ByKatie Granger, writer at Creators.co
MP Staff Writer, come to bargain.
Katie Granger

Unless you're some sort of pop culture hermit, is pretty much inescapable right now. Ever since their incredibly successful partnership with gave birth to the cinematic juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they've dominated the box office and the toy stores alike.

They may still be losing consistently to their biggest rival when it comes to comic book sales, but they've dominated the DC Extended Universe in the critical sweepstakes, and typically beat them at the box office too — although they do have a big head start in that respect. And everywhere you turn we see the Marvel branding, and feel the effects of the on modern media.

The Collectibles you didn't know you needed [Credit: Funko Pop]
The Collectibles you didn't know you needed [Credit: Funko Pop]

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, it's incredible that they got this far, as 20 years ago the comic book company filed for bankruptcy, saved only by a merger with action figure company Toy Biz. In 20 years Marvel has gone from dying on its feet to becoming the biggest franchise in the world — overtaking the $7.7 billion box office gross of Harry Potter, and shooting past James Bond, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. At the time of writing, the MCU has grossed over $10.7 billion worldwide.

So how did they get here? To find out, we have to look back, far back.

A Very Brief History Of Marvel Comics

Captain America [Credit: Marvel Comics]
Captain America [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Marvel Comics was founded in 1939 under the name Timely Publications; the company would not be known as Marvel until 1961. In the same year Stanley Lieber was hired as a general office assistant at Timely. He would go on to be known by his writing pseudonym: Stan Lee.

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After a strong start, World War II and the introduction of the Comic Code Authority rocked the ship, superheroes fell out of fashion until the late 1950s, when DC's relaunched Justice League of America revitalized the genre, and Marvel followed suit. In 1961, Stan Lee further revolutionized the game by beginning to write and market comics to appeal to a more adult audience, beginning with the Fantastic Four's more developed characters, and again with Spider-Man, the first title to have a nuanced, relatable teenage superhero in a starring role.

Spider-Man [Credit: Marvel Comics]
Spider-Man [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Around this time Marvel made their mark by presenting complex heroes and antiheroes, such as Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil and the X-Men, as part of a shared narrative universe. It caught like wildfire, and by 1968 Marvel were selling 50 million comic books a year.

Marvel managed to pull ahead of DC consistently for the first time in 1972, but the decline of the newsstand began to affect sales. By the late 70s a revival in ease of distribution bumped their sales back up again as speciality comic book stores replaced the newsstand, and things were looking up again.

The early 1980s brought with it a slew of successes, with the return of famous artist and character creator Jack Kirby from DC, and the critical success of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's Uncanny X-Men and Frank Miller's Daredevil. But DC started to pull ahead again, as many key figures from Marvel jumped ship to join them throughout the 80s. The comic book boom of the very early 1990s pushed Marvel to new heights as they further diversified their work, branching out into crossovers, left-of-field titles and collectibles such as the Marvel Universe Cards line.

[Credit: Marvel Comics]
[Credit: Marvel Comics]

But then, in 1992, fortunes started to turn. Early on in the year, seven of Marvel's most prolific writers — Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio — left to form alternative publishing company Image Comics, which nowadays boasts massively popular titles like The Walking Dead and Saga.

Then in 1993 the comic book market took a sharp downward turn across the board, caused partly by an influx of titles and a feeling of distrust amongst comic book collectors. Marvel's sales dropped 70%, and across the next few years their stock price plummeted from $35.75 to just $2.38 per share. In December of 1996, Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy. They were saved only by the merger with Toy Biz, out of which a new entity — Marvel Enterprises — was born.

Branching Out Into Cinema

Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]
Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]

Until 20th Century Fox's X-Men in 2000, DC fairly dominated cinematic adaptations. Numerous successful movies were created featuring both Superman and Batman, running as far back as the the Adam West starring Batman movie of the 1960s, and then striking gold in the 1970s with the beginning of the Christopher Reeve Superman movie franchise.

Marvel, on the other hand, shied away from the big screen, keeping its characters as Saturday morning cartoons and serials. In the 1940s a serial film of Captain America ran, then nothing until the 1980s brought the critically panned Howard The Duck. Their next foray was the Dolph Lundgren starring The Punisher in 1989, another critical bomb.

The Punisher [Credit: New World Pictures]
The Punisher [Credit: New World Pictures]

The financial crisis of the '90s is cited as the reasoning why Marvel didn't get their wheels spinning on the cinematic universe while DC dominated the market. In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, author Sean Howe explains that Marvel were desperate to break into the genre around this time — they just couldn't afford it.

"Everyone was considering making Marvel movies but the budgets were just too high. Certainly before 'Terminator 2' there wasn't the technology to do anything in a convincing way."

By the time the technology of the mid-90s made superhero movies a viable genre, Marvel were too bogged down in debt to do anything about it. But they did try: 1990's Captain America failed so badly it is still considered one of the worst movies ever made, and was never theatrically released in the US. A Fantastic Four movie was also made in 1994, but was never officially released.

And yet somehow this got a release [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
And yet somehow this got a release [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

Avi Arad — head of Toy Biz — was appointed President of Marvel's film division following the merger, and became a very important figure in the success that would follow. Looking at the awful attempts made to license Marvel properties before by juggling projects with film studios, he decided that from then on all future projects would follow a specific production. This was done under the banner of Marvel Studios, established in August 1996.

Marvel themselves would commission the scripts, hire the directors and find the cast for their franchises, they would then package it all together and sell it to a larger studio, which would produce and distribute the movies. And so the X-Men and Fantastic Four were sold to 20th Century Fox, Spider-Man went to Sony, and New Line Cinema got Blade.

Becoming A Production Studio

[Credit: Marvel Studios]
[Credit: Marvel Studios]

This strategy worked perfectly, except for one problem — Marvel didn't get a slice of the profits. When Sony's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 made a massive $3 billion worldwide, Marvel only got $62 million from selling them the character rights. Worse still, they only made $25,000 from Blade, which grossed $131.2 million worldwide.

Around this time was when now-Marvel President and defacto head of the MCU, Kevin Feige, came into the mix. After working as an assistant to executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner on Volcano and You've Got Mail, he was brought on by her as an associate producer for Fox's X-Men in 2000 due to his vast knowledge of the Marvel Universe. Working on that project he came into contact with Arad, who was so impressed by his work that he hired Feige to become his second-in-command at Marvel Studios that same year.

Kevin Feige presenting 'Thor: The Dark World' [Credit: Marvel Studios]
Kevin Feige presenting 'Thor: The Dark World' [Credit: Marvel Studios]

Marvel realised that they were letting cash cows slip through their hands, and with flops like Daredevil and Elektra besmirching their name in contrast to Christopher Nolan and DC's critically adored The Dark Knight trilogy, they knew they had to do something.

In 2004 Arad teamed up with Marvel Studios' COO David Maisel to seek funding to turn the company into a production studio, from which they would begin to craft franchises based on lesser-known or less-popular Marvel characters, having already sold most of their big hitters off. They were granted $525 million from a deal with banking company Merrill Lynch, and so Marvel Studios was born again as am independent production company.

Marvel Studios' first movie was always intended to be Iron Man. They found their funding from Merrill Lynch, they found their Tony Stark in troubled then-B list actor, Robert Downey Jr., and from this starting point the MCU was born.

'Iron Man'

Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]
Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]

It's funny to think so looking back, but Iron Man was at the time seen as a big risk for Marvel. It was Downey Jr.'s first blockbuster leading role, after a self confessed struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. It was the first movie produced by this new studio, Marvel Studios, it was based on a moderately lesser known Marvel character, and directed by an indie filmmaker — Jon Favreau.

But, as we know now, it was a massive success, largely due to Downey Jr.'s take on Tony Stark, a portrayal running contrary to the "gritty", often bland DC character offerings. It grossed $585.2 million on a budget of $140 million, and paved the way for the rest of the franchise to begin.

And so the tone for the MCU was set: fun, colorful, spectacle that balanced narrative, character and comedy with the visuals afforded by advances in CGI. Little quirks cemented the genre as something not just familiar, but inclusive, dipping into shared "geek culture" with the Stan Lee cameos and post-credits sequences. The most important and mind-blowing of which was the appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the Iron Man post-credits, which set up not only the Avengers, but the entire concept of a shared narrative universe itself.

""I am Iron Man". You think you're the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet."

Fury and Stark in 'Iron Man 2' [Credit: Marvel Studios]
Fury and Stark in 'Iron Man 2' [Credit: Marvel Studios]

The MCU might not have been the first to toy with the idea of a shared universe — we saw this in 20th Century Fox's X-Men, and arguably as far back as the work of Quentin Tarantino — but it was the first to carry it off with such success. And a large part of this is due to Feige, who leads the Marvel producer group dubbed the "brain trust" who craft the intersecting narratives across the various phases of the MCU.

Following the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios was purchased by The Walt Disney Company in 2009 for a cool $4 billion, and the two merged. While this didn't affect the narrative roster, it did alter distribution deals in place with other studios. In 2010 the television division was created within Marvel Studios, with Jeph Loeb as Executive Vice President. This department would go on to collaborate with Netflix and ABC to create the critically popular TV side of the MCU.

[Credit: Marvel Studios]
[Credit: Marvel Studios]

And so, the further into the MCU we get, the more complicated the movies become, all heading towards a massive cumulation in Avengers: Infinity War, helmed by Marvel darlings Anthony and Joe Russo. But the bigger they are, the harder they fall. 20th Century Fox have already had to hit reset on their shared universe, rocking the continuity boat with 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past and the subsequent Apocalypse soft-reboot. The further the MCU expands, the more risky it becomes that the bubble will eventually burst.

But right now Marvel Studios seem unstoppable, going from strength to strength. It's now the biggest ongoing franchise in the world, even with 20th Century Fox and DC/Warner Bros. nipping at their heels. And all from a company that, 20 years ago, filed bankruptcy and had to merge with a toy company in an attempt to keep their head above water.

Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]
Iron Man [Credit: Marvel Studios]

Arad now is long gone from Marvel Studios, quitting as CEO and studio Chairman back in 2006 following a long standing disagreement over characters and release dates. Standing on his shoulders now is Kevin Feige, who boasts a net worth of more than $50 million at only 43 years old, shooting to his position as President of the biggest franchise in the world due to excellent planning, good timing, and a big dose of comic book knowledge. And they told us reading comics was a youth wasted.

Which is your favorite MCU movie? Sound off in the comments, and check out our post-credit scene compilation below!

(Sources: Box Office Mojo; Marvel Comics: The Untold Story; Slate)