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The story of Marvel Studios is as unlikely as some of its movie plots.
A unit of Marvel Entertainment, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co. DIS, +3.48% the studio has created an interconnected universe of movies and television shows based on Marvel comic characters that span multiple platforms. The movies alone have made Disney a staggering $6.3 billion in box office receipts.
Not bad for a company that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1996. Marvel was rescued, in large thanks to once-Marvel Toys designer Avi Arad, who was originally brought in to guide what was formerly Marvel Films. A 2012 Slate article chronicled how Arad “wooed bankers with the value of Marvel’s characters.” The company had been restructured, assets were auctioned off and Marvel Studios was up and running before “Iron Man” made his screen debut and Disney took over in 2009 for $4.9 billion.
As the company suits up for the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the sequel to 2012 blockbuster “The Avengers," here’s a look at the films that have allowed Marvel to build its fantasy world.
— By Trey Williams and Terrence Horan
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Marvel kicked off its ambitious campaign in 2008, bringing Robert Downey Jr. then struggling in his career, to play the role it seems he was always meant to play — that of “Iron Man.” Iron Man wasn’t one of Marvel’s best-known heroes—despite his importance in the superhero team the Avengers — but with Downey Jr.’s charisma, “Iron Man” pulled in $102 million in its opening weekend, according to data from media research firm Rentrak.
“The “Iron Man” movie was a watershed, and it took Marvel to a place that no one thought it would go,” said Rentrak senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian
“In many of the superhero movies before this, it was just about the brand, but here, the writing was terrific and the acting was phenomenal. Had ‘Iron Man’ not done well, or if it was not received well, it could have changed everything. We might not be talking about this now.”
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Before appearing in “The Avengers,” Marvel’s character Hulk was brought to life on screen in Universal Studios’s 2003 “Hulk” move. Starring Eric Bana and directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, the movie met with mixed reviews and a $62-million opening weekend.
Five years later, Universal took a second stab at the character, casting Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in “The Incredible Hulk.” This iteration stumbled out of the gate as well, bringing in $55 million in its opening weekend along with subpar reviews.
When the movie hit theaters in 2008, famed film critic Roger Ebert was not overly impressed.
“‘The Incredible Hulk’ is no doubt an ideal version of the Hulk saga for those who found Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ too talky, or dare I say, too thoughtful. But not for me,” he wrote.
Though “The Incredible Hulk” was not a Marvel Studios project — Universal Studios owns the rights to solo Hulk films — the movie was able to drop a major Easter egg, teasing an Avengers movie with a post-credit cameo from Robert Downey Jr.
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Robert Downey Jr’s second go-around in the Iron Man red and gold built off the first movie’s success. The movie brought in $128 million in its opening weekend before slowing down slightly to gross $312 million domestically, compared with the first installment’s $319 million.
While “Iron Man 2” didn’t receive the same acclaim as its predecessor, it didn’t have to be great, it simply needed to be entertaining and push the broader story forward.
“Marvel is playing a game of chess, not checkers,” said analyst Dergarabedian. “They’re focused on the long play. What ‘Iron Man 2’ was about, was introducing these characters.”
The characters Dergarabedian is referring to, are Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), played by Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson. At this point in Marvel’s journey to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the focus was simply to set the stage.
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Marvel’s fourth rung in its cinematic universe did not enjoy the same box-office success of the Iron Man films. It opened to only $65 million in its first weekend and grossed $181 million domestically over its time in theaters.
“Thor”, based on Marvel’s comic series about the Norse God of Thunder, is not the company’s most popular hero, and the movie may have suffered from the casting of virtually unknown actor Chris Hemsworth wielding Thor’s hammer. Hemsworth has since become synonymous with the character, however—much like Robert Downey Jr. and “Iron Man”.
Along with familiarizing fans with another essential member of The Avengers team, “Thor” gave us the villainously charming Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston. In the movie, as in story lines throughout the comics, Loki serves as the villain to Thor’s hero, and Marvel Studios moved another piece in place by foreshadowing his return to torment in “The Avengers.”
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The title for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fifth piece in the $100 million-puzzle captures the studio’s intentions. As the final piece before fans were able to see the team assemble, “Captain America: The First Avenger” brought in $65 million in its first weekend, and grossed $177 million domestically.
Captain America, also known as Steve Rogers, was played by superhero veteran Chris Evans — the actor warmed up to play the future Avengers leader by first being part of Twentieth Century Fox’s “Fantastic Four”.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” received good reviews for the most part; Roger Ebert rated it 3 out of 4 stars and it has a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“’Captain America: The First Avenger’ is that rare summer movie that delivers on everything promised in its trailers, and that’s about all it does, which isn’t to say it’s not a good movie… Rather, it’s just a ‘good’ movie,” said IGN.
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Avengers, Assemble! With all the pieces finally in place after four years, the picture was finally
complete. And the results were hulking.
“The Avengers” was not only Marvel’s biggest opening at $207 million, but it had the biggest movie opening in cinema history. And over the course of its life in U.S. theaters — 22 weeks — “The Avengers” grossed $632 million. Bringing together nearly every major character from the previous five movies, and introducing a few new ones, “The Avengers” was the culmination of a plan that no one, save for maybe the minds at Marvel, knew would work.
Disney’s stock closed at $42.93 the day of “The Avengers” release (May 4, 2012), and closed at $45.56 the following Friday. Marvel Studios decided it was as good a time as any to capitalize on the movie’s success, by not only continuing to add to The Avengers story with subsequent solo-character releases, but expand the universe with a slate of new heroes and even a move to the small screen with ABC’s series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Disney’s stock is now trading at around $111.
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“Iron Man 3,” on the heels of “The Avengers” success, enjoyed $174 million in its opening weekend, more than any other single-character-led Marvel movie to date. It eventually cracked $1 billion world-wide.
“Iron Man 3” was an international hit. There was even a Chinese version released with product placement for Chinese products and an extra four minutes added to the cut. The film brought in $121 million in China alone.
During Disney’s fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts and investors, Chief Executive Robert Iger referenced the growth of the movie business in China, and its importance for the company.
“As you know, China has become among the largest movie markets in the world… It will probably be first sometime in the next five years,” Iger said. “Our films have done extremely well in China, particularly the films that drive success in consumer products or retail—Disney and Pixar, Marvel.”
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In just 19 days in theaters, “Thor: The Dark World” brought in more than its predecessor, thanks to the success of “The Avengers.”
Chris Hemsworth’s second appearance as Thor in a solo film garnered $87 million in its opening weekend.
Much like the third “Iron Man” film before it, and the Captain America movie to follow, this second installment in the Thor movie franchise saw the titular character struggling to deal with the aftermath of “The Avengers.” The stories continued to grow and evolve, as events of previous movies were intertwined in its plot, further cementing the universe that Marvel had constructed.
The movie received decent, if not stellar, reviews. But RogerEbert.com critic Simon Abrams hit on something in his review that echoed a point made by Dergarabedian.
Abrams described the movie as “a blocky fantasy-adventure whose plot is never as exciting as its characters.” The characters, and the actors who portray them, are, after all, the hallmark to Marvel’s cinematic success.
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Marvel’s last solo-character addition to its cinematic universe is widely regarded as one of its best. Bringing in $95 million in its first weekend and grossing $715 million world-wide, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” received rave reviews for both its action sequences and hints of political drama.
Revolving around the fictional government agency that assembled the Avengers in the 2012 film, along with Captain America, Black Widow, some new faces and pieces from the title character’s past, the film still manages to push everything forward, laying the groundwork for future films and story lines.
“The ninth installment in the Marvel cinematic universe, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is also perhaps its most intricately crafted,” IGN’s Roth Cornet wrote in a review of the film. “The film not only serves as a strong follow-up to Cap’s first outing… it also has the strongest ties to, and most profound impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large.
“The repercussions of the events of this film will reverberate throughout all of Marvel’s properties.”
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Marvel had already accomplished the unthinkable — bringing together an interconnected world of characters from different films — but then it raised the stakes by adding a whole new galaxy of heroes and foes to its universe.
“Guardians of the Galaxy,” based on Marvel comics involving characters more or less unknown to fans, wrapped up the 2014 summer blockbuster season with a $94 million opening weekend. And the movie grossed $774 million world-wide, which put Marvel Studio’s total box office revenue at $7.2 billion for 10 movies.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” had the same $170 million budget as “Thor: The Dark World” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, but exceeded both films in global box office revenue — Thor by $129 million and Captain America by $59 million.
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Already on track to open bigger than the first Avengers, this mega sequel boasts an expanded cast and more action across the globe. Boxoffice.com is predicting an opening weekend of $214 million and online tracking of views of the film trailers shows intense interest. Ahead of its domestic opening, the movie has already reeled in more than $200 million in foreign box offices .
When the third trailer for the film was released, it attracted 35 million views in just 24 hours. Marvel’s unprecedented plan has been a tremendous success. With plans for two more Avengers films and a slew of new heroes planned for their own solo films through 2019, Marvel shows no sign of slowing down.
“Marvel has been able to set the stage for a 100-year plan. It’s crazy to think this would ever stop.” Dergarabedian said. “They’re not just thinking about the now. And they’re thinking big screen, small screen, merchandise, everything.”
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“Fans are the greatest arbiter of whether Marvel is doing it right,” Dergarabedian said. “Marvel cares about the legacy. What’s cool is, Marvel does things that fans would do. They get in the minds of the fans.”
The minds behind the scenes at Marvel Studios haven’t only given fans reasons to be giddy over the last seven years, but investors as well.