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Way Before the First Phase

Looking back on the past 10 years of film releases’ box office success and reviews, you can’t help but be slapped in the face by some form of Marvel IP. From the ‘Iron Man’ series that launched this incredible first-of-its-kind endeavor to the most recently released television series ‘Moon Knight’, Marvel has become synonymous with the word success when it comes to the film and television world. Watching something as complex with as many moving pieces as 2019’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’ it is truly impressive to look back on how this Studio went from a tiny office on Santa Monica Boulevard to making movies that gross billions of dollars for parent company Disney. 

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Marvel Studios, initially known for a few years prior as Marvel Films, was founded in 1996 and was formed with the mindset of lending the various characters of the Marvel comics to studios and production companies in Hollywood to use in films. Initially only interested in this “rent for film” model, the company looked much different than it does today with its hundreds of characters sharing linked storylines across both films and television series. Marvel Studios worked with various studios, including Fox, on licensing different successful comic book characters for these studios. In the early part of the 21st century, Marvel had seen some success with this model with the releases of ‘Blade’, ‘X-Men’, and the original ‘Spider-Man’ film starring Tobey Maguire. 

While these films did well, it was not until David Maisel joined the Marvel Studios team and suggested the company focus on creating their own films as opposed to merely licensing the characters that Marvel Studios resembled part of what we know it as today. His influence was massive in encouraging the leadership at the time to regain the rights of some of their characters who had already been licensed to other studios, and instead, incorporate them into their own self-financed and produced projects. With the production and subsequent release of 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ starring Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire scientist turned crime fighter Tony Stark, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was effectively launched. Both financial and critical success of ‘Iron Man’ proved Maisel was right, and led to the Studio leaning fully into this new strategy of using their own intellectual property, and effectively only needing studios to help distribute the films. 

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Marvel – Phases of the M.C.U. 

After effectively stumbling into and realizing the massive potential success of the shift in mindset, Marvel quickly changed course. They leased studio space in Manhattan Beach, California where they would film and finish ‘Iron Man 2’ and the first ‘Thor’ movie. Proving their content could effectively breakthrough to mainstream adoration and profit, they attracted the gaze of the largest content engine known to man, Disney. 

Piggybacking off the success of the movies to date, and seeing an opportunity to make their mark on the Marvel content, Disney purchased Marvel Studios on New Years’ Eve 2009 for $4 Billion, marking one of the largest acquisitions in Hollywood history. The deal was significant for a multitude of reasons, but chief among them was that Marvel now had a partner that could both finance and distribute its visionary content. Disney in collaboration with Marvel’s Kevin Feige at the helm, sought out to execute Marvel’s vision for their “Cinematic Universe” or MCU as it is commonly known. With the launch of  ‘The Avengers’ in 2012, which featured the mainstream characters of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and The Hulk, Marvel Studios executed what it called its “First Phase.”

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The first phase of the MCU was critical to confirming whether or not the audience’s appreciation and buy-in would be there for these films. With Marvel and Disney having lined up a number of films years in advance as a part of the continuation of the MCU, the success or failure of the first phase was paramount. Marvel truly did a masterful job of orchestrating the first phase, by building it around the more well-known and mainstream characters (that they had the rights to) from the comics and incorporated movie stars to play the roles. After realizing the viability of their I.P., the partnership with Disney was off to a strong start. With more movies tying into different plot points and storylines, Marvel navigated its way all the way through the third phase of the MCU which ended with the culmination of ‘Avengers: Endgame.” 

The MCU’s first 3 phases were an absolutely awesome ride to enjoy if you were either a casual movie fan or a diehard fan of the comics. Whether you were tuning in for the Easter eggs and breadcrumbs shouting out to the comic experts, or someone just looking to watch something entertaining, these movies have it all. This concept of leaving hidden hints for the audience about what is coming next for the MCU or allusions to other characters and storylines, was something Marvel leaned into and does incredibly well. They have created an almost cult-like intensity surrounding the MCU, and leave their fans’ jaws open wanting more and desiring to solve the puzzles and clues they have dropped. So much so, that in all honesty, it feels like they are focusing too much on the wow factor of “what comes next” and “I heard so and so character is going to be in the next Marvel movie or show” as opposed to the well written and impressive content that laid the groundwork for where they are. 

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How Could the Next Phases of the MCU Top the First 3?

As Marvel continues to churn out content now not only in films but in their television series streaming on Disney+, their unprecedented hold over the industry remains. Now in Phase 4, with more on the way, Marvel is focusing its gaze on creating content surrounding lesser-known characters from the comic books. After exhausting all of their mainstream characters throughout the Avengers run, and proving that people will tune in for offshoot characters like ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’ or even ‘Captain Marvel’ the studio is hedging its bets that burnout and audience fatigue will not affect them. 

It is certainly a bold proposition, but so is turning your entire comic book library into the most successful film franchise in the history of the world. Marvel’s original triumph was extremely unprecedented, so I can certainly follow their logic in thinking that there is no reason why audiences wouldn’t continue to tune in for all that they have coming next. 

As someone that is admittedly a fan of the MCU and the incredibly visionary work Marvel and Disney have done since joining forces, I worry that after exhausting these storylines and removing these mainstream characters from the equation that they may begin to lose eyeballs and interest in their newer content. My fear is distinctly tied to the fact that they have shown us an incredible height and achievement of what can be accomplished, and that it will be difficult to top. 

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Take for example the new Disney+ series ‘Moon Knight’. The show is built around and based on a character from the comics that has multiple personality disorders and has roots in ancient Egyptian religious lore. While I enjoyed the first episode and am optimistic the show is going to be amazing, I also felt a sense of boredom. Watching through the entire first episode, I felt like I’ve sat through dozens of these origin stories at this point. While Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke are both amazing actors, I felt like there I didn’t have that same sense of wonder and excitement when I saw an ‘Endgame.’ Not to take anything away from the filmmakers at all, as I did think it was good, I just felt so underwhelmed and disillusioned by the experience of going into another Marvel rabbit hole. 

This take is not just specific to ‘Moon Knight’, but it’s this same idea I felt watching ‘Hawkeye’  and others as well where enough honestly just starts to feel like enough. Certainly, not a contrarian take these days, but it just feels like Marvel is almost getting greedy with their releases. Most, unfortunately, I fear this sense of burnout is going to coincide and come at the expense of the more interesting and diverse storylines they will want to tell. 

Pushback About the Greed, Not the Creators

As they have been rolling out toward the end of Phase 3 with ‘Black Panther’, and recent releases ‘Shang Chi’, ‘Black Widow’, and ‘The Eternals’, there is clearly an increased push for diverse storylines across the MCU. While I applaud the effort for opening the door and giving exposure to new voices, I am afraid these releases may be coming at an unfortunate time when this potential burnout takes place amongst the fanbase. Hopefully, they stick and have the same impact as the standalone Phase 1 movies and the Avengers releases while telling more diverse stories about people whose voices we do not always get to hear. 

‘The Avengers’, except for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, features a cast composed of all white superheroes, of which only one is female. While 2012 was a drastically different time from where we are right now, this still looks ridiculous to look back on when considering how deep and diverse the entire landscape of the Marvel comic books is. There was hopefully something strategically important here, and not just tone-deafness, in terms of having the group of all-white characters and movie stars launch this integral movie that would be the foundation upon which all the rest were built. Using these well-known and easily recognizable stars opened the door for people to come to enjoy the films on the surface for what they were. 

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In the new phases of the MCU, the creatives behind Marvel are able to take bolder storytelling and casting choices. As in the upcoming series ‘Ms. Marvel’, about a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim girl from Jersey City, the opportunities for storylines and characters from different backgrounds are endless. The story of ‘Ms. Marvel’ looks amazing and powerful and fun for all the same reasons that ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was, I just hope that the same attention and awe are still there for the character. 

Ultimately, I hope the cynicism I am feeling wears off and that Marvel is able to do what only they have historically been able to do to this point and pull off something that seems wholly impossible and unprecedented. I hope these new characters in the evolved phases of the MCU are able to have the same adoration, success, and respect as their predecessors from the earlier films. 

Marvel finds itself, much unlike the fumbling of its parent company, with what is really an incredibly unique and powerful responsibility, and not to be too on the nose but “with great power comes great responsibility.” They have a singular opportunity to continue to use their influence, power, and voice to make sure that these diverse and thoughtful stories are heard, and that the whitewashed stories of old will be remembered for opening the door for these new characters, and not revered for being reminiscent of “better times.”

I am hopeful the new phases of the MCU take off to smashing success and I am able to look back on this and laugh at how wrong I was which I so desperately want to be and I cannot wait to dive into the next phase of the MCU. 

By Mark Raymond

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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