After 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and a whopping 18 films under their belt, it’s a wonder how Marvel Studios manage to keep making new, different and exciting films that keep fans – old and new – coming back. In just over a week, on April 25th, Marvel will release Avengers: Infinity War – the pinnacle of their film repertoire thus far, and what their entire universe has been building toward. Boasting over 70 characters, Infinity War is said to be “the most ambitious crossover event in history”.
The hype for the trailer alone was huge, earning 230 million views and breaking the record for the most viewed trailer in its first 24 hours. Marvel is showing no signs of slowing down, with movies slated until the end of 2019. With a wealth of characters and storylines to pull from the comics, there’s no shortage of Marvel movie ideas. Promising new characters like Black Panther and the latest iteration of Spider-Man are set to lead the universe, and with Disney to acquire Fox, Marvel Studios could get their hands on major Marvel properties like X-Men and Fantastic Four to firmly bolster their future.
How, though, did Marvel manage to become so successful and stay successful in a time when many other superhero movies and cinematic ‘universes’ aren’t? It seems their super sauce for success boils down to being dedicated to the characters, making great individual and unique movies (that somehow weave into a bigger picture), and paying homage to their dedicated, OG fans whilst reeling in new ones.
Building an entire universe
Much of what keeps fans coming back film after film is the universe itself. Having fans become invested in each individual character means they’re sure to come back for the film that unites them as a team. The MCU has become the gold standard for the entire entertainment industry, with other studios attempting to replicate Marvel’s ability to interlink their films into one connected, long-form narrative. These other attempts pale in comparison (namely DC’s Extended Universe) or have even failed to get off the ground (Universal’s Dark Universe). Part of Marvel’s success is due to the fact that they never set out to build a massive universe, but allowed for its possibility by laying down strong foundations. Even 18 films in, Marvel still holds the mentality that each individual film should be an enjoyable experience that stands on its own merits, while simultaneously hinting at its place in a larger mythos. At Marvel, the individual movie trumps the overall picture.
The past 10 years have seen the MCU grow from humble beginnings to a universe that not only traverses worlds, but also media platforms. Marvel Studios are a transmedia franchise, with stories across film and television allowing fans to interact with Marvel on multiple levels1. Audiences were able to see Agent Coulson come back to life in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Marvel’s foray into on-demand platforms (Netflix’s ‘street level’ Avengers The Defenders, each with series of their own) means fans don’t have to wait for the next film to hit cinemas to get their Marvel fix. That being said, not every Marvel TV venture has been met with success. Agent Carter was cancelled after only two seasons, and the disaster-ridden development of Marvel’s Inhumans destined it to be a failure. While sometimes hit and miss, having so many avenues available means Marvel can explore many different characters and stories, appealing to various demographics and audience interests.
Cutting through the ‘superhero movie fatigue’
The number of superhero movies coming out over the past few years has steadily increased, with 7 huge superhero movies coming out in 2017 alone (three of which were from Marvel Studios). Steven Spielberg wasn’t wrong in 2013 when he said there was going to be a blockbuster implosion, but his prediction that the superhero movie genre was a passing fad has yet to eventuate. In fact, many argue that the superhero ‘genre’ is only getting bigger, better and more interesting as it diversifies. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige isn’t worried about superhero fatigue, stating that the genre will survive as long as the movies continue to be good, compelling, different and special.
This reasoning is how Marvel continues to make hit after hit – they add personality to each of their films. While many Marvel films hit classic superhero movie beats, they are each different and manage to explore characters in unique ways (while still encapsulating Marvel’s trademark humour). They reach across many different genres, from more colourful and comedic flicks like Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy, to those with more thought-provoking, political themes like Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Each film’s individuality can be attributed to the creative freedom Marvel affords their directors. Known for taking risks with their directors (which generally pay off), Marvel encourages their creativity and innovation to add artistic legitimacy and difference to Marvel’s overall identity1. Thor: Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi was given the freedom to create something completely wacky and different from any other Marvel movie done before. Known for his unique comedic style, Waititi’s set encouraged improvisation that gave the film an endearing silliness that reinvigorated the Thor character (a franchise that had struggled with its first two films). When speaking of successful Marvel movies, it’s hard not to mention Black Panther which broke box office records. With a black lead, black director and predominantly black cast and crew, Black Panther was the first of its kind, and arguably a turning point not only for Marvel, but the entire industry. It highlighted the need for more diverse voices and more diverse storytelling.
Marvel is also known for their unique soundtracks that make their films stand out. Guardians of the Galaxy’s classic 1970s hits set the tone and added context to its main character, while Thor: Ragnarok’s glam-rock, electronica score perfectly suited its distinct outer-space setting. Black Panther: The Album saw Kendrick Lamar work closely with the film’s director Ryan Coogler to produce music for and inspired by the film. The album has seen Marvel permeate the music scene with two number one hits.
Honouring OG fans while bringing in new ones
With the comics having such a dedicated, niche fan base, it was important that Marvel honour them by staying true to the characters long held dear. The Marvel fandom can be intense to say the least, but their rabid dedication means they connect deeply with all things Marvel2. They’re the ones that keep coming back – and Marvel is lucky to have them. In stitching together its universe, Marvel lays easter eggs for hardcore fans to spot and speculate on. It’s a way for Marvel to wink at their knowledgeable fans, hint at something bigger and sow the seeds of hype for future stories3.
That being said, Marvel doesn’t alienate certain fans in order to service others. They’re successful because they manage to make movies that appeal to everyone, despite coming from a somewhat niche subculture. Marvel has brought what was once considered ‘geeky’ and ‘uncool’ into the mainstream. Marvel manage to hook in new fans with one genre, allow them to become invested, and make them stick around for the next film that happens to introduce them to a whole new world.
Combine all of these winning elements, and you’ve got Marvel’s recipe for its marvel-ous-ness. By making great individual films and series whose different genres and storytelling styles appeal to diverse audiences, Marvel is able to cast its net far and wide, reel everyone in, and trap them (voluntarily of course!) in their richly interwoven universe.
1 Flanagan, Martin, Mike McKenny and Andy Livingstone. 2016. The Marvel Studios Phenomenon Inside a Transmedia Universe. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
2 Stephenson, Becky. 2017. “Fandom” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Out-of-School Learning. California: Sage Publications.
3 Taylor, Aaron. 2014. “Avengers dissemble! Transmedia superhero franchises and cultic management.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 7(2): 181-194. http://www.academia.edu/7992809/Avengers_Dissemble_Transmedia_Superhero_Franchises_and_Cultic_Management