With the release of Blade in 1998 through New Line Cinema, Marvel had finally stepped into the big time of live-action releases. Since 1977, the company had suffered through the failures of TV movie after TV movie, and had only gotten four films into production, with only one of those getting an American release: Howard the Duck (1986). And it crashed and burned.
The only real bright spot during those early years was the success of The Incredible Hulk television series, which ran for five seasons, from 1977 through 1982, before returning with a series of TV movies that, while moderately popular, failed to launch other Marvel properties, Thor and Daredevil.
Blade was quickly followed to the cinemas by X-Men from 20th Century Fox in 2000 and then Blade II (again from New Line Cinema) and Spider-Man from Columbia Pictures in 2002. These films, along with other success like X2 (2003) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), were accompanied by less successful outings bringing Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004), Elektra (2005), the Fantastic Four (2005), and Ghost Rider (2007) to the screen (along with a few sequels here and there that failed to live up their predecessors). Although in the end, only Elektra and Punisher: War Zone (2008) failed to make back their budgets, so even the failures were fairly productive overall.
The rights to these characters and others are scattered amongst New Line, 20th Century Fox, Artisan/Lions Gate Entertainment, and Universal. But starting in 2004, Marvel Studios launched a plan to begin self-financing their films, working with Merrill Lynch Commercial Finance Corp. to collateralize movie rights to 10 characters from Marvel's catalog. Marvel received $525 million to make a maximum of 10 films based on their own properties over eight years. Those characters were, according to Fortune magazine and the Los Angeles Times: Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack, and Shang-Chi.
Over the next few years, Marvel was able to reacquire the rights to characters Iron Man (from New Line Cinema), The Hulk (from Universal), Thor (from Paramount Pictures), and Black Widow (from Lions Gate), but Marvel's biggest hitters, Spider-Man and the X-Men remained firmly entrenched at 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures. Because of this, in 2005, Marvel Studios chair-CEO Avi Arad announced what was an extremely ambitious plan to develop an Avengers film after first establishing each of the individual main players in films of their own.
This sort of shared film universe had never really been attempted before, with perhaps the closest analogous approaches being the classic Universal monster films of the Thirties, or Toho's Godzilla films through the Sixties and Seventies (and their relaunch in the Nineties).
Unfortunately, Arad wouldn't be CEO much longer and resigned over conflicts with chief operating officer, David Maisel, over release schedules and the movie line-ups. In his absence, Maisel was named Chairman and Kevin Feige was named President of Production.
The first step on the road to The Avengers was taken in 2006, as actor/director Jon Favreau was hired to direct Marvel's first independent production, Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. was brought in to play Tony Stark/Iron Man, with a supporting cast of Terrence Howard as Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's personal assistant "Pepper" Potts, and Jeff Bridges as Stark's second in command at Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane.
Downey Jr. was not the most obvious choice for Tony Stark, having only recently returned to the spotlight after years of drug abuse and rehab, but Favreau championed him, believing that Downey's life experience made him perfect for what was developing into a tale of a man's attempt to rebuild his life and reinvent himself after coming face to face with his own shortcomings.
Downey and Favreau worked together during pre-production to bring out humor that was missing from early drafts of the script, and to ensure that the transition from Tony Stark, billionaire weapons developer into Tony Stark, Iron Man wouldn't be a night and day transformation of personality.
Instead, in a move that helped distinguish this film from other superhero films, Stark's personality doesn't change, his ideals and goals do. Because of this, the film avoids the predictable dualism of a Bruce Wayne/Batman or Clark Kent/Superman performance, allowing Downey to really work through the anxiety and angst of discovering the consequences of building and supplying weapons to the military (and beyond).
As such, the real heart of this film doesn't lie in the attempts to establish a stereotypical dual identity. Most of the film's 126 minute runtime is spent with Tony, first in Afghanistan as he is captured and escapes the terrorist organization The Ten Rings, and then dealing with his crisis of conscience as he tinkers in his lab, developing his Iron Man armor. Much of the dialogue was improvised as the script hadn't been completed before filming began (the emphasis had been on narrative logic and action sequences), which allowed for a more natural approach to the character interactions than seen in previous Marvel co-productions.
The production was also different in that it didn't hesitate to bring in a wider view of the Marvel Universe. To do this, and to lay the groundwork for what would become the lynchpin of the Marvel Shared Universe films, S.H.I.E.L.D. was introduced early on, represented by an original character, Agent Phil Coulson. Coulson, played by Favreau's friend Clark Gregg, pops up here and there throughout the film before finally getting in on the action during the final showdown between Stark and the villain of the piece, Stane.
This showdown is perhaps the weakest part of the entire film, as it breaks from the fresh approach to developing character and action established from the opening moments to the bog-standard big fist-fight climax that we've seen in superhero films again and again. But any doubts about whether or not this developing franchise was going to stay stuck in that mode are almost immediately tossed, as in the closing moment of the film Tony Stark reveals to the world during a press conference that he is, indeed, Iron Man.
And if that weren't enough to bust the traditional superhero mold wide open, in a brief post-credits scene, Samuel L. Jackson appears as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (looking exactly like the Ultimate Comics version of Fury, for whom he was the visual model), to let Stark know about a little something called the Avengers Initiative.
The combination of a looser approach to dialogue, with its emphasis on Stark's humorous "lovable asshole" pe
rsona, a ballsy embracing of a wider Marvel universe, and special effects legend Stan Winston's combination of practical effects with Industrial Light & Magic's CGI, helped make Iron Man a huge success. It was one of the best-reviewed films of 2008 and currently holds a score of 94% fresh with 237 reviews. Its $140 million budget was made back in less than two weeks with an opening weekend gross of over $98 million (followed by $51 million its second weekend) and it was the second-best premiere for a non-sequel, behind Spider-Man.
Because of all this, Marvel Films was able to confidently announce an Iron Man trilogy and an initial release date for Avengers of July 2011. Ultimately that date would be pushed back as Marvel began development for Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Just a month or so after Iron Man's release, however, the next step on the road to The Avengers was taken with the June release of Marvel's relaunch of The Incredible Hulk.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.