Avengers was a boffo hit over the weekend. Every time Deadline updated its coverage the estimates were raised. It was really a blast to follow the numbers because the film is perfectly executed and deserves every penny (though it would be nice if Marvel shared some of those pennies with its imagineers in general and the Kirby estate specifically).
Avengers not only passed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, but it did so by a wide margin. It will be interesting to see if Dark Knight Rises can challenge Avenger’s reign or if audiences are looking for fun superheroes these days rather than dark, brooding ones. After all, Dark Knight was one of the last summer blockbusters prior to the economic collapse, and preferred heroes during wartime are different than preferred heroes during times of economic hardship.
But even if Dark Knight Rises takes the throne, it won’t be able to compete with the unique franchise-sprawl Marvel Studios has engineered over the past ten years that reached dizzying heights with Avengers. Dark Knight Rises may reach towering heights of box office, driving long tail revenue to Dark Knight and Batman Begins while also paving the way for the next inevitable reboot, but Avengers’ success will actually drive revenue to a score of films: all the preceding Marvel Cinematic Universe films that exist in continuity (Iron Man 1 & 2, Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America) and all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to come… of which there appear to be many.
All of this seems obvious in retrospect, but it was quite an ambitious endeavor with no real precedent in Hollywood. Of course, every fanboy dreamt of a contiguous Marvel film universe while reading the comics, but Hollywood isn’t designed for such an undertaking… largely because that approach makes the rights-holder king. Hollywood is quick to say “content is king” but they mean the content they produce (the films themselves) rather than the underlying materials. When an IP is created outside film and adapted by Hollywood (as so many blockbusters and franchises are), the IP creator is snidely referred to as the “rights holder” and generally seen as an obstacle in the process of creating a film. So interconnecting hundred million dollar budgeted films studded with hugely ego’d talent via a continuity stitched together by comic books that sell 100,000 copies in a good month isn’t exactly a no-brainer for a Hollywood exec.
In order to pull this off, Marvel had to re-invent the process of IP rights holders getting film adaptations of their IPs produced. For decades Marvel just optioned out their IPs (like most indie publishers do today), with results varying from Dolph Lungren’s Punisher to Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four to a Spider-Man movie that spent two decades in development but was never produced. Marvel eventually regained most of its film rights in the 90s and leveraged its toy company to begin developing and packaging its films in house. The results were generally positive, starting with Blade and X-Men, hitting a few off beats with Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra, and Fantastic Four, and peaking with Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise.
Then Marvel Studios pivoted with a new strategy: financing and producing the films in-house by taking loans against the film rights to the characters. Only by bringing the productions in house and leaving the realm of being “just rights holders” were they finally able to actualize the dream: serious, well-made, smartly budgeted, in-continuity films that were made with love and respect to the source material. Iron Man and Incredible Hulk were the first two and it was an instant sea-change… Iron Man (a second tier character to begin with) was arguably the greatest superhero film ever made at the time (vying against Dark Knight for the title) and Incredible Hulk was a marked improvement over Ang Lee’s Hulk of just a few years prior. The following films were all respectable if not stellar (with Iron Man 2 suffering most, for some reason) until Avengers coalesced all the momentum with a perfectly wrought blockbuster extravaganza and made movie history… a history that has not yet even begun to unfold.
The trick wasn’t lost on Hollywood, who responded as threatened corporations always do: Disney bought Marvel outright. If you can’t beat em, eat em.
With Disney’s infrastructure and pocketbook (largely padded by Avengers’ success), Marvel Studios is announcing an incredibly ambitious slate moving forward, and it may leap to dizzying heights or it may implode… but regardless it has already demonstrated a new type of franchise: I call it franchise-sprawl but you could call it a Universe Franchise or a trans-franchise. It builds a gigantic, multi-IP universe of sub-franchises within a broader, branded cinematic world. It seems like an obvious extension of what they’ve already been doing in comics for decades, and it is, but the scale is downright death-defying.
The most fascinating part is that DC was far better suited to execute on something like this, being that it was already wholly owned by a movie studio (Warner Brothers) for decades… and it’s not like Warner Brothers was taking DC for granted since Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise provided two of WB’s key tentpoles in the 2000s. In fact, WB saw the opportunity and re-integrated DC Comics deeper into the WB movie system in hopes of creating their own comics filmed universe, but the initial results were two black eyes: Jonah Hex and Green Lantern. With Dark Knight Rises on route and Zack Snyder’s Superman following close behind, it’ll be interesting to see how DC pivots (and how long we have to wait for a Justice League tentpole).
In any case, this extends farther out into Hollywood, which has become franchise-crazy and just may soon become super-franchise-crazy.
I think the most fascinating part is that comics->film adaptations have lost their luster in recent years due to a string of failures—most attention has turned to novel series—but it’s rare for even a series of novels to be able to spawn this level of IP sprawl. It’s not like Ron Weasley can carry his own spinoff franchise… or can he?
This trend may breathe new life into the comics bubble while also taking the novel series bubble in new directions… maybe HBO should be talking to writers about Game of Thrones parallel movies right now. How long before movie studios start licensing fan fiction… oh wait, they already are.
Content is king again, and in a whole new way.