Since the end of the Second World War and the ‘Golden Age of Comics’, the popularity of comic books has varied massively. This turbulent industry eventually culminated in Marvel filing for bankruptcy in 1996, which is a far cry away from where they are now, as one of the most successful companies in the world. Key among the factors leading to their success in more recent years is their rise to box office domination, with nearly every Marvel film gaining more and more money. Additionally Marvel have managed to regain (and sustain) their market lead in terms of comic book sales by a very large margin, and all in all have a come back story like no other.
In the mid nineties Marvel filed for bankruptcy, the result of a diminishing comic book industry and a series of unpopular movie efforts. They produced the moderately successful Hulk live action TV series in the late 70’s, and a range of popular animated shows in the nineties (like Spider-Man and The X-Men), but their cinematic attempts never quite took off, with movies such as Howard the Duck (1986), and Captain America (1990) being critical and commercial failures.
However by the late nineties, after a merger with Toy Biz, their later movie licensing efforts, and of course a resurgence in comic book sales, Marvel recovered and were well on their way to modern day success.
In 2009, a year after the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (and the beginnings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) Marvel were bought by Disney for around four billion dollars (the same amount Disney would later spend on purchasing Lucasfilm). In a masterstroke Disney acquired a blooming company, but also took a potential competitor off the board. Marvel certainly may not of been as popular as they are today without backing from Disney, but their Cinematic Universe was already planned, and in terms of movie popularity and comic book sales they could still of been a force to be reckoned with.
Superhero Movies, Licensing, and the MCU:
Up until the early 2000’s production studios had been unwilling to give large budgets to Marvel licensed films due to their poor track record, this however all changed when Marvel began licensing their characters to other studios, beginning in 1998 with New Line Cinema’s Blade, quickly followed in 2000 by Fox’s X-Men (widely viewed as the start of the current pop culture obsession with Superhero movies). Soon to follow was the film that truly changed everything; Spiderman (2002).
Spiderman proved a point; not only can superhero films be financially successful at the box office (as X-Men had shown), but they can be great films in general, with Spiderman receiving universal praise – currently at 89% on Rotten Tomatoes – the next six years brought a range of Marvel licensed films, including sequels to the X-Men, Spiderman and Blade franchises, as well as new (and less successful) entries like as Hulk (2003) Fantastic Four (2005), Ghost Rider (2007) and Daredevil (2003).
This string of successful Marvel films, as well as other big superhero films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) led to the ‘age of superhero films’, a seemingly never ending cycle of superhero franchises, that (arguably) began fully in 2008 with Iron Man.
Iron Man was the first film that Marvel financed themselves in over ten years, and (as we know) was a huge success. With Iron Man not only did Marvel get to keep the majority of the profits but their goal of creating an ‘on screen comics universe’ truly began, and perhaps most importantly through perfect casting they managed to bring an arguably B-List Character, or at the very least a much lesser known Hero, to the forefront of modern cinema and pop culture.
Additionally the inclusion of the post credits scene (now, in no small part thanks to Marvel, seen in almost every modern film), showed that Marvel were serious about their planned universe, teasing The Avengers four years before the actual release of the film.
In the same year The Incredible Hulk was released, and was successful in terms of box office and critical reception, but remained in the shadow of Iron Man, never the less it contributed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The following four years saw Marvel bought out by Disney and the release of more Marvel produced films such as Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), finally culminating in 2012 with The Avengers.
Marvel were not only creating great superhero films, they had created a ‘formula’ and almost a genre in itself, but most importantly a cinematic universe, interweaving movies, TV shows, comics, and novels, allowing them to be kept at the forefront of pop culture almost constantly.
After the Avengers, Marvel began to take more risks and gambled with relatively unknown franchises such as Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and Ant-Man (2015), both of which again had great casts and production teams, and thus resulted in great films (and more money for Marvel).
Marvel’s licensing of their properties has been somewhat of a double edged sword, boosting their revenue and popularity early on, but at the launch of their Cinematic Universe their earlier deals now stopped Marvel from using some of their most popular characters, like Spiderman and the X-Men, in their own movie universe. This however was remedied in part by a ‘shared custody’ sort of deal between Sony (the current movie rights holders for Spiderman), and Marvel to allow a new incarnation of Spidey to feature in the MCU, with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker showing up first in Captain America: Civil War.
Before such deals were a possibility, Sony had rebooted their Spiderman Universe (with Andrew Garfield in the lead role) which received moderate success, and Fox had regained popularity in their X-Men franchise with a soft reboot which focused on a younger Professor X and Magneto (starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence).
So even without these characters in the increasingly popular, and crossover heavy, MCU their popularity increased too, and with the ‘Marvel’ stamp at the beginning of each of those movies Marvels own popularity was boosted (without them really doing anything), and being honest I doubt the average movie goer was even aware of the various rights complications, and simply thought they were all just Marvel superhero movies.
Clawing back those Comic Books Sales:
Following Marvels bankruptcy, in the late 90’s DC gained a strong foothold in the market share, however by the early 2000’s Marvel were already back in the lead. In more recent years Marvel have continued to dominate the Comic book industry, having the best selling comic book of the year (in North America) more times since 2000 than any other publisher.
Marvel are now even in a strong enough position to use their comic books as a weapon (of sorts) with the Fantastic Four line effectively cancelled for a while, which not only distanced Marvel from Fox’s poor received 2015 film, but also decreases the interest in the Fox owned property (in terms of movie rights).
Their comic book dominance has sustained due to a number of factors, mainly a somewhat circular cycle that allows the comics to boost the movies, and the movies to boost the comics, which can be linked to a wider boost of comic book popularity generally.
In North America Diamond comics reported 99 million comic books sold in 2016, compared to 78.4 million in 2009 (with a gradual rise each year). One of the biggest boosts to MArvel’s comic book success however was Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, and thus Star Wars. This resulted in all Star Wars comics now being published under the Marvel banner. Star Wars #1 was the best selling comic book of 2015, and sold 1,073,027 copies, where as the top selling comic of the previous year was Amazing Spider-Man #1 selling a little under half of that amount at 559,217 copies.
Through a combination of their own already successful titles and the various Star Wars titles (which have continued to dominate the charts). Marvel have managed to sustain their market lead even after the very successful DC Rebirth which saw DC regain significant ground in monthly sales (primarily from Batman titles).
Marvel have a success story like no other, within a little over ten years going from Bankruptcy, to one of the most popular and influential companies in film, television, merchandising and the comic book industry. The icing on the cake is perhaps that Marvel aren’t done yet, true the ‘Age of Superheroes (on film)’ is perhaps on its way out, with less enthusiasm towards superhero film in general, but they (in particular Marvel ones) are almost money making guarantee’s. That combined with their continual comic book domination, Marvel are here to stay, and definitely won’t be facing bankruptcy again anytime soon.