ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

Now, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are a whole lot of (wildly) different opinions out there. For some - this writer included - it's one of the greatest things to happen to movies since a certain Galaxy Far Far Away. For others, it represents everything that's wrong with modern cinema, and the imminent collapse of Western Society. For many more besides, it's somewhere in between...

Don't worry, though: For the purposes of this article, I'm not trying to persuade anyone that the MCU is great. Instead, this is simply a look at one of the less talked about - but, I would argue, integrally important - reasons why Marvel's Cinematic Universe has become so incredibly popular, and ridiculously successful.


There's an Old School Secret Behind Marvel's Success

'And it ain't punching Hitler...'
'And it ain't punching Hitler...'

When it comes to the rise of Marvel, a lot has already been written about the role of merchandising, of corporate tie-ins, and of a marketplace already primed by years of Spider-Man and X-Men movies to be fertile ground for an inter-connected comic-book universe - and all of that absolutely played a key role in the rise of the MCU.

What I'm arguing, though, is that there's another key factor at play - a vital reason for the studio's rampant success which would nonetheless have seemed all-but unbelievable before the first stirrings of the MCU back in 2008.

That reason?

Marvel Studios Has Brought Back the Studio System

Though thankfully not the production values.
Though thankfully not the production values.

Yup, that studio system.

The one that dominated Hollywood from the 1920s through to the 1940s.

The one that was, essentially, made up of a collection of studios, each of which maintained rigorous and absolute control over every possible aspect of production and distribution.

The one which - under the censoring, profit-obsessed and micro-managing eye of a small number of studio heads - managed to create some of the greatest movies of all time. Through a combination of meticulous studio planning, and rebellious directors, writers and producers, the likes of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Wizard of Oz, Bringing Up Baby and Dracula all burst onto the screen in indelible fashion.

But...How Has Marvel Brought That Back?

"It's alive!"
"It's alive!"

After all, the two main components of the studio system were the rigid control of every element of production (through the ownership of studio lots) as well as of the means of distribution (through the ownership of theater chains, in an arrangement known as vertical integration).

Neither of which Marvel Studios has.

After all - the majority of Marvel's movies are filmed at independently owned studios, often outside of the US, and a 1948 Supreme Court Ruling - one which essentially marked the beginning of the end of the studio system - restricts movie studios from also owning the theaters that show their films.

Despite that, though, there are still three key ways in which Marvel - despite the limitations of the modern movie world - has effectively channeled the studio system, and in doing so created one of the most wildly successful film series' the world has ever seen.

First up:

There's One Hand on the Tiller

Note, that's not innuendo.
Note, that's not innuendo.

And, crucially, it's (Marvel Studios President) Kevin Feige's.

In the greater scheme of Marvel Entertainment, the likes of Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter, CCO Joe Quesada and President Alan Fine are all hugely influential - and, inevitably, they also have a say in the big-picture stuff when it comes to Marvel Studios. For the most part, though, Marvel Studios' creative direction is Kevin Feige.

The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is, in effect, defined by Feige's vision for the series - with the long-term planning ultimately, it seems, all coming down to him. Which, while not exactly the most democratic approach, has certainly gotten results - and ensured that the MCU has retained a creative consistency that's incredibly rare in Hollywood.

All of which, notably, is exactly how the classic Hollywood studios used to work. The thing is, though - there have always been autocratic studio bosses. What makes Feige - and Marvel - so special?

Well, crucially:

Marvel Hires the Right People

"Wait, us?"
"Wait, us?"

Like, for instance, The (ever-adaptable) Russo Brothers, as pictured above.

One of the vital elements of the MCU is its ability - much like the classic Hollywood studio system - to incorporate not only a singular vision from a studio head and the complex commercial and marketing concerns of a major movie studio, but also the creativity and style of individual directors.

In much the same way that the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Huston were able to create some of the most enduring slices of cinema history under an incredibly restrictive studio system, the likes of Joss Whedon, James Gunn and the Russo Brothers have been able to create distinctive, personality-filled action movies, despite the presence of Kevin Feige's master plan, and the active involvement of the studio in small decisions.

Like casting, or plot.
Like casting, or plot.

Some - like Whedon - struggle with that relationship, seemingly creating great work despite their frustrations, but others thrive on it. As the Russo Brothers have previously argued:

"I think that’s one reason why we may have made a nice fit here at Marvel. It’s like we sort of understand how you take a larger story and wrangle it into a moment, yet keep them connected."

With the adaptability of Feige's vision - it's a solid, unalterable plan, sure, but one with endless wiggle room within it. Which, according to the Russos, is a key element in the movies' success:

"I think the way Kevin does it is there are big pieces that he knows he wants to build towards, but the way that you get there is open to interpretation and improv a little bit."

Arguably the most important (behind-the-scenes) element in Marvel's success, though?

The House of Mouse

"What up?"
"What up?"

That's right - Disney.

When Marvel was bought by Disney, back in 2009, many fans feared that it would mark the end of what we all loved about Marvel - both in terms of its comic-book output, and the (then) newly active Marvel Studios.

What we saw instead, though, was a redoubling of Marvel's creative efforts in an ever-more fan-friendly direction. In the comics, that's finally seen the company truly embrace diversity - with the likes of Kamala Khan, Sam Wilson and the new female Thor all striking blows for genuine comic-book equality - while in the movies, it's a major part of why we've seen the likes of Agent Carter hit the small screen, while Black Panther and Captain Marvel are on their way to theaters.

Also, these guys.
Also, these guys.

Y'see, by simultaneously giving Feige (and Marvel Studios) a largely free rein, but also providing endless opportunities for multiple-medium promotion and crossovers, Disney's acquisition of Marvel may actually have opened up possibilities in the MCU that could never have existed had it remained independent.

Marvel can, essentially, take massive, massive risks - knowing that they're sheltered by the company's other large-scale projects. Much like the studio system in the first half of the 20th century, the sheer scale of the overarching machine offers the smaller cogs - James Gunn and Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance - the opportunity to take chances they otherwise wouldn't be encouraged to take.

In Other Words...

Yes, Tony?
Yes, Tony?

It all, essentially, comes down to this:

Whether through sheer dumb luck or incredible foresight, Marvel Studios has been able to combine a dictatorial figurehead, a ragtag gang of creative types, and an immensely powerful parent company into a body of work that - much like the one that emerged from the studio system in the 1930s and '40s - is both remarkably popular and (in the opinion of millions of fans) fantastically well made. There are weaker films (though arguably to a lesser extent than there were in the studio system), and disgruntled directors, writers and cast-members who couldn't fit into the system have been discarded along the way, but essentially, the system works.

Call it the Marvel Studios System, perhaps...

What do you think, though?


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