Ten years ago, Tony Stark arrived home to find Nick Fury waiting to recruit him to a team of heroes that would mostly solve problems caused by said heroes. What followed were 18 films that were so absurdly, obscenely successful that we should pause for a moment to appreciate something:
We'll never see this again.
To get this -- an intricate series of massive projects that somehow wouldn't result in a single serious critical or commercial flop -- required a string of good decisions, calculated gambles, and amazing luck so mind-boggling that I can hardly believe it worked. Just consider the fact that ...
Robert Downey Jr. was reportedly paid $40 million for his role in Captain America: Civil War, and I imagine that he was offered tens of millions plus a small chunk of California to star in Avengers 4. Now rewind to 1998, when Marvel told Sony Pictures, "Hey, if you want the rights to aaallllllll of our characters, you can have them for $25 million." Nowadays, that would be like saying "You can have endless amounts of gold and adoration for this handful of possibly-not-magic beans."
Yeah, superheroes have always been big business, but before Spider-Man was the first film to make $100 million in a single weekend, most of that success was reserved for Batman. Marvel had declared bankruptcy in 1996, after their failed "Hope that every comic reader can afford at least 100 issues a week" initiative, so they needed any money they could get.
Sony, on the other hand, just kind of wanted Spider-Man. And while Sony probably wouldn't have skimped out on eventually making an Iron Man or Thor movie, they'd have just been supporting players. It didn't help that Avi Arad, who was the head of Marvel's film division at the time and had a close relationship with Sony, was suuuuper into Sam Raimi's Spidey trilogy and not much else. Arad had said, "But if we want to do that, the crossovers, it has to be a story that is centered on Spider-Man. We cannot be second banana to anything out there." Legend tells that if you whisper "Tobey Maguire" into a mirror three times, Avi Arad appears to sign you up for a multi-picture deal.
The point is, if Sony had bought the rights Marvel was offering for peanuts, Marvel would have never been able to self-finance their own movies, and we would've never seen the rise of Kevin Feige, who put the MCU together in a way that seemed taken directly from our middle-school dream journals. We might have gotten The Avengers at some point, but not in anything like their current form. And we definitely wouldn't have Infinity War. Instead we might have Spider-Man 10, which would just be a two-and-a-half-hour montage of Willem Dafoe talking to himself in a mirror.
It's astounding how all that worked out. This is the kind of thing that derails other franchises all the time. The Bond series couldn't even use the villainous group SPECTRE for decades due to legal battles, and only got the chance to after Skyfall. And when it got there, they soon found out that a gritty Daniel Craig series doesn't exactly mesh with a octopus-themed cartoon terrorist group and a Christoph Waltz performance that I can only describe as "violently indifferent."
Despite what all of my Drax fanfiction says, the lead of the first decade of the MCU has been Robert Downey Jr. People love him for his quick-witted, adventurous, ultimately fallible performance as Tony Stark, and man did Marvel not want to cast him when Iron Man director Jon Favreau brought him up.
Apparently, they said no over and over again, and it's not hard to see why they didn't want him as the face that would launch their film empire. Maybe the kids today don't remember, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, RDJ was mostly famous for not being sober. His prolonged drug-induced meltdown was a running joke, including multiple references on The Simpsons:
In 2000, he was on the cover of People with the headline "Can He Save Himself?", which is a nice way of saying "Robert Downey Jr.: Get It The Fuck Together, Dude."
Marvel had also been talking to someone else about the Tony Stark role for a little while, and it is exactly who you are guessing right now: Tom Cruise. But eventually Cruise didn't really feel like it anymore and Favreau won out, and now Robert Downey's Tony Stark is such a linchpin to the MCU that they clearly didn't think they could launch a new Spider-Man series without him. The trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming made it look like Iron Man 4. "We need Downey's face to sell Spider-Man" would've sounded like bad satire back in 2002.
What if they had gotten Cruise? Think about how the entire energy of 2008's Iron Man changes. Think about what happens when Cruise exerts the total creative control he demands. Hell, does the movie even become a hit? Would it have been a situation like The Mummy, where it's such a generic, forgettable action movie that it buries the extended universe forever?
And even if it works, do they get Cruise to hang around for ten years and nine movies, including the cameos? In Downey, they got a guy who had a Best Actor Oscar nomination on his record, could perfectly play a smug, glib asshole-turned-hero, and who would be willing to make it pretty much a full-time job for the foreseeable future. He was both perfect and available.
Even the biggest franchises in the world can't pull this off. Getting a James Bond actor to happily last more than six entries is a rare phenomenon, and the audience for that series drops in and out with each new portrayal. And a few years after Christian Bale's growling but effective run as Batman, Warner Bros. cast world's eh-est action star Ben Affleck in the role and everything went to shit. There are so many ways this could have gone wrong.
Let's say you're the head of Marvel. Less than two years after Iron Man, somebody says, "This thing seems to be going pretty well, and fans seem to be taking to the other heroes, too. So how about we make a Star Wars-sized series about some totally unrelated characters mainstream fans have never heard of, without any reference to Iron Man, starring a guy mostly known for falling over in a sitcom, with a supporting character being played by a man who goes by "The Animal" on WWE, all directed by a dude who's never made a blockbuster before?"
Wouldn't you assume you were suddenly in a The Producers situation, wherein somebody has figured out a scheme to get rich by intentionally tanking the operation? Instead, Feige was talking up the idea as early as the summer of 2010, before The Avengers even came out and made Marvel seem invincible.
This is a movie that would cost just as much as the other MCU films, but which featured characters who had never gotten any spotlight in any prior medium other than comics. There is no episode of the '90s Spider-Man animated series that features Star-Lord, and Groot never showed up to brawl with the '70s Lou Ferrigno Hulk. They were as B-List as they come, and the most famous movie star in the cast played a glob of CGI who could only speak three words. The only thing weirder than the fact that they tried it is the fact that it worked.
You could say that maybe they were really confident in writer/director James Gunn's vision for the thing, but what evidence did they have that he could execute it? Before Guardians, he was most famous for writing the 2002 Scooby-Doo movie. Sure, he'd done an "off-brand" superhero film before with the fantastic Super, but that movie is about Rainn Wilson being "touched" by God and then beating people to a bloody pulp with a wrench. He had never taken on anything approaching this scale.
In any sane universe, either this movie doesn't get made or becomes a weird curiosity that it generates literally years of "What were they thinking?" retrospectives on YouTube.
You know why most movie series that last for a while usually get referred to with "It was really good until ..."? Because longform storytelling is tough. Doing it on this scale, with this many different creators involved and competing business interests, is all but impossible. ("But how does this character's redemption arc help us meet our merchandise goals for Q4? Also, let's just kill the downer ending.")
It's easy to call Infinity War a can't-miss money-printing machine, but you can't name one other example of a franchise that has done it this way. We're talking about a commercial and critical success that is the culmination of a plot that was built across ten years and 19 films which fans somehow never got sick of. Let's just take a moment and observe what happens when other studios, with access to just as much money and talent, attempt the same.
After re-energizing the superhero genre with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, Sony decided that Sam Raimi somehow needed less control and added unnecessary villains to the third entry. That was the end of that. They got three whole movies out of it. Then they rebooted the series, and this time they weren't even able to wait until the second entry before they began cramming villains down its throat again. A decent start got them one sequel before it ran off into a ditch.
The X-Men series made it to three films before rebooting itself and spinning off Wolverine into a hit-and-miss series of his own. And after they killed one Batman series by replacing Tim Burton, Warner Bros. ensured that their reboot wouldn't last very long by hiring a director with only a fleeting interest in Batman -- again, three films, and the last one was divisive at best. We don't need to talk about the DCEU at this point, as it already mainly exists as a cautionary tale of what could have happened to Marvel if every single decision didn't magically work out for them.
Seriously, what other franchise has this kind of staying power without rebooting itself with a new cast or direction? The closest we've got is, incredibly, The Fast And The Furious, which started in 2000 and is still going forward with a spinoff movie about the Rock and Jason Statham's characters. But let's be real, that series has made a pact with some sort of elder god, and we're gonna be enjoying Fast & Furious: Moon Wars in 2070 because of it. Even still, there are definitely going to be at least a few sequels in there (Fast & 13ious and Fast 21: Volcano Assault, probably) that are real stinkers.
Let's say that you had infinite money. Just money pouring out of your sink and into your home, crushing your family and your belongings. But rather than save your screeching brethren from the monetary avalanche, you decide to use some of it to create your own shared universe, because you've seen the MCU and you think you have its tactics locked down. Hell, let's say you hire away all of their people, so you have the exact same talent in your favor.
Of course, this shared universe will include hit standalone movies which builds those characters up for the big team-up every few years. We all know how this works. Man, this is gonna go great. "What's that, Mom? I can't hear you over the sound of all the money I'll be making, on top of all the money that is currently asphyxiating you," you say Elon-Muskly.
But hold it right there, Arthur P. Dollardollarbillsyall. What the hell is your source material going to be?
Maybe your infinite money can pry the Star Wars franchise from Disney? Who cares? They produce great animated shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels, but they can't seem to escape the black hole of "Famous character, but younger" when it comes to spinoff movies. The reviews for Solo are ... fine, but who from the Star Wars universe bench could give you the equivalent of Black Panther?
Amazon is making a Lord Of The Rings series which I guess will stand independently of the films, since we don't know if Peter Jackson will be involved, but after viewing The Hobbit trilogy took up about a month of my life, I'm pretty good with not seeing any Middle-earth stuff until the Age of Man ends. But for those who disagree ... what would that universe's Thor: Ragnarok look like? Would they ever have that kind of freedom to play with the tone?
The failed Mummy movie that was supposed to launch the "Dark Universe" was actually one of the more promising candidates. There, at least you had a rich history of media involving a bunch of characters people recognize. But even having stars onboard wasn't enough to get audiences to care.
Sure, there'll continue to be ongoing series' and shared universes. James Bond will never go away, and lord knows we'll be getting Young _____ Star Wars movies until the Sun swallows the Earth. But a series of standalone blockbusters that all play off of the same central storyline and culminate in a number of ensemble blockbusters that somehow never get stale?
Nah. Not in our lifetimes. So enjoy it while it lasts, and then go complain about it on Reddit, I guess.
Daniel Dockery has a Twitter that is mostly about Spider-Man and Pokemon. So that's something.
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