Marvel’s success was anything but inevitable

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Image ©Disney / Marvel

When asked about the glut of superhero movies showing at every multiplex Martin Scorsese replied that they are “not cinema.”

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks,” Scorsese added.

Cinema or not, there is no denying their success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe ranks as the highest-grossing film series of all time, having generated over $29.6 billion.

When something becomes this huge it can feel like it was inevitable. But with Marvel that is far from the case.

Only 30 years ago Marvel was bankrupt, having floundered since its 1960s comic book heyday.

The rights to make products based on Marvel characters like X-Men, Hulk, Ironman and Spider-Man had ended up in the hands of Ike Perlmutter, who had no interest in superheroes. As one commentator later said, “He didn’t know Captain America from Captain Crunch.”

So Perlmutter reached out to an acquaintance, Avi Arad, who had grown up in Tel Aviv reading Spider-Man comics before emigrating to New York where he became a toy designer.

Together they set about producing a new range of popular toys, and a few years later the opportunity to buy Marvel presented itself, and the two men swooped in with an offer.

“Marvel had zero value. No one wanted Marvel,” explains Arad.

As one comic book writer, Brian Michael Bendis, remembers, “When we walked in the door, most of the lights were off, the desks were abandoned, and there was piles of furniture in the corner with a Post-It note that said, ‘Sold.’ They were selling filing cabinets for cash. I think I may have actually said out loud to my friend, ‘Oh my God, are we writing the last Marvel comics?'”

Arad and Perlmutter had the idea to make a TV show that would help drive demand for toys. This led to bigger ideas. Movies.

Initially, they pitched every major Marvel character to Sony, priced at $1 million a piece. In retrospect, it was the deal of the century.

Sony passed on all but one. They would make a Spider-Man movie, but they were not interested in the others.

The success of Spider-Man – the first movie to make over $100 million in its opening weekend – prompted Marvel to go it alone and create Marvel Studios, which was later bought by Disney for $4 billion.

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