Why Marvel Studios Succeeds (And How It Will Fail If It Doesn’t Diversify)
Guardians Of The Galaxy just enjoyed a very successful weekend at movie theaters, taking home around $94m, far in excess of expectations. The movie also stands at 92% positive reviews on aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, joining all previous Marvel Studios movies in receiving predominantly favorable notices.
Marvel Studios is doing very well. In six years and ten movies, it has avoided both critical and commercial disasters, and frustrated naysayers who hailed the demise of the superhero movie at every step. Marvel’s rivals at Fox, Sony/Columbia, and Warner Bros, have enjoyed commercial success as well — but not with the acclaim, consistency, or proliferation of Marvel. So how does Marvel do it, and can they keep doing it?
I think the secret to Marvel’s success owes much to necessity. Marvel simply can’t afford to screw up the superhero movie business, because it’s the only business the studio is in. That sounds like a circular argument — it succeeds because it can’t fail — but I think Marvel’s singular focus forces it to be smart, ambitious, and innovative in ways that its rivals are slow to understand. Marvel Studios succeeds because it goes all-in.
Look at Marvel’s competitors and it becomes clear that superhero movies are not their sole priority. Fox has its Fantastic Four reboot and its X-Men franchise, but it makes plenty of other movies, including other franchises — Assassin’s Creed, Ice Age, Planet Of The Apes, Taken, etc. Sony/Columbia wants to build a universe around Spider-Man with Sinister Six, Venom, and perhaps Black Cat or Spider-Woman, but it also has the James Bond franchise, Jump Street, The Smurfs. DC’s parent company Warner Bros. is a beast, and it didn’t just make the Dark Knight movies; it also had Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Hangover, and much more, including the new Godzilla. There are people at Warner Bros. who never have to think about Batman.
There is no-one at Marvel Studios who doesn’t have to think about Captain America.
Marvel Studios, of course, is not a studio on the scale of Warner Bros. or Fox. It’s a subsidiary of Disney, which also makes Disney-branded movies like Frozen and Tangled, Pixar movies, Muppet movies, Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and now Star Wars movies. But Marvel Studios appears to be — and by all accounts is — largely autonomous. It operates its own brand, and it puts out two movies a year under that brand — moving up to three in 2017. All of those movies are essentially one interconnected super-franchise.
That makes Marvel very unusual. Liam Neeson’s character in Taken does not have to worry about his daughter being kidnapped by Caesar from Planet Of The Apes. James Bond is not going to take down Gargamel in the next Smurfs movie. But every Marvel movie has implications for the others, in-universe and out. Any stumble or sign of weakness has ramifications across the line. If the superhero movie renaissance were to fail apocalyptically, Marvel Studios would shutter its doors, because even if it makes a space movie or a magic movie, they’re all part of the same superhero franchise. Marvel doesn’t have anything else. Even its horror comics are superhero comics. Even Patsy Walker is Hellcat.
Marvel needs its superhero movies to succeed, and to keep succeeding. The studio cannot afford to go fallow. It cannot afford to take its heroes off the screen for a few years while the audience recovers its interest. It cannot afford to burn its audience out.
For that reason, the studio maintains rigorous standards that seem designed to please as wide an audience as possible. Marvel strives to satisfy its core fan base while also entertaining general movie-goers. It doesn’t pander to one section of the audience — for example, young white men, or Americans — in ways that alienate other sections of the audience — like women, or overseas viewers. Marvel tries to stay fresh by mixing superheroes with other flavors — fantasy, espionage, space opera. The studio created a franchise that is just episodic enough to build anticipation, build audience, and build brand loyalty between movies, but also sliced up into sub-franchises that won’t overwhelm audiences or leave anyone behind. These strategies have helped Marvel establish a trustworthy brand and lure increasing numbers to take a chance on its pictures.
Moving from two movies a year to three is going to be a big risk for the studio, because it brings the risk of wearing the audience down — but the expansion is both natural growth and a consequence of Marvel’s success.
This is where success can be dangerous. Marvel is very tied to its existing franchises, and I don’t think it expected to create as many successes as it has. Remember that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk came out the same year. Even then, Marvel was laying the groundwork for its shared universe and its ambitious Avengers plans (in a way that the studio could easily walk away from if it all went south).
Iron Man did very well and became a franchise. Incredible Hulk did less well, and the franchise stalled at one movie. (The earlier Ang Lee Hulk was not a Marvel Studios picture.) Both characters ended up in Avengers anyway, but Hulk/Bruce Banner was recast.
It’s easy to imagine that if Thor or Captain America had not met expectations, they too would have stalled at one movie, even if they both ended up in Avengers. This is how Marvel adapts to failure — or even under-performance. Failure is mixed back into the pot. Success is nurtured and rewarded. It all looks organic and unforced. So, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a critical and commercial hit, and its sequel is scheduled for 2016. Thor: The Dark World didn’t jump as high or earn as much acclaim, so it’s back-burnered. It probably will get a sequel, but it’s not on the calendar yet — not the public one, anyway.
I don’t think Marvel was counting on Iron Man and Thor and Captain America all being as successful as they were. I think Marvel had contingencies in place in case any of them failed.
Similarly, I imagine this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, next year’s Ant-Man, and the year after’s Doctor Strange, are all properties that could be their own three-movie franchises — but they could just as easily stop at one movie apiece. Marvel already greenlit a sequel for Guardians based on advance buzz; it could have nudged that sequel off the schedule if the movie had bombed.
Now imagine if Marvel still had the rights to Spider-Man and X-Men. It seems unlikely that we’d be watching a Guardians movie in 2014. Of the ten movies Marvel has released, three would have been Spider-Man, and at least two would have been X-Men. Maybe we’d have got to one Hulk and two Iron Mans, maybe a Captain America and a Fantastic Four. Guardians Of The Galaxy wouldn’t even be on the “maybe” list.
Not having those brands is part of what forced Marvel to take risks — and really, all of their movies are bigger risks than Spider-Man or X-Men. That’s why those movies got made first — just at other studios.
Not having the big names compelled Marvel to created a screenwriting hothouse to develop script treatments for lesser known properties, and Guardians Of The Galaxy emerged from that project. It might as easily have been Black Panther or Captain Marvel, or, who knows, Power Pack, or Sleepwalker, or Darkhold: Pages From The Book Of Sin.
This is the weird contradiction of Marvel Studios; it is both controlling and risk-taking. It can’t play safe like Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros, because it doesn’t have their more iconic licenses — although the nature of those icons is being redefined in real time by Marvel Studios’ success. But Spider-Man is Spider-Man and Rocket Raccoon is Rocket Raccoon, and that means Marvel cannot settle into the comfortable familiarity of making each movie a faded copy of the last success, whether in sequel, spin-off, or reboot format. It can’t cavalierly disregard the source material and risk alienating the only people who already care about its weird fringes. It can’t stick to a single grim or adolescent tone that predominantly appeals to one (big) audience segment. Those are conservative instincts that come from not wanting to ruin a “sure thing” like Spider-Man. Marvel can’t be conservative if it wants to make audiences love Star-Lord the way they love Spidey.
But Guardians is Marvel’s first movie with an all-new cast since 2011, and Marvel needs to establish new franchises like this as a precaution against old franchises failing. Thus far, Marvel sequels always outperform their predecessors worldwide. At some point diminishing returns must set in, and Marvel wants to be able to isolate any rot so that other branches can flourish, rather than let the whole tree — their whole business — die.
The problem is that the success of existing franchises doesn’t leave a lot of room in Marvel’s schedule for new franchises, even when the studio movies up to three pictures a year. Here’s what the schedule looks like:
May 1st 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron
July 17th 2015: Ant-Man
May 6th, 2016: Captain America 3
July 8th, 2016: Doctor Strange (unconfirmed)
May 5th, 2017: Unknown, possibly Thor 3
July 28th, 2017: Guardians of the Galaxy 2
November 3rd 2017: Unknown
May 4th, 2018: Unknown
July 6th, 2018: Unknown
November 2nd, 2018: Unknown
Counting Avengers as its own franchise, Marvel launched five franchises with its first ten movies, and only the Iron Man franchise isn’t certain of another sequel. If Ant-Man and Doctor Strange repeat the success of Marvel’s previous properties, those might be the only franchises it launches among the next ten movies. One could well imagine a calendar that looks like this:
May 1st 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron
July 17th 2015: Ant-Man
May 6th, 2016: Captain America 3
July 8th, 2016: Doctor Strange
May 5th, 2017: Thor 3
July 28th, 2017: Guardians of the Galaxy 2
November 3rd 2017: Iron Man 4
May 4th, 2018: Avengers 3
July 6th, 2018: Ant-Man 2
November 2nd, 2018: Doctor Strange 2
Would this be a problem? Yes, if the old franchises start to wilt and Marvel doesn’t have any new franchises set up to take their place. And the risk of old franchises wilting seems exacerbated by rapid changes in audience profiles and audience appetites.
African-Americans and Asian Americans are more enthusiastic moviegoers than white American audiences. Hispanic audiences account for 20% or more of opening weekend ticket sales for blockbuster movies in the U.S. Women account for 52% of the moviegoing audience, and major releases with female leads keep upsetting expectations — like Scarlet Johanssen’s Lucy, which smashed Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules at the box office. On top of all that, the international audience for movies is more important than ever before, with almost 70% of studio revenues coming from foreign markets.
Disney is clearly switched on about all of this, and it’s easy to see that understanding reflected in the decision to cast black actors John Boyega and Lupita Nyong’o in key roles in the next Star Wars movie, and Gwendoline Christie in a role reportedly written for a man. That all goes some way to addressing the sci-fi franchise’s historic shortage of women and people of color. It’s also evident in the decision to adapt Marvel’s Big Hero 6 with a diverse cast — though sadly at the expense of several Asian characters. It’s notable that Disney Animation, rather than Marvel Studios, saw the potential in that property, and the feature carries no Marvel branding whatsoever.
This appreciation for a changing audience isn’t limited to movies. One only need look at another Disney subsidiary to see the importance Disney attaches to female and non-white audiences.
Disney’s ABC television network is launching three sitcoms this fall with minority casts, as well as the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as the romantic lead (Selfie). ABC has given a whole night of primetime programming to a black woman, writer/producer Shonda Rimes, with two of her three hours led by black female leads. Dramas with female leads have done very well for the network — with Once Upon A Time and Scandal as standout examples — and all the successful dramas launched by ABC in the last couple of years have featured black leading characters except Nashville and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
Even ABC Family, once known as an evangelical Christian network, has weirdly become home to some of the most inclusive shows on television, like the queer-friendly Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters.
Come to that, another Disney-owned company has made impressive strides with diversity in just the past year, launching its highest ever number of series with female leads and people of color, and integrating significant LGBT content into its output. That company is of course Marvel. Marvel Comics, that is; not Marvel Studios.
I don’t know if all of this is the result of a Disney-wide initiative to improve diversity within its output, or if it’s simply writers and commissioning editors taking advantage of the fact that the changing market means less resistance at the top. I suspect it’s a little of both. What’s clear is that Marvel Studios has not taken advantage of that change with the same rapidity. It hasn’t anticipated that change, and it hasn’t left itself in a position to quickly adapt to that change.
Marvel Studios has made strides in acknowledging diversity, putting female heroes and heroes of color on the screen in productions that didn’t require their presence. Sif, Black Widow, Heimdall, War Machine, Falcon, Gamora, Peggy Carter; these are all great characters. Marvel Studios’ own television division is giving a spotlight to Peggy Carter, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Rumors abound that Captain Marvel will cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron (unfortunately under the “Ms. Marvel” moniker, and possibly not played by Katee Sackhoff).
But none of these characters has their own movie, and looking at the upcoming schedule, it’s easy to imagine that we won’t see a movie with a female or non-white lead until 2019. The earliest available slot is three years away.
If Marvel wants to be in a position to take advantage of changing audience appetites today, it should have announced a Black Widow movie at San Diego Comic-Con two years ago, when it announced Guardians Of The Galaxy. Marvel didn’t even announce that movie this year, or a Captain Marvel movie, or a Black Panther movie. Instead it announced Guardians Of The Galaxy 2.
A studio that once looked bold and risk-taking is now in danger of looking conservative and cautious, weighed down by its own success — just like Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony. Except, of course, Sony is reportedly planning a superhero movie with a female lead for 2017. Even if Marvel now does likewise, it’s going to look like it’s following Sony’s lead.
On the subject of a movie with a female lead, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently said to CBR; “I hope we do it sooner rather than later.” He is the president of Marvel Studios. He doesn’t have to hope that they do it. He has to do it.
As for a movie with a non-white lead; if Marvel makes Thor 3 before it makes Black Panther, it will have made ten movies headlined by blond white men named Chris before it makes one movie headlined by someone who isn’t even white. (They can cast a black actor named Chris. That’s totally OK.)
They could of course circumvent that is if they cast a non-white actor as Doctor Strange, but no-one really expects that to happen — and therein lies the problem. Marvel now looks like it’s lagging behind audience expectations. That’s bad for a brand that built itself on giving audiences what they want. I don’t think the female Thor or the black Captain America in the comics are part of the solution either. We’ve been assured those ideas came from the comics’ writers. The movies can follow suit, but these story initiatives aren’t part of a stated Marvel Studios agenda.
I do think that heroes like Captain Marvel and Black Panther are part of Marvel Studios’ agenda — and I’m sure several factors conspired to keep those characters from our screens. Marvel’s unprecedented success is chief among them. It’s plausible that Black Panther or Captain Marvel is the very next name on Marvel’s “to do” list.
But maybe we have to wait for another franchise to fail, or for another slot to open up in 2019 or beyond, before Marvel gets that far down the list. And that simply isn’t good enough. Audiences want to see these heroes now, and if Marvel won’t provide them, maybe audiences will turn to Sony, or Fox, or Warner Bros, for the next phase of innovative superhero movie-making.
The secret of Marvel’s success is that it took risks in order to grow. The danger of Marvel’s success is that it may stop taking risks just when it really needs to.