The breadth, size, and outcomes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are ever-expanding.
Its superhero epic has spanned 23 movies (and counting). Its fanciful films have made a total of $22.59 billion (and counting) globally. Its work has been recognized with three Oscar nominations and one best picture nomination (all for Black Panther).
Robert Downey Jr., Samuel Jackson, Brie Larson, and Lupita Nyong’o are among the Oscar nominees and winners who have flocked to its global brand. Elon Musk has even been enlisted for a cameo in Iron Man 2. But arguably the most amazing aspect of the MCU is that it actually happened. Kevin Feige, the franchise’s chief architect, famously claimed, “We never set out to construct a universe.”
The MCU is the sum of all events, from minor occurrences to major debates. Plans are great, but history isn’t written in the same way as the Avengers Initiative. It has a lot more twists and turns, and it’s a lot more interesting.
Facts about the history of Marvel Universe movies
Here we present to you the top four stories of those moments. The ones that had to happen — or not happen — in order to give birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today.
- The Super Group
In 1960, DC published Justice League of America, a collection of its most popular characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. The title was well-received. It found out that audiences not only liked superheroes, but they also liked witnessing a large group of superheroes performing superhero things.
Martin Goodman, over at the unstable Timely-Atlas, shortly to be known as Marvel, took notice. Goodman nudges his “his wife’s cousin,” alone editorial assistant, to take note, according to one version of comics mythology (a book called More Heroes of the Comics). The employee tasked with reproducing the success of the Justice League would be known to readers as Stan Lee.
- ‘Crying while sitting on a chair.’
Jack Kirby was neither happy nor content from his early days at Marvel until his death in 1994, at least not in terms of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Stan Lee.
In the 1930s, Kirby first met Lee at Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics, where Kirby was already a well-known artist and Lee was a teenage newbie. Kirby told The Comics Journal, “I thought Stan Lee was a bother… a pest.”
Kirby, on the other hand, “never cooperated on anything” with Lee, according to Lee.
Lee’s origin myths, according to Kirby, were false. Kirby told Comics Journal that the ascent of Marvel Comics began when he, the actual King of Comics, dropped by the office one day to discover the company “falling apart” and Lee “sitting on a chair crying.” Kirby says he told Lee right then and there that he’d make money-making titles for them.
“I knew I could do it,” Kirby remarked, “but I had to come up with unique characters that no one had seen before.” “The Fantastic Four was my idea. Thor was the name that came to mind. I came up with whatever it takes to sell a book.”
Kirby’s not sharing credit with Lee (and occasionally others) on the different forms of the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, the Avengers, Black Panther, and many more, he would remark, was the result of his “cowardice.” Kirby claimed that instead of confronting Lee, he kept his head down and continued to produce.
The Lower East Side warrior, though, did not remain silent for long. Kirby fought Marvel for years over the rights to his artwork. In 2009, just as the MCU was gaining traction, Kirby’s heirs filed a lawsuit seeking control of practically every major Marvel character, including Spider-Man (which Kirby believed he also created).
The protracted struggle between the Kirby estate and Marvel Entertainment came to an end in 2014, but Lee’s co-creator credits persisted. The wounds did, too, in ways that could have an impact on the MCU.
- It’s all about the X factor.
X-Men, a Fox film released in 2000, was based on a Marvel comic book from 1964. The project was a calculated risk as a film property: On the one hand, thanks to a popular 1990s animated series and writer Chris Claremont’s top-selling comic, the Uncanny X-Men, the X-Men were hot property.
The picture, on the other hand, was not about Superman or Batman, the only comic-book characters that had established blockbuster franchises at the time.
There were also other dangers. Marvel had just recently emerged from bankruptcy. And, as Vanity Fair noted in a 2017 retrospective, the $75 million Bryan Singer-directed film was banking on an unknown Australian in the lead role: Hugh Jackman, who’d been cast as Wolverine on stage.
“We thought, ‘That’s it, we’ll never work together again,'” said producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who met (and eventually married) Richard Donner while working on the 1985 fantasy picture Ladyhawke.
The X-Men, on the other hand, turned out to have the X factor. The film opened to positive reviews and had the second-largest opening weekend in history.
The outcomes were significant wins for Marvel, for comic-book characters other than Superman and Batman, for Lauren Shuler Donner — and for Lauren Shuler Donner’s protégé, a former USC film school reject who got in on his sixth try. Kevin Feige was his name.
- It’s a sticky scenario.
Marvel Studios established its characters in movie agreements all throughout Hollywood in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Spider-Man, Thor, and Ghost Rider were all acquired by Sony. Along with the X-Men, Fox obtained the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Daredevil, and Elektra. The Hulk was acquired by Universal.
The Blade and Iron Man franchises belonged to New Line. The studios made their films as they saw fit, sometimes following Marvel’s lead and other times not.
The end effect was… less than inspiring. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films were critically acclaimed. Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck, was a minor box-office success described by the New York Times as “tacky and disposable,” while its 2005 sequel, Elektra, was a box-office flop described by the Hollywood Reporter as “lowering the bar for Marvel Comics page-to-screen transfers.”
Then, in 2005, Marvel received an estimated $525 million loan to make ten films in any way it wanted, just like in Stan Lee’s original Fantastic Four origin storey.
Only one problem: Marvel Studios couldn’t make whatever it wanted because its “A-list” characters (Spider-Man, Hulk, and Fantastic Four) were still bound to outside deals.