To date, movies based on Marvel Comics characters and titles — some 33 films in all — have grossed nearly $6.18 billion at the U.S. box office, and more than double that worldwide. Marvel Studios, the in-house company set up by the comic book publisher (now a part of Disney) has taken in $2.6 billion alone, courtesy of the nine pictures (The Avengers, as well as the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films) released under their banner. Meanwhile, studios like Sony and Fox also milk the brand with their respective properties, e.g. Spider-Man and the X-Men — both of which, coincidentally (or not), are gracing theaters with new entries this month.
But Marvel hasn't always been a commercial juggernaut, and for every good choice made regarding a movie based on a Marvel Comic, you can bet that a wrong-headed one was executed as well. Aside from one lone Captain America serial in 1944, the history of Marvel Comics on the big screen encompasses only the last 28 years — and those nearly three decades have had their share of highs, lows, hits and misses. So on the eve of X-Men: Days of Future Past taking over multiplexes around the world, we invite you to follow along as we look back through 40 decisions that shaped the Marvel movies — the very worst, the very best, and all those that could have gone either way. After all, as any Marvel fan will tell you, superheroes aren't perfect.
5. Taking Advantage of Post-Credits Scenes
Little bonus scenes at the end of films had certainly been around before this, but Marvel Studios elevated them into an art form all their own. Starting with the end of Iron Man, where Nick Fury shows up to introduce Tony Stark to the "Avengers Initiative," fans have eagerly stuck around until the lights come up for those little teasers that point the way to the next big chapter in the Marvel saga. And they're rarely disappointed.
4. Putting Kevin Feige in Charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
There's an old saying about success having many fathers, and while many people did indeed create the circumstances for Marvel Studios to launch in 2008, studio president Kevin Feige has been the face and ringmaster of the groundbreaking move. He is, above all, a fan, and his knowledge of the vast Marvel canon gives him the ability to orchestrate the movies with dexterity and passion. Feige know the stories and his audience, and has found a way to be faithful to and respectful of both while continuing to make good movies. It's quite the hat trick.
3. Launching Marvel Studios
Sure, Fox had made some good X-Men movies and Sony had done the same with Spider-Man. But the brain trust at Marvel Comics finally decided to take control of the destiny of their multitudes of other characters in 2006, securing a $500 million nest egg to begin making their own films on their own terms. The results — a string of nine (and counting) interconnected movies spanning an entire fictional universe, not to mention a purchase by Disney — speak for themselves. Now every other studio wants its own version of the Marvelverse…a feat that will be hard to replicate.
2. Hiring Joss Whedon to Write and Direct 'The Avengers'
Like Jon Favreau (see No. 8), Whedon was untested as a tentpole director when he was handed the biggest gamble in Marvel Studios' short history. But the creator of one of TV's most acclaimed shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was also an excellent writer and a walking encyclopedia of comic-book lore. His strengths as a writer of ensemble stories, combined with his deep knowledge and ability to find a core of humanity in even the most fantastic stories, were huge components of what made The Avengers work. Plus you can feel his giddy delight — "Holy shit, I can't believe I'm filming this!" — in almost every frame of the movie. As far as we're concerned, The Avengers: Age of Ultron can't come soon enough.
1. Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
Downey Jr. was struggling to return from a long spiral of drugs, arrests and shaky career choices when he landed the role of the billionaire weapons manufacturer who turns into an armored defender of the world. Since then, he and Tony Stark have been almost interchangeable: It's hard to think of another role in recent movie history that's become so closely associated with one actor (good luck trying to recast the character after The Avengers 3). Downey's charisma, cockiness and brilliant timing helped turn Iron Man an instant classic, kickstarting the Marvel Cinematic Universe and making him the superstar he was always supposed to be. The Age of Marvel really, truly starts here —and with him.
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