It’s hard to imagine that there was a time that Marvel was simply a niche, a time when comics were a pigeonhole exploit, and a time where even Spider-Man was a tough sell. But pre-Iron Man, there was a time where Marvel Studios didn’t exist, and even their characters and teams that did see the big screen between 2000 and 2007 they had really had no control over beyond offering notes.
And yet, here we are, hitting the ten year “class reunion” of sorts, filled with every character imaginable. Just how did we get there? Well, it all started with 2008’s Iron Man. (Vanity Fair did a great article about Iron Man‘s significant beginnings through the words of those involved, if you’re interested. Today I’ll sort of offer the condensed version of it alongside my own interpretations, but you should definitely check it out!)
Iron Man–the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Beginning
Back before Marvel Studios became a worldwide recognized property, Marvel was selling their properties–like the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Hulk–for whatever they could get. These were sloppy and desperate deals, and they reeked of the once comic giant’s low self-esteem. In a nutshell, Marvel was desperate.
It was Jon Favreau, Kevin Feige, and Avi Arad who started the though process of creating Marvel Studios. With only what news headlines deemed a cast of B-list characters to work with, and very little wiggle room on funding, they created Marvel Studios and released two films in 2008, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
Stepping away from focusing on action, instead the newly founded Marvel Studios sought to create films motivated by character, story, and comedy–a formula that exists in Marvel films to this day. In the end, Marvel Studio’s success was due to the fact that they chose to walk before they ran.
At their first Comic Con panel in 2006, they were asked, “Is the Avengers even possible?” They had no real plans at the time, but that was their benefit. They weren’t making movies just for the sake of getting to that ultimate team-up. Instead, they worked to build films that would act as a foundation for fans, the idea of an Avengers film acting more as a lighthouse rather than an end goal.
Iron Man was the gamble of all gambles. You may not have known this, but Iron Man was actually an independent film. Marvel had no money to work with, which means that the film had no backing. A large percentage of the film had to be funded through foreign pre-sales. Marvel basically had to use its characters as collateral, which, upon failure of the film, they would lose rights to.
They were literally making movies on their own dime, risking it all to make what they saw as a formula for success: strong casting, true-to-the-comics characterizations, with humor that stuck close to canon.
I don’t need to tell you why Iron Man is good, but let’s just say it keeps to that formula. Iron Man features a cast of strong characters built around the comic books that so many fans grew up with. The casting is insanely on-spot–I mean, Robert Downey, Jr. is literally Tony Stark, right?–and the humor in conjunction with what is a very human element makes for a film that stands the test of time, even 22-movies into the franchise. But, again, this film was not created for the sake of getting to the Avengers, it was simply about making the best Iron Man film possible. Favreau commented on Feige’s mindset:
It sounds like Kevin had the perspicacity to understand the opportunity that lay ahead of him. He was much more aware of that than I was at the time. It’s more tactical and less strategic. It’s more boots on the ground and day to day and he’s more aware of developing characters for other movies, but he was laying out a much larger campaign.
To all those hoping to match Marvel’s success (cough, DC, cough, cough), Feige offered a few words:
Marvel Studios just knows the individual movie trumps the overall picture. The only advice [for other studios hoping to ape Marvel’s success] is don’t worry about the universe. Worry about the movie. We never set out to build a universe. We set out to make a great Iron Man movie.