A giant squidlike creature commands the screen and breathes fire. “The fate of the universe lies on your shoulders,” a voice-over intones, and for the next two minutes, viewers of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 teaser trailer are treated to a mashup of exuberant space battles, cool gadgets, and comic vignettes, set to the 1975 power-pop anthem “Fox on the Run.” Marvel, the studio that created the Guardians franchise, posted the trailer online in December, five months before the highly anticipated sequel was due to hit multiplexes. Within 24 hours, the clip, featuring the film’s ragtag superhero vigilantes—a foulmouthed raccoon, a baby tree, and the hunky-but-relatable Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt—racked up 81 million views. Even the song hit No. 1 on the iTunes rock chart.
For Marvel, though, outdoing itself has become something of a regular occurrence. When Guardians Vol. 2 hits theaters on May 5, it will mark the studio’s 15th movie since it started making its own nine years ago, and each one has been a hit. Just as impressive as Marvel’s box-office record (these films have grossed more than $10 billion globally): the billions more in revenue it has generated from toys, merchandise, fragrances, and even cruises (yes, there is a Marvel Day at Sea). Disney, which acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion, has seen an impressive return on its investment.
Marvel, which has ramped up production to be able to make three movies a year, is proving that, if done correctly, these character universes can resemble successful technology platforms—ecosystems that enable both creative risk taking and significant growth and profits. But too often, other companies look at the winning result without appreciating the forethought that produced it. Look no further than Marvel’s arch nemesis, DC Entertainment, which, in conjunction with Warner Bros. (its parent company), has tried to catch up to Marvel by launching its own “extended universe” of characters. Last year, it released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, both of which frustrated fans and fell short of $1 billion in global box office. Its Wonder Woman movie will arrive in June amid negative buzz and reports of a troubled production.
Marvel’s approach, then, has been easy to replicate but challenging to duplicate. What is the true essence of Marvel’s success? The answer lies in the way the studio trusts its instincts, jettisons formula, and constantly looks ahead to galaxies far, far away. Here’s how other companies can obtain these powers.
Every superhero origin story starts with tragedy, and Marvel’s is no different: The company, then an independent comic-book publisher, filed for bankruptcy in 1996 following a steep downturn in the industry. In a shortsighted turnaround attempt over the next several years, it pursued harebrained licensing deals (such as authorizing a Hard Rock Cafe–style Marvel Mania chain restaurant), and it sold off movie rights in a scattershot manner to studios across Hollywood.
Many critics lump superhero movies together into their own genre, but in truth, Marvel movies defy such a simplistic classification. The first Iron Man and Captain America are essentially war movies; Iron Man 3 is a Bond-style thriller. More recently, Marvel has trotted out the space-set buddy action-adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, the science caper Ant-Man, and the fantasy-tinged Doctor Strange, all of which were decidedly weirder than the Avengers films that preceded them. (Similarly, Fox has begun to take risks with the Marvel characters it controls, moving in a darker, R-rated direction with Deadpool and Logan.)
Within the films themselves, Marvel isn’t afraid to kill off characters (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange), insert a big twist (Iron Man 3‘s unadvertised villain), or rejigger the universe (dissolving the mortal crime-fighting agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Similarly, Marvel consistently uses creative casting to surprise moviegoers. Before Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt was the paunchy wiseass (and seventh-billed star) on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. What casting director worth her Range Rover would have envisioned the cerebral, pasty-faced Brit from the BBC’s Sherlock or romantic-comedy staple Paul Rudd as superheroic? Only now that all these moves and movies have worked do these decisions seem obvious. With this record, subsequent picks such as biopic mainstay Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and indie actress Brie Larson as Captain Marvel have been generating buzz years in advance of their films’ release.
Further helping Marvel is its fruitful relationship with Disney, which has plugged the brand into its global empire of theme parks, TV networks, toys, and more. “Disney is the gold standard on how to take a piece of [intellectual property] and put it in a million different places,” says one marketer at a rival studio. “We’re doing everything in our power to be Disney in 10 years.”
Many of the tie-ins are no-brainers, such as the Iron Man ride at Hong Kong Disneyland and the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction at Disney’s California Adventure theme park opening this summer (along with an Awesome Dance Off with Star-Lord and a Groot meet-and-greet). Disney has brought Marvel to television with Disney-owned ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now completing its fourth season, and Inhumans, which debuts this fall. In late 2012, Netflix agreed to pay Disney a reported $300 million annually to stream recent Disney films, including Marvel movies, as well as no fewer than four series devoted to Marvel characters—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist—whose stars will join forces later this year in a fifth series called The Defenders.
Marvel may seem invincible today, but there are several forces that could vanquish it. Marvel has already promised Disney it will release a sequel for every new title it launches. Will that diminish its creative spark? Is there another creative executive who will develop a character-filled world powerful enough to steal focus from Marvel? Thanks to Fox’s success wooing adult moviegoers with Deadpool and Logan, will superhero epics all become violent, profane fare? And finally, after 15 years of relentless remakes and spinoffs, how many superheroes can audiences take?
Comic-book creators would make you turn the page or maybe even buy the next issue to find out. For now, though, it’s pretty safe to assume that Marvel’s Universe knows no bounds.
Enjoy the music!