The Origin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
It has been a good year so far for Marvel comics. Four films based on their comic books, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy are blockbusters. In fact, Marvel is on track of having four of the top 10 grossing movies of the year. Make that six if you count Godzilla and Transformers: Age of Extinction. Both the Transformers and Godzilla were once licensed to Marvel. ( Planet of the Apes was also licensed to Marvel, but was based on characters from the original movie series and not the current movie series ). Last year there were four films based on Marvel comic books, including Iron Man 3, which earned over a billion worldwide. There will be at least three more Marvel movies in 2015, and three more in 2016.
In contrast, rival D.C. Comics only had one movie out this year, that is if you were to count The Lego Movie with toy versions of their characters. Currently D.C. has only one film in the works, the long awaited Batman Vs Superman scheduled for release in 2016. This is an amazing reversal of fortunes for Marvel, considering that just two decades ago movies based on Marvel characters were among the worst, and were often shelved by their respective studios. But that was back in the 80s and 90s, when in general, superhero films were more often bad than good. Today, Marvel dominates the entire superhero genre. And most of this is thanks to their production company Marvel Studios which has not only been coordinating the films of other studios, but since 2008 has been producing their own films and television shows which are all part of the same cinematic universe.
MARVEL vs D.C.
National Allied Publications was founded in 1935 by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. The selling of Comic Books had originated two years earlier with Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics. Despite being nothing more than reprints of newspaper comic strips, it had proven so profitable that other publishers began printing their own comic books. Shortly after comic books ran through all of the old Sunday strips to reprint, and instead of re-reprinting the same comics over and over again, began supplementing their books with original comics. By the time National Allied Publications came on the scene, the rights to all of the popular newspaper comics were taken. Nicholson had no choice but to publish comic books made entirely of original material. This format gave comic book cartoonists an advantage. Newspaper cartoonists were limited to four panels on weekdays and a single page on Sundays. Cartoons in comic books could run for as many pages as the cartoonist needed to tell his story. But the drawback was that there would be no popular characters in Nicholson's book. And the best cartoonists worked for the newspapers, and had no interest in slumming for comic book publishers.
Because of this drawback, National Allied Publications was Initially a financial failure. Owing money to investor Harry Donenfeld, Nicholson gave him Detective Comics, National's best selling comic book. With that Donenfeld founded the company Detective Comics, Inc. and continued to publish the book on his own press. National Allied continued to loose, and eventually Nicholson owed so much money to Donenfeld that he ended up turning the rest of the company over to him. Detective Comics, Inc. and National Allied Publications were formerly combined into the single company National Comics, but continued to publish the DC logo on the top corner of the book. The company did not officially change it's name to DC until 1977.
The company Donenfeld inherited only had three titles. In 1938 Max Donenfeld added a fourth, Action Comics. Cartoonists working for the new Comic Book format were seen as hacks who were not good enough to be hired by the newspapers. Two of these so called hacks, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, created the character Superman, who appeared in a four page comic in Action Comics' first issue. A year later Bob Cane would create Batman for the 27th issue of Detective Comics. Prior to Superman, their had been no such thing as a superhero. Within months of introducing the character National Comics found itself with a hit book, and went from losing money to minting a small fortune.
Almost immediately other publishers began publishing their own comic books featuring their own superheroes. Max Gaines founded All American Publications, once again financed by investor Harry Donfeld. Because Donfeld held interest in both All American Publications and National Comics, he allowed Gaines to borrow D.C.characters Hourman, The Specter, Doctor Fate and Sandman. But soon enough All American had it's own original line up of superheroes that included The Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman and The Green Lantern. In 1946 Gaines sold out his interest in All American, which went on to merge with National Comics.
In 1939 Martin Goodman founded Timely Comics. It's first book was Marvel Mystery Comics featuring the superheroes The Angel, The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, The Mask Raider and Ka-zar the Great. The company gradually created other superheroes. Their most popular title was Captain America. Created during the Second World War, Captain was an American soldier given super strength, a bullet proof shield, and a flashy costume with stars and stripes. The front cover of the first issue had the Captain punching out Adolf Hitler himself. Captain America was popular enough that Republic Pictures bought his film rights, featuring him in a 15 chapter serial. The Captain was among the select few comic book characters to be sold to Hollywood. The rights to Captain Marvel and Batman were sold for their own serials, while Paramount used their film rights for Superman for the Max Fleischer cartoons. When Paramount's rights to Superman expired, Columbia snatched them up for yet another 15 chapter serial.
When the Second World War ended, Captain America's popularity waned, along with the popularity of all the other superheroes. While D.C. Comics continued to publish Superman and a few of it's other Superheroes, by 1952 superheroes had lost so much of their popularity that all the other comic book companies discontinued their superhero titles. Timely began publishing anthology comics featuring horror, western, science fiction or any other genre that was the current rage. They also dabbled in humor comics. Otherwise Timely would remain unambitious throughout the 1950s. D.C., once the leading comic book company, was now barely holding it's own. Dell, who was publishing comic books featuring the Disney characters, was on top, followed by Archie comics, and Harvey which published comics featuring Famous Studios cartoon characters Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Audry and Baby Huey, along with their own original creation Richie Rich. Timely was near the bottom of the pack.
While lucky enough to have had characters as popular as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to carry their company through the 50s superhero slump, D.C. wanted to revive the rest of their large roster of superheroes. With the creation of the Comic Code Authority, the other companies began targeting young children. D.C. felt that their superheroes could attract the ignored teenage market without violating the strict CCA guidelines. In 1956 they rebooted The Flash, and soon after rebooted many of the other characters they had previously abandoned. There was also an overhaul of their still popular characters. D.C.'s tinkering was enough to regain interest in their superheroes. This all culminated in 1960 with the book Justice League of America which featured most of the D.C. superheroes working together as a team. Justice League of America became a huge hit for D.C., and Timely publisher Mark Goodman noticed.
Deciding he wanted his own version of the Justice League of America, Goodman called editor Stan Lee into his office. When Editor Joe Simon quit the company in 1941, Goodman installed staff writer Stan Lee as the companies temporary editor while he looked for a permanent editor. Two decades later Goodman had still not hired an editor, and Lee was still filling in as the temporary editor. Deciding it was about time to make his temporary job permanent, Lee saw Goodman's request for him to create a superhero team similar to the Justice League as a way of making his mark. Lee could have simply revived Captain America and the other golden age superheroes Timely had abandoned in the 50s, and combine them as a single team. Instead he saw the opportunity of creating his own heroes. The golden age superheroes followed a strict formula. They were always adults, never teenagers. The few teenagers in comic books were relegated to the sidekicks, although most of them were underaged and pre-teen. They had perfect lives, and were always morally upright and wholesome. A constant role model both when being the hero, and back in their secret identity. And speaking of secret identity, no hero ever revealed his true identity. The public may have loved him, but they never knew who he was. Lee wanted to change that.
Something other that the novelty wearing off killed the superhero genre. Lee decided that what drove readers away was that heroes were so darn good that they were dull. It was this goody two shoes persona that would eventually be poked fun of in the Batman television series. What Lee wanted was to write a superhero comic book that he would actually want to read. And to do that, he knew he would have to start fresh with brand new heroes. The book he created with artist Jack Kirby was The Fantastic Four. A group of scientists go into space in a rocket and are bombarded with mysterious cosmic rays. When they return to Earth, they each discover they have powers, and vow to use those powers for the good of mankind as The Fantastic Four. None of them bothered creating a secret identity. Not only did everyone know the real name of each Fantastic Four member, but knew their home address/base of operation. One of the four was still a teenager, and often acted out as teenagers usually did. Quite often the group argued among themselves, and every so often a member would quit and storm off, only to return when the rest of the team was in trouble. The Fantastic Four were anything but dull.
Just prior to the debut of The Fantastic Four in 1961, Goodman had decided to change the name of Timely to Marvel. ( He had also done the same in the 50s when for a while Timely was renamed Atlas Comics. ) The Fantastic Four would be one of the first book released under the new Marvel Comics company logo. It was an instant hit, and Lee was asked to create more superheroes, which he would do throughout the 60s. Marvel superheroes were unlike those of the past. They ranged from dysfunctional outcasts, to teenagers, monsters, physically disabled, blind, and even wanted outlaws. By 1963 Marvel had enough heroes on their roster that Lee could create a JLA style superhero team, The Avengers. He also began reviving some of Timely's golden age heroes. In Avengers #4 the team discover the frozen yet still living body of Captain America in the arctic ocean and revive him. The Captain would go on to be the Avengers leader. Traditionally superhero stories began and ended in the same issue. Lee began writing story arcs that spanned many issues, allowing them to become ever more complex. Readers responded to this fresh new approach to the superhero genre, and by 1970 Marvel was neck and neck with D.C. as America's favorite comic book company.
D.C. still had the upper hand. Their superheroes had been around since the 1930s, longer than half the population had been alive. Most of them were part of the American culture. Marvel's superheroes were still new, created less than 8 years prior. Marvel felt they were the ones who innovated the comic book industry, and that D.C. was a bit old fashioned. But the perception was still that D.C. had the superior heroes. Television seemed to confirm this. Superman was the star of his own series which lasted for five seasons, only to be cancelled after it's star, George Reeves, committed suicide. In the 60s D.C. had another success with the Batman series on ABC which was a huge hit for it's first two seasons. In 1975 D.C. had it's third live action series airing on network television, Wonder Woman. Marvel still had nothing.
In 1977 Marvel sold Universal Television the licensing to nearly half their characters. After picking up Wonder Woman from ABC, CBS was interested in more shows featuring superheroes. But by then most of D.C.s superheroes had been licensed out and were not available. Off the table were Superman ( the rights recently sold to producer Ilya Salkind ) and Batman ( the rights to him and other popular D.C. characters held by Hannah-Barbera who were developing a live action version of Justice League of America. ). But the rights to most of the Marvel characters were still available. The plan was for Universal to produce six or more pilots for superhero shows to air on CBS. The first, The Incredible Hulk, lead to a second pilot movie, then went to series in 1978 for a successful 5 year run. The series diverted so far from the comic book that it could barely be called an adaption. The comic book had scientist Bruce Banner caught in a blast of gamma rays during a nuclear bomb test. This caused him to turn into a 8 foot tall monster known as The Hulk whenever he got excited or angry. The television series had scientist David Banner deliberately exposing himself to a burst of gamma radiation in a lab as part of an experiment. This caused him to turn into a 6 foot tall green man known as The Hulk. The Hulk in the comic books could toss tanks. The Hulk on television struggled whenever he flipped over a car. The Hulk in the comic books could smash an entire building. The Hulk on television could pound a hole in a wall or knock down a door if he hit it a few times. And The Hulk on television was missing all the recurring characters from the comic book. Except for the name, and the green skin ( CBS initially wanted the skin to be red, something Stan Lee talked them out of. ) The Hulk on television had nothing else to do with the comic book.
Television producers saw no problem ignoring Marvel's established cannon. Unlike D.C. who's heroes were part of our culture, the Marvel heroes were still new, having been around for only about a decade. You could get away with removing Rick Jones and Betty Ross from the Hulk series, but would never get away with removing Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane from a Superman series. Stan Lee was hired as a consultant on all the Marvel shows, but later admitted that he was ignored, and aside from The Incredible Hulk, did not care for any of them. Universal made three more pilots. Two were for Captain America. Instead of making the Captain a veteran of the second World War, he was presented as a young man in his 20s who travels the country in a van. The other pilot was for Dr.Strange, a hero who used magic. Once again, the character was given a different origin than the comic book. Producer Dan Goodman had beaten Universal to the rights for Spider Man, and managed to get two seasons of The Amazing Spider-Man on CBS. Although it came closer to being like the comic book than any of the Universal series had, it still had an altered origin story.
It soon became a joke that CBS was "the network of the superheroes". During the 70s the network had picked up The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man as series, had picked up the Wonder Woman series from ABC after that network cancelled it, and had aired both Dr. Strange and Captain America pilot movies. In addition, they had the live action Shazam!/Isis Hour on Saturday mornings. CBS executives felt a bit embarrassed, and eventually began shying away from any new superhero programs. In the end, Marvel only had one success with The Incredible Hulk, and mixed results with The Amazing Spider-Man which lasted for only 13 episodes spread out between two seasons, and never given a permanent time slot. But given that their Hulk series outlasted and out performed D.C.s Wonder Woman, at least they had something to crow about.
But while Marvel may have bested D.C. on the live action television front, D.C. ended up besting them on the silver screen when in December of 1978 Superman became the first superhero to ever be the subject of a live action Hollywood motion picture. Even though producers and studios had been optioning the rights to Superheroes since the 1940s no studio head had evergreen lit a feature film before. The rights to Superman had been purchased many times before. First by Paramount in 1941, who then turned the character over to Max Fleischer to be produced as cartoon shorts. The next studio to purchase the rights to Superman was Columbia, but used those rights to produce a weekly serial. ( Around this time the rights to other superheroes were being used for movie serials, but not feature films. ) In 1951, Lippert Pictures brought the feature film Superman and the Mole Men to theaters. But it was really the pilot episode of The Adventures of Superman, shown later that year on television as "The Unknown People" parts 1 and 2. Similarly, 20th Century Fox's release of the Batman movie in 1966 was an extended episode from the television series, using the same cast, sets and writers. Studios in The Philippines, Turkey, Mexico and other countries that ignored copyright laws eagerly produced their own movies based on American superheroes. But as for an actual Hollywood feature film, even Superman could get no further than development hell.
The strange thing was that D.C. comics had the best prospects of any comic book company of having a feature film based on one of their heroes. Because by the 70s they were owned by Warner Bros. In 1966 Kinney Parking Company merged with National Cleaning Company forming the Kinney National Company. The newly merged company soon used it's capital to buy out and merge with other companies, including National Periodical Publications, the owners of D.C. When Kinney purchased a nearly bankrupted Warner Bros. studio in 1969, the company was reorganized, becoming Warner Communications in 1971. Even though Warner owned D.C., the studio showed no interest in producing a superhero movie, and continued to allow D.C. to sell the rights to their superheroes to other studios.
In 1974 D.C. sold the rights to Superman to producers Alexandre and Ilya Salkind who in turn tried to get parent studio Warner Bros. on board for a feature film. Warner was only interested when the Salkinds signed Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and the producers came up with the idea of shooting two Superman films back to back utilizing the same cast and sets to save money. The actual production of the movie was a mess. and Warner was close to cancelling their commitment to the film. But then Star Wars became a huge hit, and suddenly it became important for Warner Bros. executives to fast track their own fantasy film to the silver screen. Instead of cancelling the troubled production, filming continued. The first film was completed in late 1978 and released for that Christmas. The sequel, after extensive re-shoots, released three years later. Both were box office hits.
This was the beginning of Warner Bros. taking their ownership over D.C. seriously. Soon after the success of the Superman films, the studio announced they would be releasing a Batman movie. The D.C. characters would from now on be in feature films. This all came at a time Marvel was watching their deal with Universal Television evaporate. The Incredible Hulk was cancelled abruptly in 1981 when the new head of CBS wanted to shed the networks reputation for airing superhero shows once and for all. While the ratings were still strong, the network felt the show had run out of steam and was bound to drop in the ratings anyway. The cancellation came during the summer hiatus after seven episodes for the fifth season had been shot. CBS decided to burn them off, airing five in the fall when Falcon Crest ran into production troubles and it's debut needed to be delayed until December, and the other two during the spring after the regular season ended. Two days after the final Hulk episode aired, the film Conan The Barbarian was released in theaters. Conan had been one of Marvel's top selling comic books. The only problem was that they did not own the character. Conan began as a character in pulp magazines in 1932. In 1970 the character was licensed to Marvel Comics, and quickly became one of their top selling comic books. But the character was owned by the estate of it's creator, Robert E Howard. The movie adaption had nothing to do with the Marvel comics, even though one could say that the popularity of the comic book was the main factor the movie went into production.
Conan became a franchise with a sequel Conan The Destroyer planned for 1984. Dino De Laurentiis was the producer of both, and to make matters worse, had also purchased the rights to another popular Marvel comic, Red Sonja, which was also another pulp character Marvel was licencing from the Robert E. Howard estate. D.C. was riding high with the success of Superman II. And there was a second film based on a D.C. character, Swamp Thing ( 1982 ) directed by Wes Craven. The Swamp Thing comic book came out a few months after Marvel's Man-Thing comic book. Both were about scientists working in a lab in a swamp, who are transformed into giant slimy monsters after being exposed to the formulas they were working on which caused them to merge with the swamp. Marvel had considered suing D.C. for copyright infringement, but eventually decided it was not worth it. ow a decade later, the character Marvel allowed D.C.to steal from them was the star of a motion picture. Things for Marvel could not get worse, or so they thought.
It all began when Marvel was contacted by George Lucas himself. Lucas had a history with Marvel. In 1975 he had approached Marvel to publish Star Wars comic books to promote his upcoming film series. Stan Lee wanted to wait until the first film was completed, and the first six issues of the Star Wars comic book was an adaption of that movie. The issues that followed were original stories written by Marvel writers. Lucas had been in constant contact with Marvel, approving every script for proposed Star Wars comic books before they went into production, even going as far as censoring story lines that conflicted with the movie cannon, or even possibly came too close to being identical to story elements Lucas had planned for upcoming Star Wars films. In 1983 Lucas reached out to Marvel again, but it had nothing to do with the Star Wars comic book. He wanted to obtain the rights to one of Marvel's characters for a feature film. The problem was that the character George Lucas wanted was just barely owned by them, and possibly a copyright infringement on one of Disney's most beloved characters.
HOWARD THE DUCK
In the spring of 1978, George Lucas became aware that Marvel was publishing a separate parody of Star Wars, and felt it prudent to read it. He was surprised to see that the book had an anthropomorphic character, something that did not fit in the world of superhero comics. It was a duck, slightly resembling Donald Duck, but with a crumpled suit and cigar. Lucas found the parody hilarious, and was soon reading all the other issues of the book. He showed the comic to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz and they agreed it would make a funny animated feature.
The decision for Marvel to include an anthropomorphic character in their carefully crafted comic book universe was the result of ironic circumstances. In the early 70s the Comic Code Authority relaxes some of it's rules banning horror themed books so that the comic companies could better compete with adult comic magazines that were bypassing the CCA. For D.C. this meant that they could go back to a darker Batman. For everyone, this meant they could beging publishing horror themed comic books. Marvel began publishing such titles as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night and Son of Satan. One of the characters in their horror lineup was Man-Thing, a brainless lumbering pile of swamp crud that reacted to the emotions of those surrounding it. The writer for the Man-Thing series was Steve Gerber, who needed to come up with stories for a character that was not capable of thinking on it's own.
One such story had battling wizards causing the cosmic axis to shift, allowing creatures from other dimensions and historic figures from other times to appear in the Florida swamp Man-Thing resided in. Trying to come up with something spectacular to end the issue with, Gerber came up with the idea of an anthropomorphic duck walking out of the shrubs and addressing the heroes. The problem was that at this time, Marvel never did Disneyesque talking animal characters, and rarely did comedy. The script went to the artist before the editor-in-chief Roy Thomas had a chance to see it. By the time he did, the issue was too far into production to have the character removed. Gerber was ordered to kill the duck off in the next issue. He decided to name the doomed character Howard.
Howard The Duck joined Man-Thing, the good wizard and the other heroes on a quest to stop the bad wizard from destroying the universe. But while climbing the "cosmic steps", a series of floating rocks that ascended between dimensions, Howard slipped and fell into the void, and apparently to his death. Almost immediately after the issue hit the news stands, Marvel was beset by hate mail, blasting them for killing the duck. This prompted Roy Thomas to ask Gerber to save Howard. In a back up feature to Giant-Size Man-Thing, a short story showed Howard safely landing in Cleveland where he ended up fighting a giant man-frog. A second back-up feature in the next issue of Giant-Sized Man-Thing had Howard battling a vampire cow. The fan mail for both backup features was so positive that Thomas gave Gerber the go-ahead to write a Howard The Duck comic book. It soon became one of their best selling titles.
The success of Howard The Duck soon lead to a daily syndicated newspaper strip featuring Howard and written by Gerber. But after nearly missing the writing deadline on several occasions, Marvel decided to replace Gerber as the writer of the strip. Gerber threatened to sue Marvel, which eventually resulted in him being fired as a Marvel employee. Writing duty for the comic was turned over to Bill Mantlo, although by that time Marvel had already decided to end the book after two more issues. Mantlo's job was to use those two issues to wrap up all of the unresolved story lines left behind by Gerber, including the rescue of Howard's human girlfriend, Beverly Switzler, from Doctor Bong, a villain who had kidnapped her two years earlier. Marvel intended to move Howard into a bi-monthly black and white adult magazine, which would be scripted by Mantlo. But just as the first issue was going to press, Marvel was contacted by lawyers from Disney. They were not happy with Howard, which they regarded as an unauthorized parody of Donald Duck.
Since the creation of Donald Duck their had been many parodies and knock-offs, and Disney had never sued. It had been assumed that parody was protected from copyright infringement suits. In 1971 the comic book Air Pirate Funnies parodied the Disney characters, but in X rated stories. Air Pirate founder Dann O'Nell wanted Disney to sue him, and even made sure copies of his book were delivered to a Disney board meeting. O'Nell got his wish, and legal proceedings dragged on until 1978 when the ninth circuit court ruled that Air Pirate Funnies was copyright infringement, and that in the case of comic books, you could not use parody as a legal shield. Emboldened by the decision, Disney informed Marvel that Howard The Duck infringed on their copyrights to Donald Duck.
Worried by the outcome of the Air Pirate Funnies case, Marvel worked out an agreement with Disney that included altering the appearance of Howard. And agreeing Howard would, from that point on, wear pants. Gerber disagreed with Marvel's decision to back down to Disney. While Howard was initially a parody of a Donald Duck type character, in subsequent stories he became an original character. Gerber refused to put pants on his duck. Howard was still not wearing pants as of the first issue of the magazine, which prompted Disney's lawyers into threatening Marvel again. Once again Marvel buckled and gave Howard pants, but in the process had all but admitted that Howard was a Donald Duck parody.
In the summer of 1980, two years after being fired, Steve Gerber sued Marvel for custody of his duck. Gerber had learned that Marvel had signed a deal with Selluloid Productions licencing Howard for television, radio and a one year option to make a feature film. Gerber claimed that he owned Howard, that Howard was his creation, and that Marvel only had permission to use Howard in comic books, and nothing else. Unlike other Marvel characters, Howard was not created at a meeting with Stan Lee and the other editors present, but entirely by Gerber as he wrote the script for Man-Thing in his own apartment. Gerber was not an employee of Marvel at that time, but working as a freelance writer. Furthermore, Marvel had initially rejected the character, and had told Gerber to permanently kill Howard off. Gerber was the one who fleshed Howard out once it was decided to give the character his own series. Gerber had believed that since he had created Howard prior to being hired by Marvel, that he owned the character as it's creator. He also believed that his various contracts with Marvel gave him some legal say over Howard, and a cut of any profits Marvel would make with the character. He believed that Marvel violated those contracts which forfeited their rights to use the character.
To help finance his lawsuit, Gerber created the comic book Destroyer Duck. Eclipse published the book, donating all profits to the lawsuit. Jack Kirby himself donated his services as the book's artist. In fact, most of the comic book community backed Gerber's lawsuit. Dave Sim, Sergio Aragonés, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith and Mark Evanier were just a few of the other artists and writers who contributed their services to help raise money for the lawsuit. Cartoonists were fed up with comic book companies owning and profiting off of the characters they created, while they were entitled to nothing beyond the few hundred dollars they were paid for their work. By the early 80s there were many up and coming comic book companies, such as Eclipse, who were willing to allow artists and writers to own their work. Talent began abandoning Marvel and D.C. in droves. And while most of these companies went belly up, they set the stage for Dark Horse and Image, both who became strong competition for Marvel and D.C. where no competition had existed before. For many who fled to the uncertainty of creator owned comic companies, it was the Gerber lawsuit was the deciding factor.
For two years Gerber and Marvel's lawyers wrangled in pre-hearings. Then two weeks before the trial was to take place, Marvel and Gerber reached a settlement, the terms of which remain confidential to this day. Those who knew Gerber suggest that Marvel's lawyers delayed the lawsuit long enough that Gerber could no longer afford to go to trial. Despite financial help from his fellow cartoonists, Gerber's legal bills would put him in debt for the rest of his life. Others, including Marvel's Jim Shooter, claim that Gerber quit after the judge threw out most of his case. Marvel had their own reason for offering a settlement. The Howard The Duck comic strip only lasted six months after Gerber was removed as it's writer. The adult magazine was cancelled after it's 9th issue. It concluded with an article by Steven Grant, claiming that they were cancelling the magazine so they could move Howard back to it's original color comic book format, which was suppose to take place in a matter of months. But no new Howard The Duck comic book materialized.
The truth, Marvel had given up publishing Howard. Instead of launching a new comic book, Howard became a monthly two page feature in Crazy magazine, and this only because Marvel's lawyers advised them to continue publishing new Howard comics until the lawsuit was settled. Marvel now realized that Gerber and Howard The Duck were inseparable. Howard The Duck was not a best seller because people wanted to read another talking animal comic book. It was a best seller because people enjoyed Steve Gerber's humor. They were just not interested in Howard books not written by Gerber. The duck they were fighting over was worthless. If Marvel ever wanted to make money off of Howard again, they would need Gerber writing it again. And that could only happen if there was an amicable resolution to the case. One where Marvel continued owning Howard as insurance that Gerber would not take it to their competition, but would also give Gerber some sort of rights to the character. What rights Marvel ceded in the settlement still remains a secret, but soon after Gerber returned to Marvel.
While it is not known how early George Lucas told anyone at Marvel he was interested in purchasing the film rights to Howard The Duck, ( it had to have been later than 1980, otherwise Marvel would have never sold Selluloid a one year option to make a feature film, ) by 1984 negotiations for the right began. Since Lucas knew he wanted to make a Howard movie going back to the 70s, and would have been made aware that he nearly lost the rights to Selluliod, negotiations for the rights may have happened days after the suit was settled in November of '82. But before Marvel could sell Lucas the rights, there were still legal hurtles to get past. First, whatever the settlement was with Gerber. If it did indeed give him some say on any use of the character outside of comic books, then another deal would need to be made. Although uncredited, Gerber became the film's creative consultant, the first time a Marvel project did not use Stan Lee as the consultant. ( Much like with Lee, Gerber's consulting was either ignored or never used. ) The second thing Marvel needed to do was square things once and for all with Disney. They had pretty much admitted to Disney that Howard was a parody of Donald. Would Disney allow a motion picture parody of their biggest character to be made? Once again, whatever agreement Marvel made with Disney remains a secret.
Marvel really wanted this movie. Not only would it finally put one of their characters in a full feature motion picture, but it's success would in turn revive the popularity of the Howard The Duck comic book. In anticipation of the movie's release, Marvel decided to revive the comic book, not with a new #1, but from where they left off seven years earlier. The new series would begin with issue #32. Once again Gerber was hired to write the new series. However, he never liked the Howard comics written after he was fired from Marvel. He submitted a story that revealed that Howard was in a coma since issue #23, and everything that happened since was a hallucination. Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter did not want to upset writer Bill Mantlo who had written most of the stories Gerber wanted to decanonize, so Gerber's first script was rejected. Gerber submitted a second story where Mantlo's stories were revealed to be scenes from a cosmic movie shot in an alternate universe. Shooter edited the script to remove any reference that Mantlo's stories were not canon, and Gerber redacted his submission. Instead of a script written by Steve Gerber, Shooter decided to use an unused script by Steve Grant originally written for the cancelled magazine. The comic book was then put on hiatus so that Marvel could work on the official movie adaption.
Howard The Duck was released in theaters in August of 1986. Almost immediately it was hailed as the worst motion picture ever made. Critics hated it. Comic book fans despised it. Even Universal's executives disliked the film. Legend has it that in a closed meeting between Universal executives, a fist fight broke out over who was to blame for green-lighting the film. The movie bombed at the box office, barely making back what Universal has invested in it's production. It was such a fiasco that the studio chairman Frank Price was forced to resign.
So what went wrong? Some say Lucas, Huyck and Katz deliberately made a bomb to get back at Marvel for stealing Howard from Gerber. This is probably not true as it would be Universal who took most of the damage. The real fault was with Universal's executives. George Lucas wanted the film to be animated. Universal insisted it be live action, possibly to prevent Disney from claiming it infringed on Donald Duck, but more likely because they wanted a George Lucas special effects extravaganza. Since the film would be live action, the only viable technology to bring a talking duck to life at the time was using a costume. CGI was not advanced enough to create a duck. Animation and stop motion animation would take too long. And Lucas knew of all the limitations of puppets after using Muppets in his Star Wars films to bring Yoda to life. The problem was that there was no way to make a costume the shape of a duck that a human could fit into. Lucas tried his best with the technology available, but the duck costume ended up looking ridiculous.
Universal decided they wanted the film to have a top selling soundtrack. So they insisted that the character of Beverly be changed from aspiring model to aspiring rock star. She would head a band that Howard would end up managing. They wanted the film to have expensive special effects sequences, but then gave Lucas a short shooting schedule because they wanted it released by summer of 1986. Universal even interfered with the script, deciding they did not want the cynical Howard downplayed and replaced with something more akin to a role model. If they were going to spend millions on a movie, then they wanted a hero America would identify with.
But perhaps most of the blame should go with first time director Willard Huyck and producer Gloria Katz who both wrote the script, and executive producer George Lucas. They may have delivered the film Universal asked for, but they should have insisted on producing the movie they originally intended to. They had wanted to make a movie based on the comic book. Instead they let Universal convince them to make a movie that had none of that books humor. But even making a movie compromised by Universal's edicts, they should have at the least come up with a good script.
A DECADE OF FAILURE
The Howard The Duck movie was not just a disaster for Universal, but a disaster for Marvel as well. Any chance of reviving the comic book died when the movie flopped. After completing the movie adaption, Marvel went ahead with issue #33 of the comic book. Once again Gerber refused to participate unless he could nullify the stories written by Mantlo. Instead they hired Val Mayerik as writer and artist. Val was the artist who drew the Man-Thing comic that Howard first appeared in, so therefore was credited as the character's co-creator. This would be that books last issue. But beyond the movie destroying one of Marvel's characters, it gave their entire company a bad reputation. Marvel's one and only movie was among the worst movies ever made, and at the time was the worst financial flop in Hollywood's history. This was just the beginning of a decade of failure for movies based on Marvel characters.
At least there was Superman to take some of the heat off of Howard The Duck. After two successful Superman films, the Salkinds decided they wanted the third film to be a comedy. Superman III ( 1983 ) co-starred Richard Pryor and featured many scenes with campy slapstick. Critics did not like it and it didn't do well at the box office. Christopher Reeve was reluctant to return for another Superman film, so one was planned where Superman only makes a cameo. But by the time Supergirl ( 1984 ) was based on one of the regular characters from the Superman comics, his cousin from his home planet who also survived it's destruction and also ends up on Earth. But because the Salkinds rushed the film into production, Reeve was not longer available due to working on another movie, as was the rest of the regular cast members from the Superman series. The one exception was Marc McClure reprising his role of Jimmy Olsen. Warner Bros. decided not to bother distributing it, so the distribution went to Tri Star who held back it's U.S. release for four months. In that time it had already been released in Japan, and was then being released on home video. A week before it was to be released in the United States, hundreds of imported Japanese VHS copies of the film, in English with Japanese subtitles, were made available to video rental shops across the country. Because of this and even worse reviews than the previous Superman film, it bombed at the box office. Deciding the franchise was dead, the Salkinds sold the rights to Cannon Films. While Warner Bros. agreed to distribute it, and the entire cast from the first three Superman films agreed to return, Cannon decided to shoot Superman IV: The Quest For Peace ( 1987 ) on a shoestring budget. It only did slightly better with Critics than Supergirl, and only did slightly better at the box office. But by now there had been three bad Superman films in a row, and the franchise was as good as dead.
That was not the only franchise to be killed off by a bad film. In the spring of 1989 The Return of Swamp Thing was released. While the original got positive reviews despite it's low budget, and became a cult classic, the sequel change the tone to campy comedy, and was panned by critics. It made less than two hundred thousand dollars at the box office. Although a Swamp Thing series would have a three season run on the USA network a year later, this would be the last Swamp Thing film to be released. The implosion of both the Superman and Swamp Thing franchises, along with the failure of Howard The Duck, had critics wondering if the entire superhero genre was dead. This would not be the last time they asked this question. The truth was that hundreds of cartoon characters had been optioned by producers, and dozens of superhero films were then floating around in development hell. One of those superheroes was Batman. There had been a disagreement between Warner executives who wanted a campy Batman film much like the popular television series, and those who wanted a dark Batman film similar to the comic book The Dark Knight Returns. There seemed to be a compromise with making an oddly funny and Gothic Batman to be directed by Tim Burton.
Released in the summer of 1989, Batman became a $400 million dollar blockbuster for Warner Bros. Not only did it open up a new film franchise, but it's success helped nudge several films based on comic books into production, most from books published by the independent companies. Perhaps the most successful of these was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise from Mirage Comics, produced by Hong Kong's Golden Harvest Studio. The first film in the series, released in 1990, was a box office hit. An while the next two films in the series were not as successful, they did turn a profit in the millions. Dark Horse would get three of their comic books on the big screen, The Mask ( 1994 ), Tank Girl ( 1995 ) and Barb Wire ( 1996 ). There was also Pacific Comic's The Rocketeer ( 1991 ), IPC Media's Judge Dredd ( 1995 ), Image's Spawn ( 1997 ) and the ill fated The Crow ( 1994 ) from Caliber Comics which was completed after it's star, Brandon Lee, was accidentally shot to death on the set. Other films of note were Darkman ( 1990 ) based on an original superhero created by the film's director Sam Raimi; The Shadow ( 1994 ) based on a hero created for radio in the 30s; and Dick Tracy ( 1990 ) and The Phantom ( 1996 ) based on comic strip characters. And there were two comedies about African American superheroes, Robert Townsend's Meteor Man ( 1993 ) and Damon Wayans Blankman ( 1994 ).
But neither D.C. nor Marvel would see any of their other characters make it to film during these years. In D.C.'s case, this was due parent company Warner Bros. putting all their eggs in one basket and concentrating on the Batman franchise. For Marvel it was a lot worse. They saw no less than three movies based on their books go into production, and never get released. What Marvel had been doing was selling options to their characters. For those not familiar with options, they are deals that give a producer the exclusive right to a book, character, video game, board game, play, musical or any other copyrighted material for a future movie. But they are not actually the film rights. Should the producer get a green light from a studio for a feature film, the producer or studio must then purchase the film rights. All the option does is insure that the copyright holder does not sell the film rights to someone else while the producer is still raising money for his film. Options usually come with a time limit. If a feature film is not produced by a specific date, then the option expires. Marvel had sold pleanty of options over the years, but so far had only seen Universal buy the full rights to one character, Howard The Duck. That changed with The Punisher ( 1989 ).
The Punisher first appeared as a villain in the Spider-Man comic books. A vigilante who executed criminals instead of arresting them, his first appearance had him hunting Spider-Man who at the time was suspected of murder. The Punisher soon graduated to anti-hero, making numerous guest appearances in other comic books. When finally given his own book in 1987, the series became such a best seller that a second Punisher series went into production a year later. But it was not the Punisher's popularity that got his movie green-lit. He was one of Marvel's few characters with no superpowers. The Punisher used conventional weapons to take out villains. For New World Pictures, this meant a Punisher movie could be made for a modest budget. Looking to get beyond the embarrassment of Howard The Duck, Marvel began promoting the upcoming Punisher film. And with a cast that included Dolph Lundgren as the title character, and Academy Award winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., it promised to be an event movie. But without warning, the film was shelved. Rumors spread that the movie was so bad that neither Marvel nor New World Pictures wanted it released. What had really happened was that just prior to the film's release, New World Pictures nearly went into bankruptcy, forcing the cancellation of distribution of all their films. The film's release was put on hiatus, during which a bootleg surfaced and soon became a best seller at comic book conventions. Deciding that everyone who wanted to see the film had already seen the bootleg, New World permanently cancelled distribution, releasing the movie direct to video.
Menahem Golan of Cannon Films, who wanted his studio to begin producing superhero films, purchased the film rights for Captain America and Spider-Man in 1984. But soon after the Salkinds offered Cannon the rights to the Superman franchise. Both the Captain America and Spider-Man projects went on the back burner as Cannon began work on Superman IV. When it failed, the studio lost interest in investing money on another superhero movie. For the next two years Golan tried to convince his studio to green light a Marvel movie. Both projects saw many directors and actors come and go, as well as going through different scripts. Golan even went as far as hiring Stan Lee as a producer, but still neither film was green lit.
When Golan resigned from Cannon in 1989, it did not take much to convince them to give him the film rights to the Marvel characters. Soon after he was made head of 21st Century Film Corporation, a small time distributor of grindhouse films and occasional production company. There he immediately started production on the Captain America film using a script that had been written at Cannon. He wanted it released in 1990 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Captain America comic. Once again Marvel promoted the film, and this time had Stan Lee working behind the scenes. Before principal photography began, teaser trailers for the film were released in theaters. But once again, the film was shelved. And once again rumors were that the film was so bad that Marvel refused to allow it to be released. Exactly why the film never saw a theatrical release is still unclear. Golan continued to work on a Spider-Man movie, which never saw the light of day. Apparently the option was set to expire if the film was not in production by spring of 1990, but Golan continued to work on pre-production of a Spider-Man film until 21st Century Film Corporation went bankrupt in 1996.
The worse was yet to come. In 1992 Marvel announced that a Fantastic Four film was in the works, and then suddenly stopped mentioning it. Word soon spread that the film would be produced by Roger Corman, a film maker notorious for producing ultra cheap low budget grindhouse films. A release date was given for Labor Day weekend 1993. Much like the past two Marvel films, trailers for it were shown in theaters, and cast members promoted the film at comic book conventions. And, just like the past two films, The Fantastic Four was shelved. Only this time there would be no overseas release and it would never be released on home video. Even a bootleg print of the film took years to surface, in which time rumors of how bad the movie were rampant. One rumor was that, to save money, Corman did not have the characters get their powers until the last reel. Once again word spread that Marvel prevented the film from being released, only this time the rumors may have been true.
Producer Bernd Eichinger became interested in making a Fantastic Four film in 1983, and paitently waited three years for the option to become available. He signed a five year option deal for $250,000. Like most of the other producers who held Marvel options, he could not get any studio to green-light a movie. When the options were set to expire in the fall of 1992, Eichinger tried to negotiate an extension with Marvel. But they were not interested in allowing an unsuccessful producer to continue tying up the rights to one of their most popular comic books. Eichinger had just one option to hold onto the film rights. He needed to produce a Fantastic Four movie by the end of that year, after which he could hold onto the rights for any future sequels. He contracted Roger Corman who agreed to produce a Fantastic Four movie for less than $1 million. Years later when a big budget Fantastic Four film was released, both Eichinger and Stan Lee claimed that the Corman movie was never meant to be released, but was simply a way for the producer to hold onto the rights to the characters. But the director and cast of the film claimed that they were told the film would get a release, and was only shelved after Marvel paid Eichinger a couple million to make sure the film never saw the light of day.
The Marvel Curse seemed to go beyond movies based on their characters. In early 1995 it was announced that Stan Lee would be starring in the comedy called Mallrats ( 1995 ). Lee had appeared in cameo roles before, but this would be the first time he played a supporting character. Mallrats was written and directed by Kevin Smith, who a year earlier had made a name for himself with his first movie, Clerks ( 1994 ). Clerks was an independent film that was shot for less than $28 thousand, and earned over $3 million on the independent film circuit, and quickly became a cult classic. Universal was eager to do a film with the newest phenom director, so they hired him to shoot what they would later promote as a smart version of Porky's ( 1982 ). It was, in fact, to be another version of Clerks, but taking place at a mall. The script called for the lead characters meeting a comic book icon who was visiting the mall's comic book store for a book signing. Stan Lee was asked to play himself, and accepted.
Mallrats soon became a doomed project, partially because Smith did not have enough experience making feature films, but mostly because Universal insisted on cleaning up the script so that the film could possibly earn a PG-13 rating. Most of the gross-out humor and foul language removed, but the film was given an R rating anyway. Universal had expected Mallrats to make about $100 million, mostly due to a favorable screenings at the San Diego Comic Con. But it only earned $400 thousand it's opening night, and eventually made just over $2 million domestically, and another $2 million outside the U.S. It's budget had been $6 million, so Universal ended up losing about $2 million. While $2 million was not much of a loss for a major Hollywood studio, it was yet another movie tied into Marvel that failed. Smith quickly bounced back from the disaster. He was hired to write the script for Superman Lives, one of the many Superman films projects Warner initiated and abandoned after Superman IV. Soon after, he wrote and directed Chasing Amy ( 1997 ), a film made for $250 thousand that earned $12 million.Chasing Amy was not just a romantic comedy, but a tribute to comic books. Comic book fans had loved Mallrats due to it's comic book references and guest appearance from Stan Lee. A huge comic book fan himself, Smith made the lead characters of Chasing Amy comic book artists and writers. The same year Smith released his tribute to the comic book, Warner Bros. nearly brought an end to the comic book movie.
In 1989 Batman had become the 6th highest grossing film of all time, only bested by Jaws, E.T. and the first three Star Wars films. It made more money than the first two Superman movies combined. And while the sequel, Batman Returns ( 1992 ), made a little more than half as much at the box office, in 1992 $260 Million was still a successful blockbuster. Warner Bros. could not leave well enough alone. They wanted to know why their Batman franchise had a 35% drop off in revenue. They had been getting a lot of complaints from parents who felt Burton's version of Batman was too dark for their children. Were parents keeping their kids away from the Batman sequel? A decision was made to retool Batman, taking away most of the darker elements and making it more kid friendly. Burton was convinced to step down as the director of the next installment, and was given a producer credit for the pre-production work he had done so far on the film. Warner Bros. hired Joel Schumacher as the franchises new director. Not only did Schumacher believe that comic book movies should be whimsical and fun, but was willing to give the studio the style of film they wanted. Comic book fans and critics just barely tolerated Batman Forever (1995 ), but lashed out at Batman & Robin ( 1997 ) calling it one of the worst movies ever made. Both films made huge profits for Warner Bros. But they began to fear that Batman & Robin had been so poorly received that the franchise was damaged, and the next film would be an expensive flop. So Warner suspended the Batman franchise indefinitely.
While Batman & Robin has been called a bomb, it actually netted Warner Bros. nearly $100 million. A good portion of that profit was lost two months later when Warner Bros. released another movie based on a D.C. comic book, Steel ( 1997 ) which had a budget of $16 Million. Not only was it a critical failure, but only made $1 million at the box office, the total loss being around $15 million. Once again critics proclaimed the comic book film dead. It was not just the failures of Marvel, or the implosion of the Batman and Superman franchises, but that the majority of films based on comic book characters that decade were terrible. Out of 20 superhero films released, only five managed positive reviews; Darkman, The Rocketeer, Batman Returns, The Crow and The Mask. Not doing as well with lukewarm reviews were Blankman, Batman Forever, The Phantom and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie with it sequels getting worse reviews. More than half the superhero films released to theaters got bad reviews, with Steel, Spawn, Barb Wire, Batman & Robin and Judge Dredd ranked among the worst movies in motion picture history. Add to that a poor run of live action movies based on cartoon characters, Casper ( 1995 ), Richie Rich ( 1994 ), Dennis the Menace ( 1993 ), Mr. Magoo ( 1997 ) and from producer Steven Spielberg, The Flintstones ( 1994 ).
Even worse was the word of mouth from comic book fans, each who was highly protective of their favorite characters, and highly critical when they felt a movie was not faithful enough to that character. By the end of the decade comic book movies were assumed to be bad, even before they were released. Guilty until proved watchable. Comic book films required a huge budget, so any of them making less than $100 million would be a loss. This was just too much of a risk. And besides, Hollywood found another golden goose to pry eggs from. Comic book films did not appeal to most women. That was nearly two thirds of the population. For decades studios tried to come up with a female friendly blockbuster, as opposed to the explosions, violence and fart jokes that had helped produce blockbusters in the past. That all changed with Titanic ( 1997 ), which at the time became the highest grossing film of all time, and the first to surpass $1 Billion at the box office. The majority of it's paying audience were women, all who went back to see it again and again. Hollywood had finally discovered the female equivalent of Star Wars. The formula, epic historic romance with special effects. The fact that no studio ever replicated the success of Titanic with this new formula was beside the point. By 1998 the studios had a different kind of blockbuster to invest their money in, rather than a superhero film. The genre was truly close to becoming extinct.
At first, selling options to their comic books seemed like a good deal. Here they were selling the rights to characters, and making tons of money off of films that would never be made. But by the mid 90s, it became evident that the options were damaging the reputation of their superheroes. Whenever a producer purchased an option, it was usually followed by a press release, claiming a movie was in the works. Even without a press release, word spread fast whenever a producer or director began pre-production on a potential superhero film. There was little difference when a studio did pony up for the film rights. Unlike with the option, there was usually no short time limit on film rights. Common sense would say that if a studio paid in the millions for film rights to a character, then they would recoup their investment with a film. But common sense does not often apply to the movie business. As far as studio heads ar concerned, they would rather waste the million or so they spent on the movie rights than invest $50 million or so on a film that bombs. Superhero films were both expensive to make, and were a genre that still only appealed to a niche fan base. No studio head could ever green light any Superhero film until he was fully convinced that movie would be a hit. The general public did not understand that just because a studio announced a film, that it would ever be made. Superhero films were announced all the time, and then evaporated a few months later. Comic Book fans were beginning to notice that a Spider-Man movie had been announced again and again, but never went into actual production, and they saw the same thing happen with many other Marvel superheroes. If D.C. could get both a Superman and Batman franchise off the ground, why couldn't Marvel do the same with their heroes?
Another problem was the quality of the movies. Once Marvel sold the rights to one of their characters, they had no say on what the producer did with that character. Even when a representative from Marvel ( usually Stan Lee ) was hired as a consultant, they were ignored. The producer had his own idea of what the film should be, mostly to keep things on budget. The director had his own idea of what the film should be, mostly as a demo reel to promote himself . The studio has their own idea of what the film should be, more often to fit into the formula they think will sell the most tickets. Nobody cared about the comic book the film would be based on. As far as they were concerned, all they were buying was the title and concept. All Lucas had bought was the concept of a talking duck and the right to call the film Howard The Duck, along with the right to use the names of Howard's supporting characters. Everything else could be jettisoned. Studios felt they could improve on the source material so it appealed to a wider audience. Sometimes this worked, and the movie becomes a hit. Sometimes, like in the case of Howard The Duck, it didn't work. It had become obvious that, in the case of comic books, studios did not know how to adapt them properly. Even when they got it right, such as with Tim Burton's Batman, it was not long before studio heads decided they could improve on the franchise, resulting in the whole thing being screwed up.
Marvel already had a production company for animated cartoons, but nothing for live action television shows or theatrical movies. After the shelving of The Fantastic Four, Marvel decided if they ever wanted to get their books turned into proper motion pictures, they would need to expand their production company to include live action productions. In essence, they would need to create their own movie studio. Marvel Studios was created in the summer of 1996. It's primary goal was to control the productions of the characters they licensed. In the case of D.C., movies based on their characters were being made almost exclusively through Warner Bros. This may have resulted in the movie Batman & Robin, but it had also resulted in Burton's Batman. Marvel wanted something like that. They wanted to control their own characters the way Warner Bros. was controlling the D.C. characters. If a producer was to buy the rights to a Marvel character, they wanted to make sure he had a chance of getting the film off the ground rather than spending the next decade shopping the film around from studio to studio. This was a risk. Movies were far more expensive than animated cartoons. If one of their movies failed then this time Marvel would be the one who would be losing millions of dollars. But they felt their characters were worth the risk.
Marvel Studios was founded just as the superhero genre in films seemed over and any new superhero. Their very first production proved to be a challenge. New Line wanted the rights to the vampire hunter Blade, one of Marvel's minor characters, and by no means a household name beyond the die-hard Marvel readers. Like most studios did with superhero films, New Line wanted Blade to be a comedy. Both star Wesley Snipes and screenplay writer David S Goyer had wanted Blade to be a serious action film, and were prepared to walk should New Line turn it into another campy comic book film. Marvel agreed with them, and now as a partner studio on the film, pressured New Line to green light the script Goyer had turned in. Despite being based on an obscure character, Blade ( 1998 ) was a modest hit, making $130 million at the box office. Two sequels were made, both just as successful. Not only did Marvel finally had a successful film, but a successful film franchise.
Two years later Marvel launched another successful franchise. By 1963 The Fantastic Four had been so successful that Stan Lee was asked to come up with two new superhero teams. One of them was The Avengers which used up most of Marvels heroes. The second team would need to be composed of newly created heroes. Deciding he could not come up with five different origins for each of the new superheroes by the deadline, Lee decided that the new heroes were mutants who were born with their powers. Calling themselves The X-Men, their mission was to fight mutants who used their powers to become super villains. Sales for The X-Men were sluggish, but not bad enough to cancel the book. In 1970, with a lot of other books in the works, it was decided to stop publishing any new X-Men stories, and instead reprint older stories. The reprint issues continued until 1975 when Len Wein began writing new stories, and together with artist Dave Cockrum created a new X-Men team. The new team proved popular, and X-Men soon surged to one of Marvel's best selling titles.
It was thought to be a sure thing that an X-Men film would be made. Orion nearly green-lit an X-Men movie in 1985, but got cold feet at the last second. James Cameron nearly bought the rights to the X-Men, coming as close as having a meeting with Marvel's Stan Lee and Chris Claremont ( creator of many of the later X-Men characters ). During the meeting Lee an Cameron began talking about Spider-Man, and by the end of the meeting Cameron decided he wanted to direct a Spider-Man film instead. By some accounts, Cameron's wife Katheryn Bigelow did write a treatment for an X-Men movie that she would direct and Cameron would produce, but the rights were never obtained. It would not be until the tail end of the 90s that Marvel talked 20th Century Fox into buying the rights for an X-Men film, possibly on the success of Blade. Initially Fox intended to do three X-Men movies. The first, X-Men ( 2000 ), made nearly $300 million at the box office, and was responsible for reviving the Superhero genre.
As for Spider-Man movie, Carlico Pictures secured the rights for James Cameron after the option producer Menahem Golan held expired, but then teamed up with Golan and 21st Century Film Corporation as co-producers. Cameron went as far as writing the script for the film. But other producers and production companies claiming they owned film rights on Spider-Man filed lawsuits that stalled any further production. Finally Cameron gave up and began pre-production on Titanic. Even with James Cameron no longer attached as director, Golan and Carlico Pictures continued to pursue the film. But both 21st Century Film Corporation and Carlico went bankrupt in 1996. Neither bankruptcy had anything to do with the Spider-man film, aside from the obvious, that had the film been green-lit then most likely both studios would have been saved from their respective financial shortcomings.
The failure of Spider-Man due to the argument over who owned the film rights was yet another reason why Marvel felt they needed a film production company. Over the years they had sold the rights to a live action Spider-Man several times. The first resulted in the short lived television series. A year later Spider-Man was licensed to Toieo who did their own television series and a Spider-Man movie that was never seen outside of Japan. A succession of producers bought options on Spider-Man before Cannon Films. There were also a number of rights sold for animated Spider-Man shows, and a lend-out to P.B.S. to use Spider-Man on The Electric Company. It was assumed that the rights expired when they failed to produce a Spider-Man project, or if they did, then the rights expired soon after those projects concluded. What had not been counted on was producers selling their rights to Spider-Man like stock. Issues over film rights to characters has always plagued Hollywood. This was the first time it occurred with a Marvel character. Even after most of the claims were thrown out, there was still M.G.M. who inherited Cannon's franchises which they claimed still included the rights to Spider-Man. Things got even more muddled after both 21st Century Film Corporation and Carolco went bankrupt, and after their assets were liquidated, others ended up owning the rights to the James Cameron Spider-Man script.
In 1999 Columbia Pictures went to the expense of buying out every producer and studio claiming rights to Spider-Man including M.G.M. with hopes of luring James Cameron back as director. However, by now he had lost interest in the project and was busy producing the television series Dark Angel. The script was given to David Koepp for an extensive rewrite, and from there Spider-Man spiraled into another development hell. Spider-Man had always been one of Stan Lee's favorite characters. It frustrated Lee how Spider-Man kept failing to be made into a proper film. He convinced Marvel that it was their duty to make sure that Spider-Man was the very next Marvel property to hit the silver screen. The intervention from Marvel Studios got Columbia back on track, and the movie was finally green lit. The director chosen was Sam Raimi who had previously created and directed Darkman. Stan Lee's persistence paid off. Spider-Man ( 2002 ) made over $800 million at the box office. The two sequels did just as well, with Spider-Man 2 ( 2004 ) being hailed by critics as the greatest superhero film ever made.
Marvel now had three very successful film franchises. D.C., on the other hand, was still in limbo. Having peaked in 1989 with Tim Burton's Batman, they were now known as the comic book company with three franchises that self destructed, one of which nearly ended comic book films forever. By now Warner Bros. held the exclusive rights to most if not all of D.C.s characters, but was reluctant to risk investing in a superhero film that could be a potential bomb. There would be no film version of Wonder Woman or any other character until Warner got around to repairing their Superman and Batman franchises. In 2004, the same year Spider-Man 2 was released, Warner had another misstep with their Batman franchise.
Back in 1993 Tim Burton decided he wanted to do a spin-off from the Batman franchise featuring Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer had agreed to reprise her role, and shooting was to have commenced once the third Batman film was completed. After Burton was removed from the third Batman film, Warner told him he was still the director of the Catwoman spin-off. But then the inevitable development hell stalled Burton's film. First Burton bailed on the project, then Pfeiffer after she saw the results of Batman & Robin. Strangely enough, while the Batman franchise was officially put on hiatus, work continued on the Catwoman spin-off, even though all the principles were no longer attached. It went through script after script, saw numerous cast changes, and passed from director to director. In 2003 academy award winning actress Halle Berry signed on as Catwoman, which was enough for Warner Bros. to finally green-light the film. The studio had chosen a script that distanced Catwoman from the previous Batman franchise. She would not be Selina Kyle from Batman Returns and the comic books, but a new character named Patience Phillips. The studio wanted to change Catwoman from a cat burglar to a superhero, with the possibility of there being many more Catwoman sequels. That speculation came to an end when critics and audiences called Catwoman ( 2004 ) a worse film than Batman & Robin, and it ultimately flopped at the box office.
There was at least one good outcome from Catwoman. With the studios misguided belief that they had launched a viable Catwoman franchise, they finally decided to green-light the next film in their Batman franchise. At the time director Christopher Nolan had pitched the studio the idea of rebooting the franchise with a more realistic version of the Batman legend. David S Goyer, the screenwriter who was instrumental to the success of Marvel Studios by writing the films in the Blade trilogy, was hired to write the films in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. The first film, Batman Begins ( 2005 ), was already in principle photography when Catwoman bombed. The studio had no choice but to allow Nolan to complete his film, and then hope that Catwoman had not completely turned audiences off of any further Batman films.
Marvel continued to dominate Superhero films. While they had three successful franchises in theaters, the decade also saw some lows. The fourth film Marvel Studios produced was Daredevil ( 2003 ), based on the superhero who was secretly blind, but thanks to exposure to radiation, had his other senses super enhanced. Since 1997, 20th Century Fox, Disney, and Columbia Pictures had all been interested in producing a Daredevil film. At one time Chris Columbus had been attached as director and had even commissioned a script. But in every case, the studio failed to green-light the film, and the options continued to expire. Looking for a production company that would actually bring Daredevil to the screen, Marvel sold the rights to Regency in 2000. The script was completed in 2001, and Marvel Studios felt it was the strongest script for one of their characters they had ever seen. Marvel soon learned that a strong script does not always result in a strong film. Daredevil got mixed reviews, with half of comic book fans hating it. While initially opening strong at the box office, bad word of mouth saw the box office drop off rapidly, and the film ultimately bombed. Many criticised the casting of Ben Affleck as Daredevil. Still owning the rights to make sequels, Regency decided to make the next Daredevil film without Daredevil. In Elektra ( 2005 ) Jennifer Garner reprised her role as the character of the same name, even though the character had been killed in the previous Daredevil film. Ben Affleck'sapperance in the film as Daredevil was to be no more than a cameo appearance, but even the cameo was ultimately cut. Even without Affleck in the film, Electra bombed at the box office.
One of Marvel's most troubled properties was The Punisher. Back in the 80s New World Pictures owned Marvel for two years. It was during that ownership that they decided to release a movie based on one of their newly acquired properties, The Punisher, because they felt he was one of the few Marvel characters that did not require expensive special effects. New World retained the film rights to The Punisher after they sold Marvel. But the film they made was never distributed to theaters. The film rights were passed to Artisan Entertainment where they languished for years. It was the success of other Marvel movies that convinced Artisan it was time to contact Marvel Studios and arrange for a sequel to be made. Marvel convinced them the franchise needed a reboot. Once again, Marvel was happy with the script provided. But then Artisan slashed the budget, and to accommodate this, much of the film was altered during principle photography. When the Punisher reboot was released in 2004, critics hated it. It only made $54 million at the box office, but thanks to Artisan slashing the budget to $33 million, made about $20 million in profit. This would be Artisan's last movie. During the production of The Punisher, the studio was bought by Lionsgate. They immediately announced their intent to produce a sequel, and continued developing the sequel even after The Punisher bombed. Inevitably they decided to scrap plans for a sequel and begin work on a second reboot. Punisher: War Zone ( 2008 ) was given the same budget as the previous film, ending up with the same results, critics hating it. Only this time the reboot only made $10 at the box office resulting in Marvel's worst flop.
And then there were the Marvel films that made money even though they were critical failures. The Ghost Rider was one of Marvel's more unusual heroes, a motorcyclist who was cursed by the devil causing him to turn into a flaming skeleton. In 2000 Marvel Studios licensed Ghost Rider to Crystal Sky Entertainment for a film which was to star Johnny Depp. But despite Marvel's efforts, the film went into development hell for six years, going through different scripts, different directors, different casts and attached to different studios. Eventually the rights ended up at Columbia with Nicholas Cage as the lead. Despite not having a good script, Columbia green-lit the film, and Ghost Rider was released in 2007. Critics hated it, as they did the sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance ( 2012 ) But despite the negative reviews, the first film made over $200 million, the second over $100 Million.
Another film that languished in production hell for years was The Fantastic Four ( 2005 ) which Bernard Eichinger had been trying to green light since the Roger Corman version ten years earlier. Bringing the film to 20th Century Fox, Fantastic Four finally made it onto the silver screen in 2005. But despite having an entire decade to come up with a good script, and partnering with Marvel Studios, Eichinger still managed to produce a superhero film that was poorly reviewed. It still managed to make over $300 million at the box office, leading to the 2007 sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Critics thought the sequel was an improvement over the first film, but not by much. Comic book fans who saw both of the movies along with bootlegs of the unreleased Roger Corman version almost unanimously preferred the Corman version. Never the less, Rise of the Silver Surfer pulled in $290 million at the box office.
But perhaps the most interesting successful failure was Ang Lee's Hulk ( 2003 ). Universal had picked up the film rights to the Hulk in 1992 and from there entered development hell for nearly ten years. Universal went through a succession of directors and actors as they rejected script after script. According to screenwriter Michael France, Universal could not make up their mind if they wanted a dramatic adventure film or a comedy, and he kept getting alternate directions to write both styles of scripts. A film nearly went into production in 1998, but was then put on hiatus with the studio giving the excuse that the budget was too high. Early in 2001 director Ang Lee was hired as the new director, and shortly after his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ( 2000 ) became a surprise hit at the box office. The film would gained an Oscar nomination for best picture, and Ang a nomination for best director. Deciding they needed to be the studio that released Ang's next film, they green-lit Hulk, allowing Ang a lot of leeway in budget and creative control.
Ang commissioned a new script that merged the elements from all the past scripts he liked. One of those things was the character Brian Banner, renamed David Banner in the new script. Brian was Bruce Banner's abusive father, and just as in the comic book, the Hulk was explained as the manifestation of Bruce's unresolved rage towards his father. While Brian Banner was barely present in the earlier scripts, Ang decided he wanted the father and son conflict to be the centerpiece of his Hulk film. Brian Banner was combined with another character from an earlier draft, The Absorbing Man, thus turning Bruce's father into the film's supervillain.
Ang also preferred a very complicated origin of The Hulk. In the comic books Banner became The Hulk after getting caught in a nuclear bomb blast and absorbing gamma rays. In the scaled down television show, Banner becomes The Hulk after using himself as a lab guinea pig, and deliberately pelting himself with gamma rays with what looks like a common X-ray machine. In Ang's movie, Bruce's father tests an experimental drug on himself, mutating his DNA. When Bruce is born he inherits this DNA. Bruce's father begins to go insane because of the DNA, and one day blows up his lab, exposing the entire neighborhood to gamma radiation. When Bruce himself becomes a scientist, he experiments on lab animals with nanomeds, tiny molecular robots that replicate in the bloodstream and are suppose to heal any malady. In a lab accident, the nanomeds are released into the air and Bruce breaths them in. Seconds later he is pelted with gamma radiation from a malfunctioning machine. The combination of his mutant DNA, the exposure to gamma radiation as a child, ingesting nanomeds and a second more lethal dose of gamma radiation is what causes Banner to change into The Hulk.
Feeling the need to pay homage to comic books, Ang decided to incorporate comic book panels when changing scenes, and showing multiple panels at once during some of the action scenes. But that was as far as the homage went. Unlike comic books which were full of action, Ang Lee's film was full of words. Bruce Banner does not turn into The Hulk until 42 minutes into the film. Most of the films 2 hour and 18 minute running time is conversations between characters. The end result was one of Ang Lee's weirdest films that polarized critics. While half hailed it as a masterpiece, the other half called it one of the worst films of the year. Comic book fans seemed to universally hate it. They wanted a movie about The Hulk, and instead got an unusual art film.
The movie made $62 million in it's first week of release, but then had a historic 70% drop off, making only $18 million it's second week. In the end it made $132 million domestically, just below it's $137 million budget. But with an additional $113 million made overseas, it ended up grossing over $100 million. This film that held the previous record for a second week drop-off was Batman & Robin, which after making $42 million it's first weekend, dropped off 63%. Batman & Robin also ended up grossing $100 million. But it's near disaster performance and universally negative reviews convinced Warner Bros. that the Batman franchise was dead, and nearly convinced every studio that all superhero films were dead. Ang Lee's Hulk at least had half the critics giving the movie positive reviews, but was still considered dead as far as having any sequels.
Marvel Studios could only go so far as to insuring one of their films pleased comic book fans. They could negotiate deals with studios to insure films were green-lit, but after the point of the film rights being bought they were usually out of the loop. Hopefully the studio would develop the film they agreed on. But they had little say over script rewrites, recasting of actors, changing of directors or the final edit. A good script like The Punisher could be sabotaged when the studio slashes the budget. And a respectable director could make a ridiculous $100 million art film out of one of their most popular characters, and all they could do is stand on the sidelines and watch. The problem was that Marvel Studios was not really a studio. It was a production company that shared control with one or more other production companies and the major studio backing the project. Out of the 7 films released in their first decade, only Ghost Rider gave them the credit "Marvel Studios". For the other releases they were credited as Marvel Entertainment Group, Marvel Enterprises, Marvel Enterprises, Inc., Marvel Entertainment and Marvel Knights.
Marvel wanted to make the next step. They wanted to be the sole studio. Their approved scripts, their choice in casting, their budgets, their final cut. Directors who had to answer to them and deliver the film they asked for. They would be the ones to green-light new films. They wanted to make movies that their readers would enjoy, not movies designed to appeal to people who did not read comic books. Marvel Comics was revolutionary because they broke the traditional formula and wrote stories they felt the comic book fans would really want to read. It was time they did the same for their movies. But to do that they would have to acquire all the film rights to their characters they had sold off over the years.
THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
Marvel sold the film rights for Iron Man to Universal in 1990. No film was made. In 1996 Universal sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. No film was made. Around 2000 Fox sold the film rights to New Line Cinema. Still no film was made. New Line willingly gave the rights back to Marvel in 2006. The 16 year odyssey of the Iron Man film rights was endemic of most of the other Marvel characters. Options were sold to producers and rights were sold to studios, always with the hope that a movie would soon follow. But a script the studio liked was never written, a budget the studio liked was never agreed on, or some other studio released a similar film that tanked. An actor who is a top box office draw wants to be the hero. But in the time wasted with rewrite after rewrite, the actor looses interest and abandons the role. A famous director wants to direct, but then clashes with the studio over the concept and drops out. The film is abandoned, finds a new director, is back in pre-production again, and then abandoned again. When Marvel Studios reclaimed the exclusive rights to Iron Man, they put all of that behind them. An Iron Man film would be completed in two years time. And Marvel intended to make good on this deadline, while producing a movie every comic book fan would enjoy.
Iron Man ( 2008 ) was an all around success. Comic book fans praised it as the first comic book movie to get it absolutely right. Critics loved it. Audiences loved it. It made over $580 million, only topped by the Spider-Man films in profit. It became the latest film to be hailed as the greatest comic book movie of all time. Marvel Studios first independent production was an amazing success. Marvel was on top of the world. But they would not be there for long. In less than three months D.C. would once again steal their thunder.
The first half of the decade was not very good for D.C. with Catwoman flopping in 2004, just two weeks after Spider-Man 2 had won critics over as the greatest superhero film made so far. D.C. arguably had the best known roster of superheroes in the world. But Warner Bros., who had exclusive film rights to all their characters, was very reluctant to invest in any new superhero film. What they were interested in were the books written by Alan Moore, who was called the greatest graphic novel writer of all time. 20th Century Fox had adapted his graphic novel From Hell ( 2001 ) and later his comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ( 2003 ) which featured a who's who of late 19th Century fictional characters who team up as their own Justice League. Despite both films making only a modest profit, Warner was still inspired to produce two films based on comics Moore wrote for D.C. Released the same year were Constantine ( 2005 ), which was based on the book Hellblazer, and V for Vendetta ( 2005 ). Both adaptions did moderately well, convincing Warner to start pre-production on Moore's best known graphic novel, The Watchmen. That same year Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins ( 2005 ) was released, and did more than moderately well. Making $374 million, it was the second most successful Batman movie of all time. The Batman franchise was back, and all it took was a reboot. But what of their Superman franchise?
Warner had hired Bryan Singer, the director and creative force behind the first two X-Men movies, to write and direct the next Superman film. Who else could save Superman but the director who saved the entire superhero movie genre? What Singer had proposed was a film that would pick up after the events in Superman II, completely ignoring Superman III and all the subsequent franchise films as if they never happened. The plot had Superman leaving Earth just after the end of Superman III, and returning many years later. It would not be a reboot, but Singer would still need to recast. Christopher Reeve had been paralyzed in a horse riding accident in 1995 and could not reprise his role. Shortly after pre-production of Superman Returns began, Christopher Reeve died. Replacing him was Brandon Routh. Kate Bosworth replaced Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey replaced Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. The only actor to reprise his role from the earlier Superman films was Marlon Brando as Jor-El, even though he had died a year before filming started. Brando had shot footage for Superman II that was never used. Warner decided to use the footage in the new Superman film.
Superman Returns ( 2006 ) was given a lavish budget of $200 million. It earned $390 million at the box office, $90 million more than X-Men, and $16 million more than Batman Begins. But Warner Bros. still saw it as a failure. The film got mixed reviews. Audiences saw it as an improvement over the silly Superman films of the past, but felt it was too long and ponderous. There were way too many dramatic scenes and not enough action scenes. And even the action scenes felt slow paced. Singer and Warner Bros. had gone overboard in trying to fix the mistakes made by the past Superman films, but in doing so had also done away with what made the first two Superman films so fun. Warner felt that if Superman Returns had been better, then the box office should have been closer to that of the Spider-Man series. A further Superman film directed by Singer had been planned, but then cancelled. It was a strategic move. Rebooting Batman seemed to work. They decided it was time to completely reboot the Superman franchise as well. But for now, all Superman films were on hold.
Filming went ahead on the next Batman film with a budget of $185 million. The Dark Knight was released in the summer of 2008, a little more than two months after Iron Man. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a masterpiece, surpassing Iron Man as the greatest comic book movie of all time. The box office was phenomenal. It became the fourth film to earn $1 billion, and the highest grossing comic book movie of all time. But there was more to The Dark Knights' success than it being a great movie. It had Batman's all time greatest villain, The Joker, which gave it a strong edge over Batman Begins. Since Burton had killed The Joker off in his first Batman film, and since the films that followed were all part of the same continuity, the Joker had not appeared in a Batman film since 1989. Shchumacher had to use other less popular Batman villains. But he did find a way to revive the Joker. Had Warner Bros. not cancelled the Batman series, the next film would have featured The Joker in a nightmarish hallucination brought on by another villain, The Scarecrow. One story had Warner in negotiations with Jack Nicholson to reprise the role, and the breakdown of negotiations is what prompted them to cancel any more Batman films. But now, with a rebooted franchise, they could once again feature the Joker as Batman's nemesis. Nolan even let The Joker live at the end of the film so he could return in the next film. But it was not to be.
The role of The Joker was cast to actor Heath Ledger. Two month after completing his scenes, Ledger died in his apartment of a drug overdose. Ledger gave such a powerful and memorable performance as The Joker, than there was no chance the studio could recast the role. Ledger's death also helped with the box office. Millions who would have otherwise avoided a comic book movie, flocked to the theaters to see one of Ledger's final performances. But it was also the success of Iron Man that helped with The Dark Knights' box office. Audiences who had seen and enjoyed Iron Man, were now eager to see the next superhero film.
But that just explains what helped drive audiences to see The Dark Knight. Had it been garbage like Batman & Robin, or a mediocre film like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer released a year before, ticket sales would have dropped off after the first weekend. The Dark Knight was a great film, and was truly a better achievement than Iron Man. Audiences returned again and again to see it. Outstanding word of mouth attracted even more. It would earn best film at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, and the People's Choice Awards. And while the more snobbish associations failed to nominate The Dark Knight for best picture, with a bias against comic book films, they did honor Heath Ledger. He would win a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The only actor to win an Academy Award for portraying a comic book character.
The Dark Knight may have been the greatest comic book movie of all time, but Warner Bros. was planning to top it with the ultimate comic book movie. When Charlton Comics went out of business in 1985, D.C. took ownership of their line of superheroes. Not sure what to do with them, they were given to writer Alan Moore to be introduced to D.C. readers in a miniseries. Moore's miniseries killed off some of the heroes, and turned others into villains. D.C. did not want to make their new characters "unusable", but liked Moore's story. So they asked him to rewrite it featuring new characters he created. This lead to the ground breaking mini-series The Watchmen, which took place in an alternate universe where Nixon was still president in '85, and masked superheroes were outlawed. The series was quickly republished as a graphic novel, and has been in print ever since.
The Watchmen was one of the last D.C. properties to be sold to other studios before Warner Bros. decided they wanted to retain all D.C. properties from then on. The rights were first acquired by producer Lawrence Gordon for 20th Century Fox, but the studio never green-lit the film. Terry Gilliam became interested in directing, and Gordon had the film moved to Warner Bros. But eventually Gilliam gave up on the project, admitting that the book was unfilmable. This coming from the same director who made a film out of the unfilmable book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ( 1998 ). Warner passed on the film allowing Gordon to take it to Universal, where nothing happened. From there it went to Paramount, and finally back to Warner Bros. By this time the studio was more open to filming a movie based on an Alan Moore comic. A film adaption of another graphic novel, 300 ( 2007 ) had just made $456 million at the box office, so now movies based on graphic novels were also in vogue. Warner Bros. hired the director of 300, Zack Snyder, and The Watchmen was finally green-lit. There was a lawsuit from the original studio, 20th Century Fox, claiming they still maintained some rights to the film, and threatened to block the movie's release. In January of 2009 a settlement was reached between Fox and Warner, allowing the movie to be released in March.
Marvel did not threat about Iron Man being dethroned so soon, or that The Watchmen cold possibly set the bar for comic book movies even higher. Iron Man was just the beginning of a greater plan Marvel Studios had hatched. MCU, The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea was hatched by Marvel Studio president Kevin Feige. Marvel had just bought back the rights to many of their heroes, among them Iron Man, Ant-Man, Thor and Captain America. Realizing they were the core members of the classic Avengers, Feige contemplated an Avengers movie. But Marvel was only interested in filming Iron Man. Well, if Marvel was not going to make an Avengers film right away, then why not in the future? At the 2006 San Diego Comic Con Marvel Studios held a press conference to announce the movies their studio would be independently producing. After someone asked if there was any possibility of a crossover between characters, Feige responded: "I think if you listen to the characters we are working on currently, and you put them all together, there is no coincidence that may someday equal the Avengers." And the crowd cheered!
Once it was established that there would be an Avengers movie, the decision as to which superhero movies Marvel Studios would release first became a lot easier. While an Ant-Man movie was put off until after the first Avengers film, the next movies to be released would either star or introduce the individual members of The Avengers. This meant that Marvel needed to make films from two of their weakest properties. Captain America may not have been in the first few Avengers comics, but once he joined he quickly became their team leader. There was no way an Avengers film could be made without Captain America. However, Captain America had already failed twice, first as a live action television series, then as one of the movies that got shelved in the 90s. Thor was also necessary, but once again, that property had problems. Thor is one of the few Marvel characters in the public domain. While his costume, former secret identity and supporting characters are all copyrighted, Thor and most of the characters in his books are from Norse folklore. Legally, anyone could make their own Thor movie, as long as it did not use any of the stories from the Marvel comics. Once a Thor franchise was established, there was nothing preventing a rival studio from releasing their own Thor films. And there was one more hero Marvel felt they would need for an Avengers film. They needed The Hulk.
The Hulk had an uneven history with Marvel. He was created at a time when Stan Lee wanted ground breaking superheroes. The Fantastic Four were the first superhero team with no secret identities. Spider-Man the first teenage superhero. For the Hulk, Lee devised the first monster superhero. But it became immediately apparent that the character was impossible to write for. At first Banner changed into the Hulk whenever the sun set, and back into Banner at dawn. This didn't work, so they got rid of Banner, making the Hulk permanent, and under the complete control of his sidekick Rick Jones. But that didn't seem to work. Finally they introduced a gamma ray machine that allowed the Hulk to change into Banner, and vica versa. And once Banner gave the machine a little fine tuning, he could turn into the Hulk but still retain Banner's mind. This also didn't work. The Hulk was no longer a raging monster, but just another version of the Thing. After six issues Marvel cancelled the Hulk comic book.
When Stan Lee was asked to create The Avengers, the Hulk was chosen as one of the original members. But once again it was decided the Hulk as a hero was not working, and at the end of the second issue the Hulk quits the Avengers and storms off. The decision was to transform the Hulk into a villain. And in the very next issue the Hulk was battling the Avengers. As a villain, the Hulk began appearing in other books, and quickly became popular. Within a year Marvel decided to give the Hulk another chance. Starting with issue #59 of Tales to Astonish, the Hulk had his own monthly feature. It was during these years that Lee came up with the premise that Banner turned into the Hulk whenever he became angry. No longer would the Hulk have Banner's intelligence, but would once again be the angry brute from the original comics. Beginning with issue #102 the Hulk was expanded from a feature to the entire book, and from that point on the book was retitled The Incredible Hulk. ( This would frustrate collectors, who couldn't understand why they were unable find any copies of The Incredible Hulk #7 through #101. )
Lee's persistence on keeping the Hulk around paid off when Universal chose the character as their first live action television show for CBS. While other Marvel heroes failed, The Incredible Hulk had a successful five season run. The Hulk had gone from Stan Lee's only failure, to one of Marvel's most successful characters. But Ang Lee's film put any possibility of a Hulk film franchise in doubt. With such a mixed reaction from the audience, would anyone be interested in a sequel? Marvel wanted the Hulk in the first Avengers movie. To do that they needed Universal to surrender the film rights. Despite the response to Ang Lee's film, Universal was still interested in making a sequel with The Abomination as the villain. They were just reluctant to finance an expensive production that could potentially flop. A deal was worked out with Universal that would turn The Hulk over to Marvel Studios, as long as Universal got to distribute the sequel. This way Universal would get to release future Hulk films without risking production money.
This was a risk for Marvel Studios. In all likelihood, a Hulk sequel would not do well at the box office, no matter how good it was. Expectations were that a Hulk sequel would only pull in about $120 million. And this time Marvel Studios was willing to spend $150 million on the budget, $13 million more than was spent on Ang Lee's film. But if all things were to lead to an Avengers film, then Marvel Studios could not afford to release a bad Hulk film. Even if hardly anyone went to see it, they needed it to be as good as Iron Man. Bad word of mouth on any of their films could hurt the Avengers at the box office. Marvel Studios was willing to lose money, but was hoping to break even.
Aside from needing to satisfy a deal with Universal to get the rights to The Hulk back, Marvel had another reason for another Hulk movie. They were going to need to reboot. There was just too much stuff in the Ang Lee film they did not want part of the permanent MCU cannon. The opening credits to The Incredible Hulk ( 2008 ) includes a montage of the Hulk's origin which is different from the origin in the Ang Lee movie, letting us know that this is not a direct sequel. Marvel also wanted to show Banner being able to partially control the Hulk. If the Hulk was to be in the Avengers, then he needed some ability to act as a team member. But more importantly, Marvel produced a Hulk film that the fans wanted. The question was how many of those fans would bother seeing it.
The Incredible Hulk did more than break even. It made $263 million at the box office, well above the $245 million Ang Lee's film earned. Maybe not enough of a profit for Universal or Marvel Studios to plan an immediate continuation of the Hulk franchise, but not the disaster everyone was expecting. Now with the Hulk reboot behind them, Marvel had three more movies to get through before work could begin on The Avengers. The first was a no brainer, the Iron Man sequel. The second would be Thor and the third Captain America.
In early 2009 Warner Bros. released The Watchmen. Expectations were high. But it only made $185 million at the box office, only $55 million above it's budget, and considering the money spent on promotion, just barely breaking even. The following year Marvel and D.C. went toe to toe again. Marvel Studio's Iron Man 2 made $623 million. Warner Bros. Jonah Hex, based on one of D.C.s minor characters, was released a month later. It only made $10 million. In 2011 Warner Bros. released The Green Lantern. It earned $219 million at the box office, just about breaking even with it's production and promotion costs. The same year Marvel released the last of their two pre-Avengers films. Thor made $449 million, Captain America: The First Avenger $370 million.
Clearly Marvel Studios was doing something right. Perhaps one of those things was a studio that was run by men from the comic book industry. The D.C. movies were ultimately made through a studio run by men from the movie industry. Warner's interest was making movies that appealed to the broadest audience possible, and not just comic book fans. Marvel Studio's interest was making movies that appealed directly to comic book fans, and hoped that a wider audience would also find these movies entertaining. Quite simply, Marvel Studios was making better comic book movies. But another part of their success was their strategy. They knew the ultimate goal was to combine all their franchises into a single Avengers movie. Each one of their films contributed to that ultimate goal. Not only were they used to introduce Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the rebooted Hulk, but other characters to be featured in the upcoming Avengers film. Iron Man also introduces Nick Fury, the head of the spy organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as agent Coulson. Iron Man 2 introduces Black Widow. Thor introduces Hawkeye. Another tactic were the Easter Eggs. Brief scenes shown after the end credits rolled. The first happened at the end of Iron Man, introducing Nick Fury for the first time who invites Iron Man to join the "Avengers Initiative". The scene was a complete surprise for those still in the theater. At that point in time, an Avengers movie was not yet confirmed. Nor did anyone know Samuel L Jackson had been cast as Nick Fury, or expect a character from a different Marvel comic book to appear in Iron Man. When audiences saw this, they cheered loudly. And this coming from a theater that had mostly emptied out. In the films that followed, Marvel made sure to include post-credit Easter Egg scenes that promoted the next MCU film.
And here was where Marvel Studios had an advantage over all the others. The MCU introduced something that did not yet exist in the film industry. Believe it or not, up to that point there had been no film featuring more than one superhero. It was not as if Hollywood did not know that having one cinematic character meet another was not an event film. Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man ( 1943 ) combined two separate movie franchises to such great success, that most of their horror films that followed were monster mash-ups. At this time comic book characters rarely interacted with characters from other books. Each existed in his own fictitious city. Superman in Metropolis. Batman in Gotham. The Green Lantern in Coast City. And so on. D.C. had licensed Superman for a popular radio show. The producer of that show asked for the licence of Batman, not to produce a separate Batman radio show, but to include Batman as a recurring character who aided Superman. The radio team of Batman and Superman became so popular that D.C. began publishing their own comics pairing Batman and Superman.
It would not be until 1960 that D.C. published Justice League of America, confirming that all of their superheroes were in the same universe. When Stan Lee began creating superheroes as a response to the success of JLA, he made sure from day one that they would all be part of the same universe. The Amazing Spider-Man was Marvel's second superhero book, and in it's first issue had Spider-Man meeting the Fantastic Four. Marvel began pioneering having plots continue in different books. Their superheroes were constantly running into each other, and their villains went from book to book. In 1984 Marvel took this to another level with the publication of Secret Wars, a 12 issue event comic book that featured nearly every Marvel character that had sub-plots that crossed over into nearly every Marvel comic book. Both Marvel and D.C. would replicate events like Secret Wars in the years to follow.
Meanwhile Hollywood was still not combining superheroes. Universal, the same studio that had so successfully combined their monster franchises three decades earlier, had the live action television rights to numerous Marvel comic books. And yet, it never occurred to them to have Captain America make a guest appearance on The Incredible Hulk, which would have done a lot to promote his upcoming series. What made this more confounding was that by this time it was a regular practice for television producers to try out characters in one series and then later spin them off in their own series. Maude began as a guest character on All In The Family, as did George Jefferson. Mork began as a character on Happy Days. Rhoda as a character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Often a character was introduced deliberately just to promote an upcoming series. These episodes were known as back-door pilots. But when it came to Superheroes, Universal ignored the trend. It would not be until New World Pictures obtained Universal's television rights in the late 80s and began producing telemovies based on The Incredible Hulk series for NBC that they began guest starring other heroes. Thor guest starred in The Incredible Hulk Returns ( 1988 ) and Daredevil guest starred in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk ( 1989 ).
Since Warner Bros. controlled all of the D.C. characters, you would have expected them to have made at least one cross-over film. But even plans for a Batman meets Superman film never went beyond the script stage. And despite endless request from fans, Warner never seriosly considered a JLA film. On television their had been two attempts at a live action JLA series, both of which failed in the pilot stage. Legends of the Superheroes ( 1979 ) which was made in the style of a variety show, went no further than two pilot episodes. Justice ( 1997 ) was so bad it was never broadcast in the United States. A breakthrough did eventually happen with Smallville, a series that featured Clark Kent and some of the supporting characters from Superman in the years prior to Kent becoming Superman. In the later seasons, pre-costumed versions of The Flash and Aquaman were introduced, and Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter joined the cast as regular characters. But for whatever reason, Warner could not allow this to happen in their superhero movies.
As for the other studios, they rarely held the rights to more than one comic book. If they did have the rights to a second superhero, it made more sense to make two separate superhero films rather than a single film with two heroes. Two separate films meant twice the profit. So most superheroes in cinema existed in worlds where they were the only superhero, and no other superheroes existed. The MCU changed that. But would a combined universe pay off? While Marvels heroes did share the same universe, only Iron Man and Black Widow had been introduced to each other. And if you don't consider Black Widow a superhero, then none of the MCU heroes had met yet. That event was to be saved for the Avengers.
The Avengers was released to theaters on Friday, May 4, 2012. It made $80 million it's opening weekend, including $18 million for just the Thursday-Friday midnight opening. Within 12 days it recouped it's $220 million production cost. The movie set all sorts of box office records, and became the all time profitable comic book movies, earning $2.5 billion at the box office alone. Audiences loved it. It was hailed by both critics and comic book fans as the greatest comic book movie of all time. Marvel had dethroned D.C.s The Dark Knight. And they did it by stealing D.C.s strategy. It was D.C. that revitalized the superhero genre with the JLA. After years of the superhero comic book showing poor sales, D.C. created a best selling comic book by teaming up all their top heroes. Now five decades later Marvel had created the greatest comic book movie of all time by teaming up all the heroes in their cinematic universe.
D.C. still had a shot to win back the title of greatest comic book movie. The third and final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy was set for release two months later. The previous film had made just over a billion dollars, and there were high hopes that next film would do a lot more. The Dark Knight Rises was released July 16th of 2012. It proceeded to break the records that The Avengers had set. While The Dark Knight Rises got great reviews, it was neither thought of as better than The Avengers, nor better than the previous Batman film. The Dark Knight was just too perfect a film that it was impossible to top it. Many fans of the movies even felt let down. While The Dark Knight Rises made more money than The Dark Knight, there was no doubt that the trilogy had peaked at the second film. It ended it's run making $1.1 billion at the box office, $400 million less than The Avengers. Marvel was still on top.
In 2013 Marvel Studios released the first post Avengers MCU movie. Iron Man 3. It generated $1.2 billion at the box office. That same year Warner Bros. rebooted their Superman franchise. By now Warner knew only one thing, that Christopher Nolan knew how to deliver superior comic book movies that made a fortune at the box office. They offered the Superman franchise to him. Nolan signed on as the producer, and brought in writer David S Goyer who had written the entire Dark Knight trilogy. Zack Snyder, who had previously directed The Watchmen, was brought in to direct the reboot films. While The Watchmen had been an expensive flop, it was more the result of it's challenging story line. Snyder had directed the best possible version of a graphic novel that most directors, and even the novel's author, had deemed unfilmable. It was not the same as Schumacher ruining a Batman film with too many jokes and too too many colors. Or Ang Lee ruining a Hulk film with too much dialog. Snyder was blameless for the failure of The Watchmen. Nolan felt he did an outstanding job on The Watchmen and deserved another chance to prove himself. The Man of Steel ( 2013 ) earned $668 million at the box office. Perhaps nowhere near the 1 billion mark, but twice as much as the first film in the Dark Knight trilogy made, and more money that the next film in the MCU earned. Thor: The Dark World ( 2013 ) earned $644 million, $24 million less than the Superman reboot. Warner Bros. was satisfied.
As 2013 came to a close, the MCU was expanded into television. In 2009 Disney bought Marvel Comics. This meant Disney now owned Marvel Studios. Disney allowed Marvel Studios to continue as an independent entity from their own studios, but did insist that all Marvel Studio films be distributed by Disney from that point on. ( A deal was worked out with Paramount Pictures, who had the distribution rights to the MCU films. ) Disney also owned the television network ABC. This gave Marvel Studios a network to partner with if they ever wanted to begin producing television programs. The one problem was that superheroes had become too expensive for television. Gone were the days when you could get away with spraying green makeup on Lou Ferrigno and calling him The Hulk. If you wanted to create a Hulk television series now, you would need a CGI created character, and tens of millions of dollars worth of destroyable sets and props, for every episode. And complicated special effects took a lot of time to plan and execute. Each episode could take months to produce, and television demanded episodes that could be produced in a week. If Marvel was going to make a MCU show, it would need to focus on characters who did not need extensive special effects that would take a lot of time and money to complete. So the first television series taking place in the MCU was Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had been created in the 1960s when Goodman asked Stan Lee to create a comic book that could capitalize on the spy thriller trend that was begun by the James Bond films. At the time there were numerous spy films, and a large number of television series that included Secret Agent, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a show from England that had the nerve to call itself The Avengers. A year earlier Lee had begun a World War II comic book called Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, and wanted to bring Sgt. Nick Fury into the present. So he had an older Nick Fury, now with an eye patch, selected to head a secret government organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., meaning Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division. The spy craze soon faded, and with it the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books. But once something became part of the Marvel universe, it never went away. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. continued to show up in other comic book whenever a government agency was needed in a story, until new S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books went into publication in the late 80s.
When Marvel Studios began re-acquiring Marvel characters, one of the first was Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., which had previously been used in a pilot for a series starring David Hasselhoff. FOX aired the pilot, but never picked up the series. Once back under ownership of Marvel, they decided to put the organization to good use as the connection between the MCU films. Nick Fury was re-imagined, since a WWII vet would at least be in his 90s. So was S.H.I.E.L.D., now standing for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. In the MCU it is S.H.I.E.L.D. that comes up with the idea of founding The Avengers. And with exception to The Incredible Hulk, are present investigating the events in all the first MCU films. Since Marvel wanted to keep the same actors in the same roles as in the movies, there was no chance of including Nick Fury on the television series without Samuel L Jackson. But Clark Gregg was willing to reprise his role as Agent Coulson, heading a team of agents who investigate strange phenomena. Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers, would produce the series.
With the avengers behind them, every film or television series taking place in the MCU was a sequel. But what was Marvel without taking risks. Sure, any film featuring a member of The Avengers would be a sure fire hit. Sure fan boys were crying out for a Black Widow solo film. But Marvel had acquired the rights to most of their characters, and was actively trying to regain the rights to the rest. And not all of them could be an Avengers member. In the works was the long delayed Ant-Man movie, who was still not an Avenger in the MCU, and who's first movie would not come out until after the Avengers sequel. They also wanted to release a Doctor Strange movie. And in development for television was Daredevil, Power Man and Iron Fist, and The Defenders ( Members TBA ). Each of these projects would take place within the MCU, and conceivably the characters could run into members of the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, or at the least mention that these other heroes exist. But Marvel wanted to take a bigger risk. A movie that would take place in the MCU, but far outside our solar system. Despite having no possible tie-in with The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy ( 2014 ) has become Marvel Studio's top grossing film of 2014, an will possibly end up being the #1 movie of the year.
Of course, success has it's price. Marvel Studio's goal was to reclaim ownership of all their characters and become the sole studio releasing Marvel films. But the success of what Marvel called Phase One ( The Avengers and the films leading up to it ) and continuing success of Phase Two ( leading up to Avengers: Age of Ultron ) has made movies based on Marvel characters desirable for all the other studios. They no have no interest in returning the rights to Marvel's biggest characters. It may be Phase Ten before Marvel reclaims Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and many of their other characters. Marvel does continue to benefit from the movies made outside the MCU. While they may not be the lead studio, they are one of the production companies. They get a cut of the profit. But they would rather get the lion's share of the profit, rather than simply a cut. And they would rather have full creative control over their characters, something that worked so well with the MCU films.
But by creating the MCU, Marvel has in turn created a successful formula that had not previously existed. There had been the combining of franchises in the past, such as Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, but never an attempt to create a cinematic universe where the solo franchises continued. The closest anyone ever came to that was Kevin Smith's New Jersey Trilogy which expanded into what he called The View Askewniverse, named after his independent production company View Askew. Smith had created two characters, Jay and Silent Bob, which allowed himself and his friend Jason Mewes to appear in the film Clerks. Smith decided to feature Jay & Silent Bob in Mallrats as part of an effort to tie the movie into a trilogy. The idea of a trilogy deflated when both Chasing Amy and Dogma ( 1999 ) were released, making it four movies in the trilogy. What followed was a Clerks animated series, the feature film Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001 ), and what is now a Clerks film franchise. Each featured Smith and Mewes as the characters Jay and Silent Bob, and had events from one movie referenced in another movie. Smith further expanded his universe by publishing comic books with stories that were View Askewniverse cannon. But while most of the movies in this universe had the same actors, with exception to Mewes and Smith, the actors played different characters. For example, Ben Affleck played Shannon Hamilton in Mallrats, Holden McNiel in Chasing Amy, the angel Bartleby in Dogma, and as himself in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Since the most money any View Askewniverse film made was $33 million, major studios were in no hurry to copy Smiths formula. But when the MCU took this idea a step further, resulting in films that made over a billion dollars, other studios noticed, and want their own cinematic universes.
THE RIVAL CINEMATIC UNIVERSES
Most of the superhero franchises were planned as trilogies. This was not about giving the franchise artistic credibility, but business sense. They were expensive special effect and visual effect laden films and could easily loose the studio tens of millions of dollars should they tank. This is why so many superheroes were in prolonged development, sometimes lasting decades, before the studio finally had the guts to green-light a movie. The studios would keep track of the first film, and if it did not make enough money or tanked, there would be no second film. If the film was a success the studio would then make a two picture deal for the sequels. Why? Most franchises fall apart by the third film. You already saw the hero use all his powers in the first installment, and saw him fight his greatest foe by the second film ( if not already in the first film ), so by the third movie the best of that hero has already been shown. Unable to top the previous films, or come up with any new ideas, the third installment is usually where the dumb script emerges. Therefore, while the third movie is usually a success, it is also usually disappointing enough to be a franchise killer. Another problem is that most actors do not want to commit themselves to a franchise, and therefore are reluctant to do a fourth film. The ones that do agree to a fourth installment ask for a kings ransom as payment. Even the actors who did the supporting characters ask for more money. By the fourth film the wages paid to the actors is more than the budget for the special effects and sets. And of course, the excitement that the first film had generated has by now faded. The fourth film would be released about a decade after the first, and in that many years the franchise may seem dated to moviegoers. For those reasons it makes sense to only commit to two sequels, and sign the actors needed to a two picture deal. And if the third film does exceptionally well, then maybe there will be more to follow.
The X-Men films were planned as a trilogy. 20th Century Fox was so convinced they would not be making a fourth film, that they allowed a key character to be killed off in X-Men: The Last Stand ( 2006 ) in a story that brought a conclusion to the X-Men saga. When the third film did exceptionally well at the box office, Fox came up with a plan to continue releasing X-Men films. X-Men Origins. A series of prequels that focused on individual members of the X-Men. The first was X-Men Origins: Wolverine ( 2009 ), featuring the team's most popular member. While the movie did well at the box office, it was poorly reviewed. Fox feared that the first Origins movie could be a franchise killer. The next film in the Origins series was to be about Magneto, showing how he became a villain. But it was never made. Instead they green-lit X-Men: First Class ( 2011 ), a prequel that showed the origin of the X-Men as a team and The Brotherhood of Mutants who became their foes. The movie was a critical success, and did well at the box office. This inspired Fox to green-light two more X-Men films. One was The Wolverine ( 2013 ) which followed the character after the events of the X-Men trilogy. The second was X-Men: Days of Future Past ( 2014 ), a time travel saga which has both the cast of the X-Men trilogy and the cast of X-Men: First Class. Time traveling had it's effects, including resurrecting characters killed off in the previous X-Men films.
It was not just the success of the original X-Men trilogy that convinced Fox to continue making X-Men films, but the success of the MCU and the Avengers. Fox began to realize that their rights to all of the X-Men characters meant they had their own cinematic universe. While Marvel Studios began with solo films and combined them into The Avengers, 20th Century Fox had The X-Men who could be broken up into solo films. The opposite of what Marvel Studios was doing, but the potential to be just as successful. X-Men: Days of Future Past earned $741 million, not too far from the billion dollar mark. Fox also owned the inactive Fantastic Four franchise, and decided to reboot it. Shortly after the reboot was announced, film consultant Mark Miller let it slip that the Fantastic Four would be part of the same cinematic universe as the X-Men. Exactly how Fox plans to do this remains to be seen. They do not have the equivelent of a S.H.I.E.L.D. to act as the bridge between the movies. Most likely a team up between the X-Men and Fantastic Four could be in development. Pending the success of the reboot, of course. Screen writer Simon Kinberg, who wrote both the X-Men franchise films and has written the script for the Fantastic Four reboot, has denied that any shared universe exists between both teams. But that does not mean that Fox executives are not thinking about it.
Sony Pictures, the entertainment company who currently owns Coulmbia Pictures, has been more blunt about their desires for a combined superhero universe. Much like with Fox, Columbia had only planned Spider-Man to be a trilogy franchise. When Spider-Man 3 was in production, there was a strong possibility it would be the last, even though it had been the most profitable superhero franchise in history. So both director Sam Raimi and Marvel Studios producer Avi Arad looked at the installment as their kitchen-sink film, meaning everything they wanted to put into a Spider-Man film would be put into this movie. Raimi wanted to conclude the Harry Osborn story, so the film had the second Green Goblin as a villain. Raimi also wanted the Sandman, so he became the film's second villain. Arad wanted Venom in the movie, so that became the third villain. Shortcuts were taken in the plot in order to fit the stories of all three villains into the same film. For example, Venom arrives on Earth in a meteorite that just happens to land a few feet from where Spider-Man is relaxing in Central Park. Comic book fans complained that each individual story seemed short changed. They also did not care for scenes that showed supporting character Mary Jane singing in a broadway musical, or an attempt at humor when Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker becomes possessed by Venom and does the Saturday Night Fever walk down Broadway, and later does a dance number in the night club Mary Jane is working in. Overall, viewers had a lot they hated about the third Spider-Man film, and it came close to being a franchise killer. Which was a bit of a problem after it made $890 million at the box office and Columbia Pictures decided they wanted a fourth.
Blaming Raimi for the negative response to the third Spider-Man film, the studio demanded full creative control over the next installment. Raimi and Columbia clashed over the script to the fourth film, which in turn lead to a rash decision by the studio. In January of 2010 Columbia Pictures shocked the world by announcing that they would be rebooting their Spider-Man franchise. Sam Raimi and the entire cast from the first three films were all out. The Spider-man films would all start from scratch with a new cast, new director and new origin. What confounded everyone was that previous Spider-Man movies had been enormously successful. The first made $821 million, the second $783 million and the third $890 million. The only superheroe movie to top it was The Dark Knight at a billion. Prior to that, the only superhero film to come close to earning the money that the Spider-Man films had, was the comedy Hancock ( 2008 ) featuring Will Smith as a drifter with superhuman powers. And yet here was the director and cast being given the door. For most studios, if a film is a success, then you move Heaven and Earth to get the original cast back for the sequels. Rebooting a successful film franchises when it was still at it's peak was unheard of.
The first film in the reboot franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man ( 2012 ) was released inbetween The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, earning $752 million at the box office, just below Spider-Man 2, making it just slightly less successful than the Raimi films. The sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ( 2014 ) earned slightly less at $708 million. While the reboot series may have been less successful, it was by no means a failure. Crossing the $700 million mark was still an amazing success for any franchise. Still, Sony Pictures had to be jealous of the profits the MCU films were making. And if the MCU formula was producing billion dollar films, there had to be a way to translate the same formula to Spider-Man. In between the first and second film, Sony Pictures announced that they would be using their Spider-Man franchise by releasing spin-off films featuring supporting characters. Much like the MCU films lead up to The Avengers, the Spider-Man films were leading up to The Sinister Six. Drawn from spiderman comic books, the Sinister Six were six of Spider-Man's arch enemies who teamed up against him. The lineup changed over the years, so technically Sony could make a Sinister Six movie with any lineup of Spider-Man villains. It was the reverse of the MCU strategy.
The cinematic universes Fox and Sony wish to build are a bit limited. The advantage Marvel Studios has is numerous superheroes at their disposal. Unlike Sony, they are not just limited to spin-off films of characters from the same comic book. The only studio to have the advantage Marvel has is Warner Bros. They have regained the rights to most of the D.C. characters, including the most popular characters. While Marvel Studios still does not have the rights to their best selling comic book characters, Spider-Man and The X-Men, Warner Bros. has the rights to Batman and Superman. Warner has always had the ability to create their own shared universe. But has only recently committed to the idea. It was decided that the second film in the Superman franchise should have Superman meeting Batman. That idea expanded to having Wonder Woman in the movie as well. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ( to be released in 2016 ) continues the continuity began in Man of Steel, but is not connected to the Dark Knight trilogy, meaning it represents a rebooting of the Batman franchise. This will lead to the movie Justice League a year later. From this point on there will be a single D.C. cinematic universe that has no connection to any of the previous D.C. films other than Man of Steel. But as Warner wants to get to a Justice League film as soon as possible, they have forgone the strategy of Marvel Studios. Instead of introducing most of the Justice League members in their own solo films first, they will simply have the Superman franchise evolve into the Justice League franchise. While nothing has been announced beyond Justice League, it is inevitable that most of the members should see their own solo films in the years to follow.
That's not to say that D.C. will have to wait until 2016 to finally see a shared universe. After the conclusion of Smallville, another series featuring a D.C. superhero was launched on the CW Network. Arrow was a re-imagining of the Green Arrow comic book, and did not share a continuity with the previous Oliver Queen/Green Arrow character from Smallville. In July of 2013 it was announced that a new character, Barry Allen, would be joining the show for a three episode arc, in which an accident would transform him into The Flash. The producers ultimately decided to put Allen into a coma for the rest of the season, and instead have him turn into The Flash in his own spin-off series. Both series will be interconnected with the occasional story starting on one show and concluding on another. The Arrow series also introduced Black Canary as a recurring character, as well as some other characters from the D.C. comics universe. Should The Flash be a success, the possibility is open that other D.C. heroes will spin off of the Arrow series. This will create a second television based D.C. universe that has no connection to their cinematic universe.
Beyond Disney, Warner, Sony and Fox, it is not impossible for other studios to launch their own cinematic universes. Marvel and D.C. are not the only companies with superheroes. Imagine a studio that creates a Dark Horse cinematic universe. This is assuming any studio would limit themselves to characters from a single publisher. There is no reason why any studio could not mix and match superheroes from competing comic book companies. Lionsgate could conceivably launch a universe that features The Punisher, The Spirit, Judge Dredd and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. With a handful of film rights to D.C. and Marvel characters still circulating outside the respective grasps of Marvel Studios and Warner Bros., it is not inconceivable that some studio could acquire those rights and create a cinematic universe with both Marvel and D.C. characters. And if both studios want to play dirty, it is not impossible for Marvel Studios to acquire the rights to a D.C. character, or Warner Bros. to acquire the rights to a Marvel Character. Currently the rights to both Man-Thing and Swamp-Thing are held by producers outside Marvel and Warner respectively. While either character would be a low priority in their respective cinematic universes, a Man-Thing vs Swamp Thing movie could be a major event. That would be incentive enough for either studio to grab the rights away from their rival.
This is all under the assumption that the studios would want to create an independent shared universe of live action cartoon characters. One lesson here is not that Marvel Studios has linked all their superheroes in a single universe, but that Marvel Studios has linked all their movies and television shows in a single universe. Imagine if other studios did the same. For example, at Paramount, the characters from Flashdance in the same universe as the characters from Saturday Night Fever, who would be in the same universe as the characters from Beverly Hills Cop, who would be in the same universe as the characters from Top Gun. It would not matter what genre the film was. If the property was owned by Paramount, then the characters could be linked. While it is probably too late for Paramount to link their 80s movies, it may not bee too late to link any movie or franchise that is filmed from this point on. Larger movies could be used to cross promote smaller films by having their characters doing guest apperances, or having the events of one movie show up as a news report in another movie. The B story of one movie could continue into another movie. If the studios were to follow the example of Marvel Studios MCU, the concept of films being independent stories could some day be a thing of the past. Every film released by Paramount could be a separate chapter of the same master story. The same would hold true for all the other major studios.
With so many studios initiating their own shared universes, many film critics have predicted the end of the superhero film is near. Their theory is that the novelty of a shared universe and the occasional event like The Avengers, Justice League or The Sinister Six, will become passé as too many films are released. They also suggest that the quality of these films will suffer due to the studios rushing more and more films into production. It would be a return to the old days when most movies based on comic books were either a disappointment, or simply awful. Marvel Studios believes they are above this. The MCU films are successful because they are entertaining. Unlike the other studios, Marvel thinks of the comic book fan first. It is not likely they will ruin one of their movies by introducing romance, musical numbers, campy comedy, or anything else calculated to attract a wider audience. So far their hands on approach has worked. And they have the added advantage of not having any other movies to work on. Marvel Studios is strictly films based on their comic books. Other studios produce a wide range of movies. This is why Warner Bros. has released so few superhero films in the past decade. They have other films to do, like the Hangover franchise. Films that are less expensive than superhero films, but could be just as profitable. It takes a lot of movies to maintain a cinematic universe. At least a couple per year. And Marvel is more than ready to do this. And they expect to be around, producing blockbuster after blockbuster, long after Warner Bros. has given up making D.C. films.
1933 The first comic book, Famous Funnies, is published. The book was reprints of newspaper comic strips.
1935 National Allied Publications, the forerunner of D.C. comics, publishes their first magazine 'New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine'
1937 Detective Comics #1 is published. It contained a collection of short crime stories.
1938 Action Comics #1 is published. It contained a collection of original short stories, one of which was the first Superman comic.
1939 Batman makes his debut in Detective Comics #27.
1939 Martin Goodman founds Timely Comics, the first publication being Marvel Comics #1 featuring the original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner
1940 All-American Publications introduces the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3.
1941 Captain America Comics #1 is published.
1941 Paramount is the first studio to purchase the film rights to a comic book, Superman. They assign Fleischer Studios to produce a series of cartoon shorts.
1941 The first superhero to be featured on the silver screen is Captain Marvel in a 12 chapter serial for Republic Pictures.
1943 Batman, a 13 part movie serial, is released by Columbia Pictures.
1944 Captain America, a 15 part serial, is released by Republic Pictures.
1945 All-American Publications merges with National Publications, forming what we know today as D.C. comics. National acquires Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman from All American.
1946 Timely introduces a superhero team called The All-Winner Squad that includes Captain America, the original Human Torch and Sub Mariner. Only two issues featuring the Squad are published.
1947 The Injustice Society, the first ever supervillain team, is introduced in All-Star Comics #37 as the antagonists of the Justice Society of America.
1948 Superman, a 15 part serial, is released by Columbia Pictures.
1949 Columbia releases their second Batman serial, Batman and Robin.
1950 Columbia releases their second Superman serial, Atom Man Vs. Superman
1951 All-Star Comics becomes All-Star Western after issue #57 as D.C. abandons half of their superheroes. No more stories of the original JSA are published.
1951 Superman and the Molemen, the first feature film featuring a superhero, is released by Lippert Pictures. It is actually the pilot episode of The Adventures of Superman.
1952 The Adventures of Superman debuts as a first run syndicated television series.
1954 Captain America, the last of Timely's original superhero titles, is cancelled. From that point on Timely publishes comics with one shot stories.
1956 D.C. begins rebooting their All-American superheroes.
1960 The Justice League of America debuts in The Brave and the Bold #28. They soon have their own successful book.
1961 Timely re-brands itself Marvel Comics. Later that year Fantastic Four #1 is published
1962 The Incredible Hulk #1 is published
1962 Spider-Man debuts in Amazing Fantasy #15, after which the comic is cancelled.
1962 Thor debuts in Journey Into Mystery #83
1963 Iron Man is introduced in Tales of Suspense #39
1963 The Amazing Spider-Man #1 is published
1963 The Avengers #1 is published
1963 X-Men #1 is published
1966 Batman debuts on ABC. The series is such a success that 20th Century Fox produces a feature film with the same cast and sets.
1972 Howard the Duck debuts in Adventures Into Fear #19
1974 A pilot movie for a Wonder Woman television series starring Cathy Lee Crosby airs on ABC.
1974 Shazam! debuts as a Saturday morning live action series on CBS.
1975 ABC debuts the series Wonder Woman, recast with Linda Carter. It is set during the 1940s.
1976 Howard The Duck #1 is published
1977 Wonder Woman is cancelled by ABC and picked up by CBS. Now called The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, the setting changes to the 1970s.
1977 CBS also debuts the series Spider-Man
1977 CBS also airs the pilot movie for The Incredible Hulk
1978 Superman becomes the first superhero movie to be released as a big budget stand alone feature film.
1978 Steve Gerber is fired from Marvel
1980 Steve Gerber sues Marvel over the ownership of Howard The Duck
1980 Superman II is released.
1982 Conan the Barbarian is released. Although Conan was one of Marvel's best selling comic books, they did not own the rights to the character.
1982 The Lawsuit between Gerber and Marvel is settled, clearing the way for a Howard The Duck film
1982 The low budget Swamp-Thing is released
1983 Superman III is released
1984 Supergirl is released
1986 Howard The Duck is released
1987 Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is released.
1989 The Return of Swamp Thing is released, and D.C.'s second film franchise is killed.
1989 Tim Burton's Batman is released
1989 The Punisher is not released
1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Darkman are released
1990 Captain America is not released
1990 The Flash television series debuts on CBS
1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and The Rocketeer are released
1992 Batman Returns is released
1993 Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman debuts on ABC
1994 The Mask and The Crow are released
1994 The Fantastic Four is neither released, nor made available on home video
1995 Batman Forever is released
1997 Batman & Robin is released
1997 Steel is released
1998 The pilot movie for Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on FOX. They do not pick up the series.
1998 Blade is released. It becomes Marvels first successful film, and the beginning of a successful film franchise.
2000 X-Men is released. It's success and critical acclaim revive the nearly dead superhero genre.
2001 Smallville debuts on Warner Brothers WB network
2002 Blade II is released
2002 Spider-Man is released. It becomes the most successful film franchise of the first decade of the 21st Century
2003 Daredevil is released
2003 X2: X-Men United is released
2003 Ang Lee's The Hulk is released
2004 The Punisher, a reboot from the first unreleased film, is released.
2004 Spider-Man 2 is released
2004 Blade: Trinity is released
2005 Elektra is released
2005 Man-Thing airs as a made for television movie on the Sci-Fi network. It was originally intended to be released theatrically, but Marvel was not happy with it.
2005 Batman Begins is released
2005 The Fantastic Four is released. Same producer as the unreleased film, but a complete reboot.
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand is released. The film was to conclude the cinematic X-Men saga.
2006 Superman Returns is released
2007 Ghost Rider is released. It is the first movie to credit Marvel Studios as a co-production company.
2007 Spider-Man 3 is released
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is released.
2008 Iron Man is released. It is the first movie entirely produced by Marvel Studios, and the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
2008 The Incredible Hulk, a reboot of the Hulk franchise and second entry in the MCU, is released
2008 The Dark Knight is released. For four year it reigns as the greatest comic book movie ever made.
2008 Punisher: War Zone, another reboot of the character, is released
2009 The Watchmen is released. Despite great expectations, the film bombs at the box office
2009 X Men Origins: Wolverine is released
2010 Iron Man 2 is released
2010 Kick Ass is released, based on a comic book published but not owned by Marvel.
2011 Thor is released
2011 X-Men: First Class is released
2011 Green Lantern is released
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger is released
2012 Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is released
2012 The Avengers is released
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of the franchise, is released
2012 Dark Knight Rises is released
2012 Arrow, a series based on The Green Arrow, debuts on the CW network.
2013 Iron Man 3 is released
2013 Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman franchise, is released. It becomes the first film in the D.C. cinematic universe.
2013 The Wolverine is released
2013 Kick-Ass 2 is released
2013 Thor: The Dark World is released.
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man II is released
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past is released
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy is released
2014 Gotham, a television series set in Gotham City ten years before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, debuts on CW
2014 The second Flash series, this time a spin off of Arrow, debuts on CW
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