free to do what he wanted, but that still left him with his biggest problem: How the hell were they going to take those little-known characters and actually make them viable to a broader audience? Luckily, Marvel had a secret weapon.

Enter Kevin Feige

Kevin Feige at the Marvel Studios panel at San Diego Comic-Con (Credit: Marvel)

Kevin Feige was a young guy but already a Marvel veteran. He began as an assistant to future X-Men executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and in 2000, Marvel hired him as a producer to oversee the creative process of their movies with other studios. He cut his Marvel teeth on the X-Men movies under Donner and quickly rose through the ranks at Marvel before ultimately becoming Avi Arad’s right-hand man. And Marvel recognized the uniquely creative powerhouse they had in Feige. After Arad’s departure, Maisel was named Chairman and Feige was named President of Production of Marvel Studios.

Feige, you see, had a grand vision: A unified, interconnected cinematic universe where Marvel characters would get their own individual movies before coming together in one big team-up, with all the movies weaving together an interconnected, overarching story. It was wildly ambitious. It had never been done before. But, Feige figured, the blueprint was already there in comic books. Their roadmap for Marvel Studios would mimic how comic book publishers structured comic book events, with the event series itself forming the core and then multiple characters getting tie-in stories in their individual comic book series. The main series would be the Avengers movies and the tie-ins would be the movies for Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.

But they had to get there, first. Iron Man was the first self-financed film on the slate and it had everyone nervous, even Feige. The character was so third-tier that over 30 screenwriters passed on the job before they found writers willing to pen the script. The director was Jon Favreau, who wasn’t exactly known as a big blockbuster guy and whose last film, Zathura: A Space Adventure, had been a complete flop. The budget was a hefty $140 million, a full quarter of what they’d been loaned by Merrill Lynch. Even more nerve-wracking, Favreau had pushed to cast Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role and the actor came with his own set of baggage. His career had been torpedoed by a drinking and drug problem, landing him in jail. So nervous was Marvel that he’d self-destruct that they included a stipulation is his contract to hold back 40% of his salary until after production was wrapped and the publicity tour finished, just to make sure he didn’t fall off the wagon or implode. He was only a handful of years removed from jail and rehab, for God’s sake. This was the guy they were going to pin the hopes of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe on?

Yep. This was the guy.

‘Iron Man’ Put Marvel Studios On The Map

Tony Stark (Credit: Marvel Studios)

Tony Stark (Credit: Marvel Studios)

Iron Man was finally released on May 2, 2008 and all of those gambles suddenly paid off. The film grossed a worldwide total of $585 million – a full $50 million more than Merrill Lynch’s total investment – and suddenly, Hollywood sat up and took notice. Marvel Studios had just proven it could be successful in making its own movies.

Movies for two other Avengers quickly followed, but even those had their own risks. For starters, Captain America was so, well…America. In a post-9/11 world, would jaded audiences even care about this patriotic, good man, or would they just write him off as a jingoistic flag-waver? And played by Chris Evans, the guy best known for already playing another Marvel Character, Johnny Storm, in Fox’s poorly-received Fantastic Four movies? As for Thor, how on Earth would audiences connect with his weird story and him speaking like an off-brand Shakespeare character? Especially when played by Chris Hemsworth, a guy only known to American audiences for his brief flashback scene in J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie as Captain Kirk’s father. And Loki? He was being played by Tom Hiddleston, a British stage and TV actor who seemed more at home reciting Hamlet than being in a Marvel comic book movie.

But, just like Iron Man, both movies launched to success, though to a slightly lesser degree. It was time to see if Feige’s crazy vision of putting all these characters and a few more into the same team-up movie would work.

‘The Avengers’ Changed Hollywood Forever

“I don’t think this is going to work,” Iron Man 2 screenwriter Justin Theroux told Kevin Feige in 2011. No one knew if the upcoming Avengers movie was possible. Marvel had smartly made sure that each individual franchise was a different genre, but now writer-director Joss Whedon had the unenviable task of trying to weave together Iron Man’s tech-fueled action movies, Thor’s high fantasy, and Captain America’s period drama war movie into one cohesive story. Add to that Black Widow and Hawkeye, characters straight out of the spy genre, and Whedon had his work cut out for him to create a movie universe that felt that all of these characters belonged while still retaining their own distinct personalities and tones. And they were working with a brand-new Hulk actor, their third in less than a decade, after a falling out with previous Hulk actor Edward Norton.

Would the chemistry hold up? Would they work well together when taken out of their own individual franchises and put into a team up? Could Marvel really keep up this interconnected storyline and keep the continuity intact?

Much like with the previous movies, Marvel needn’t have worried. When it was released in 2012, Marvel’s The Avengers broke records left and right, a juggernaut hit on its way to an eye-popping $1.5 billion haul at the worldwide box office. In just four short years, Marvel had four individual hits and one team-up megahit in its filmography; it had reached the rarified air of a studio whose slate could be carried entirely on the strength of brand recognition alone. What’s more, it proved that that cinematic universe format could work.

Now, every studio had chased (or is still chasing) the Marvel Studios model. Marvel itself is ubiquitous, inarguably the strongest movie brand in the world. With their dominance of the last decade-plus, it’s easy to forget that there was a time not all that long ago that the Marvel brand had little value as a studio. It’s easy to forget that every single major step of Marvel Studios becoming what it is was fraught with risk. As far as success stories go, that makes what it’s accomplished all the more impressive.

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