Marvel Studios: Success by their own hand

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, one thing you would almost never hear in any of the offices of planning for any film company was the following sentence: “I want to make a film adaptation of a comic book.” This would turn the company off to any possibilities, and even if the script was sound, they would only allow very limited budgets.

Take for example Marvel Comic adaptations of the period: Howard the Duck (1982); The Punisher (1989); Captain America (1990); and The Fantastic Four (made in 1994 though never released).

Howard the Duck, even though made with Lucasfilm, barely made back the money that it cost to make the film. With a budget of $37 million, it only made a profit of $10,000.00.

The 1990 version of Captain America was so shunned by 21st Century Film Corporation that they opted to not even release it in theatres. It was instead one of the first straight-to-video releases.

The Punisher was a film that was in trouble to begin with. Frank Castle, the title character, was being portrayed by B action movie icon Dolf Lundgren and it was being funded by New World Pictures, who were going through some financial problems at the time (officially going belly up in 1998). The film was estimated with a $10 million budget, and never released in theaters in the United States. It did get a world-wide release, which when the ticket stubs were counted, only pulled in $533,411.00 and in the United States the film was released only onto VHS and Laserdisc.

Promotional still for the unreleased 1994 The Fantastic Four film.
The Fantastic Four is a story in and of itself. In 1992 Constantin Film owned the rights to the franchise and were about to lose the rights if filming on a motion picture had not begun by December 1992, which was on hold because they did not have the $40 million needed for the picture. Lost for anything they could put onto film, they turned to Roger Corman of New Horizion Pictures. The cult B-movie director then made the film with a low budget of $1.5 million.

The actors were all promised that the film would get a theatrical release, and if not it would be used as a pilot for a television series. Because of this all actors took a measly salary to make the film. Filming lasted a month and finished in January 1993, then went into post production. In the meantime, the cast were attending comic conventions plugging the film and a release date was given for 1994 in the Mall of America.

Back in the offices, Constantin films was not planning on ever releasing the film. In late 1993 they announced that the film had been scrapped and it would never again see the light of day. It is believed that this entire process was only a ploy in order for Constantin films to keep their hold on The Fantastic Four franchise. Lo and behold, just over 10 years later, they released a $100 million budgeted film and a sequel.

However bad the revenues for the Marvel franchise were, there was soon to be light at the end of the very bleak tunnel. Director Stephen Norrington and writer David S. Goyer got together to make the first of the popular Marvel-based films, Blade.

Ever since, films based on Marvel properties have been steadily pumped out and pushing the limits of both action and technology, creating hit after hit for the big screen. It is no wonder that companies decided to bring out more of the beloved characters from the Marvel comic book franchises.

The reinvention of the X-Men universe, with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, told them that there was still a fan base for the franchise that had taken a slight turn away from the success of the first film, and they needed a much newer look into the possibilities of comic-to-film adaptations. Spider-Man was an amazing box office success with three films in the series, however the best was still to come.

Marvel decided that they would take it upon themselves to create an independent film company, Marvel Studios, and release films on their own. This was a risky venture that had the ability to greatly backfire at the company that was struggling in the ’90s to stay afloat. Iron Man was the first in several superhero films that made up the basis of the Marvel universe films.

Iron Man broke the mold. Director and actor Jon Favreau, also a devoted comic book fan, made sure that the film was correctly adapted for the big screen, prior to even begin taking in actors for the roll. Once he was satisfied, they needed to look for someone who could personify the title character, Tony Stark, as accurately as possible. In walked Robert Downey, Jr. Despite having been in production hell since 1990, with the rights switching hands four times before landing back at Marvel, they decided to make it their first independent film. Fortunately for them they could get a glimpse into the future by keeping their eyes on another risky project, this one from DC.

Batman Begins introduced the audience to an adult take on a popular franchise. Though still geared toward families, it cast aside any humor or pastel colors present in the other adaptations, and introduced us to a world that was much more realistic and gritty. The characters were better written, as was the dialogue. Batman’s character was truly brought to life as the dark and foreboding no-holds-barred anti-hero that he’d always been. The devastation in the wake of the war between the Dark Knight and his nemesis was no longer minimal; it was on a grand scale with death tolls that must have reached in to the thousands.

Marvel and Jon Favreau saw the success of Batman Begins as a window of opportunity for Iron Man and decided to ground the character in the west coast to set it apart from all the other superhero movies that took place in either New York or Gotham. They also decided to keep all characters in the film as real as possible, and changed the character up by making it about Tony Stark re-inventing himself when he realizes the world is a much more complex place than he had thought.

Robert Downey, Jr. also had different ideas on how to make this picture a success. He decided to keep his Tony Stark interpretation not in the line of other superheroes who become more like their alter egos and fight crime in the name of justice and all that is right. He decided to go a different route and make his character more human, with flaws. He brought in a comedic arrogance to Stark, and within the first five minutes on the screen, the audience fell in love with him.

With Iron Man and the X-Men franchises well under way, Marvel was gearing up to continue their string of successful film franchises with the production of a mash-up of superheroes, something that had never been done on screen before. But first some of the major players in the film would need their back stories told. Along came a string of films that were of varying quality, but all successful.

In the same year as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk was released – this time to a more receptive audience than the one released only five years before. The predecessor’s failure was mostly based on the weak story as well as the director’s over-the-top artistic vision, which caused many to loose interest in the film within the first thirty minutes. By the end of the film the entire story was completely lost. The reinvented Hulk (co-written by uncredited Edward Norton, also the star) brought back the popularity to the big green man.

Two years later, Iron Man 2 was released and it became just as popular, and just as successful, as the first. A year later, another character has his day: Thor. With much critical praise the film a success. And the chain did not stop there. Captain America: The First Avenger blew all expected box office predictions away.

So with all of the main characters having been introduced, it was about time to start production on the collaboration film of all the players: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

All of these blockbusters were created through the Marvel Studios Independent film company. The owners of the comic book rights created the perfect film adaptations of some of their beloved creations, none of which have failed under the eyes of Stan Lee’s company.

However, where there is light, there is darkness. During the series of hits for Marvel Studios, other Marvel properties were also being made into films but by other film companies. Frankly put, these did not do so well. Ghost Rider, its sequel Spirit of Vengeance, The Punisher: War Zone, Daredevil, Elektra, and The Fantastic Four and its sequel have all done well in the box office, yet none have matched the overall success that Marvel Studios productions have been able to maintain.

Now, in 2012, Marvel Studios has unveiled the release dates of upcoming projects:

  • Iron Man 3: May 3rd, 2013
  • Thor 2: November 15th, 2013
  • Captain America 2: April 4th, 2014

Then one thing caught my eye. There was a release date for an unnamed film by Marvel Studios. It was simply listed as follows:

  • “Untitled Marvel #2”: May 16th 2014

This is an odd entry, as Marvel should know what films are in pre-production or even in the scripting stage. Reason would have you believe that since we are only talking about films being made directly through Marvel Studios, that it is not an X-Men film, or even Wolverine. Looking at the release dates of the rest of the sequels, there is only one option it could be.

May 16th, 2014, is the day that the world will be introduced to The Avengers 2.

The future of the Marvel Studios film franchise is now set in stone. Keeping all the rights to film their own creations was the correct decision, and the risky move of making Iron Man without testing the waters with something smaller first was a gamble that they won. Their success also serves as a testament to other companies that the path to success comes easy when you stay true to the source material and collaborate with the creators of the characters and worlds you are trying to put to the big screen.

Way to go, Marvel Studios. We can’t wait to see what’s next.