Comic book movies are flying high at the box office and none more so than Iron Man 3 which is predicted to gross $600 million worldwide by Sunday and opens wide domestically today. Hard to believe that there was a time when studios wouldn’t even look twice at a comic book or a graphic novel. Today, ten films based on comic books are scheduled to be released in 2013 alone, with seven of those set for a summer release. DC Comics may have lit the flame with their Superman and Batman franchises, but Marvel Entertainment has sparked the fire through its vision and determination to burst through the studio gates.
In 1986, Marvel Entertainment Group (MEG) began licensing its characters from its expansive library to various studios. The first feature film released theatrically was surprisingly, Howard the Duck, which was spearheaded by George Lucas who was a fan of the fowl. Howard the Duck strayed dramatically from the comic in terms of the character’s personality and the book’s satirical approach. Costing around $51 million in budget and P&A, the film grossed $37 million worldwide and was considered a box office disappointment, hindering Marvel’s higher aspirations.
Then in 1993, according to Robert Ito’s book Fantastic Faux!, producer Roger Corman finished post on a two million dollar budgeted Fantastic Four film, but it went unreleased. Ito claimed Marvel CEO, Avi Arad, had bought the title and destroyed every print, however one copy made it to YouTube with 400,000+ views to date. Ito went on to say Bernd Eichinger produced the film solely to retain the rights, a fact backed up by his producer credit on the 2005 film. This move foreshadowed the continual green-lighting of films based on Marvel properties today in order to keep characters from reverting back to Marvel ownership.
In the late 80’s, Sony bought the rights to Spider-Man followed by Fox in the mid 90’s who scooped up the X-Men and Marvel’s mutant population. Both studios have stayed active on their crucial properties in order to keep the rights in house. However, recently Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige confirmed Daredevil’s return to their folds from Fox to join former defectors Blade, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Luke Cage, and The Hulk.
Interestingly, there are a few characters that can be used by both Fox and Disney: the Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver. These characters both have strong ties to The X-Men and The Avengers and could be seen in both, “It’s a little complicated but if [Fox] wants to use [Scarlett Witch or Quicksilver] in an X-Men movie they could. If we want to use them in an Avengers movie we could,” explains Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige via X-MenFilms.com. This week, EW confirmed the pair appears in a draft for The Avengers sequel, but plans have not been finalized.
In the 80’s and early 90’s films based on Marvel characters stalled while DC Comics’ Superman and Batman franchises swept the box office. In 1996, with ToyBiz CEO Avi Arad at the helm, MEG formed Marvel Films after the sale of its parent company, New World Communications Group.
After a couple of direct to video releases, Blade, about a vampire hunter, was the first feature film licensed by Marvel Films to be theatrically released. Distributed by New Line and released on August 21, 1998, it cost $60 million and grossed over $130 million. Blade was a hit and laid the groundwork for other studios to tap into their properties.
Although Blade proved Marvel characters could be successful, it wasn’t until Fox released X-Men in 2000 that comic book films really took flight. Rocketing the then unknown Hugh Jackman to fame and the then associate producer Kevin Feige to a bright career at Marvel, X-Men spawned a franchise with its $296 million gross that prompted other studios to hit the green-light on their superhero films.
Sony was next up, releasing a film about the web-crawler Spider-Man in 2002. It was the first film to surpass $100 million in the opening frame and launched a highly lucrative franchise. The franchise went on to gross $822 million for the first film, $784 million for the second, $891 million for the third, and $752 million in the 2012 Amazing Spider-man reboot. Sony is currently in production on their next installment of the Amazing Spider-Man reboot set for a May 2014 release. With around $3.2 billion in their coffers, the superhero will be slinging webs for Sony for the foreseeable future.
Several blockbusters later, in a historic 2004 deal, Marvel Studios secured $525 million in a non-recourse revolving credit facility from Merrill Lynch to produce ten films and entered into a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. Marvel Studios’ first film under this deal was Iron Man.
Iron Man along with The Avengers was a mid-range selling comic book for a long time. In a feat of never before seen film-making foresight, Marvel Studios strategized phase 1 of their inter-connected cinematic universe. They announced their future slate in a Wall Street presentation in 2006 per Moviefone. Marvel decided to use the second-tier character Iron Man as the catalyst to their plan. Newly named president of production Kevin Feige and director Jon Favreau knew they had to cast the perfect lead to secure an audience.
The superhero genre has long-since utilized lauded actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Ian McKellen to elevate the page. However, Iron Man became the standard for character and actor synchronicity by capitalizing on Robert Downey Jr.’s bad boy charm to play the devil may care Tony Stark to astonishing results.
In 2008, after Iron Man’s impressive $585 million take and in a move not surprising anyone, Paramount expanded its distribution deal with Marvel to six pictures.
In late 2009 Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion and quickly bought Paramount out of its final two films in Marvel’s deal. Paramount ceded worldwide distribution rights for Marvel Studio’s Iron Man 3 and The Avengers to Disney for a minimum of $115 million or 9% and 8%, respectively, whichever figure is greater, and will continue to reap revenues generated across all platforms (theatrical, home video, VOD, etc.). Although there were a few who called $4 billion too high a price, Marvel’s The Avengers $1.5 billion dollar gross quickly proved them wrong.
After steadily developing their larger Marvel universe across all of their subsequent titles, The Avengers’ was shot in 92 days in the spring of 2011. According to Studio System, Downey received a stellar $50 million dollar paycheck, while Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson each took home $4 million, and Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner were happy to each pocket $2 million.
Whereas Iron Man had 13 writers, The Avengers’ needed only one- Joss Whedon. With a geek icon taking the reins, Marvel leveraged the superheroes’ prodigious brand awareness to astonishing results, hauling in more than $1.5 billion in 2012.
In the wake of The Avengers’ mind-blowing success, other studios have been scrambling to create their own cohesive universes, albeit at a snail’s pace. In 2012, Fox signed on fan-favorite Marvel scribe Mark Millar to pull together their Fantastic Four and X-Men worlds, but it’s slow going.
Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, currently in production and set for a July 2014 release, will reunite the characters in the initial X-Men trilogy with those in X-Men First Class, with franchise visionary Bryan Singer at the helm. The rebooted Fantastic Four franchise was greenlit for a 2015 release, but it will still be sometime before Reed Richards and Hank McCoy match wits.
Although Warner Bros. has a clear advantage with their omni-inclusive ownership of DC’s library, WB has been jostling since 2007 to produce a Justice League film that would unite their superheroes. The project has had its share of development pains, with three drafts and a previous attachment of Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer who was set to don a different mask as Batman.
Since 2012 the mouse house has acquired Lucasfilm and discussed the cross-promotion opportunities with Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Disney characters. A film is just one opportunity Disney could employ to exploit its holdings, as their diverse business stretches across theme parks, merchandise, TV content, and countless other streams.
Disney’s acquisitions are already paying off in spades with stocks selling at a record high of $63.25 on April 29th. The record price came on the heels of Iron Man 3’s enormous international box office opening windfall of $195 million, topping The Avenger’s $185 foreign opening frame.
Arising from a convoluted past, Marvel’s crystal clear vision for its own future will make it very bright indeed. One day, far in the future, Disney may hold all the keys to the kingdom and unite Marvel’s heroes to unlock profits of limitless heights.