With Marvel Studios releasing Ant-Man and the Wasp this Friday, marking their 20th film in the span of 10 years, I have been reflecting on the massive risk they undertook to create what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
No one could have imagined that a movie called Iron Man would be the foundation for a "bigger universe" nor be as influential as it is today. And that was quite a feat for a superhero film that came out the same year as The Dark Knight. The golden Avenger wasn't well known back then with moviegoers compared to the likes of Spider-Man, X-Men, or Fantastic Four, and the script for the movie wasn't even completed before production began. Iron Man didn't have the same name recognition as other Marvel properties, and the story was made as production moved along, which normally would spell disaster on a film. But the movie turned out better than anyone anticipated, and the character continues to be a central piece in the massive MCU.
Marvel continues to churn out movies that feature beloved characters, interesting stories, and amazing spectacles. So what has kept audiences coming back for more, despite the ridiculousness of some of their superheroes such as Norse gods, super soldiers from WWII, a talking raccoon, and of course, shrinking people that can talk to ants? These movies continue to be winners because of how much we can relate to the over-the-top superheroes and their personal journeys of transformation. Tony Stark goes from a selfish, weapons- dealing, playboy to a selfless person trying to help others with his wealth and techno-savvy. Thor begins as a prideful warmonger, but he learns what it means to serve others, rather than serving his own ego. T'Challa had been motivated by hatred and revenge after the murder of his father, but he becomes more merciful as time goes on, and understands the importance of waiting on justice, rather than taking matters into his own hands. It's when these characters are challenged to overcome tremendous personal obstacles that we become engrossed into these movies, and when an Avengers movie rolls around, we're excited to see just how these characters are going to come together to face a threat that they could not handle by themselves.
When there's success, imitators are sure to follow, and it seems that every major Hollywood studio wants to build their own cinematic universe these days. DC Comics tried, and somewhat succeeded with their superhero films, leading up to the less-than-stellar Justice League film. Universal has tried to bring together their famous movie monsters together in one universe...twice. Sony Pictures attempted to make their own Spider-Man series without Marvel, and now Spidey is in Marvel's hands, though Sony is going to try to make a world without Spider-Man with the upcoming Venom movie. Fox has been doing quite well with their X-Men series, including Deadpool and Logan. The Fast & The Furious and Transformers films are are also slated to develop their own cinematic universes. And of course, Disney has tried to replicate the Marvel magic with their Star Wars films.
Why have some of these cinematic universe attempts failed? Justice League should have been a big event like The Avengers since it brought together Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg together for the first time on the big screen. But because Man of Steel and Batman v Superman failed to connect audiences with these characters, no one really cared about them coming together. Audiences loved Wonder Woman, but that wasn't enough. Part of the problem was that Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg were being introduced for the very first time in Justice League. In The Avengers, audiences already knew Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, so there was already a connection established, making The Avengers a culmination, rather than an introduction of their characters. Sony's Spider-verse attempt failed partly due to rebooting the Spider-Man series fairly quickly after the initial trilogy of films, and audiences questioned what the point of the The Amazing Spider-Man films were other than to keep the film rights out of Marvel's hands. Ultimately, it led to Sony allowing Marvel take full creative control of the character, and we'll see if Sony can pull-off a Spider-Man-less...Spider-verse? Both Dracula Untold and The Mummy failed to kick-start a monster universe because, well, they weren't very good. Recently, Star Wars seems to be having trouble creating its own cinematic universe, apparently putting future "A Star Wars Story" movies on hold until further notice. You would think Star Wars could rival Marvel's success, but alas, due to angered fans over The Last Jedi, and the odd timing of Solo: A Star Wars Story failed to interest fans, resulting in millions of dollars lost, even though it was not a bad movie. It seems as though no one can figure out the Marvel Method in creating a successful universe.
Why has Marvel succeeded? It's because they focus on their characters first and foremost, crafting stories that make us care about the heroes. To be honest, I always hated Ant-Man. I thought he was just stupid, and when the movie was announced, I thought it would be a dud. But it surprised me with a story about a father trying and failing to be a good role model for his daughter. We could relate to Scott Lang. We are all aspiring to be better than we are, but just can't seem to get things right. It focused on telling a story that gave a character a personal struggle to overcome. It told a good story, and that is Marvel's secret to creating movies.
I showed my best friend Ant-Man for the first time, and about halfway though, he turned to me and said, "Ant-Man is my favorite Marvel hero now." I couldn't help but smile. Who knew Ant-Man would become a great hero and a fan-favorite character? Who knew Black Panther would do better at the box office than Batman? Who knew Iron Man would kickstart ten years worth of incredible, astonishing, amazing, and marvelous stories? I certainly never thought that I'd see the day when I'd be more excited to see a movie called Ant-Man and the Wasp over a Justice League movie.
Happy 10th anniversary, Marvel Studios! Here's to another 10 years of movie marvels. Excelsior!