“The end is near” – Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
The meteoric rise of Marvel Studios is a story that is worthy of any comic book superhero. In 2008, the studio released their first ever feature film, which was based on one of their lesser known characters, ‘Iron Man’. Despite being far from a sure thing, ‘Iron Man’ went on to be the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed superhero film at the time. The film was also the first film that began the now ten year long cinematic franchise, collectively known as The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since Iron Man’s debut, the MCU now spans 19 feature length films, that have all dominated the box office, and seen Marvel Studio’s become the king of Hollywood and comic books. Now, in just a few days time, Marvel will release Avengers; Infinity War. The third Avengers movie which is a culmination of the past ten years. The trailer alone broke records and it is highly anticipated to be the highest selling movie of all time. That’s not bad for a company that filed for bankruptcy back in 1996 and once lived in the shadow of their comic book rival, DC.
Despite now dominating the cinema and the superhero genre, Marvel’s darkest hour came for them, as it has done for so many heroes before them. During the golden era of comic books, Marvel were responsible for creating some of the most iconic characters, such as The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-man, that were also often told in stunning art. So, how did the company get into such a dark place. The answer to that, is of course financial and legal issues. Ironically a lot of their debt was owed to Disney – the company that now owns Marvel. But more on that later.
By the time Marvel had filed for bankruptcy in September 1996, they had also sold the rights to some of their most iconic and bestselling characters, such as Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, who were sold to 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures as part of an ambitious licensing deal just so Marvel could begin making money again. What an ironic twist of fate it was, that after Marvel had sold their most iconic characters, superhero films began to make their mark on the big screen.
By the early 2000’s geek culture had begun to rise, and the cinematic climate was beginning to change. It’s important to note at this point, that Marvel’s characters were not the first superheroes to be brought to life in cinema. That major success lies with DC comics, whose massively successful and popular characters Batman and Superman have been portrayed in cinema since the 1970’s.
However, it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men trilogy that would relaunch the superhero for modern cinema. Alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogies, the film climate seemed to be changing, as these trilogies broke box office records at the time, were successful on a global scale and received primarily universal acclaim from critics (most of the time).
Despite both the X-Men and Spider-Man seeing Marvel begin its journey to the big screen, the licensing deal that was struck saw Marvel receive little to no money from the box office hits. Then, talent agent David Maisel came with a pitch. Create their own production studios, maintain creative control and maintain all the profits for themselves. Then have your characters cross over like they do in the comics. It was a risky pitch. Marvel no longer had the rights to their most iconic characters, so they would have to make do with their more lesser known characters.
Despite all the risks stacked against the idea, Marvel acquired the money to spend on 10 films, and reacquired the rights to some of their characters. Then in 2006 Kevin Feige was appointed president of productions. His love for comics has seen him declared as a ‘fanboy’, and he is credited with being the man behind Marvel Studio’s huge success. Feige also came with a vision for the studios, and began to build the foundations for a cinematic universe that would unite all of the studio’s key characters in one film. That film would be ‘The Avengers’, but they had first build the foundations for the ten year long cinematic franchise.
Shortly after, Marvel, who been fighting bankruptcy for nearly over a decade, announced that Iron Man would be their first ever standalone feature film to be released under the moniker Marvel Studio’s. While Robert Downey Jr is now synonymous with the role of Tony Stark and Iron Man, his casting decision was met with a little uncertainty. Even Empire magazine admitted that Downey Jr was not their first choice of movie star to headline a summer blockbuster. This was not due to Downey’s lack of talent; the man has always had it in spades. The reaction was most likely due to him just recently getting back on the comeback trail after a troubled few years behind him. Nevertheless, there he was on the cover of film magazines sporting a goatee as the billionaire playboy and genius weapons developer Tony Stark. As of today, he is credited as the original Avenger, and has starred in the most films in the MCU.
Since the release of Iron Man back in 2008 and against all odds, The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the biggest cinematic franchise of all time, beating both Star Wars and Harry Potter to the claim that title. As of today, it has grossed more than $12 billion dollars, and both 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 allowed the Disney owned company rake in more than $2 billion alone, as well as being critically acclaimed. Marvel didn’t directly profit from Spider-Man: Homecoming due to a deal in place with Sony.
Looking back on the past ten years of films, there are many suggestions for the MCU’s success. From its casting decisions and hiring film-makers who have a genuine passion for the genre, each films understanding of the characters and the comic book genre has been seen as a massive success for the cinematic universe. Also, as mentioned earlier, the film climate had already began to see an interest in seeing comic book characters come to life on the big screen. However, there is one ambitious aspect to Marvel Studio’s approach to their cinematic franchise that is unparalleled. World building. They may not have been the first comic book characters to have come to the big screen, but they were the first to apply the method of universe building. Even if it was only a pipe dream in the beginning.
Post-credits scenes have become a staple of the MCU. Each one linking all the films together, and teasing future story lines and characters, but it was Iron Man’s post-credits that started it all. Nick Fury, the director of Shield, approached Tony Stark to tell him that he is ‘part of a bigger universe’. The scene ends with Fury saying, ‘I am here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative’. That was it, and fans ate up the reference. At the time, Jon Favreu who directed the film admitted that it was just an idea for the fans. It wasn’t even in the original script.
After that initial tease and the incredible success of Iron Man, the next few years included introducing the next few of our current core group of heroes. Thor and Captain America. After being established in individual franchises, our heroes were joined by Black Widow and Hawkeye in the summer blockbuster, The Avengers. Up until Black Panther was released a few months ago, The Avengers was the highest grossing superhero film of all time. Since then, this has been Marvel’s formula for success. Introducing new characters and building on previous story lines.
Three individual trilogies, nineteen films later and it has all been leading to this moment. Avengers: Infinity War. Since the first Avengers movie was released back in 2012, the MCU cast has grew significantly to accommodate more heroes and stories, but it has never been on this scale before. Infinity War will include every single hero and character from the past 10 years of films. That includes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange and many more.
Infinity War will also include the long awaited encounter between The Avengers, and their cosmic counterparts, The Guardians of the Galaxy. The cross-over between these two groups of heroes has been part of fan discussions and theories since the release of Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014, but it was at San Diego Comic-Con 2017 that officially announced the inevitable meeting.
The film will bring together one of the largest ever casts in cinematic history to defeat the titan, Thanos. Played by Josh Brolin, Thanos and his motives have been teased since the post-credits scene in The Avengers. For the past six years, Thanos has been teased as the underlying villain for each movie. Obsessed with obtaining all six of the infinity stones, that have also been a recurring theme within the MCU, and bringing balance to the universe by courting death. For Infinity War to officially succeed, Thanos must deliver.
For all the MCU’s focus on flawed superheroes that we can all relate and empathize with, a major weakness that has been a recurring criticism is that most of the villains have been underwhelming and underdeveloped. Until just recently, it was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that was considered to be the king of Marvel Villains. Even then his character has been an interesting enigma over the past few films. In fact, the god of mischief remains to be one of the biggest mysteries about Infinity War. No one really knows his true allegiance and the character has recently underwent a sort of ‘redemption arc’ thanks to Taiki Waititi’s acclaimed Thor: Ragnarok.
Marvel have addressed the villain complex that has plagued their films in more recent releases. Michael Keaton was perfectly cast as Homecoming’s ‘Vulture’, and Michael B. Jordan’s emotionally complex Black Panther villain ‘Erik Killmonger’ has been highlighted as the greatest MCU villain to date. Nevertheless, that is only a handful of villains in a roster of 19 films that have even significantly impacted the heroes’ stories.
In order for Thanos to deliver on being the ‘biggest and baddest marvel villain to date’, he has to severely impact earth’s mightiest heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy in some way. The Russo Brothers have highlighted that the ‘first five minutes’ of the movie will show how dangerous Thanos is going to be, and this is something the film will have to follow through on. For a long time, Marvel’s villains have come and gone, and not really left much of an impact on audiences or our core group of heroes. Considering Infinity War is considered to be Thanos’ movie, there is a lot more resting on the shoulder’s of Infinity War, than just pulling off a large ensemble of characters. It’s going to have to successfully fix a major flaw with the franchise, and deliver on everything about the villain that has been teased for nearly a decade. That most likely means spilling a little bit of blood and breaking a few of our hearts.
There is no doubt that Infinity War is going to be huge when it is released in a few days’ time. With over 1’000 showings already sold out and massive anticipation from audiences worldwide, the film is on course to assemble for what could possibly be a historic box office. But, as it has been described as ‘the end’ for the first ten years of storytelling, where does the franchise go from here?
With the fourth Avengers film still being currently untitled, the future of the MCU is up for debate. What we do know, is that according to Joe and Anthony Russo, the fourth Avengers film will be drastically different to Infinity War. This could mean many things, but with several original Avengers contracts ending (Hemsworth, Downey Jr and Evans), and a recent shift in tone that has been displayed in the more recent outings, such as Ant-Man, Black Panther and Spider-Man:Homecoming, there may be a new dawn of Avengers approaching.
What The Russo Brothers and many of the cast has wanted to make clear about Infinity War, and it’s untitled sequel, is that this is going to be the closing chapter in a ten year long story. It is said to be messy and devastating on an emotional scale. Despite this though, the future of the MCU is anything but bleak. Kevin Feige has stated that there are ’20 more films’ planned that will be different from anything they have done before. Considering the term, ‘superhero fatigue’ has been thrown around a lot recently, doing something different may help the franchise stay fresh and avoid becoming repetitive. Even though I disagree with the idea that superhero films are tiring audiences, it is going to be something that Marvel is going to have to contend with in the future.
If anything, the release of Guardians of The Galaxy (2014), breathed new life into the franchise. It was described as one of their riskiest moves yet (this is becoming quite a trend, isn’t it?), but since then it has allowed for the recent tonal shifts of Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and Spider-Man. There is also the upcoming release of Captain Marvel, Marvel’s first ever female superhero standalone film. A Black widow stand alone is still up for debate, but the future looks promising. Following DC’s highly acclaimed female stand alone, ‘Wonder Woman’, which broke box office records, the decision for Marvel to release both Black Panther and Captain Marvel highlights that they are listening to fan demand for more diversity within their films.
Overall, with Infinity War being described as the closing chapter on the last ten years of the cinematic universe, and future movies being described as being ‘radically different’ to what has come before, the future of Marvel Studios looks anything but bleak. With many more movies planned the franchise looks to continue to dominate the comic book genre and Hollywood. That’s not bad for a film franchise that was on the brink of bankruptcy just more than 20 years ago. Marvel have survived their own dark hour and with the release of Infinity War and beyond, there looks to be a new dawn for our Heroes. Not to mention, Disney have also just bought over 20th Century Fox, meaning Marvel may now have the opportunity to re-invigorate their founding family, The Fantastic Four, and potentially cross over with The X-Men. There may be no plans for that just now, and it may seem ambitious for a film universe that has already been established, but since the release of Iron Man nearly a decade ago, everything Marvel has done has been nothing short of ambitious.
Avengers: Infinity War is released in UK theatres April 26th.