Growing up, Archie comics were all the rage. I was vaguely aware of Superman and Star Trek (my parents were avid watchers). I was also vaguely aware of the names Marvel and DC. Beyond that, I had absolutely no interest. And the same was true, I presume, of everyone else, save a few million geeks. All this changed in 2008.
In May 2008, Iron Man was released. Overnight, a virtually unknown superhero became a household name. Overnight, an actor, considered to be past his prime (Robert Downey Jr) conquered audiences with his snarky wit, infectious arrogance and self-deprecating sarcasm. Iron Man was the start of one the most audacious experiments in performance arts history – Marvel Cinematic Universe ( MCU). I choose my words carefully. You see, the concept was that MCU would consist of a string of films, each one focusing on a different character, but ultimately part of the same virtual universe. No one had done it before. And no one has pulled it of since, except Marvel and in doing so, MCU brought a paradigm shift in arts and entertainment.
Cinematic paradigm shift
Marvel put together a cast of relatively unknown actors and directors and tasked them with developing a three-phase sequence of films based on different storylines from the comics. Most of the superheroes were unknown as well. For 10 years, over a course of 19 films, they managed to tell stories about characters as diverse as a genius billionaire, a mutant shape-shifter, a former Russian spy, a family of Norse gods, a magician (and a host of others) and tie them into a continuous whole.
In doing so, Marvel shattered many cinematic conventions. Their cast of unknown actors became worldwide celebrities. Three unknown Chrises (Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt) became the hottest tickets in Hollywood. Marvel managed to introduce humour and self-referential running jokes while showing the world ending in ever more glorious ways. Thanks to MCU, science fiction as a genre has made a comeback and started to rule cinema, TV and literature. Today, of the top 10 grossing movies of all time, eight are science fiction, one a fantasy and the other is Titanic. MCU also managed to please the critics with all 19 films enjoying an average critical rating of 84% (Rotten Tomatoes).
Marketing paradigm shift
There used to be a law of diminishing returns for sequels. MCU broke convention on that front. Their 19 films cost $3.8 billion to make and earned $17 billion! For 19 movies, of which two (Black Panther and Infinity War) are still running in cinema theatres. Infinity War (19th in the series) became the fourth highest grossing film of all time in just a few weeks - and is about to break the $2 billion barrier. On top of that, it is loved by critics and fans alike. So, although audiences saw four great MCU movies during the past two years, they keep coming back for more.
Marvel, and their owners, Disney, spent a lot of money over the past 10 years to sell the concept of MCU. The films, trailers, cross-marketing deals, (Samsung and One Plus for special edition phones), product placement (Audi, LG, Vivo, Samsung, Dell) and merchandise have turned the franchise into a juggernaut. Unlike other franchises, the characters in these films are diverse enough to appeal to every age group and demographic. But you know what? None of this matters; the films sell themselves. Since the start, Marvel made it a practice to insert a ‘post-credit scene’ at the end of their films. Many times they have been jokes or gags, but in most cases they have advertised their forthcoming films. This is how, we knew about Thanos well before Infinity War was released, thanks to his appearances in the post credits scenes of Avengers and Age of Ultron. Similarly, thanks to the sheer popularity of the franchise, Marvel can announce their projects on YouTube, at comic conventions award shows, or even during TV interviews, and the world does the rest of the marketing.
Intellectual paradigm shift
Before 2008, superheroes were considered to be strictly the territory of children, while science fiction and fantasy was the realm of the nerds and geeks. This changed with MCU. Audiences and critics were bowled over. Science fiction films such as Avatar, Children of Men, Gravity and Interstellar did spectacularly well and no one was embarrassed to admit to liking them. The Star Wars franchise was reborn. Book series like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and the Hunger Games became the rage. Science fiction and fantasy became, once again, a legitimate part of literature.
Marvel has achieved what no one else has. Over a period of 10 years, they have produced 19 movies with a unified story and vision, drawing upon science fiction, fantasy and myth, with exceptionally well-developed characters, each one entertaining and intriguing in equal measure. They kept at it, their actors kept at it, their writers and producers kept at it. And so did the audiences; millions of them. Marvel continues to enthral, mesmerise, rake in the cash...and continues to continue.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.