about any movie these days comes with
the term ‘cinematic universe,’ ” says Joe
Keatinge, a comic-book writer who’s
worked for both Marvel and DC Comics.
“If Magnolia came out today, it would be
part of a cinematic universe.” Universal,
which is building a shared world around
the movie monsters it frst made famous
in the 1930s and ’40s, such as the Invisible Man, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and
Bride of Frankenstein, will release the
frst of its “Monsterverse” pictures, The
Mummy, in June. Legendary plans to in-terconnect a different set of classic monsters such as King Kong and Godzilla;
its initial effort, Kong: Skull Island,
performed modestly in March. Meanwhile,
Paramount is revisiting its Hasbro toy
lines: The studio has outlined the next
decade of Transformers movies, and it’s
creating a separate universe around
G.I. Joe, Micronauts, and M.A.S.K. (
Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) vehicles.
In March, Warner Bros. executives admitted that they were contemplating
a return to The Matrix as grounds for a
character universe, and Disney, which
successfully revivifed Star Wars, is
thinking about a Tron-iverse.
Marvel, which has ramped up production to be able to make three movies a year,
is proving that, if done correctly, these
character universes can resemble successful technology platforms—ecosystems
that enable both creative risk taking and
significant growth and profits. But too
often, other companies look at the winning
result without appreciating the forethought that produced it. Look no further
than Marvel’s arch nemesis, DC Entertainment, which, in conjunction with Warner
Bros. (its parent company), has tried to
catch up to Marvel by launching its own
“extended universe” of characters. Last
year, it released Batman v Superman: Dawn
of Justice and Suicide Squad, both of which
frustrated fans and fell short of $1 billion
in global box offce. Its Wonder Woman
movie will arrive in June amid negative
buzz and reports of a troubled production.
Marvel’s approach, then, has been
easy to replicate but challenging to duplicate. What is the true essence of Marvel’s success? The answer lies in the way
the studio trusts its instincts, jettisons
formula, and constantly looks ahead to
galaxies far, far away. Here’s how other
companies can obtain these powers.
HAVE AN AUDACIOUS VISION,
BUT DON’T RUSH IT
Every superhero origin story starts with tragedy, and Marvel’s is no different: The
company, then an independent comic-book publisher, fled for bankruptcy in 1996
following a steep downturn in the industry. In a shortsighted turnaround attempt over
the next several years, it pursued harebrained licensing deals (such as authorizing a
Hard Rock Cafe–style Marvel Mania chain restaurant), and it sold off movie rights in a
scattershot manner to studios across Hollywood.
One of those companies was Artisan Entertainment (later acquired by Lionsgate),
where Drew Mc Weeny, a screenwriter, recalls a meeting in the early 2000s with a new
Marvel flm executive named Kevin Feige about adapting a Marvel property. “I remember sitting in a room and [Feige] saying, ‘Look, in a perfect world, as the rights become
available, little by little, we’ll start buying back all the Marvel characters, and maybe
down the road, just like in the comics, we’ll get them to go into each others’ movies.
And maybe we’ll even try to build to an Avengers.’ And I remember thinking, He’s crazy.”
Despite the best efforts of Feige and then-chairman and CEO Avi Arad, Marvel wasn’t
able to buy back all the rights—Fox and Sony still retain the X-Men and Spider-Man
franchises, respectively. But in 2005, Marvel became an independent studio thanks
to a $525 million line of credit, and it brought all movie production in-house. Feige
began to execute an intricate, multiphase plan for releasing various Marvel characters
in a series of companion flms that would ultimately collide in all-star affairs such as
The Avengers. Not that audiences had any idea at frst. Only true fans took note when,
toward the end of Marvel Studios’ debut flm, the smart and fun Iron Man, Samuel L.
Jackson’s Nick Fury casually shows up. The interconnectivity became more apparent
with each subsequent (well-received) movie, artfully laying the groundwork for 2012’s
ensemble The Avengers.
This quiet, deliberate, decade-long planning stands in stark contrast to how DC has
attempted to rival Marvel’s efforts. In October 2014, shortly after Guardians of the Galaxy
became Marvel’s 10th smash, Kevin Tsuji-hara, the head of Warner Bros., suddenly
unveiled a slate of 10 superhero flms
based on DC Comics. The frst release
after that announcement, the dreary
Batman v Superman, is “perhaps the most
egregious example of forcing a cinematic
universe as opposed to letting it breathe
for a very long time,” says Keatinge.
Feige’s patience is now being rewarded further: Marvel is regaining
creative, if not sole fnancial, control
over Spider-Man, by far its most valuable
piece of original intellectual property.
Marvel had sold off the rights to make
Spider-Man movies to Sony in 1999 for a
reported $7 million. Sony has made fve movies featuring the webbed wonder, starting
in 2002 with a trio of Tobey Maguire star turns. Its later pictures, featuring Andrew
Garfeld, were critical and commercial disappointments. Marvel approached Sony
after the particularly lackluster ffth movie, 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, about
buying back its prized character, but Sony demurred. The series needed a creative jolt,
though, and the studios reached a deal: Sony would receive Marvel’s creative input on
upcoming Spider-Man flms, beginning with this July’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. In
exchange, Marvel would get to incorporate Spidey into the Avengers universe; his frst
appearance was 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
Fans, needless to say, are excited, and they are looking far ahead to 2018’s Avengers:
Infnity War, which will feature Spider-Man. “When [Marvel] put up a video from the
frst day of shooting, I showed my kids. You’ve got Tom Holland as Spider-Man and
FEIGE, THE MARVEL
STUDIOS PRESIDENT, MAKES
MOVIES BASED ON A SIMPLE
IT BE COOL IF ...?