Box Office

Box Office: 5 Common Sense Decisions That Are Key to Marvel Studios’ Success

15 movies. 15 no. 1 openings.

That’s the Marvel Studios way. The latest no. 1 opening is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which earned an estimated $145m this weekend, marking a 54% increase over the first Guardians’ $94.3m August 2014 opening. That’s the largest jump for a second film in Marvel Studios history, and Vol. 2 is similarly outperforming its predecessor everywhere else in the world. Here’s where the film stands after 13 days of worldwide release:

And when Vol. 3 comes out in a couple of years, reuniting the cast with director-writer James Gunn, it’ll probably do just as good if not better. That’s how beloved the Guardians franchise has become, but that’s also just what Marvel Studios movies tend to do. They come out and make loads of money. That’s just what they do. It’s like, the law these days. Even lesser-performing titles like Ant-Man still do perfectly fine relative to their budget. That’s because holy shit does Marvel Studios ever have the strongest brand loyalty going in Hollywood these days, and when Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel or whatever the hell else they make comes out, yeah, they’ll all be hits too.

As run by Kevin Feige along with his two co-presidents Louis D’Esposito (head of physical production) and Victoria Alonso (head of effects and postproduction), everything Marvel Studios makes, save The Incredible Hulk, practically prints money. According to Deadline, the studio’s 15 films have grossed over $11 billion worldwide, netting $1.17 billion in combined profits for Disney/Marvel “after all revenue costs and ancillary money streams.”

Why, though? Why is Marvel Studios so successful? Their movies all bank serious coin, earn at least modest praise from critics and continue to please fans all over the world.  It’s a perfect, but ever elusive combination considering how many movies (WB’s sorrowful DC offerings, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean) make money despite not being very well liked by critics or audiences or both. So, what is it about Marvel Studios that makes it so different?

The answer really isn’t that complicated nor is that revelatory for anyone who’s already thought about this question a lot. Marvel Studios has Kevin Feige; everyone else has people who aren’t as good.

It really is that simple, even more so since the 2015 reorganization which left Feige and his co-presidents answerable to only Disney chairman Alan Horn. Feige is the guy who started his film career getting people coffee on the set of X-Men movies, often giving him a front row seat on what not to do, especially on X-Men: The Last Stand. Now he is in the middle of one of the most successful runs by any one studio executive since the Golden Era studio moguls, and he’s done so largely by not thinking like a studio executive. Instead, his model has been John Lasseter, the Pixar and now-Disney Animation Studios genius. Like Lasseter in his prime, Feige allows his creative and story instincts to guide all decision-making and then filters that through a creative committee of trusted collaborators. In practice, as Feige told Deadline, this means employing the type of practices which might seem common sense to the ordinary person but are often foreign concepts in a Hollywood overrun by clueless executives, nervous shareholders and general incompetence:

1. Hire the right people, regardless of their experience

“I can’t think of anything where I would say ‘Don’t do that’. We don’t sit in the theater and say ‘Make it brighter’. Some of that is just the natural instincts of ourselves and the filmmakers we work with.” – Feige

This hasn’t always worked out, leading Feige and company to either boot a director off a project (bye-bye Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright) or to wield a heavy hand in post-production (sorry, Alan Taylor). However, the principle is sound: hire the people you feel will best execute your vision and/or share your general sensibilities. You then end up with the perfect marriage of director and film franchise, as is currently the case with James Gunn and Guardians.

2. Think of them not as comic book movies but as genre movies that happen to feature comic book characters

“I never believed in the superhero or comic book genre. Genres are diverse with novels, and it’s the same thing when it comes to Marvel titles. It gets us excited. We don’t feel like we’ve made 15 comic book movies, but a fantasy epic (Guardians of the Galaxy), a political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and a heist film (Ant-Man).” – Feige

This is a common Feige argument which is often disputed by cinephiles, who argue that for all of Marvel’s talk of genre-hopping their films all maintain a similar house style, both visually and tonally. True, but the genre-hopping keep things from growing overly stale, and the maintenance of a consistent tone is central to the brand loyalty. It’s what assures audiences they always know what they’re going to get from a movie bearing the Marvel Studios logo, which is remarkably important to parents who still probably don’t have a good read on what to expect from Fox’s X-Men films and have been burned three straight times by overly ponderous, hyper-violent DC movies from Warner Bros.

3. Hit audiences with the comedy and then bring on the tears

“When you sit and test these films…We do friends and family screenings where we show rough versions of our movies which are horribly painful. Imagine watching Guardians without Rocket, Groot or any of the space ships. It’s a horrible thing to do. The one time you know it’s working is when the audience is laughing. That’s the only sign you get that they’re with you. Laughter is the way you hook the audience, then you can scare them or touch them emotionally deeper than they expected in a film about a tree and raccoon.” – Feige

You have to find some way to relieve the tension, to cut through the defenses of those who would dismiss comic book movies as immature child’s play. Hook them with the jokes, and then make them care enough about the characters to be moved when the more serious parts kick in. It’s not a formula which Marvel Studios films always execute perfectly, and often times the jokes go too far in lightening the mood. Still, it’s a solid strategy if the goal is to be a crowd-pleaser.

4. Pick the characters and properties that sound like good ideas for movies, not simply the ones which sell a certain number of comics per month or already have a specific cultural footprint

“It’s about how good a movie you can make off an idea as opposed to how many comics it sold, did it have a live-action series in the ’70s, or a hit animated series in the ’90s. That was a great theory for me to have for a long time, but it was really put to the test with Guardians. It just encouraged us to continue what we’re doing.” – Feige

Hollywood is a copycat business, and all of the studios are simply facets of corporate conglomerates with lots of bosses. Risk is abhorred, and vision or originality discouraged even though those are the attributes which actually inspire enthusiasm from audiences. As such, whether or not something is a good idea for a movie is secondary to the strength of its ISP and calculated chance of actually delivering a return on investment. That’s why comic book readers are used to encountering all manner of quality titles which would clearly make for a good movie or TV show but don’t have a chance in hell of ever happening due to the various corporate hoops which would need to be jumped through. And then, sadly, on the rare occasions those movies do happen (e.g., Scott Pilgrim, R.I.P.D., Jonah Hex, The Losers) they tend no to do well because the studios have no real idea how to make/market them.

Marvel Studios, on the other hand, is the place where if something strikes Kevin Feige as making for a good movie it has a higher likelihood of not only happening regardless of cultural footprint or risk-averse ROI analyses but happening in such a way that it proves all the doubters wrong.

Unfortunately, Feige has not pushed hard enough into this area has he could have, which is why we still don’t have a Black Widow movie and why one-time Marvel Studios movie projects The Runaways and Inhumans are now TV shows handled by Marvel Television, which might share the Marvel name but is completely separate from Marvel Studios.

5. Continue to challenge yourselves creatively

“The biggest risk was not doing [Guardians or Doctor Strange or Ant-Man]. The biggest risk would have been doing Iron Man, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.” – Feige

Whereas others might have stuck with what worked and kept plugging away Feige and crew added a space opera centered on a group of misfits (Guardians), a shrinking man (Ant-Man) and magician (Doctor Strange) to the roster of MCU characters. Someone somewhere early on in the process decided those simply sounded like they’d be good movies (Nicole Perlman for Guardians, Edgar Wright for Ant-Man and Scott Derickson for Doctor Strange), and Feige agreed, corporate considerations be damned.

Ultimately, the Marvel Studios formula is not that complicated – how can we make the best movie possible? And let’s make the type of movie we’d want to see. It takes someone who actually loves movies and knows the source material very well to steer that vision, and you’d be surprised how many studios are run these days by people who don’t actually know anything about movies but are damn well versed in brand management and quarterly profits.

Source: Deadline


  1. A year on and I am more inclined to watch batman vs superman again than age of ultron or cap America or Iron man. Didnt enjoy doctor strange and have forgotten antman. Days of future past is watchabke again. This tells me Marvel market their films well but they have a shelflife.

    1. That’s certainly a common complaint against the Marvel Studios films – that they slip straight off the cerebellum the moment you walk out of the theater, that the general lightness in tone and uniform visual style makes for easily digestible, but hardly memorable entertainment. I don’t personally fit that profile because I do tend to remember their films very well, and I would much rather prefer to re-watch a Marvel Studios movie than Batman v Superman. If it’s a choice between Logan and Days or Future Past or a Marvel Studios movie then I’d have to think a little longer before picking a side.

  2. Marvel movies are a hit and miss for me. My problem with most of them, is that I don’t get fully invested in them in as much as I did with, say, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or Kick-Ass. Which probably has something to do with them being more like a TV series than movies. At best, they can make you feel genuine human emotions and relate to the characters (i.e., GOTG). Or at least care for these demi-gods, made them more human, less super (i.e., The Avengers) – something that was completely ignored in TWS (I felt like I need to care for Cap and Black Widow but I didn’t – they were clearly invulnerable throughout the whole movie except during the obligatory dramatic climax with the Winter Soldier). On the average, some can take surprisingly clever twist and make them somewhat memorable (i.e., Iron Man 3, Thor 2). At worst, they are just movies that merely satisfy fans’ curiosity on how this X comics or Y story arc would play out in a movie – to which I say: Aside from being more faithful to their source material and having better SFX, what else separates them from JCVD’s Street Fighter movie?

    1. There is certainly something to the argument that the Marvel films are really just episodes in one big TV show which Kevin Feige oversees as showrunner. As a result, the films never can feel quite as consequential as they might like to because we know nothing truly matters until they finally get to the season finale where they fight Thanos and shit finally gets real. That leaves us with a handful of movies which are fun, frivolous filler, like Guardians 2, or clear transitional episodes, like Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron. It’s thus far harder to have as profound of an emotional response to any of these movies when there’s no finality unlike, say, Logan. As you said, at their best these movies make us care for and relate to these characters, but we still know how weightless it all actually is until some dramatic stakes are actually introduced into the universe.

      But that pretty much perfectly recreates the experience of actually reading the comic books. These things just keep going and going until lagging sales dictate a need for a “let’s kill someone off” publicity stunt. For Marvel Studios, that moment is finally going to come when certain actors’ contracts expire, and the old guard gives way to the new. Until then, we keep watching because we like these characters and know that these movies will always be easily digestible, yet admirably clever blockbusters, at least clever by modern blockbuster standards.

      “Aside from being more faithful to their source material and having better SFX, what else separates them from JCVD’s Street Fighter movie?”

      I’m slightly stunned at the comparison because JCVD’s Street Fighter is just so bad and so campy that I would never equate it to Marvel Studios films. JCVD made a crappy video game movie which attempted to craft an intricate, globe-hopping, ensemble cast storyline out of a video game in which cartoon characters from various ethnic backgrounds fought for no discernible reason other than “they enrolled in a worldwide martial arts tournament.” There was no decades-spanning history behind any of it, and the JCVD movie bent over backward to put everyone into their signature costumes and even closed on a freeze frame of a group shot of the heroes all standing in their victory poses from the game even though that made no sense. The Marvel Studios movies rarely ever commit a similar mistake of doing something as egregiously stupid and clunky like that simply because of source material fidelity. The JCVD Street Fighter was also not in service to a larger cinematic universe nor did it experiment with different genres and explore the psyches of the characters.

      Beyond the commonality of “they’re both based on geek-leaning, pre-existing source material,” I don’t really see the comparison between Street Fighter and Marvel Studios, but if there is a deeper connection I’m not seeing then the simple answer to your question is Marvel Studios is simply better at making movies than Universal Pictures was with Street Fighter.

  3. It’s basically the Disney way, isn’t it? They have done the creative producer driven concept since the days of Walt Disney himself. That was one of the reasons why Pixar was such a good fit for Disney, and why Marvel studios are now able to thrive with all the extra-money available.

    They also get extra points for technological achievements. Doctor Strange for example is most an okay movie, elevated through great performances, but what makes the movie memorable are the trippy scenes in it. Same with Ant-man. And GotG has more to offer, but it is impressive how they manage to make me care about a racoon so much, I keep forgetting that the character isn’t really there. They can end the movie on his tearful face and it doesn’t come off as ridiculous at all. Again, you feel Disney’s expertise in this.

    1. You’re right. it does pretty much come down to “they’ve adapted the Disney/Pixar model to live action comic book movies,” and all the positives that came out of that for Disney/Pixar now contribute to Marvel Studios’ continued box office dominance.

      The Deadline piece I quoted actually got into the technological advancements as well, although they didn’t have a Feige quote for that which is why I didn’t use it. However, you are right – films like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man are clearly elevated by the strength of the visuals, and the animation on Rocket in GotG and GotG 2 continues to impress, so much so that, as you pointed out, they can end one of the films on a shot of his emotional face and we’ve completely forgot that we’re watching a cartoon character voiced by some name actor in a soundbooth well after the fact.

      Here is the quote Deadline ran with about Marvel’s visual prowess. It’s from, appropriately enough given all the GotG praise, James Gunn:

      “All that changed was visual effects. When Iron Man came out, visual effects had caught up so that going to see a superhero movie was worth it to see for the spectacle, and not worth to see it because you were a pre-existing fan. You may say, yes, Iron Man, was way more famous than Guardians of the Galaxy, but how many people read its comic a month? A hundred thousand, maybe? Not enough to make a big film for sure,” added Gunn.

      “A character like Deadpool or a character Harley Quinn who are really fan favorites who have been around for a long time and are pretty big characters…help drive the box office without a doubt because they have a really big audience, but if you have something like Guardians which doesn’t’ have an IP or a brand, but has a visual enough component to it, like a raccoon with a machine gun, that creates something really commercial,”

      1. He is right…one of the reasons why now is a perfect time for comic book movies is because the technology has finally caught up enough that you can actually do the source material justice. And an interesting visual is always a good draw.

  4. Not comparing all MCU movies with Street Fighter, just the worse ones (e.g., Incredible Hulk) or least entertaining ones. It’s a bit of a stretch, I know, technically, they’re a lot better than SF. But when I consider their net effect on me, it’s the same – I was able to see a live action movie of my favorite game/comics. And it was entertaining as much as it was disappointing.

    “There was no decades-spanning history behind any of it…”

    Exactly, that’s why – considering riches of source material, the technology, the budget (SF had a measly $ 35M), the talent behind them (SF had only Kylie Minogue, LOL) – I expect to get more from Marvel, not just eye candy. But that’s not to say, I don’t like this franchise as a whole. I’m not so excited about Infinity Wars (after Whedon left, also I don’t like the Russo’s style) and definitely not for Black Panther, but I’m looking forward to Spider-Man. BTW, GOTG Vol. 2 is love.

    1. Hold on. Stop everything. Kylie Minogue is in Street Fighter? WTF!

      [Stops to look this up]

      Well, holy shit. I had no idea. I remember Van Damme, Raul Julia and young Ming-Na Wen, but Minogue was around too? Wow. Um, good for her? Bad for her? Somewhere in-between? Yeah, gad for her. Let’s go with that.

      Anyway, I take your point about not necessarily directly comparing SF to Marvel movies in terms of quality but instead the curiously similar effect they have on you, how SF and something like Hulk can be equally forgettable and judged according to a similar fanboy/girl rubric of “How does it compare to the source material?” That I get, but can only say that in my own experience I tend to really like and remember all of the Marvel movies, some more than others of course. However, if you don’t like what the Russo’s have done with Winter Soldier/Civil War and will probably do with Infinity War than I can see where you might have a bit of problem right now.

      As for their upcoming movies (aside from Infinity War), I must be the only one who is most excited about Ant-Man and the Wasp, more so than Black Panther or Captain Marvel or Spider-Man or Ragnarok. That has as much to do with the first Ant-Man movie as it does with my own fondness for Paul Rudd, the Ant-Man scenes in Civil War and Nick Spencer’s hilarious and still on-going run with the Ant-Man comic books.

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