There are plenty of successful film franchises, and plenty of superhero movies. Thor: The Dark World, coming out this weekend, certainly fits both of these categories. This film fits into a superhero franchise of a scope and ambition unlike anything we have seen before in the film industry.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undertaking that, since the release of the first film, Iron Man, in 2008, has produced seven films with a combined budget of over $1.2 billion, with Thor: The Dark World being the eighth. That is massive, even in this sequel-happy age. Massive not only in the scope of the movies but in the ambition and vision required for this project to be made. This approach has been so successful, in fact, that we can already see other groups attempting to mimic it. It would be dangerous to think, however, that this formula would work for every fictional universe, as even Marvel is evolving the formula before audiences’ eyes.
In 2005, Marvel set up its own production studio to produce films based on its material and distribute them through Paramount. They had licensed out some of their properties, such as X-Men, Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk, to other studios in the past and had received little from those investments in terms of profits. So, to improve their position in the film industry, they took matters into their own hands. Their approach to the material was much different from anything else that had been previously attempted. Marvel sought to first establish film franchises based on individual characters (such as Iron Man, Spiderman and Thor), and then eventually combine them into one super-production.
Before this effort, film franchises were developed one at a time, most of them without the promise of a sequel to follow the first installment. It just wasn’t feasible to plan such large endeavors without knowing for sure if they would be successful. Marvel planned five movies off the bat, based on characters that were well-known, but by no means as famous as Batman or Superman.
Iron Man came first, and though Marvel had much larger ambitions in store, if the endeavor proved a failure, all the other ideas would have likely been scrapped. Fortunately for Marvel Studios (and millions of moviegoers), Iron Man was a smashing success. Thor, Captain America, Iron Man 2, even the not-so-successful Incredible Hulk (whose licensing they managed to get back), all led up to the culmination that was 2012’s The Avengers. That film confirmed that Marvel’s plan was genius. Directed by sci-fi god Joss Whedon, it was a resounding success and became the third-highest grossing film of all time.
Marvel’s strategy worked wonderfully, and it continues now into “phase two” of their strategy. Iron Man 3, another roaring financial success, was the first installment in this next step and Thor: The Dark World follows it. All told, the plan going forward is to continue the individual established franchises, the Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier, is coming next year, while building up to another Avengers extravaganza in 2015.
This phase also marks the expansion of Marvel’s scope. While in the process of building up to another combination picture, Marvel is also expanding horizontally by creating films for more franchises. Guardians of the Galaxy is set to be released next year, and is based on source material much more obscure than any of the Avengers. An Ant-Man film has been confirmed for 2015 and projects for Black Panther, Dr. Strange and The Inhumans have all been discussed, if not outright confirmed to be in development. Only die-hard comic book fans are familiar with these characters and the viability of movies based on such obscure stories would have seemed heretical even a few years ago.
It still sounds a bit crazy now. Disney’s John Carter, a film based on more obscure source material, bombed in the box office last year. But Marvel is playing a different game than everyone else. They have established a powerful film empire and they are able to see the possibilities that come with it. All these films will tie into the Avengers universe and fans who are hooked on the main story will flock to see the continuation of the universe.
By successfully creating this universe, Marvel is now able to explore the depths of its creative material in ways that few entities ever have. DC Comics, the eternal counterpart to Marvel, is woefully behind in this respect. Despite the advantage of having all their properties under one roof at Warner Bros., they have been completely unable to replicate Marvel’s success — with the massive exception of Christopher Nolan’s now-concluded Dark Knight trilogy. DC also has a comparable superhero team in the Justice League that, in theory, would compete with the Avengers. DC also has recognition on its side: the members of the Justice League (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, to name a few) are far more iconic than those of The Avengers.
But the strategy Marvel executed is a very difficult one, and a very ambitious one to follow. Warner Bros. has failed in its attempts to match it so far, and the Superman-Batman movie due to come out in 2015 (directly competing with the Avengers) will mark their most ambitious foray into the “connected superhero franchises film” arena. The only other “universe” that has promised to use a similar formula is the only other one with both the immense scope and the backing of Disney dollars to pull it off: Star Wars. Their proposed strategy of alternating individual stories with larger combined pictures is distinctly Marvel-esque. Given the success that Marvel universe has had, it’s probably a brilliant move for the galaxy far, far away — provided they have the vision and the resources to actually pull it off.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.