The 19 Marvel Superhero movies released in the last 10 years earned over R150 billion in profits.
The secret to the apparent overnight success required 60 years of slog and some impressive advances in filmmaking and presentation.
He is predated by the likes of Zorro, John Carter and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Not that you would initially see the connection. The Scarlet Pimpernel would use an alter ego for doing his superhero work, just like Zorro and Superman’s Clark Kent, although before him were the likes of The Lone Ranger, Buck Rogers, Conan the Barbarian, The Phantom and Flash Gordon. All before Superman and all before 1938.
The creator of Superman was Detective Comics or, as we know them now, DC. They were the Disney of the comic world from the 40s and 50s. Marvel was in the mix but not really major competition.
Wondery has a great podcast recreating the war between DC and Marvel, but this piece looks at two men who helped to create most of the Marvel universe (and also a part of DC's).
It was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both choosing names that may work better for superhero creators, but probably because comic book creation was not really considered much of an art but rather a product for children.
An innovation to create an ensemble story by DC saw the Marvel publisher want to copy the idea. Lee, who at the time was considering getting out of comics, was convinced by his wife to use the opportunity to create the characters he wanted in the way he wanted. His characters set the Marvel universe apart from the DC one and would one day allow a movie studio to relook at the material and have the basis for one of the most successful movie franchises ever.
In the 1960s, Lee led a team of writers and artists that set the wheels in motion to dominate the world. Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, The X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vision, Silver Surfer and Captain Marvel are just some of the modern day household-name superheroes that were created in that decade. How could they lose?
Except nothing happened. The long publishing war with DC dragged on and by the 90s sales were down and the industry was not in good shape.
Movies were a natural home for the stories and Superman, which was released in 1978, was a runaway success. It raised the bar on special effects and put comics into the mainstream. It launched a career for Christopher Reeve as Superman and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane (Kidder died in May 2018).
But the budgets to create the movies did not always allow them to get the return to create the next one. TV worked but could not deliver the impact that a movie could.
There were repeated attempts to find a good fit, but it took something in the digital world to make the Marvel universe real - Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).
Every blast and explosion, every punch and collision could be created on the screen in a way that artists hoped for in the 60s. The impact of the developments are significant and by no means finished. Besides suspending belief about fantastical scenes they can be a major cost saver for very expensive once-off destructive scenes and even more useful for creating backdrops virtually. It does not mean they are cheap or quick. A good effect still takes time, planning and, so, money. Creating the really stand-out effect, often using elements you may not even notice is, a major part of the expanding movie budget, but then so is the big cast of A-list actors.
The cinema too helps create the perfect environment. Digital projection improved resolution and allowed for faster frame rates without needing to make physical copies of the movie. Adding 3D and IMAX took it further. 7.1 sound immersed you in the action (the 7.1 refers to there being 7 sound channels and the subwoofer for the low-frequency sounds. Typically it would have two surround channels at the front, two on either side of you and two more behind you with the seventh in front of you. Sound can be played from any of the seven speakers to create the effect of it coming from a particular direction).
The most recent addition involves upgrades to the seats to either make them more comfortable, and able to recline, or to add to the action by allowing them to move and vibrate to match the action on screen.
Add a box of popcorn (which we only seem to need in a cinema) and you complete the spell to transport you anywhere in the universe. But back to the movies themselves...
Iron Man started the run for Marvel in 2008. Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark was a big risk at the time but has proved to be a very smart choice. Downey Jr sought out Elon Musk to get a sense of how to play the character and has a cameo in Iron Man 2.
From Iron Man, there have been 19 films, not all as successful, but the most recent two Black Panther and Infinity Wars both set records and reframed what could be done with an action movie. It set new records for the biggest opening weekend in the US and globally. Iit is now number two for the most records with 13 after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has 32. Black Panther, released just before it, was a runaway success and next is the Captain Marvel film which features Marvel first female lead film who is contacted at the end of the Infinity Wars part one with part two due in 2020. It means the Disney owned Marvel Studio had the #1 and #2 hits in 2018, the #5, 6 & 8 in 2017, #3, 6, 13 & 16 in 2016 and every expectation to have at least one big hit in 2019 and 2020.
Rather than the pure thrills and spills the movies, which are very long, also feature a lot of character development, big plots and some contemporary talking points.
In Black Panther, it was isolationist policies that saw some conservatives in America claiming the movie supported their views and endorsed Donald Trump. The movie uses it to make the argument against it. In Infinity Wars, the villain wants to avoid unsustainable growth and overpopulation. His solution? Kill half the beings in the universe. Originally he wanted to do it to impress his love interest, Death.
Age of Ultron looks at the power and dark side of AI, despite his character and the issues of android intelligence in 1968.
Besides the revenues from the movies, there are the significant merchandising options which have always been a very big part of the game and, speaking of games, most of the characters have had multiple computer game versions created (they have not always been as good). The limited period to use the Thanos gauntlet in one of the world's most popular games Fortnite was a very smart move.
For DC and Marvel fans the idea of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman ever working with or fighting Iron Man and the rest of the Marvel characters is crazy, but for movie fans, the treatment on the big screen may see someone eventually consider the collaboration.
What is more likely than that though is more from the recent characters. Deadpool is not new but his “Merc with a Mouth” character stopped him appearing on the big screen for years. When he did it was rated 18 and became the second highest earning adult movie ever.
Black Panther was the first black superhero to headline a movie and it was a hit. DC’s Wonder Woman was the first female superhero blockbuster and in 2019 Marvel will release Captain Marvel, their first superhero female-led movie. She is also the person that was called at the end of Infinity Wars to save the universe from Thanos.
While not slated for movie release we can expect to see some of the newer characters like Ms Marvel or Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim superhero, and Ms America (America Chavez has same-sex parents, she's latina and a lesbian). Perhaps too many moulds to shatter with one character, but we shall see.