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Let’s ‘Marvel’ at the unprecedented road to Infinity War

Here we are on the eve of Avengers: Infinity War. Before we head into the theater, though, let’s take a moment to look at just what Marvel’s built.

The first three phases of Marvel Studios’ ongoing project to turn decades of comics into successful live-action films is like nothing else in the history of popular media. Even if you’re a little burned out on Marvel flicks, what they’ve done here is worth considering.

If we look back to the release of, say, DC and Warner Bros’ Batman Begins in 2005, the comic-book movie scene was totally different. Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman were really the only viable properties. The X-Men had a couple good films, but they were more bad than good by that point. We would hear about attempts to bring others to the screen, but they would flounder and disappear. We’d dump a popular character the Hulk into the lap of a director like Ang Lee and get a weird, ponderous result. It was unpredictable at best, laughable at worst.

And at this time, Marvel’s ownership of its own properties was a mess. Movie rights for Marvel characters rested with many different distributors. Then, Marvel recovered the rights to a bunch of its properties and started something even it couldn’t have imagined.

When Iron Man hit in 2008, none of us knew what to expect. Comic book fans were excited about the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, as another case of what felt like picture-perfect casting. But Iron Man? He might be an A-lister as far as the Avengers are concerned, but in popular culture he was a footnote. A David to Spider-Man’s Goliath.

Even its director, Jon Favreau, said the movie could be “anything from a flop to a moderate single.” The optimistic outlook was a single successful movie.

The Original Stinger

While 2008’s The Incredible Hulk isn’t generally thought of as the true start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, together, Iron Man and the Hulk helped lay the groundwork. It wasn’t the first stinger in movie history, but it set the stage for what would become a major staple of Marvel movies and, arguably, one of the biggest reasons for the movies’ success.

Before this, movies were connected not by conceptual shared universes, but by their titles, actors, and main characters. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both Christopher Nolan flicks starring Christian Bale as the titular Knight. Despite also being a DC movie and despite Supes being a frequent friend of Batman, there was no notion that 2006’s Superman Returns could be connected to Bale’s portrayal of the billionaire vigilante. It wasn’t even considered.

Now, here was Marvel, dropping this idea that Iron Man and Hulk live in the same world. That we could see them on-screen together, fighting or working as a team. It was a cute, fun thing when it popped up in the final moments of The Incredible Hulk, but the company made good on the promise by including Downey’s cameo. His presence confirmed that this greater Marvel world exists outside of some easter egg. It proved the presence of Nick Fury – again, flawless page-to-screen casting – appeared at the end of the previous film, it meant something. The Avengers Initiative became this real thing we could hang onto as comic fans and moviegoers.

With Marvel, it’s not about the actors, the titles, but about these connections. These links between characters that help us feel at home in this world and that ground it a reality something like our own.

These days, as people mill out of theaters at the end of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, we sit there, giving them the stink eye. Do they realize this is a Marvel film? The movie isn’t over! We know the next dot is going to pop up and we’re waiting to draw the line to it.

The Foundation of an Empire

Marvel, with some help from Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Samuel L. Jackson, had laid the first bricks of a hulking, monolithic structure. They became keystones that would hold up other projects. Since then, we’ve had one picture after another that shouldn’t work. Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie based on an unheard of spin-off comic, shouldn’t have worked. Ant-Man really shouldn’t have worked. The idea of Black Panther being a top 100 movie, let alone a top 5 movie, was a fantasy.

Marvel, with some help from Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Samuel L. Jackson, had laid the first bricks of a hulking, monolithic structure. They became keystones that would hold up other projects. Since then, we’ve had one picture after another that shouldn’t work. Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie based on an unheard of spin-off comic, shouldn’t have worked. Ant-Man really shouldn’t have worked. The idea of Black Panther being a top 100 movie, let alone a top 5 movie, was a fantasy.

There have been rough moments, sure. Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, Jeremy Renner. You can’t win’em all.

But because of Iron Man and the greater Avengers team, all of these movies have worked. They’re watchable in their own right, but they part of a greater thing. We go to these movies because we know our friends are going to be there. We’ve watched Tony, Thor, Peter, and Steve go through betrayals, family feuds, and all-out war. Even when the movies themselves don’t necessarily hold up, these relationships do. Whether you loved them in the comics or not, we’ve established a separate relationship with the live-action incarnations that we never would’ve thought possible even back in 2007.

Tony Stark brought these incredible heroes together in the movies, and he opened the door to bring them into our homes, one at a time.

Let’s do what Marvel did

For better or for worse, Hollywood wants what Marvel has. Over and over, companies keep trying to start their own Universes and Multiverses. DC has struggled for the last five years to make its legendary characters work at the same level as Marvel’s B-listers. You could argue about who would win in a fight, who’s richer, and who’s cooler between Bruce Wayne and T’Challa, but right now the question of who’s more bankable isn’t even a contest. Cats beat bats.

Universal wanted to create a “Dark Universe” of its classic monsters. Hasbro wants its own toy-centric universe. Sony wants to turn Spider-Man from a one-man show into a Spiderverse. They want that so bad, they even teamed up with Marvel for an inter-company cooperation spanning three Marvel and two Spider-Man movies.

Everyone wants a piece of that Universe pie because they know just how profitable it is. The MCU has grossed nearly $6 billion domestically alone, not including Infinity War.

In 2005, Marvel was a mess. And now, everyone wants what it has.

Bring it all together

And now, Marvel gets to bring it all together. We’ve been growing with these characters and their actors for a decade, and the reality is that people age and contracts end. In the fiction, then, we have to say goodbye. Usually, though, we don’t get to. We don’t get nicely tied-up storylines, going-away parties, funerals, or any of that.

With Infinity War and its sequel, we’re getting closure. Even the aforementioned Dark Knight trilogy couldn’t truly give us that. By the time the third film rolled around, the major parties had lost interest, and we got a movie that felt phoned in and an inauthentic ending. With the MCU, the actors are still “all in” and understand the weight of the roles they’re playing for so many of us.

And even as we close those doors and say those goodbyes, Marvel is opening another door into the next phase. The old men and women of the MCU are making room for fresher faces like next year’s Captain Marvel film, the Spider-ManAnt-Man, and Dr. Strange sequels, and whatever might come of the impending Disney-Fox media merger, like maybe a watchable Fantastic Four film. And of course, another Black Panther film.

No one has done this before. No one had even tried, really. Whether you’re done with Marvel or fully invested, whether Infinity War is everything you hoped for or a huge disappointment, we’re on the eve of something that promises to be huge and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Infinity War is part of something much, much bigger than itself. The culmination of a decade of relationships and emotional investments. It’s a huge moment for Marvel Studios, for fans, and maybe even for movie history.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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