We are still two years away from the payoff to the movie series that began in 2008. By the time Infinity Wars (part one) releases in May of 2018 it will have been ten years in the making, as it was in 2008 that Marvel studios first film project, Iron Man, was released by Paramount Pictures.  A lot will have changed in those ten years, a lot has changed over the past eight, and a lot changed in the years leading up to the release of Iron Man. As we prepare for this year’s big Marvel release—what promises to be the earth-shattering Civil War—let’s take a look back at how the Marvel Cinematic Universe all started.

It all started with a company on the brink of financial ruin. After decades in the comics business, the industry had slumped and Marvel was in dire straits. In an effort to stay alive they sold the motion picture rights to their characters to various companies, with the option to have those rights restored should nothing be done with them within a certain window of time. All-star properties like Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and others were all optioned away.

Despite selling their characters to movie studios, struggles continued and in 1996 Marvel filed for bankruptcy. A few months later the company was restructured under the oversight of Toy Biz head honcho Avi Arad. Under Arad and the new “Marvel Studios,” the company’s properties were finally able to have screenplays developed that could be sold to studios. Men in Black was released in 1997, Blade was released in 1998, X-Men came out in 2000 and Spider-Man was released in 2002. Under Arad “Marvel Studios” was a pre-production company, one that worked on developing scripts, hiring directors, and casting actors in lead roles. Essentially they would provide a film “package” to a major studio that would then buy the option for filming and distribution. The two major buyers were Sony (Men in Black, Spider-Man) and 20th Century Fox (X-Men, Fantastic Four). Even Warner Bros. (who owned DC Comics and who had developed plenty of movies based on those characters) purchased the rights to Blade, and released those movies under its New Line label.

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X-Men and Spider-Man in particular became huge franchises. Spider-Man made the most money, while X-Men has shown the strongest staying power (Spider-Man has been rebooted twice over, while X-Men continues rolling with basically the same continuity it had fifteen years ago). But while those two properties were doing well, Marvel had bigger aspirations for the rest of its comics family. They wanted to move away from being a pre-production package company and turn into a full blown production studio that developed its own movies from conception to production. The only thing they would need is a distributor, and they would find one in the form of Paramount Pictures.

When Arad decided to leave Marvel Studios to form his own production company (in part because he did not believe Marvel Studios could survive as a self-contained production company), his second in command, Kevin Feige, took over. Around that time Marvel regained the rights to Iron Man from Warner Bros. They regained the rights to Incredible Hulk (partially…it’s complicated) from Universal. They got Thor back from Sony and they got Black Widow back from Lionsgate. Feige and Marvel were unable to re-secure their biggest comics properties (Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four) because Sony and Fox were still using them, and in the case of Spider-Man and X-Men were still making a lot of money with them. But Feige looked at the roster he had to work with and saw the opportunity to form a combined universe on film, the way Marvel’s comics division operates within a shared universe on paper. The plan was ambitious but the goal was to release a big blockbuster team-up film based on The Avengers.

Without Spider-Man or Wolverine however, Marvel studios needed a superstar (character and actor) to carry the load for the new Cinematic Universe. They found it in an unlikely place: Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.

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You have to remember that, at the time, neither Downey Jr. the actor nor Iron Man the superhero were too highly regarded. RDJ had been a Hollywood flameout, mixed up with drugs and having dealt with multiple arrests, he couldn’t even secure insurance to work on a big budget movie. He was able to work on Iron Man because his good friend Mel Gibson paid for the insurance himself. Iron Man is, today, the crown jewel of the MCU and has been the star of multiple comic book titles in the past decade. In 2008, however, he was a definite B-teamer in the Marvel family. There’s a reason by Warner Bros/New Line handed the property back to Marvel; they couldn’t envision a scenario where an Iron Man movie could possibly work.

Jon Favreau, meanwhile, had a small part as Foggy Nelson in Fox’s DareDevil adaptation, starring Ben Affleck. He enjoyed the role and, being an aspiring director, began looking for a comics property that he could bring to the big screen. He found it in Iron Man and Marvel found in him the man to help shape the beginnings of their MCU. At the same time Marvel began developing a reboot of The Incredible Hulk, written by Zak Penn. Both films were released in 2008, but while Iron Man broke the box office, becoming the second biggest movie of the year (behind Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight), Incredible Hulk fared less impressively (though it still almost doubled its production cost and was a much bigger hit than the 2004 “Hulk” movie that Fox had released). Confident though, that their MCU plan was strong enough to keep going, Marvel greenlit films based on Captain America, Thor and Ant-Man.

When Edgar Wright delayed (and delayed) in getting Ant-Man off the ground, Marvel turned back to Favreau and asked him to rush an Iron Man sequel into development. During the filming, plans for the upcoming Avengers movie were accelerated and Feige and Marvel intervened on the Iron Man 2 production, ordering scenes and characters to be added to help tie the movie in to the greater universe they were building. The stress of the production wore down Favreau, who backed out of his agreed-upon role as director of Avengers.

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With Favreau out Marvel turned to the man would become a central creative force across their second phase of films: Joss Whedon. The screenwriter of Toy Story, Whedon was famous for developing the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows as well as the ill-fated Firefly series. He had also dabbled in comic writing, being a lifelong fan of the medium, heading up, among other things, a run of Astonishing X-Men titles from 2004-2008. The Avengers would be the first major film that he directed (sorry Serenity fans) and he only agreed on the condition that he write the script himself (the original Favreau screenplay was written by Zak Penn). After the huge success of Avengers, Marvel quickly secured Whedon as the director of the follow up movie and he agreed, once again on the condition that he work with the writers of the other movies in between (MCU’s phase two), to make sure they harmonize with his plans for Avengers 2. Other than Feige, there hasn’t been one voice more predominant in the adolescent era of the MCU than Joss Whedon. His Avengers follow up was a bit more controversial than his original film (and much more dense in scope), but it was another blockbuster and one that will grow more appreciated as it continues to be enjoyed on home video.

With Age of Ultron finished, and two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe complete, Marvel Studio turns to its third phase next month. Phase two was a big turning point for the universe, as the company added what they call their “cosmic” component to the mix, with the hugely successful Guardians of the Galaxy. Phase three promises to introduce the “magical” component later this year, when Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange hits theaters. All of the pieces are falling into place to ensure that the third (and fourth) Avengers movies will be the biggest yet, as the villain who has been stalking the earth for almost a decade now—The Mad Titan Thanos—will finally emerge from the shadows to take on our heroes.

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It’s amazing to think how successful Marvel has been however. When the studio began developing its own movies, the biggest name they had on their roster was the Hulk, and he had just starred in a flop of a movie. Iron Man was nothing, Captain America was a joke. Thor was unheard of. Even most hardcore Marvel fans had never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy or cared about Ant-Man. But thanks to some great scripts, some inspired casting, a willingness to play around in different genres and of course a singular vision from Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios has crafted a universe of movies that is the biggest money making “franchise” in cinema history. And they did it all without their three biggest properties, Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four.

Until now. Now one of those three is coming home…sort of. Marvel and Disney (who purchased the studio in 2009) have brokered a deal with Sony to “use” the Spider-Man character in their movies and to fold the screenwriting development of the solo Spider-Man films into the MCU’s writers room, letting Feige plan and develop the cinematic direction of the wallcrawler. Sony has, to date, released five Spider-Man movies, but their track record with the character is hit and miss. The first film was a big blockbuster success and a fairly good movie. The sequel was a huge hit, both critically and commercially. Spider-Man 3 was a big disappointment, though it still made a lot of money based on the strength of the brand. Still, after Spider-Man 3 most of the production talent behind the franchise moved on and the series was rebooted to the Amazing Spider-Man series. The first one was a disappointment despite some high points that showed promise. The sequel was another disappointment, however, and faced with diminishing returns Sony was receptive to Marvel’s offer. Now Spider-Man is set to make his big re-reboot return in Civil War and fans are extremely excited for the first time in a decade to see his next solo movie (due out next year), which will be his first within the MCU family.

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Marvel still doesn’t have the rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four, and they may trade away any hope of securing the rights to the former in order to regain the rights to the latter. Fox clearly doesn’t know what it’s doing with Fantastic Four but they’ve developed a good rhythm of movies under their X-Men brand. Though Fox has remained adamant that they are continuing their FF line of movies, right now there doesn’t seem to be any money in them, at least not as long as they are making them. It’s not even clear that Fox really wants Fantastic Four anymore; more than anything they seem to just want to keep it out of Marvel’s hands out of spite. What Fox does want is an X-Men TV show, which Marvel holds the rights to. An exchange could be made that would bring Fantastic Four back to Marvel’s family in order for Fox TV to air a X-Men spinoff.

Bringing Fantastic Four to Marvel Studios would expand the “cosmic” side of the MCU considerably. Marvel has shown, with Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, a willingness to play up the silly and campy sides of some of their properties. That’s what Fox greatly misunderstands about Fantastic Four. It isn’t supposed to be gritty and grim, it’s supposed to be crazy, hokey, wearing its emotions on its sleeve and balls-to-the-wall ridiculous. Marvel can do that, Fox doesn’t seem willing. Here’s hoping phase four brings a return to glory for the First Family the way phase three has brought back Spider-Man.

We’ve written before how Marvel looks set for a big shakeup in the coming years, after Infinity Wars is finished, but the studio has movies in the pipeline for the foreseeable future, and unlike DC’s rocky start to their cinematic universe, Marvel has the track record of taking unknown stars and unknown characters and making hits out of them. The origins of the MCU show the birth of a production studio that was confident in its brand from the very beginning. It has blossomed, in less than a decade, into one of the biggest money makers in Hollywood. Rejoice Marvel and comic book fans: The future is certainly bright.

Excelsior!

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