The brand checks all the boxes: Not only does it rack up huge openings and leg out its movies at the worldwide B.O., it also pleases fans (GOTG2 notched the label’s 10th A CinemaScore under the Kevin Feige-led film company), wins over critics, and possesses the superpower to turn deeper universe-quirky-superheros like GOTG and Doctor Strange into behemoth hits despite the on-paper risks.
From the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s conception in 2008, it has grossed $11 billion across 15 titles worldwide. Taking in GOTG, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, and Doctor Strange, Disney/Marvel has minted more than $1.17 billion in combined profits after all revenue costs and ancillary money streams.
Comparisons are always made between Marvel and Warner Bros.’ DC cinematic canons; that the latter, even though it produced last year’s hits Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3M domestic, $873.3M global) and Suicide Squad ($325.1M, $745.6M), has been challenged in checking all those boxes in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s no secret that fans and critics have turned their noses up at last year’s mega hits, resulting in steep second weekend domestic B.O. drops. Both titles fell short of $1 billion worldwide. Not to mention, DC’s initial attempts to bring some of its deeper universe characters to the big screen fizzled greatly: Green Lantern ($200M negative cost, $220M global B.O.), Jonah Hex ($47M negative cost, $10.9M global B.O.) and The Losers ($25M cost, $29.4M).
So what goes on in Marvel’s sausage-making process that turns the studio into such a hit house?
After the success of Doctor Strange, one Paramount executive who worked with Feige on the pre-Disney Marvel releases remarked to Deadline that Feige has a specific sense of what works and doesn’t work for Marvel’s films and fans. At a Marvel press day two weeks ago, we asked Feige about this and he waved off the notion that he has a hard-and-fast set of rules for assessing superhero movies.
“I can’t think of anything where I would say ‘Don’t do that.’ We don’t sit in the theater and say ‘Make it brighter.’ Some of that is just the natural instincts of ourselves and the filmmakers we work with,” said Feige, referring to directors like James Gunn and Jon Favreau who’ve worked with Marvel and serve as a sort of think tank. “We always share materials with the filmmakers,” says the Marvel boss.
That said, here’s what Feige did reveal about the inner-workings of the Marvel machine and its approach to success:
–The movies that Disney/Marvel develops aren’t considered to be comic-book films internally, but rather more genre-driven. “I never believed in the superhero or comic book genre. Genres are diverse with novels, and it’s the same thing when it comes to Marvel titles. It gets us excited. We don’t feel like we’ve made 15 comic book movies, but a fantasy epic (Guardians of the Galaxy), a political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and a heist film (Ant-Man),” explained Feige.
–If you’re looking for a secret ingredient for why Marvel movies click, heart and comedy go hand in hand. In fact, it’s comedy that’s the true, early litmus test. “When you sit and test these films…We do friends and family screenings where we show rough versions of our movies, which are horribly painful. Imagine watching Guardians without Rocket, Groot or any of the space ships. It’s a horrible thing to do. The one time you know it’s working is when the audience is laughing. That’s the only sign you get that they’re with you. Laughter is the way you hook the audience, then you can scare them or touch them emotionally deeper than they expected in a film about a tree and raccoon.”
Excelling with those basic story-telling elements is how Marvel connects off-beat protagonists like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and GOTG with the masses. With $11 billion (and counting) at the global B.O., there’s also something to be said about how the Marvel brand is like a comic-book movie Good Housekeeping seal. Prestige arthouse DVD label Criterion Collection built its business on devoted consumers, who aside from being fans of a particular auteur’s films, bought more obscure titles because they trusted Criterion’s taste. You could say the same thing about Marvel, but on a much larger commercial scale. With their reputation at an all-time high, whenever they take risks on an unknown IP, audiences believe it’s going to be phenomenal.
“I don’t think there’s a part of the comics we look at and say we can’t do that necessarily,” said Feige, “Guardians was a bit of a test of that Marvel studio logo having no recognition besides a small group of comic book readers.”
Following the success of Feige’s work on Marvel’s X-Men and Blade close to two decades ago, the Marvel boss realized that the key to success with superhero movies “was the idea. It’s about how good a movie you can make off an idea as opposed to how many comics it sold, did it have a live-action series in the ’70s, or a hit animated series in the ’90s. That was a great theory for me to have for a long time, but it was really put to the test with Guardians. It just encouraged us to continue what we’re doing.”
At the Toronto Film Festival last year, Gunn told Deadline that the revolution in visual effects is why moviegoers have become so open-minded to deeper universe comic-book characters onscreen.
“It use to be (the rule) that unless you were an A-list superhero, unless you were a Batman or a Superman, or a Spider-man, there were no superhero movies that made money. X-Men, huge franchise. Unless you were a huge thing that every kid knew, you were not going to make money,” explained the filmmaker.
“All that changed was visual effects. When Iron Man came out, visual effects had caught up so that going to see a superhero movie was worth it to see for the spectacle, and not worth to see it because you were a pre-existing fan. You may say, yes, Iron Man, was way more famous than Guardians of the Galaxy, but how many people read its comic a month? A hundred thousand, maybe? Not enough to make a big film for sure,” added Gunn.
“A character like Deadpool or a character Harley Quinn who are really fan favorites who have been around for a long time and are pretty big characters…help drive the box office without a doubt because they have a really big audience, but if you have something like Guardians which doesn’t’ have an IP or a brand, but has a visual enough component to it, like a raccoon with a machine gun, that creates something really commercial,” he continued. Watch our interview with Gunn below:
Lastly, Marvel refuses to rest on its laurels when it comes to delivering tentpoles. Feige shared a story with the press that he overheard John Lasseter say once: that at a specific point in each Pixar film’s production, every animated film is the worst they’ve ever made. “I thought to myself, it’s just not us,” beamed Feige. “We keep plus-ing, and plus-ing and plus-ing which is an old Walt Disney term. It’s the mindset we have.” While it’s not Disney/Marvel’s plan to go into the R-rated superhero business in the near future ala Logan and Deadpool, Feige’s assessments of those 20th Century Fox successes is that “it was about the creative boundaries that were pushed,” not the R-rating.
Disney/Marvel will break rules again next year with the release of Black Panther, the first African American superhero tentpole, on Feb. 16. At the Marvel press day, the movie was billed as a globe-trotting James Bond-type spy character. Looking back at the success of the Marvel canon and the steady expansion of its superhero universe, Feige exclaimed, “The biggest risk was not doing them. The biggest risk would have been doing Iron Man 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.”