Marvel Entertainment is a model for a company that has cannily looked out for its own interests as it seeks to exploit and protect its rich endowment of comic characters and stories. With Shakespearean actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s epic adventure Thor hitting theaters May 6, Anthony D’Alessandro parses the Marvel performance thus far.
Like the hammer-wielding god Thor, Marvel Entertainment has smashed the film industry’s bias against superhero projects ever since rolling out the 2000 feature adaptation of Spider-Man ($822 million worldwide B.O.), ushering in the golden age of comic-book cinema. To date, the Marvel feature adaptations, both licensed and inhouse productions, have racked up $7.4 billion at the global box office. The media company will continue to raise that figure with the 22nd Marvel superhero adaptation this weekend, Thor, which is on tap to rake in $55-$70 million at 3,955 theaters (the average domestic bow for a Marvel title is $65 million) after collecting $125 million abroad.
Even though comic book films have been popular since Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman ($300 million global B.O.)–the blueprint for the current generation of comic-book filmmakers–studios strayed from a number of Marvel characters like The Hulk and Spider-Man, relegating them to TV during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not only was the platform inexpensive in terms of launching a risky property, but the serial nature of comic-books lent themselves easily to TV. DC titles like Superman and Batman were safe theatrical bets: Superman was a clean-cut Middle American crime fighter while Batman was kitschy enough for ‘80s pop. Following Spider-Man,Iron Man, long believed to be a risky property, became a $1.2 billion franchise and paved the way for more obscure Marvel characters onscreen.
Here’s a look at Marvel’s recipe for success with superhero films:
Keep Autonomy: Since Iron Man, Marvel has developed its superhero films in-house–Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) and Marvel’s Avengers (May 4, 2012), with studios like Paramount paying an 8% distribution fee. X-Men and Daredevil still reside at Fox, while Sony has dibs on Ghost Rider and Spider-Man. “When we received financing to become our own studio, it was with the idea of bringing more characters to life who hadn’t made it to the big screen,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige about the company’s freedom in nurturing its library. As a result, Marvel screenwriters aren’t plagued with a flurry of development notes from studio executives. “Like Disney is with Pixar, Paramount was hands off during the writing process. The attitude was ‘We’ll let you (Marvel) do your thing. Disney is still doing that,” says Thor co-scribe Don Payne.
Make Comics Move: As the former development assistant to X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner, Feige knows how to take a cult property and translate it to the masses. To date, only three Marvel licensed titles have fallen short: the Jennifer Garner Daredevil spinoff Elektra ($24.4 million domestic B.O.), The Punisher ($33.8 million) and its sequel War Zone ($8.1 million). Their blunders are less about being offbeat properties than movies that weren’t well-constructed on paper. Observes Thor co-scribe Ashley Edward Miller, “Sometimes when a comic book movie fails it is because the screenwriters strayed from adapting the comic-book and instead ‘trans-literated’ it. This doesn’t work because there’s a difference between reading a comic-book and watching it on screen.”
Looking back on Elektra, Feige adds: “Sometimes these films have gone too far outside their source material. Elektra is a dark character and the film didn’t display this.” Iconic characters sell tickets, i.e. Thor is known as a mighty God, Spider-Man is known as the human web-slinger, however risk sets in for those characters who aren’t archetypes. Adds Miller: “(Non-archetypes), like The Falcon, aren’t ripe for a $150 million movie treatment, rather a $30 million-budgeted film.”
Aim High to Savvy Moviegoers: The present age of superhero cinema has opened audiences’ minds to lesser-known personalities. “The more you make, the more the audience becomes aware of the various archetypes and tropes so you can easily spin them,” says Feige. If there’s a time to launch a movie about sword-wielding Wolverine and
sidekickmercenary anti-hero Deadpool, which Shuler Donner is prepping, it’s now.
Reach Beyond Core Fans: “You have to find the humanity in the characters and the elements that make it accessible to mainstream audiences so that the more fantastical sequences are grounded in reality,” says Payne. Sure, Thor might be about a family of universe-trotting gods, but the relatable crux for audiences is the melodramatic family triangle between two brothers who fight for approval from their father Odin. “The hard work has been done for us, there’s a comic book world that’s already been defined. As a writer, you have to put that out of your head and just tell a story,” says Miller “Thor is a universal (family) story and you have to find the beats to serve it.”
Keep Characters Relatable: “Marvel’s characters feel 10 degrees off from our reality, where as DC’s feel 30 degrees off,” says Thor co-scribe Zack Stentz. Marvel superheroes are everymen with personal problems (DC’s Batman aside). They occupy our world and understand it, whereas DC characters have the reputation of being ‘men in tights’ running around a fictitious city. “They’re more compelling characters,” says Shuler Donner who has X-Men: First Class set to go on June 3. “They’re more angst-ridden and drawn with a complexity. Wolverine, for example, is a tragic hero.”
Lucrative Licensing Reveals Audience Faves: The money generated in Marvel ancillaries are a barometer for revealing characters worthy of a sequel or a reboot. Though Marvel doesn’t make every production decision based on the sales of Thor pajamas, licensing revenue was a deciding factor when the studio rebooted The Hulk in 2008 after Ang Lee’s pretentious opus. “Before Iron Man, Hulk was second to Spider-Man in terms of audience familiarity,” says Feige.
Don’t Worry About the Fanboys: Long believed to be the puppeteers of mass-criticism, fanboys are easy to please. Nor are they the lynch-pins for tentpoles. It helps to dazzle them with a Comic-con panel, but as Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World proved, they’re a niche that’s worth about $11-$20 million during a film’s opening weekend. Studio insiders cannot place a value on the forked-tongue comments of fanboys. Whenever a studio releases a superhero costume design or onset photo, such promo materials have already been tested for their wide appeal. Says one studio marketing executive who launches films at Comic-Con, “It’s funny, the ones who hate a particular comic book film’s (creative/marketing) elements the most, are the first ones in line to see it. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. They can’t wait to get in and criticize the film, then go see it again.”