How Marvel Mitigated Risk and Changed the Future of Franchise Filmmaking
Back in June 2007, Ain’t it Cool News published a rumour. Talk had already begun to circulate about the plans at Marvel Studios, where the rights to several superhero properties had been re-gained, and self-financed production was going ahead. Iron Man was set for release in May of the following year with The Incredible Hulk following a few months later, and now there were strong indications that Marvel was eyeing a much bigger prize. Nick Fury appearing in Iron Man could only mean one thing: The Avengers was on the way. That film quickly ushered in a new era of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking and corporate risk-mitigation.
A piece at Screen Rant from 2011, the year before The Avengers came out, raised common concerns over both the possibility for success of such a bold experiment in franchise cinema, as well as the problem of having the market flooded with new Marvel movies every few months. The concerns, of course, turned out to be unwarranted. It’s only been two years since The Avengers came out and destroyed box office records, and the seismic shifts in Hollywood’s blockbuster approach are well under way.
The most obvious example of this is Warner Bros. reaction to that success in relation to their DC Comics properties. With Christopher Nolan’s singular vision of the Batman universe complete, the studio is now in a position to follow Marvel’s lead, creating an interconnecting universe of comic book characters on screen. This week, Warner Bros. claimed tentative release dates for nine so-called “Untitled DC Films” to be released after Batman v Superman, stretching all the way to 2020. They didn’t stop there, though. Dates were also claimed for two “Untitled WB Event Films” and two “Untitled WB Animated Films,” largely speculated to be further LEGO movies, which are on top of The Lego Movie 2 and the Ninjago movies already announced.
In the meantime, Sony has been hard at work trying to turn its so-far underwhelming The Amazing Spider-Man franchise into a similarly expansive universe of films, with Sinister Six on the way, and reports of a female-led film to follow. And back at Disney, the LucasFilm team is hard at work on a plan to make a new Star Wars or spin-off film every year.
Not to be outdone, Marvel’s Kevin Feige has said that his studio has movies tentatively planned all the way to 2028. They’ve already claimed release dates from now until 2019, with several “Untitled Marvel Studios Films” to look forward to. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around all these release date claims and massive plans for interconnected cinematic worlds. What had looked like a gamble on Marvel’s part is now Hollywood’s accepted business model, and it’s overwhelming.
Franchises have been a part of the business for a long time now, with successful films receiving the sequel treatment to milk more money from audiences. With very few exceptions, the franchise model has tended towards short-term success, with audiences eventually growing tired of the property. Movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 prove the point. Both films have been very successful in basic terms, but considering the previous Trasnformers and Spider-Man films, they are performing less robustly than desired. For Spider-Man, at least, Sony has looked to Marvel for a new kind of risk mitigation and long-term success.
Hollywood has always been interested in mitigating risk. It’s their prerogative, of course, given they’re a business and not a patronage. Sequels have largely served the function of lowering risk quite well, but even sequels have their limits. Making a new sequel in a tentpole franchise every year is not easy, and doing so would tire the audience out way too fast to make the investment worthwhile. What Marvel has figured out is that by alternating stand-alone features between team-ups, the audience won’t grow so tired of each individual “franchise.” Not only that, but by making the universe interconnected, the audience is given incentive, or even obligation, to keep up with every film. It’s not the movies, but the encompassing brand that matters, and even lesser sequels like Thor: The Dark World get a boost from the new model.
A $94 million opening for Guardians of the Galaxy, a film based on characters few ordinary moviegoers had heard of, signals the long-term viability of the approach. The movie on its own might’ve done well given the positive reviews and audience response, but making it part of the on-going Marvel Cinematic Universe adds a willful obligation to the mix. Audiences needed to see Guardians of the Galaxy, just like they needed to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World. Both of those movies opened between $20 and $30 million bigger than first films in their series, clearly a result of audiences buying into what The Avengers was selling.
Quality is the biggest potential variable for the studios. Marvel has managed to produce one film after another, all at least pretty decent. Warner Bros. is attempting to build a DC universe off of Man of Steel, a film that wasn’t very well received, and they’re even keeping the same creative team, with Zack Snyder directing Batman v Superman. There’s logic in doing that, though. The studio must figure the sight of a single movie featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman will be too much for audiences to pass up, and from there it’s just a matter of creating a consistency between films, tweaking the quality and formula to perfection along the way. Even Marvel had stumbles at the outset, with The Incredible Hulk leaving zero impression, and then Iron Man 2 haphazardly setting up The Avengers. They pulled it together, though, and Warner Bros. can do the same.
Eventually, one of these studios will fail in the approach. They’ll manage it badly, or the films won’t connect at all with audiences, or maybe audiences will reach their last straw. When that happens, there will be serious questions as to the viability of the Marvel model in an over-saturated marketplace, but it’s doubtful anyone will question the model itself. As Hollywood becomes more and more obsessed with branded enterprise over creative gambles, Marvel has proven those corporate inclinations result in massive returns. Now the studios know they’ve got a captive audience, and they’re already planning out our cinematic lives for the next decade. Resistance is futile. I guess I’ll be seeing you on July 19th, 2020, at the opening night screening of “Untitled DC Film.” I’ll save you a seat.
Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.