The Unique Problem Facing Marvel Studios

By  · Published on August 30th, 2010

Marvel Studios hitting hard out of the gate with Iron Man as their first independent production was a lot like seeing a high school draftee hit a home run in his first major league appearance. Hence, the blended horse racing and baseball analogies. It was equal parts right place, right time, and right cultural momentum blended with choosing the right personnel to bring the lesser-known hero to life.

This was the beginning of a huge new moment in superhero films. Fans had grown exhausted by Fox’s attempts to understand comic books, and 2007’s melee attack of Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer had audiences reeling. Thus, the news that Marvel would be striking out on their own to make their own way in the world was refreshing. The comic book people were going to be making comic book movies.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem that threatens to slow Marvel’s momentum and change the way it makes movies altogether.

The success and promise of the studio was last vaulted on the stage in Hall H for Comic-Con’s explosive last night where Robert Downey Jr introduced the entire line up for The Avengers after sneak preview footage of Thor and Captain America impressed. The honeymoon continued.

However, love for the studio that night wasn’t completely pure. Their hiring problems had been made public, and stories about low-balling actors and replacing them outright didn’t help the image of the young studio. This was the elephant on the stage when the Avengers lined up and the bulk of the team was unfamiliar. Iron Man was there. Black Widow and Nick Fury were too, but there were also a Thor, Hawkeye and Captain America we hadn’t been properly introduced to standing next to a Hulk we didn’t recognize.

These problems are minor, though, compared to the one facing the studio as a whole – a problem that is multi-faceted and could cripple Marvel Studios unless they get out ahead of it.

The Air-Walker Problem

The focus of that problem is the kind of properties that Marvel is tethered to. On the one hand, they have a nearly limitless library of characters born from their own pages. On the other hand, very few of those properties are marketable beyond the comic book form. Iron Man has proven to be successful, but what happens post-Avengers? Marvel has 9,000 characters in its ranks, but only a handful of them are remotely interesting to a non-comic audience, and it’s that audience that has to be brought on board in order for a movie to be financially successful.

Simply put, even though it’s a major property on “Entourage,” The Air-Walker would never make it to the big screen in real life.

Even some of the Avengers characters haven’t been given a rousing response. There’s no talk whatsoever of doing a Hawkeye stand alone film, and talk about doing Antman has not been universally heralded. Keep in mind, this has nothing to do with the strength of the character or the potential quality of the film itself, but it seems not unreasonable to imagine that a broader audience wouldn’t get its hackles raised for a Rom the Spaceknight movie. In a world where The Incredible Hulk has trouble catching fire, it’s difficult to understand Marvel’s game plan beyond 2012.

Beyond Iron Man 3, The Avengers 2, and Captain America 2, the well runs a bit dry, and, unlike other small studios, Marvel doesn’t have the luxury to branch out beyond their own brand name. While another young studio, Summit, is free to use its Twilight money to gamble on young filmmakers and different genres, Marvel can’t exactly produce and release a teen sex comedy that has no tie to its comic book library.

Well, it could, but it would risk losing its focus and brand identity.

So, in two ways, the studio is stuck. They are quickly running out of the types of characters that draw giant audiences, and they won’t be able to reach beyond their own grasp when it happens.

The Comic Book Problem

The other issue is the question of whether comic book (and, specifically, superhero style comic book) properties will stand the test of time. The collective groan that went out across the universe when Sony announced they would reboot Spider-Man (the first superhero property to launch the genre into its most recent stratosphere) was a sign that the studios had run out of truly commercial properties and that fans and critics weren’t all that excited about seeing the last decade replayed with different actors and directors. It’s a similar story with Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. There’s a matter of diminishing returns here.

For a large studio, this is a problem only until the next big thing is discovered. For smaller, indie outfits, it’s an issue only until they find the next great talent. However, for Marvel, this is a problem eternally because they have nothing to offer beyond comic book properties. Once those fall out of favor, Marvel will be left holding the bag.

To the Rescue

None of this is to say that Marvel Studios is down and out. Especially since they have the Disney safety net.

In a sense, Marvel Studios is a lot like Pixar. They’re a sidearm for a larger entity, and they focus exclusively on one type of movie in an attempt to release at least one a year. The goal is also for that movie to be an event. It appears as if that particular method of business will be strained post 2012, but the studio itself seems to have a many-pronged attack at staying relevant and giving the fans what they want on the big screen.

That attack includes:

The bottom line of all of this is that Marvel is a different kind of studio. There are similar examples out there, but none who catapulted to such immense success so quickly. That left Marvel in the spotlight with a freight train coming their way.

The other bottom line is that fans of the Marvel event film will be losing out in a few years. It’s been a great wave of comic book frames ending up on the big screen in big ways, but it’s not a dream meant to last. The most likely scenario sees Marvel putting out smaller films each year that appease comic book fans and reach out beyond them in a minor way. However, there’s a small chance that the combination of waning interest in comic book movies, a shallow bench of major heroes, and corporate interests that demand massive box office returns could fatally wound Marvel. The perfect storm that swept them into the spotlight could take them out of it.

Hopefully that won’t happen. Hopefully Marvel won’t have to regress to seeing studios like Fox sully their characters. Hopefully they’ll find a way to own the summer with characters no one knows yet. No matter what, something will have to change within the next three years if the studio hopes to stay on top.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.