How Marvel took over cinema and TV – The Economist

SINCE 1939, Marvel Comics has told hundreds of fantastic tales of superheroes battling to save the planet. But its fight to dominate pop culture is an epic in itself, involving censorship and a bankruptcy that left the company without many of its prized characters. Its latest film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, took in $90m in box-office sales in the United States and Canada over the Labour Day weekend, despite the spread of covid-19 dampening cinema-goers’ enthusiasm. That is three times the previous Labour Day record, set by “Halloween” in 2007. How did Marvel come to rule the movies? And can its superheroes stay on top?
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Marvel’s first decades were rocky. The comic-book publisher struggled with constant management changes, often over-extending itself and having to cut back. It was also restrained by the Comics Code Authority, a de facto industry regulator which sprung up in America in the 1950s to avoid more intrusive government meddling. Among its many limitations were bans on vampires, “excessive” gunplay and portraying villains sympathetically. In 1986, the company ended up in the hands of Ronald Perelman, a billionaire who took Marvel public three years later. Mr Perelman had big ambitions, calling the company a “mini-Disney”.
But after raising too much debt, a poorly judged attempt to invest in the toy business, and a downturn in the comic-book market, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Marvel survived the 1990s, but was emaciated. It had sold the film and TV rights to its most popular character, Spider-Man, to Sony for less than $10m plus royalties. The rights to other characters, as well as a theme park, were carved up. Over the next decade, Marvel continued to produce comics and helped those who owned the rights to its characters to put them on screen. But the company believed it could do better, and planned to produce and finance its own films.
True to their name, The Avengers, Marvel’s team of superheroes, struck back. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a collection of 25 films and four television series released since 2008, has earned over $23bn at the box office, more than twice the amount earned by Star Wars, its closest competitor. It tells a sprawling tale which, like the comics, has no isolated entries or characters. In 2019 “Avengers: Endgame”, became the highest grossing film in history (excluding re-releases), taking in $2.8bn. Of the 48 films to have earned more than $1bn at the box office, a fifth have come from the MCU. “Black Panther” is the first comic-book adaptation to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And just one of the MCU’s films, “Thor”, has received lower than A- on CinemaScore, an audience-rating benchmark. Only Pixar, an animation studio, comes close, with 22 films rated A- or better, but it took more than twice as long to get there.
As the MCU expands, it grows stronger. Over its first five years (“Phase One”), the studio released an average of 1.2 films per year and earned $352m (inflation adjusted) per picture in the US and Canada. In 2016-19, (“Phase Three”), the MCU released 2.75 films per year earning an average of $483m. In 2021 it will release four and break onto the small screen for the first time, with six TV series. Some growth stems from the support of Walt Disney Company, which acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4bn. Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019 also returned the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters to Marvel, though they have yet to appear in the MCU. In 2016 Sony loaned Spider-Man back to Marvel “because they know what they’re doing”, according to Tom Rothman, Sony’s film boss.
Although other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s model over the past decade, none has succeeded. But Marvel’s growth and cultural influence may have limits. “Black Widow”, released in July, still has not been approved for release in China, nor has “Shang-Chi”, which is primarily set in Asia and whose star was born in the Middle Kingdom. “Eternals”, set for release in November and directed by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese-born film-maker, is also yet to be approved. And Chinese audiences are increasingly turning to home-grown blockbusters. Marvel may seem unstoppable in the West, but it still faces plenty of battles.
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