As we close the books on 2017’s box office, one big thing stands out: Disney is king, and Marvel’s superhero films are a major catalyst behind their coronation. Marvel has developed a “house style” that combines humor, action, and amazing special effects with characters, settings, and storylines cherry-picked from nearly 80 years of published comics — and they’ve done it with (mostly) mid-level stars, obscure properties, and relatively inexperienced writers and directors. Other studios have applied these same elements top their superhero films, but with far less success.
So what is it that Marvel knows that no one else has quite figured out?
Collectively, Marvel’s three 2017 films — Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok — generated over $2.6 billion at the global box office, and were embraced by fans and critics alike. By contrast, 2017’s overall film slate was marked by high-profile floppings, critical hammerings (I totally made that word up), and fan backlashings (also not a word). Interestingly, few of these troubled films were Disney-branded, and precisely none were Marvel-stamped — That alone is pretty amazing!
Even when you peer all the way back to 2008 — the birth of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) — only a handful of their 17 films to-date have failed to resonate (Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk); incidentally, these are some of the earliest MCU films, and despite their poor receptions, each was still quite profitable. By the time Thor: Ragnarok hit theaters this past November, the MCU was an incredibly well-oiled, money-making juggernaut — also the name of a popular Marvel character. (Trivia!)
That’s not to say that these MCU films aren’t flawed (they are), but their flaws are part of what makes them so compelling — Marvel packs their DVD’s full of bloopers, outtakes, and extended scenes, and fans can’t get enough. That said, Marvel does have long-standing issues with lack of diversity (ethnic and gender), poorly-defined villains, and an over-reliance upon McGuffins — how many times has that damned “Tesseract” popped-up? However, progress is being made and 2018’s Marvel schedule — Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp — appear to be addressing these issues.
Yet, none of this really explains a decade of ongoing, uninterrupted success, does it? I have a theory that the truth (or secret sauce) underlying Marvel’s unbroken string of hits is actually pretty basic, it comes down to simple “camaraderie” or “fellowship,” which is best-exemplified by the “super-team-up” — an enduring hallmark of every comic book publisher, from Marvel to DC to Image to Dark Horse. In other words, the way Marvel makes their heroes so engaging is primarily achieved through dialog and engagement with other heroes.
Let’s be honest, most superhero protagonists are pretty dull by themselves; they stand for truth and justice, fight for the little guy, and are (mostly) straight arrows. Yawn. But add a super-powered foil, either a partner or an ally, who’s personality/strengths/weaknesses contrast or conflict with our main hero, and we suddenly gain more insight into the nature of our protagonist. The super-team-up reveals deeper character flaws, morals, and values that simply don’t come through when the protagonist is solitary.
The earliest example of Marvel’s super-team-up model occurred in Iron Man 2, which partnered loose-cannon Tony Stark/Iron Man with conservative-military-officer James Rhodes/War Machine. Suddenly, all of Stark’s strange quirks and misbehaviors from the original Iron Man started making sense; we learned his trust issues, we recognized his hidden fears, and we began to appreciate his flaws in different ways — all via scenes shared with Rhodes. It’s a brilliant and illuminating technique that fits the superhero genre like a glove. The super-team-up effectively humanizes these protagonists through their interactions with their equals.
Marvel has since leaned into the super-team-up premise in nearly every subsequent MCU film. Today, whenever Marvel announces a new MCU project, the Internet rumor mill explodes with debate over who might or might not appear. And now that Disney is acquiring Fox’s film assets — X-Men, Fantastic 4, Deadpool — we can expect these discussions to achieve white-hot levels of intensity (it’s already a major discussion thread on virtually every fan and entertainment site out there).
Superhero films are expensive, uncertain beasts — regardless of the budgets, stars, spectacle, or storylines involved. Even when it seems like a studio has everything going for them, it can still fall apart. Just ask Marvel’s distinguished competition at DC Comics, who finally broke through with Wonder Woman — a solid, superheroine action film — but six months later DC crashed back to earth with last month’s Justice League debacle, and suddenly their entire upcoming film slate is in jeopardy.
Marvel, however, shows no signs of letting up anytime soon; 2018 should be their biggest year ever… until 2019 that is. The super-team-up is clearly the key everything they’re doing, and the more bizarre the better (Spider-Man and Iron Man, Thor and Hulk, and maybe someday: Deadpool and Captain America). Hopefully, someone at DC gets the memo too!
SOURCE: Box Office Mojo