Superhero films are the past two decades’ most successful and popular cinematic trend. This trend overwhelmed and shaped Western popular culture for good and bad. One production company emerged as the undisputed champion of that trend: Marvel Studios.
Since 2008, Marvel Studios has adapted characters and stories from Marvel Comics into 32 feature films comprising the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). These films have earned nearly $30 billion at the worldwide box office. They are so successful that they have become generic descriptors. Just as most people refer to facial tissues as “Kleenex”, the average filmgoer refers to comic-book films or superhero films as “Marvel Films”, regardless of their origin. Indeed, Marvel Studios is the biggest success story in 21st-century Hollywood. Film fans may love, hate, and deliberately avoid them, but they must reckon with Marvel films somehow.
That is all preamble to say that MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios by podcaster and critics Joanna Robinson and Dave Gonzales and author Gavin Edwards is essential reading for any fan of blockbusters or Hollywood history. The book details the origins, rise, and unprecedented success of Marvel Studios, which started as a risky, highly-leveraged, upstart independent film studio and became a culturally seismic, incredibly lucrative Disney subsidiary.
MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios offers an insider’s view of the past 30 years of Marvel, gathering stories from people involved at every production level. Some of the information comes from primary interviews by the authors, while some is culled from countless interviews and books over the years. The level of research on display ensures that MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios documents a wide range of topics with welcome nuance and objectivity.
Objectivity is vital to a project such as this. We live in an age when certain online fan communities treat their fandom as an essential part of their identity or even their religion. These communities will take to social media to vehemently defend their favourite television or film series, and bully any detractors. The enormous success and popularity of Marvel Films has spawned countless heated debates or bullying campaigns both for and against the MCU. In a recent interview with GQ, legendary director Martin Scorsese decried that Hollywood studios have saturated film culture with franchise and Intellectual Property (IP)-driven films, to the detriment of cinema. As the MCU has come to represent blockbuster IP cinema in the past decade, some fans took this as an attack on Marvel Studios. Thus several days of online commentators portraying the MCU and Marvel Studios as either the worst thing to ever happen to cinema or the best. These online kerfuffles always lack any sense of nuance and objectivity, particularly around Marvel Films.
This is what makes MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios so refreshing. Robinson, Gonzales, and Edwards enter this arena as obvious fans of the MCU, but as reasonable ones. The book makes space to celebrate the very real accomplishments of Marvel Studios, while also criticizing their shortcomings and poor decisions. The authors devote whole chapters to the making of Ryan Coogle’s Black Panther (2018) and Boden and Fleck’s Captain Marvel (2019), praising them for being groundbreaking depictions of diverse superheroes on a grand scale. But they will also point out that these films were only groundbreaking because Marvel itself refused to make films starring diverse heroes until then. The authors are fans who can applaud Marvel Studios for doing a good thing while also determining what took them so long.
While entertaining and breezily readable, MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios is also an exercise in rigorously piecing together the full story of Marvel’s success. It begins with the origins of Marvel Studios, going back to the mid-‘90s. Marvel Entertainment filed for bankruptcy at that time, and it was ultimately bought by Toy Biz, a toy manufacturer that had previously licenced Marvel characters. Toy Biz, run by the deliberately mysterious Ike Perlmutter, went from simply making toys based on Marvel Comics to owning Marvel Comics outright. Through his partner, Avi Arad, Perlmutter licenced Marvel characters to various studios for potential film adaptations. Perlmutter was never particularly invested in the films, as they cost too much at too high a risk. But he knew the mere possibility of a film would drive up comic and toy sales. It was all about the toys.
But everything changed with the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). This was a major Hollywood film based on a major Marvel property. However, 20th Century Fox moved the release date six months earlier than planned to fill a hole in their schedule. As a result, the toys were not ready for the film’s release. Perlmutter considered this a disaster. Furthermore, he saw the film as too mature to sell toys to kids. Marvel Films needed to be more “toyetic”. This was a learning experience for Perlmutter. Meanwhile, X-Men was produced by Lauren Schuler-Donner, who increasingly leaned on her eager, ambitious assistant, Kevin Feige, to find ways to please fans with the film. Soon, Feige would be brought to Marvel to help Arad sell and produce films.
Perlmutter’s poor experience with X-Men would create an opening for another key player, David Maisel, to pitch an idea: What if Marvel developed and produced their own films? They could deliberately choose characters who would sell the most toys. They could ensure the films’ releases coincide with the toy manufacturing to maximize synergy. And they could partner with a studio to help with distribution. That all appealed to Perlmutter.
Meanwhile, Feige would succeed Arad as the overseer of the films, allowing him to tell grand stories based on a wide swath of characters. That appealed to Feige. Intense negotiations and financial wizardry followed, but soon Marvel Studios had borrowed over half a billion dollars to produce Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) (robot-type toys were big sellers) and Louis and Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008) (Hulk is a perennial toy seller).
And so MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios proceeds. Some chapters focus on individual films with interesting or troubled production histories. Their first production, Iron Man was loose, improvisational, and wildly successful. The Incredible Hulk, meanwhile, was the first rocky production due to power struggles with star and writer Edward Norton. Favreau’s Iron Man 2 (2010) was the first sequel, and it exhausted its director. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) combined the characters of the first five MCU films into a team-up of unprecedented scale, and set the template that all other studios would try and fail to match.
The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) brought company men Joe and Anthony Russo into the fold, and experimented with tone. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a favourite of everyone associated with Marvel, proving their dominance by demonstrating they could succeed with even the most enigmatic concepts. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) was a long-delayed production featuring a very public falling-out with writer-director Edgar Wright, which called into question how much freedom Marvel extended to its filmmakers. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Boden and Fleck’s Captain Marvel (2019) brought long-awaited diversity to titular characters, while the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) managed to tie together a decade’s worth of dozens of characters and plot threads into a satisfying, enormously successful climax.
Each of these films gets a chapter-length spotlight in MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, allowing the authors to track the progression of the Marvel style. There were disagreements and drama behind the scenes, as well as questions of who was in charge of the films. Was it the initial writers? Was it the visual development team who planned out action sequences before directors were even hired? Was it the eventually hired director? Was everything under the control of one man, Kevin Feige, or his bosses, such as Ike Perlmutter? Or is the success of Marvel Studios due to a large-scale collaborative effort that Feige and his bosses merely coordinate? That is what these chapters explore.
Interspersed between chapters based on individual films are the larger, overarching stories behind Marvel Studios. MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios tracks the hiring of Louis D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso, who joined Feige at the head of production. It examines the acquisition of Marvel Entertainment by the Walt Disney Company and the shockwaves that deal sent through the young production company. It examines the legendary casting acumen of Marvel Studios, led by Sarah Haley Finn, but also the training regimen and potential performance-enhancing drugs in response to intense pressure to achieve superheroic physiques.
MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios also delves into the Marvel Writers Program, a training ground for up-and-coming writers to learn the business. It examines the increased importance of the Chinese film market in the early-‘10s, and how studios attempted to court that market. It details the complicated inter-studio negotiations that brought Spider-Man into the MCU. It explores the long-standing, in-house visual development team, which designs the look and choreographs action scenes before directors are even hired. It also contrasts the pre-production visual development team with the punishingly difficult conditions experienced by post-production visual effects houses hired by Marvel, who work long hours for low pay and high burnout. Some of these elements are unique to Marvel, while others speak to the state of blockbuster filmmaking during this era of Hollywood. These are the conditions under which big-budget visual effects extravaganzas are made.
The most dramatic chapters, however, are those devoted to tensions at the very highest levels of Marvel. The Creative Committee was a group of creators and businesspeople based in New York who would have the final say on Marvel Studios projects. Through his acolyte Alan Fine, Perlmutter would issue demands of the studio that created tension and stifled creativity. He created a new division, Marvel Television, that would produce series for ABC (Agents of Shield, Agent Carter) and Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage) that ostensibly took place in the MCU but lacked the same budgets or quality control. Marvel Studios, in turn, refused to acknowledge their existence.
Perlmutter deliberately minimized female roles in the MCU, insisting that the female villain of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) be changed to a man, for example. When a female character became too prominent, as with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, he would insist that the character was minimized in the tie-in toys. After all, from Perlmutter’s perspective, Marvel was an engine for driving toy sales, and Marvel toys were action figures. Only boys play with action figures, he assumed; those boys don’t want to play with female characters. By the time he stymied Feige’s plans for Black Panther and Captain Marvel, Feige was fed up. He went over Perlmutter’s head to the Disney executives to free himself of Perlmutter’s oversight. And the films improved.
Later chapters of MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios examine the launch of the Walt Disney Company’s streaming service, DisneyPus, and the demands this put on Marvel Studios to increase their output to limited series. They examine the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the cracks that began to appear in the MCU in the 2020s. It feels as if the story of Marvel Studios will continue indefinitely, which makes one long for a future update to cover whatever tumult lies in the future for Marvel Studios.
But as it stands, MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios is a highly entertaining, well-researched, wide-ranging, detailed, and objective examination of one of the greatest Hollywood success stories. Documenting this specific story illuminates the universal story of big-budget studio filmmaking in the 21st century. There will never be another story like the Marvel Studios story, and maybe there shouldn’t be. But those who want to understand this phenomenal story can do no better than read MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios.