I Wonder: The current state of Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios is an unusual success story. The studio first made money by licensing their characters out to other studios so that they could be turned into cash generating behemoths.  X-Men and Fantastic Four became franchises at Fox, the former the success story of the early 2000s, the latter critically derided but still financially successful. Even Daredevil turned a profit for Fox, but not enough to prevent them from allow the rights to lapse back to Marvel in October 2012.  Sony picked up Spider-Man, and have been counting their lucky stars ever since, what Superman and Batman are to DC, Spidey is to Marvel, and the four Spider-Man films to date each sit in the top 10 grossing comic-book adaptations of all time. Universal got The Hulk, but repeated attempts to kick-start that into a franchise failed as neither Hulk nor The Incredible Hulk rose much above $250 million at the box-office.  Still when both cost in the region of $150m they didn’t lose money. Even Blade was a success story for fledgling studio New Line.

This led in 2004 to Marvel Studios deciding to take a gamble self-financing a raft of films, based on the characters remaining within the fold. Having licensed off the crown-jewels this motley crew composed of  Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack and Shang-Chi. With these Marvel secured financing and a new distribution deal with Paramount, the only major player other than DC owners Warner Bros not to enter into a licensing agreement. Three years passed, the rights to Iron Man, Captain America and Thor reverted to Marvel, and then we had a ball-game! Marvel entered into production of Iron Man, a superhero who bore more than a passing resemblance to DC’s Batman, having no superpowers, but instead possessing a genius level intellect and money to burn. Robert Downey Jr. was just getting his career back on track when the call to suit-up came. A better match of actor and character could not have been imaged as Downey Jr. brought a confident but vulnerable swagger to Tony Stark that made him iconic.  In the closing line Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark quips “I am Iron Man”, and yes he most certainly was.

But Marvel had made an error, they lacked the confidence of a major studio and had only signed the actors on for one outing in their roles. That meant renegotiating with an actor that they had made into a superstar. Starting with Iron Man 2 Marvel Studios began to implement a more rigid structure with regards to the remuneration of the actors hired and the creative control allowed to those actors. Robert Downey Jr. had firmly established himself as Tony Stark making him indispensable, but the same could not be said of Terrence Howard as James Rhodes. When Howard, who had commanded a larger salary than Downey Jr. for Iron Man, made it known he was unhappy with his pay packet for the second outing Marvel simply said tough and drafted Don Cheadle in his place. Quickly Marvel was establishing that they believed that the characters that they had were bigger than actors who played them. Then on December 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. Backed by the power of Disney and  burned by the Howard incident, as well as the new and improved pay-packet negotiated by Downey Jr., Marvel began to lock its stars into multi-picture long term deals. Samuel L. Jackson signed up for 9 further appearances as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, Chris Evans for 6 appearances as the first Avenger Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, Chris Hemsworth likewise for 6 outings as Thor. Mark Ruffalo too signed up for 6 when he joined for The Avengers, meaning that he has 4 films left after appearing briefly in Iron Man 3. Downey Jr.’s initial deal ran out post IM3, but he’s signed back on for The Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Avengers 3.

With the main stars locked down and the second consecutive film reaching and surpassing $1 billion at the box-office the tide appears to be turning. In signing Michael Douglas up for a supporting role in Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man the studio is making a bold statement that they are now big enough to cast stars of that calibre and level of fame. And also that stars of that level are willing to be in a comic-book movie. Sure they’ve had Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman before, but Douglas is a whole new ball-game. Reinforcing that belief is the news that they have entered into negotiations with Johnny Depp for Doctor Strange. Depp is one of the few true movie-stars around, and adding his name to a film is usually done to bolster its marketability. Do Marvel believe Doctor Strange is that hard a sell, or is it simply a case of Depp being the best fit for the mystical magician? The latter is the more likely, as comic-book fans have craved a Doctor Strange film for years. Also Depp is a Disney darling who, The Lone Ranger aside, has made billions of dollars for Marvel Studios parent company. Either way Depp will not come cheap so this could be the first instance of Marvel breaking away from that rigid wage controlled, multi-picture contract model that has served them so well to date.

This could be hubris on the part of Marvel Studios, casting a mega-star to feel a role that could have been filled by a lesser recognisable actor. This decision too could backfire spectacularly on the studio as current stable of stars may revolt against their financial restraints, if they see a case for their portrayal of their characters as being the ultimate version. Could audiences believe another actor as Thor, or Iron Man, or even Loki? EON showed us with James Bond that the character is bigger than the actor, and even with Marvel’s own creations we have experienced 3 interpretations of Bruce Banner/The Hulk. In this modern age the fan-boy anguish would be instant should any of the major players be recast. But the it would be forgotten just as quickly as if the internet has proved anything it is that the clamour for new is all-consuming. Brave decisions reap big rewards, and nowhere has that been more evident than with the studio who bet the house on creating a cinematic universe and won.