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 than it’s predecessor. Additionally Marvel has 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 comeback 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 finally taking its toll. They had produced the moderately successful Hulk live-action TV series in the late seventies, 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 their modern-day success.
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.
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 was 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, nevertheless, it contributed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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 out 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 have 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 were still a force to be reckoned with.
Within a few years of the Disney, buyout Avengers was released in 2012, and Marvel well and truly cemented their place at the top of the superhero genre. Marvel was 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 Spider-man and the X-Men, in their own movie universe. This, however, was remedied in part by a sort of ‘shared custody’ deal between Sony (the current movie rights holders for Spider-man), 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.
So even without their most popular characters in the increasingly successful, and crossover heavy, MCU their popularity increased too, and with the ‘Marvel’ stamp at the beginning of each of those movies (even the ones they didn’t make themselves) Marvel’s own popularity was boosted (without them really doing anything), and in reality the average moviegoer was probably unaware of the various rights complications, and simply thought they were all just Marvel superhero movies.
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 has 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) and could of hurt the film even more.
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 increase in comic books 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 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, whereas 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 has 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), making sure they stay on top of both superhero comics, and superhero movies.
Marvel have a success story like no other, within a little over ten years went 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 isn’t done yet, with plenty more Marvel movies on the way, that coupled with their continued comic book domination, Marvel is certainly here to stay, and definitely won’t be facing bankruptcy again anytime soon.