Marvel: The Money-Making Machine

While fans welcome the revitalization of older comic book stories, movies, and popular novels, they may not notice the transformation of an artistic endeavor into a formula-based moneymaking machine. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Written by Devansh Agarwal

Marvel’s first release on the big screen was X-Men in 2000, and since then it has been churning out new superhero movies at an increasing pace. Avengers and its related franchises: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have been hugely successful and brought in billions of dollars globally.

Iron Man 3, brought in $1.2 billion worldwide with a third being domestic revenues. Their popularity is driven by the fact that they target existing audiences, either the readers of successful comic book stories who want to see these characters on screen, or loyal viewers who are already invested in reinterpretations of earlier versions.

Tony Stark’s irascible wittiness, Thor’s surreal pomposity, and Captain America’s unflagging integrity, to name a few, help create compelling and intensely likeable, larger-than-life characters. Combine these with an action driven plot replete with twists and turns and a fairly ambiguous ending, and you have a movie franchise that will easily last a decade.

Taking advantage of popular existing content seems to be a trend followed by all major studios. The Star Wars franchise supposedly ended with Star Wars Episode III but after Disney acquired LucasFilms in 2012, it announced three more Star Wars movies, starting with the seventh movie coming out this December, which is expected to cross the $1 billion benchmark.

The same phenomenon can be seen in Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and Fantastic Four, all of which have been rebooted in the last five years. The major studios put their money in established concepts and ideas to mitigate risk and allow them to reap additional profits from an existing franchise. For example, The Hunger Games and the Divergent series became widely popular as books before being picked up by a studio for a cinematic interpretation.

While fans welcome the revitalization of older comic book stories, movies, and popular novels, they may not notice the transformation of an artistic endeavor into a formula-based moneymaking machine.

Marvel’s Avengers series (which grossed $1.4 billion each on a budget of $250 million) follows a predictable formula – combine a mix of characters: witty, intelligent, patriotic, and brawny, and have them face off against an intergalactic villain in search of the single object of wonder. Add a strong female character, a big CGI-heavy finale, and a hint of the traditional hero’s journey trope and you have a movie that (producers hope) will make billions.

The notable exception to this rule was Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which diverted from the formula and treated the story more as a dark thriller than just another superhero flick. Perhaps the reason for this movie’s success was precisely its divergence from the mainstream paradigm, but at the time DC Comics and Warner Bros. still saw the film as risky.

The approach was untried and the director, Nolan, lacked experience in the genre. Nevertheless, on the heels of this unique success (the Dark Knight series grossed a total of $2.5 billion in revenue), DC Comics, the owner of the Batman franchise, applied this alternative approach to Watchmen, Green Lantern and again to the upcoming Suicide Squad.

Unfortunately, Watchmen was a major disappointment for producers because it only made $184 million worldwide on a budget of $138 million. Green Lantern was even worse, making only $230 million on a budget of $200 million.

What DC perhaps did not realize was that the Dark Knight series succeeded as a dark trilogy because of the immense popularity of the Batman in popular culture. Watchmen was a completely new addition to the big screen and the Green Lantern could not compare to Batman’s popularity.

In light of these failures, it seems that DC may be moving over to Marvel territory. Its latest release, Man of Steel and the much hyped, Batman v. Superman, slated for 2016, do not inspire much hope in terms of creative originality. These upcoming releases aim to promote more single-character spin-offs, featuring DC’s Justice League characters as a response to Marvel’s Avengers.

Financially though, they do seem more promising. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, as formulaic as it was, made $600 million in revenue and his upcoming Batman V Superman is being projected as one of the biggest blockbusters ever, given the popularity of the characters. DC is slowly moving from its darker offbeat superheroes to the better known heroes and villains, which clearly promises a better financial return, even though it may not be very original or innovative in its creative approach.

Marvel is inspiring a new and mechanical genre of superhero movies, and this is spreading to other non-comic book based franchises as well. The larger question here is: Is there a point of saturation for the superhero genre or will these movies be as perennially popular as romantic comedies or dramas?

There has been an increasing popularity of superhero and comic-based movies, and this is evident from Marvel’s lineup in the past decade. The first Marvel movie was X-Men in 2000, which was followed by Spider-Man in 2002 and Daredevil in 2003. From releasing one movie a year in 2000, Marvel has been releasing minimum of three movies a year since 2012 and, it has 3 movies slated for 2016, 2 for 2017 and 5 for 2018!

Studios have also been utilizing dazzlingly realistic CGI to attract viewers, and new theatrical viewing formats such as IMAX and RealD-3D to drive box office revenues. The experience of watching something so fantastic and unreal is at the heart of Hollywood cinema – it gives you an escape into another world and feeds into your wildest imagination.

Given DC and Marvel’s lineup for the decade, both seem widely optimistic about the superhero movie market, so at least for the present, it seems unlikely that this superhero craze will die down anytime soon.


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