2 May 2008: The MCU assembles
As much as it might pain me to write this, today is a genuinely significant anniversary in culture. On this day in 2008, Iron Man was released in US theatres. The film, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. and was a box-office hit, reviving Downey Jr. career.
But Iron Man was about so much more than putting a fan-favourite comic book character to film. Iron Man was the first step in what’s now recognised as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Designed by executives at Marvel and led by new studio chief Kevin Feige, the plan was to release multiple individual films building to a crossover film.
In the early 2000s, superheroes were having a moment in the sun. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was loved and the DC hero Batman had been given a new lease of life with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy’s first offering 2005’s Batman Begins. Still, it would be hard to predict just how dominating superheroes would be on cinema a decade and a half after the release of Iron Man.
The MCU is easily criticisable. Many of the films follow identikit plots, have bland cinematography, uninspired dialogue, star actors playing hollow characters, and throughout all of it there’s an undercurrent of military propaganda. What’s undoubtable though is the franchise's success.
Launched in 2008, in just 15 years it is already the eighth most successful media franchise ever with an estimated total revenue of $31.3 billion (€28.46 billion). The least successful of the films was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk which made a measly $265 million (€241 million), while the most successful is the fourth in the series of crossover films Avengers: Endgame which made $2.797 billion (€2.54 billion) at the box-office.
Avengers: Endgame is the most successful superhero film ever and was the highest-grossing film of all time until it was unseated by previous record holder Avatar after a re-release in China. It remains the second highest grossing film of all time.
In fact, 10 of the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time are in the MCU. But that doesn’t portray exactly how influential the MCU has been. Not long after _Iron Man_’s release, Disney bought Marvel in 2009.
With the MCU moving under the control of Disney, the financing to produce more content increased exponentially. Disney’s heft and the success of the MCU films has redrawn cinema over the last decade. The era of the tentpole blockbuster being the only reliable way to get buts in cinema seats is largely down to the success of the MCU. As of today, there are 31 MCU films and 20 TV series with at least one season.
Not only are these films successful, but the MCU attracts big name directors like Taika Waititi and Chloe Zhao, has all the top-acting talent baying for roles, and has, among many technical nominations, Oscar nominations in Best Film for Black Panther and Best Supporting Actress for Angela Bassett in its sequel, Black Pantha: Wakanda Forever.
Three years after Disney bought Marvel, it bought Lucasfilm in 2012, acquiring the rights to Star Wars and setting up the sequel trilogy. The scale and success of the MCU has inspired other “cinematic universes”. A franchise like Star Wars can’t just have three films. It also now must have two anthology films, multiple TV spin-off shows and countless more in development.
Similarly, trying to ape the MCU’s success, DC Comics and Warner Bros. have launched their own superhero cinematic universe. Characters like Godzilla and King Kong now share a similar cinematic universe, among countless others.
Today, 27 of the top-50 highest-grossing films were made by Disney, an impressive feat that can’t be separated from the dominance of the MCU.