How Marvel Studios Rose as Movie Stars Fell

With few exceptions, moviegoers are less interested in actors than in franchises and concepts

marvel avengers infinity war

On this day, ten years ago, audiences watched an eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson say the words that unleashed a Hollywood behemoth: “I want to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.”

Since then, Marvel Studios has produced six of the top ten biggest opening weekends of all time, including the movie that just topped the list: “Avengers: Infinity War.” It got here not by betting on movies stars, but on its secret weapon: characters who starred in pulp stories once sold on drugstore racks for just over a dime.

The story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of intellectual property over movie stars. It banked on nostalgia and cool factor, rather than 1980s-style goldmine payouts for a handful of movie stars.

Not long ago, a bankable movie star was seen as key to a blockbuster. The Marvel Cinematic Universe eschewed that notion from the start, with main characters played by two actors from the little-seen “Zodiac,” a supporting actor from a panned “Fantastic Four” adaptation, and an Australian who was best known as a soap opera star… and that guy who was in the first five minutes of 2009’s “Star Trek.”

“The days of the Arnold Schwarzenegger action hero are in the past,” comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “The movies now are the stars, and the stars are a smaller piece of that puzzle than they used to be.”

Marvel didn’t invent the idea of star-free hits: “Star Wars” was packed with relative unknowns until the franchise made Harrison Ford one of the most reliable A-listers in history. And the “Harry Potter” films built stars up from childhood.

But Marvel mastered the art of relying on its IP, and relying on unexpected casting for an added thrill. After years of struggling with addiction, Robert Downey Jr. needed a career boost when he was cast as Iron Man. But the Tony Stark of the comic books, like Downey, struggled with addiction and always made his own rules. The casting was surprising, but completely inspired.

The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has triggered a mad dash for profitable intellectual property — including a wealth of films based on comic books. Disney lapped up Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm, making billions in the process. It will also own the “X-Men” and “Avatar” franchises  if a planned merger with 20th Century Fox goes through.

Even one of the last major movie stars, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, modestly gives much of the credit for his success to IP. In an interview with TheWrap, he explained how his company with Dany and Hiram Garcia, Seven Bucks Productions, mines IP like the “Jumanji” and “Rampage” games to create fresh hits.

“With every project, we are looking to push the envelope just a little bit more,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be bigger, but it has to be different, and if you can make it better, we always want to do that.”

Studios have tried to do that with their own IP to limited success. Legendary has gotten off to a good start with its MonsterVerse, which will culminate with a big showdown between King Kong and Godzilla. But Warner Bros.’ DC Universe has suffered a mostly rocky road over the last few years — “Wonder Woman” notwithstanding — and is trying to retool. Universal’s attempt at a “Dark Universe” of horror failed to launch last year with “The Mummy.” The film marked a major disappointment for Tom Cruise, the personification of the ’80s and ’90s movie star.

The MCU puts the characters and the brand first, paying homage to decades-old storylines while subtly improving them. Though successful characters go through scores of writers and artists, their essences remain intact. That will also be the case with the courageous Carol Danvers, who has been through hell in the Marvel comics and will be played by Brie Larson in next year’s “Captain Marvel.”

“There is a lot of spectacle in our movies, and certainly ‘Captain Marvel’ is gonna have a lot of spectacle… but at the heart of the whole movie is Carol Danvers,” Feige told TheWrap last year. “And that’s all that matters.”

And (spoiler alert) she’s the last person Jackson’s Nick Fury texted at the end of “Infinity War.” She might just save the whole Marvel universe from Thanos… though the franchise is the last thing that needs saving.