Before Marvel Studios began their cinematic universe, there were quite a few universes already established, such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Harry Potter. Many films had a sequel, a trilogy, or a full franchise, but never before have there been 18 interconnected films leading up to mega crossover quite like Marvel. Since The Avengers arrived on the big screen in 2012 and earned 1.5 billion dollars, film studios have tried to create their own cinematic universes and build their multi-layered franchise. While many have tried to replicate the success of Marvel, why hasn’t any other studio been as critically and financially successful as the Marvel Cinematic Universe? This piece will delve into my thoughts on why Marvel changed the way franchise filmmaking works.
What Marvel accomplished with their franchise is something unlike any other. Within one cohesive universe, they told stories that focus on smaller scale heroes and their individual cities, worldwide scale threats and even stories that transcend time, space and size. The Marvel Cinematic Universe runs similar to how a comic book universe would work; individual, smaller scale franchises that develop on their own but tie into a larger story and event films. Marvel managed to captivate audiences and create an environment where “seeing the next Marvel film” has a similar effect to “seeing the next Star Wars film.” One of the reasons I feel Marvel has been so successful is because they truly took their time to develop their characters and made sure to make most of their heroes as relatable as possible. Connecting their audience to the journey as much as the individual story left the general audience to connect deeply and personally to one or many of these characters. For example, one of the most popular characters in the MCU and the comic book medium is Captain America. The story that audiences connect to with Steve Rodgers is not necessarily the heroics of Captain America, rather it is about a scrawny, brave young man who took the weight of the world on his shoulders before even becoming the superhero everyone looks up to. The same goes for characters like Iron Man, Thor and The Guardians of the Galaxy. Through brilliant marketing and consistent quality, Marvel was able to convince audiences to look for the long play when analyzing film franchises, which allows even the weaker entries of this franchise to seemingly slip by in preference for the larger story at hand.
Audiences feel personally invested in the heroes and their story when they can follow along their journey, thus building a meaningful relationship. One of the reasons the X-Men, Fantastic Four and even Spider-Man to a lesser degree haven’t had the magic touch of critical/commercial success is because the studios repeatedly “reboot” the universes, which doesn’t allow the audience to get introduced to the characters over a longer period of time. Giving the audience time to gel and form a meaningful relationship over time is more important than trying to reach the highest amount of money in the shortest amount of time. This is one of the reasons why the DCEU should have stayed on course after Man of Steel and Batman v Superma instead of jarringly soft rebooting the character personalities in Justice League. The general audience would have connected with the characters over time if WB adhered to the “long play” of the DC Universe, rather than the short play to reach Marvel’s level of success. In the time it takes the audience to attempt to form a meaningful relationship, franchises from across the spectrum get rebooted to be something completely different. The characters of a Marvel Cinematic Universe are the heart of the movies; and one of the main reasons they have continued turnout from the audiences is because of a real, emotional connection to these characters over the last ten years.
Studios are the biggest reason why a universe may not succeed, as they may want to rush into creating a multi-franchise universe. Potential backlash from the audience can cause studios to become tepid and scrap it all together, an example being what Fox did with 2015’s Fantastic Four or Universal’s The Dark Universe. Marvel Studios has had a clear plan on what movies they wanted to release and in what order, and it let the directors come up with a story and put their own artistic impact on it, especially in Phase 1 and 3.
Over 10 years, Marvel has set the blueprint for how to build a cinematic universe on this scale and with this level of success. While there are commercially successful film franchises like the DCEU and monster franchises like Star Wars, nothing brings the complete set of commercial, critical and audience love the way Marvel has done with their universe. In 18 films leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, we followed Iron Man as he went from a man who only cared about himself, to someone who cares about others, we saw Captain America truly mature into a leader and the face of the franchise. We’ve seen characters like Thor, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Hulk and Doctor Strange be integrated into the universe beautifully and have seen them grow in unique ways. Many were introduced to characters like the Guardians and Ant-Man who both have defied low expectations and created mini franchises of their own. The journey of character development over the last ten years has helped the MCU carve an unprecedented space in franchise filming. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed the way studios, audiences, critics and fans view and understand franchises and cinematic universes. Marvel Studios has created an extremely successful franchise, both critically and financially, for a decade, and with their track record, this success will continue for years to come.