How Marvel Went From Near-Bankruptcy To Creating The Biggest Film Franchise In History


Marvel will soon top Harry Potter as the biggest box office franchise ever.

Marvel will soon top <em>Harry Potter</em> as the biggest box office franchise ever.

Hard to believe that back in 1993, Marvel Comics was on the verge of bankruptcy. The comic book market as a whole was struggling, due to a weak batch of new titles. Sales for Marvel dipped 70%, with shares dropping from nearly $36 to $2.38 over just a few years.

The company’s outlook was dire.

Their biggest rival, DC Comics, had scored major franchise hits in the ’80s and ’90s with their Batman and Superman films. However, the majority of Marvel’s characters remained in development limbo.

According to Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

“Everyone was considering making Marvel movies but the budgets were just too high. Certainly before Terminator 2 there wasn’t the technology to do anything in a convincing way.”

Narrowly averting disaster, the company was only saved after a merger with Avi Arad’s ToyBiz. Arad, who became the new president of Marvel’s film division, then got an idea.

Arad reasoned… What if Marvel hired their own screenwriters, brought on board their own directors and made their own deals with stars?

In 1996, Arad told The New York Times:

“When you get into business with a big studio, they are developing a hundred or 500 projects; you get totally lost.That isn’t working for us. We’re just not going to do it anymore. Period.”

That stance was Marvel’s first step into obliterating the competition.

Soon after the decision to take complete charge of their films, Marvel worked out a deal with FOX for X-Men, as well as partnerships with Sony and New Line for Spider-Man and Blade respectively.

However, there was still a problem… Marvel was getting only a small cash return. They reportedly only reaped $25,000 from the first Blade film and a mere $62 million from the $3 billion that the first two Spider-Man films earned.

Marvel needed more green to dig itself out of its hole.

At this point, Arad realized he needed to take things one step further and decided that the company should finance their own films as well. So he and COO David Maisel went to Wall Street to fund their independent studio.

The effort resulted in the box office smash Iron Man. The film brought in over $585 million worldwide and sent Marvel soaring into the stratosphere.

Iron Man’s brilliant combination of action, humor and heart set the stage for what we now call The Marvel Cinematic Universe that includes the Captain America, Thor and Avengers films among others.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, the 11th feature in the Cinematic Universe, is expected to become Marvel’s third billion-dollar movie. It will also help this string of superheroes become the biggest franchise in box office history — passing the $7,7 billion earned by the Harry Potter films.

Marvel will no doubt add to their own record in the coming years, making the company all but certain to have the last laugh.